WHATEVER I do, Bill whispers, I must hold on tightly and never step down from the Land Rover’s running board. Because if the lioness charges our vehicle while I’m balancing on the outside ledge, our driver will have to floor the gas. The razor-like thorn bushes will not be kind to my legs, but they’ll be kinder than the cat.
In the dusty scrubland of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we’ve been fixated for the last half-hour on a cluster of shrubs 10m away. Huddled in those bushes, according to Bill, a lioness is nursing two newborn cubs. Bill can see them from his front seat, but three rows back, I cannot.
I’m a freelance writer on my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa while Bill runs The Wild Source, an eco-friendly safari company in the United States. He’s organising the game drives. I’m teaching travel writing workshops along the way to a small group of aspiring writers. I’m also here for the adventure, but getting mauled by a giant feline is not what I had in mind.
Meeting the locals
Eight days earlier, we landed in Maun, Botswana’s socalled “tourist capital.” After customs officials stamped us into the country, our group of six boarded an eight-seater bush plane. We spotted our first giraffes and elephants as we soared above the Okavango Delta. Forty-five minutes later, our safari camp orientation included a warning not to leave our tents at night, and to blow the emergency whistle if any large animals came sniffing. Then, we were off on our first of many game drives.
For the next several days, we took spine-jostling drives over roadless land. We met wild dogs and buffalo, wart hogs and hyenas. There were antelope species — curly-horned kudu and sinewy eland — I’ve never heard of. My favourite beast was the wildebeest, which one of our local guides joked was created “when God took the leftover parts from other animals and stuck them together”.
The Kalahari Desert
After three nights in the Okavango, we flew back to Maun, then drove for five hours, deep into the Kalahari Desert. At the Grassland Safari Lodge, 80km east of Ghanzi, we met Nieltjie Bower, a fifth-generation Botswanan of Dutch descent who managed the lodge. Nieltjie grew up on a Kalahari cattle ranch. Despite her European roots, she spoke fluent Naro, the San Bushman language. As a child, many of her friends were Bushman kids, with whom she had formed lifelong friendships.
She drove us one morning to meet some of them — a tribe of around 40 Bushmen. While some San Bushmen have adopted modern lifestyles, this group still lived lives virtually identical to their ancestors thousands of years ago, dressing in kudu hides and sleeping on the desert sand.
They showed us how they hunted and gathered, used plants medicinally, dug for water, and stored that water for the dry season in yolk-emptied ostrich eggs, which they buried underground so thirsty animals could not find them.
We sampled traditional Bushman snacks: fire-dried kudu and charcoal-roasted beetles. The tribe showed us their dances and taught us a spear-throwing game, at which I performed dismally. I taught them how to throw a Frisbee. We laughed and played together, transcending a vast cultural and linguistic rift.
This was not a tourist sideshow. This tribe still lived an authentically nomadic, isolated lifestyle. I was worried visits like ours might dilute their culture, but Koba, a woman who looked to be in her 50s or 60s (she did not know her age) put me in my place when I asked if the trickle of foreign visitors had a negative impact.
“We pick up things that are different,” Koba said, with Nieltjie translating. “It works nicely. They teach us. We teach them.... I like to eat other food I don’t know and I give it a go, but it’s always what you’re used to that’s most tasty.”
Our visits were fun for her, she explained, but at the end of the day, she had no more desire to leap into our world than we had to leap into hers. When done right, she taught me, tourism can be a positive two-way street.
A story unfinished
Now on day eight, back in the Okavango, exploring a different region of the delta, we’re on another game drive. From the bushes, I hear the lioness’s soft, guttural grumble. My heart pounds as I slither from my seat. Afraid to breathe, grasping the roll bar for balance, I step out onto the running board.
If this does not go well, I tell myself, if the mother comes out and we have to move, I must just hold on. Let the thorns do what they’re going to do, and hope for the best until we’re a safe distance away.
“The mother knows we’re here. She just moved her cubs deeper into the bushes. You can’t see them anymore,” says Bill.
That was how it ended. I never get my story of being charged by a lioness — and that’s okay. Some tales are more romantic in words than in reality. The next day, when we leave Botswana, I have plenty of other stories to tell. And all of my limbs intact.
Singapore Airlines offers direct flights to Johannesburg, South Africa. Other airlines offer flights with stopovers, which are often cheaper. From Johannesburg, Air Botswana and South African Airways both fly to Maun, several times daily.
■ When choosing a safari provider, find a specialist that works with a variety of safari operators in Africa rather than a single partner. Different camps offer different amenities and comfort levels. A travel agent who works with multiple companies can offer a greater range of options.
■ When choosing your destination, consider your comfort needs and budget. Botswana offers mostly high-end luxury and basic camping, with few middle-ground options.
■ Work with an agent who has real experience in Africa — someone who has visited the camps and lodges personally, and who knows their personnel and who can tell you first-hand what you can expect to see when you go.
■ The Wild Source, based in Colorado, offers a diverse range of African safari options, from basic camping to high-end luxury. For details, visit thewildsource.com.
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