Dinner with elephants

An almighty splash and primordial trumpeting wrenched me from the velvet embrace of the canopied bed. I strained my senses beyond the ghostly mesh of the mosquito net, past the stylish teak furniture and below the veranda to find them, to fathom their purpose. Yet I need not leave my bed to see them as my brain had pre-recorded a moving image in ultra-high definition to mix with the live audio. For I had just had dinner with elephants.

Botswana specialises in safaris that put visitors in the thick of the wildlife action whilst pampering them in some of Southern Africa’s finest lodges. One minute you are rattling over dirt tracks scattering herds of impala on the trail of the Big Five, the next a masseur is kneading out knots where the jeep’s suspension failed to cushion you. Corridors bedecked with African art are patrolled by beaming porters in pith helmets and safari suits who vie with hostesses in brilliant orange robes to cater to the guest’s every whim. At sumptuous dinner buffets chefs in puffy white hats preside over huge hotplates where they conjure dazzling arrays of local and international dishes to order.

In Botswana lodges provide a range of habitats and vibes from luxurious chalets fenced off from the dangerous beasts that lurk in the dusty bush surrounds to rustic camps sprouting within tangled forests of mopane and sausage trees. I opted for the intimate, frontier feel of Savute Safari Lodge perched above the Savute Channel in Western Chobe. On game drives through surrounding grasslands and marshes, the drama ranged from giraffes doing the splits to lick mineral salts from the earth to stand offs with moody buffalos that stared unflinchingly as they blocked our way. Baba, the stocky, jovial guide from Savute Safari Lodge, whetted our appetites as he leaned out of the jeep to examine the tracks below. ‘Hyenas passed this way last night’. ‘Fresh leopard tracks, they may still be nearby’.

Excited murmurs at the ‘L’ word spurred Baba on, as single-minded as hunters of old. He drove past rows of camel thorn trees, where feline limbs tend to drape lazily over sturdy boughs or drag prey away from other predators; past feline watchtowers on craggy slopes; and through tall grasslands from where countless attacks are launched on unsuspecting wildebeest or zebra. Scanning for rosette markings, I saw only the blur of mongooses bobbing up and down – a manoeuvre used to confuse and overpower snakes – and a monumental 1900-year-old baobab felled by generations of elephants through a war of attrition. Thunder clouds closed in and rain lashed through the jeep yet Baba was undeterred; when a leopard sighting crackled on his radio, Baba floored the accelerator and we bounced along happily behind him. Although Baba’s heroics were ultimately in vain, I learnt that the true joy of safari lies in the thrill of the chase.

Tourists go on safari to see animals, but the Batswana people compete hard for their affections. Arriving in Botswana over the Zambesi River from Zambia, I encountered the oddity of a friendly immigration official who thanked tourists in their own languages and flashed them a grin as wide as the Zambesi itself. The bar was set high yet her compatriots did not disappoint. Service at restaurants, hotels and on game drives was unerringly cheerful, with the gracious words ‘you’re most welcome’ pre-empting any thanks. Cheesy safari jokes were delivered with such gusto that we just had to laugh: ‘McDonald’s’ for the snacks that plentiful impala provide for carnivores; ‘Chobe Chickens’ for the flocks of guinea fowl; and ‘white toilet seats’ for the markings on the backsides of waterbucks.

The arrival at Savute Safari Lodge segued seamlessly from scene to scene like a well-edited travel documentary. No sooner had we stooped to exit the Cessna light aircraft and stepped onto the airstrip than we were welcomed by Baba’s firm handshake and huge grin. After a short bush drive, we were greeted outside the lodge with iced towels and ushered inside for ritual handshaking with staff, a refreshing orange and grenadine layered mocktail, and a briefing by lodge manager MC in the bar-cum-lounge-cum-library. MC’s booming voice could not be confined by the open plan thatched timber structure where we sat, its African masks and western comforts bridging two worlds, and so I wondered how his words might be received by untold, formless ears out in the surrounding bush.

Formalities over, MC whisked us through forested grounds to a viewing platform over the Savute Channel where two elephants were engrossed in daily ablutions. They bathed and drank simultaneously, facilitated by the multi-purpose water hoses that were their trunks, before disappearing into the bush. At MC’s invitation we too moved to an alfresco dining area, where refreshing salads and hearty vegetarian lasagne were beautifully arranged to satisfy dietary whims communicated by guests on arrival. Finally, we were all guided to thatched timber and glass suites, their spacious open-plan bedrooms and living rooms leading to viewing decks over the Channel. Sinking into a customary siesta – the 0600 game drives take their toll – I wondered what marvels might greet my awakening.

Staff and guests tucked heartily into game meat and Cape wines, shoulder-to-shoulder along a banquet table overlooking the Savute Channel where elephants crossed to drink with us from an artificial waterhole, savouring mineral waters pumped in by the lodge. The elephants could have sated their thirst in the Channel but, in taking those extra steps, proved themselves to be as discerning with their water as we with our wine. Nevertheless, the Channel is enough of a draw for less fussy animals to trek through miles of dusty bush to refresh themselves, or at least it is during those seasons when this most fickle and mysterious of water systems deigns to flow.

A bull and young elephant accompanied us through our starters and main course. It was a well-drilled operation: one trunk sucked from the waterhole while the other squirted water into a thirsty mouth. This continued until, as humans scraped final scraps of game from plates, a breeding herd marched along the Channel. The matriarch froze halfway to the hole, caught between fear of a showdown with the bull and showing weakness to her herd. She remained rooted until a huge bull strode past and chased the incumbent from the hole before installing himself in prime drinking position. Emboldened by this victory, the herd advanced, but stopped short of the waterhole, sampling instead an adjacent stagnant pool before deciding the Channel was more palatable. You see elephants have to earn their place at the top table while tourists can pay for the privilege of joining them for dinner.

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