Errant lawnmowers with fangs

The evening sounds of the Okavango Delta permeated the canvas of my luxury safari-style tent. Baboons barked in the trees above before thudding onto the tent struts, crickets chattered insistently, and go-away-birds called out true to their name. After a while, all creatures were drowned out by a rhythmic, ripping noise that demanded attention. Perhaps the baboons were up to a new trick? Adrenaline fuelled, I grabbed my Maglite and rushed onto the balcony, an extension of the teak platform raising the tent above the forest floor. Naked but for boxer shorts though oblivious to the feast I was serving up to Okavango’s bug kingdom, I sensed a presence long before my eyes discerned their bulbous bulks through the gloom: two hippos grazing frenetically just metres away from me.

Camp Moremi, a cluster of safari tents serviced by a timber thatched lodge nestling in an ebony forest between Okavango wetlands and savannah, provides easy access both to Delta channels from its own jetty and to game drives in the Moremi Reserve. Unlike other lodges where electrified fences filter out dangerous game, at Camp Moremi guests and beasts intermingle. During a late-night bathroom trip, I narrowly escaped decapitation by a kamikaze bat as a sixth sense made me duck while one morning I opened the front door to find myself eyeball to eyeball with a baboon cradling a tiny baby in her arms. Bambi-like bushbucks roam the camp at will too, but it is the hippos emerging from Delta waters nightly to graze on lush grass that take centre stage.

Should the animals not come to you, you can always search for them. In contrast to mass market safaris where cars process along wide asphalted roads, Botswanan safaris are like trekking through the bush on wheels. Jeeps rattle over dirt tracks, cut paths through grasslands and balance on logs over swamps while passengers hang on, dodge branches or swing their legs to escape water flooding in. Safaris often boast animals “at the side of the road” but in Botswana that means “right next to you”, a point illustrated one evening as we watched a lioness and her cubs play-wrestling. Suddenly the lioness leapt towards us with a mighty roar, a drama worthy of Hollywood slow motion yet too swift for us to do more than roar back somewhat less mightily and recoil in our seats before she landed just short of us on an anthill, still focused on her cubs and indifferent to the cowering tourists.

For the road weary, speeding by launch along the Okavango’s reed-fenced waterways provides respite, as well as an exhilarating reminder of Africa’s endless landscapes. For these are just the outer reaches of the world’s largest inland delta, which is born from rain falling in the Angolan highlands that drains into the Cubango River before branching out across the plains of Namibia and Botswana and finally evaporating into the Kalahari Desert some 1000 kilometres from its origin. Encircling the Delta’s myriad islands, enigmatic grasses dance in the breeze, masking the margins between land and water until elephants foraging for vegetation testify to the solidity of the ground.

Hitherto, hippos had been little more than nostrils, flapping ears and bulging eyes protruding from the water. Now, their every detail was fixed in my Maglite’s beam: water glistening on leathery skin, stubby legs planted defiantly against gravity and huge muscular lips wrenching grass from the earth. I expected the two apparitions to fade into the gloom, but instead a feeding frenzy powered them back and forth like errant lawnmowers with fangs. They never once looked up to trace the beam back to its owner.

I later learned from our guide, Kitso, as we tucked into snake steaks at the camp lodge, that hippos use indifference as a tactic prior to charging. Driving the point home, he explained that “you’d stand little chance as his mouth wraps around you and his tusk-like teeth run right through you”. Winding through the forest back to the tent with these words still ringing in our ears, we turned a corner to find a startled hippo staring at us from a thicket, swiftly followed by a snort and stamp of its front foot. Before its remaining feet could devour the metres between us, Kitso stamped his own foot defiantly. The hippo paused for a moment, as if considering its options, then turned around and disappeared into the foliage, its gateway back from humanity to a vast wetland paradise.

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