Flying over Botswana's Okavango Delta, I see water everywhere. Myriad ribbons of water, some big, some small, criss-crossing the pancake-flat landscape, uncontained by any height of land.
So I shouldn't be surprised when — soon after our Cessna Caravan lands on a tiny airstrip and we climb into Land Rovers for the drive to our safari camp — we come to what looks like a wide, shallow river. The road in the sand simply ends.
"Now what?" I wonder. My driver gears down and — to my astonishment — we plunge in. "Welcome to the Okavango Delta", laughs Nas, clearly amused by my reaction. He points to what looks like a periscope sticking up over the hood of the vehicle, and indicates the water can come up that high. Crossing this river we're clear and dry.
I've enjoyed wilderness safaris in other parts of Africa, but Botswana's Okavango Delta is unique. This is a delta in the middle of a desert. The Okavango River flows out of the Angolan highlands 1,000 kilometres away. When it hits the flat Kalahari Desert, it fans out, creating a vast watery wilderness, one of the largest inland deltas anywhere.
And where there's water, there's wildlife. Over the next three days I'll see herds of zebra, dozens of impalas, tight groups of red lechwe, countless elephants, roaming baboons, mischievous monkeys, and several prides of lions. Walking back to my room after dinner the first night, I see something big and bulbous in the dark, just a few metres from my door. "It's a hippo," said the staff member accompanying me. With no fences, wildlife is free to prowl.
The company I'm staying with — Wilderness Safaris — owns and/or operates 16 camps in the Okavango Delta, each one designed to have minimal impact on the environment. But that doesn't mean they lack creature comforts. At my first camp at Vumbura Plains, my room has floor to ceiling windows, a sunken living area, queen-size bed, ensuite bathroom, indoor and outdoor showers, and an expansive deck with my own private plunge pool. Made of wood, canvas and thatch, the luxurious, almost house-size structure is connected to the six other rooms at the camp by an elevated boardwalk. Guests mingle at the outdoor bar and dining area.
Overlooking a sea of reeds, this camp is so lovely I don't want to leave, but wildlife beckons. On my first game drive late one afternoon, our driver heads to where lions have been spotted by another guide. When we arrive, half a dozen adult cats are lying sprawled in the middle of the sandy track. One or two glance at us but don't budge, while the others ignore us completely. We can see several more lions mostly hidden in the grass beyond. A few minutes later, two small cubs emerge. Playful and rambunctious, they roll around in the sand, take turns pouncing on the adults, and stare innocently up at us.
A couple days later I have another memorable encounter with lions, this time at Abu Camp. My driver and guide, Rex Masupe, knows lions. Even before we see them, he can smell them. "I grew up following lions when they killed our livestock, so I know what they smell like," he explains.
Lying in the shade of a large Leadwood tree are a mother and four sub-adult offspring. These lions are dead to the world, and soon I see why. A few metres beyond lies a big Cape buffalo, truly dead; eyes gouged out, stomach ripped open, hind legs missing. The lions have been feasting and now they can barely move.
"It must have been a big fight," says Masupe. "Buffaloes don't give up easily. It could have taken over an hour to kill him." We're so close, the stench from the big bull is almost overpowering. Puncture marks are clearly visible on his neck. "Cats always run to the throat," Masupe tells me, adding "if your four fingers fit between the puncture marks, it's a lion."
After this grisly scene, I'm happy to return to camp and visit Abu's resident elephants. Abu was originally an elephant-back safari camp using elephants that had once been captive or orphaned. The idea was to eventually release them into the wild.
Today you can still ride, walk, and even sleep under the stars near the half-dozen elephants that have chosen to stay behind. At first it seems odd to meet trained elephants in the middle of the wild Okavango Delta, but after riding Cathy, the matriarch, through the sage-scented forest, I grow even more enchanted with this place. Seeing it through her eyes, at her pace, from her great height, it seems even more beautiful, more of an Eden... a place to experience and savour at least once in your lifetime.
South African Airways offers direct flights from New York to Johannnesburg. Continue with South African Airlink to Maun, Botswana, gateway to the Okavango Delta.
Wilderness Safaris offers a range of classic and luxury camps.
Most visitors to Botswana stop for a night or two at nearby V ictoria Falls. The Royal Livingston is a five star hotel just a 10 minute walk from the falls.