Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta – Part Six

Continued from Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta – Part Five

Elephant damage on walking safari in Botswana's Okavango

On safari in the Okavango Delta, it’s one thing to ride in a cozy truck and look out the window.

It’s another thing entirely to step outside and follow a man with a gun into the wilderness.

During our stay at &Beyond’s amazing lodge, Xudum, we decided to go on a walking safari. After all, it was 1) no additional cost and 2) we’d packed hiking shoes and hadn’t even worn them yet. So far, riding around in a safari vehicle most of the day, we’d been fine in nearly-treadless sneakers and flip-flops.

Along for the trek was a snarky, 40-something married couple from Germany and an early-30s couple from Colorado who’d been dating, surprisingly, all of three months. After a short drive through the Xudum concession, we parked beneath a stand of trees, took a collective deep breath and stepped boldly out of the truck.

Assembled and accounted for, we were prepared for an adventure with danger at every turn. We received dead-serious instructions about staying in a single-file line behind our guide and not taking photos without first seeking his permission. Suddenly our guide, an awkward, skinny Botswanan guy in his mid-20s, over-earnest and under-experienced, had become our leader. Slinging his rifle over his back, he squared his shoulders and forged out ahead of us into the bush.

The landscape, all Africa-ness aside, wasn’t too exciting: Hard-baked earth, scruffy grasses, tall and pockmarked termite mounds, and spindly hardwood trees that grew increasingly taller, thicker and farther apart. Here and there on the dusty ground, dung from various wild creatures lay baking in piles.

We trudged onward in a forced march through nothing, to nowhere, with no one in sight.

Aside from the German husband’s sotto voce grumblings of discontent, the crunch of our footfalls and the tweeting of birds, we would walk in silence until we’d see something of mild interest. Our guide pointed out tree bark hanging loose like carrot peelings – the marauding work of a hungry elephant – and abandoned spring hare dens choked with spider webs. Optimistically, Colorado Guy pointed out a few zebra off in the distance, but as the equines trotted away, he lowered his pointing hand slowly, limply to his side. We paused beside a wide inlet that glimmered in the late morning sun, pale brown marsh birds skimming low across the water’s surface. A smoky bushfire haze intensified the heat.

Were we expecting herds of wildebeest, maybe? A lion kill?  At the very least, it was fair to say we’d hoped for something more than a sedate stroll while wearing one-third of an REI store. Beside a tall, spreading tree with a great, wide trunk, the group’s most vocal dissenter turned mutinous.

GERMAN GUY “So, what is that tree there? The big one.”

GUIDE “That is a baobab tree. It is the oldest tree in Africa.”

GERMAN GUY (with a self-satisfied smile, his arms crossed) “That one there is the oldest tree in all of Africa?”

GUIDE “No, that one is just a baobab. It is very old. Between 50…and 3,000 years.”

GERMAN GUY (again with the smile and a patronizing tone) “Well, which is it? 50…or 3,000 years?”

The rest of the group shuffled nervously from one foot to another, trying not to look at the two men or each other. Mean spirits aside, our guide was in danger of losing his grip on our faith. I recalled that while baobab trees grow larger as they get older, they have no rings to help pinpoint their exact age. I briefly considered saying this out loud…then didn’t. Adam cleared his throat. After a minute, the question unanswered, we all moved on.

In the midst of pointing out concave depressions around an enormous termite mound, signs that the spot had been used as an elephant bed not long before, our guide suddenly froze and then motioned to us to do the same. A couple hundred yards ahead, a young, potentially violent bachelor elephant tramped his lonely way through a stand of ebony trees, not yet aware of our presence.

The guide silenced us with his raised hand, took a sock full of ash from his belt and dusted the air to determine the direction of the wind. As we stared open-mouthed at this brilliant trick, ash went one way and we went another, falling in line behind his sudden intensity. We didn’t walk back to the truck so much as we hoofed it there.

Safely back at the truck, we drove a little ways away and stopped to set up for tea, relieved to have exchanged danger for cookies. I’d just fixed my cup the way I like it when suddenly, there was a dull crack from the trees not 300 feet away — the elephant had stumbled across us once again. Nine feet tall, massive, strong and thoroughly ticked off to find us in his path, I believe the words you’re looking for here are, “Holy crap.”

Our guide swung into action. He quietly commanded us to leave our drinks and get the hell into the truck, as fast as possible. Nearby, the elephant snorted and scuffed his feet on the ground, waving his huge ears back and forth to signal his displeasure. Someone asked in a squeak if we’d be chased, but we were assured that we weren’t going anywhere. As the bull started to lope towards us, the guide proceeded to gun the truck’s engine, rocking the vehicle to and fro in a cloud of diesel and dust. Confused by the smell and noise, the wrinkled bachelor traveled by us close enough to touch, his tail twitching and ears on the flap. Pausing for only a second, he trumpeted his anger and crashed back into the trees.

Crisis averted, I’ve still never seen a tea service packed away so fast. Our guide had saved our lives, and – with great humility – we all thanked him for his quick thinking. Adam and I looked at each other with big round eyes as the engine started and we bumped along again, back across the bush.

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See also The rest of my Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta series

and

Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There Logistics of an African Safari

South Africa: From Plains to Mountains Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Part 1 Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Part 2

TWT Travel Binder: South Africa TWT Travel Binder: Botswana TWT Travel Binder: Tanzania

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