There’s nothing so rare these days as time to one’s thoughts and sensations.
As our 12-seater Cessna went wheels up from the runway with a lift of air underneath, I felt one part twinge of fear, another part exhilaration. We settled a few thousand feet above the brush-dappled Kalahari sands, and I considered the expanse of land beneath me.
As we descended I could see tiny elephants, almost toy-like in their proportion at this height, gathered around a vanishing watering hole. These creatures once appeared huge, yet now appeared as dots on the landscape below, set pieces in a game of life that played out below.
I often advocate on-the-ground travel to avoid the conflation of flyover. However, flying between remote safari camps – Camp Xakanaxa, Camp Okavango, and Leroo La Tau in northern Botswana’s Kalahari Desert and Okavango Delta — was required to expediently cover distance. It also lent perspective to what we’d witnessed on the ground and enhanced our comprehension of the contours and remoteness of the geography.
To see this patch of Earth — far away, then later up close — was instructive. It informed my growing sense of the world, and of my self.
In retrospect, that was the point of this segment of our journey in Botswana: five days to unplug and pivot the focus, to tune into sensation.
Camp Xakanaxa: Choosing to Disconnect
Our bush plane touched down on a dirt runway cleared of animals by the driving gusts from the aircraft that landed just before ours. This somewhat primitive process is requisite when you wish to share an environment with wildlife. It’s their home turf, after all.
From the dust of the runway, we transferred by 4×4 over hardened Kalahari sand to Camp Xakanaxa in the Moremi Game Reserve.
Later, we floated straight into the waters of Xakanaxa Lagoon and Khwai River in the Okavango Delta. The hippos we searched for, those who helped carve the so-called “hippo highway” channel waterways by their trampling of pampas grass and depression of the root systems underneath, elude us. As we crane our necks and search for them in the waning light of the afternoon, we are awarded something else: birds.
Exotic birds, a continuous reel of novel, winged creatures I’d never before seen or imagined. The African jacana or Jesus bird, one of the dozens of species we would see during our time on the delta, convinced us to track it through the reeds, until we reached another turn to admire the epic wingspan of a passing saddle billed stork.
Crossing our own wake, we notice the shallow delta waters rise and fall across the tops of tall grass. In an almost-too-perfect landscape, we watch in silence, in respectful awe, the fading sun whose refraction turned shades of violet in a darkening horizon.
Amidst final light, we coasted on what seemed like liquid glass toward home.
Before dinner, as I sipped a glass of chilled chenin blanc, I noticed one of the other guests bent at the camp’s computer, focused on the familiar grid of an email inbox. Convenient, I thought. If absolutely necessary, it’s there. For this fleeting opportunity of precious disconnection, however, I resist. I am also thankful that wifi isn’t available as that might just make my resistance fleeting.
I wonder: What comprises ‘absolutely necessary’ anyway? Taking time away from non-stop digital connection calls that into question. I chose to leave connectivity behind, even if for a few short moments in an otherwise fully connected life. This is a respite to reboot and to clear the mind.
Just then, Big Ben — as everyone in the camp affectionately knows him — invites us to sit by the fire pit under the canopy of shade trees at the water’s edge. Audrey and I join the gathering. Some guests are newly arrived while others have adjusted to the nightly routine. In the process of exchange, we get to know the stories of the people around us, not only where they were from, but also why they are here in this remote area of Botswana.
No one has a smartphone in hand. No heads tilted, no notifications. No interruptions, except silence. Here, lulls in conversation aren’t awkward spaces to be filled. Rather, they are more like an invitation to appreciation: to note the stillness, the moonlight reflecting off of the water, the passing breeze, or the rustle of tall grass indicating that a bird or other animal lurks nearby.
I would not connect to the internet during my time here, or at the other camps. And I would see few others do so in those five days. For this, I was grateful. And for the ambience of conversation unimpeded by digital interruption, I was more grateful still. I have the feeling it made us more attuned to our surroundings and more thankful, even for “small” things.
For this luxury, the news and the rest of the world could wait.
Xakanaxa: A Lesson from Lions
I wake up in our tent cabin — to call it such isn’t even fair for the luxuriousness in which I find myself. If ever there was an image of a far-off African safari lodge in the middle of nowhere, well-appointed, whose nights and early mornings knew sounds of wildlife moving about in the dark and plying the nearby waters, this was it.
To the point, there are tracks around the camp from various animals. Antelopes. Big cats likely on the prowl for said antelopes. Other guests of the night like wild dogs, hippos, mongoose. We humans are the guests here. Literally.
A few minutes into our early morning game drive, Conrad, our guide, stops abruptly and looks down at the road. He surveys the tracks in the sand: “The ground, it’s like the morning newspaper. It tells the movements of the night — which animals were here, where they came from, where they are going.”
His read: a pack of wild dogs had come through recently. Lions passed last night, too. He translates, then offers perspective. “This is Mother Nature, there are no guarantees. Let’s see what we will see.”
Our morning game drive soon becomes consumed by a pack of wild dogs — of the “pack of wild dogs” cliché fame, yes. They’d taken down an impala in the backyard of a nearby lodge, so everyone within a few miles descended on the scene. In the words of one of the lodge guests who’d seen it, “It was a massacre.”
I’m not sure why — maybe because I’d missed the kill itself — but the word ‘massacre’ struck me as odd. Those dogs didn’t massacre. They really just needed to eat, as wild dogs do. They kill, but they do so discriminately.
After a few days, you come to accept that whatever you witness — violence among it — is just the cycle of life in the wild.
We’re interrupted by radio chatter in the local Setswana language: a new animal sighting.
As we approach our target, we see a male lion sprawled in the tall grass aside a lioness. A couple, maybe?
We remain still, admiring them for a while. After taking my requisite photos, I’m embarrassed to admit that I got a bit antsy. “Let’s find the next group of animals,” I thought. Instead, Conrad waited to shed light on what was not apparent to us: “She’s faking it, making him think he’s the father.”
As Conrad tells it, a male lion killed her previous set of cubs because they were not of his stock. Now she defensively mates with – and manipulates — all the males in the area. This way, each is tricked to think he’s the father of the newly arrived cubs, so he won’t kill them. There’s so much more to what we see than what first meets the eye.
A shrewd game to protect one’s children.
And we humans think dating is difficult.
Camp Okavango: Life in the Eyes of Delta John
We make our way deeper still into the Okavango Delta, this time aboard a smaller, 5-seat airplane. The waterways beneath us are carved of runoff. The volume of water from the Angolan Highlands is just enough to fill the plains of the delta each season. Yet as it moves further south it finds its terminus in evaporation in the Kalahari Desert, just as the flow finds its stride.
The mechanics and aesthetic of the delta would astonish on the ground, too.
We take a ride in a mokoro (dugout canoe), launched from the tall grass of the banks at Camp Okavango. A man I’ll call “Delta” John Carter takes the lead with Audrey forward in his canoe. His gentle demeanor belied a plain wisdom drawn straight from a life amidst the rising and falling water cycles of the delta.
His colleagues throughout the region don’t call him Delta John. They have another name for him instead: Legend.
John is San (or what some refer to as ‘bushmen’), the ethnic group considered the original inhabitants of Botswana. He grew up among the same islands in the Okavango Delta through which we’d paddled, where mokoros and one’s feet were the only means of transportation. Traditionally, one lived from the land: hunting, fishing, and maybe farming whenever the rains might support it.
John never received a formal education, but instead learned from his surroundings and his elders. Kops, our other guide, explained, “He has encyclopedias of wisdom inside of him about this land, the animals, the plants, this earth. You can’t teach that in schools.”
No, you can’t.
In the day’s waning light, our mokoros glide through papyrus and tall grass that just days before were dry, illustrating how quickly the delta fills as the Angolan floodwaters arrive.
The water was dark, ink-like, murky. John saw me looking down and explained that in a few days the plants and Kalahari sand together would purify the water, so much so that it would be safe enough to drink. In the natural world, so much happens beneath the surface without most of us ever even noticing.
The following morning we set off for something completely new: tracking animals on foot. A walking safari.
It’s one thing to see the paw print of a lion in the sand when you’re in the safety of a 4×4 vehicle capable of a quick getaway. It’s another entirely when you’re on foot, wondering whether the lion you hope to spot is instead watching your movements from within the tall grass nearby.
Kops and John took positions at our front and back to survey for animals around us. It was critical, they said, that we position ourselves downwind from animals like elephants — which we would see throughout the morning — and use their tracks in the sand to safely guide our way. Every so often we’d climb atop a hill or outcropping. John would stand at its edge and scan slowly about the horizon, tuning even his sense of smell to detect animals.
For visitors like us, this was the nature of adventure. For John’s family living on the delta, this was survival.
I may not be able to smell the animals like John, but I could take a page from his book of observation to deepen my own life experience.
Leroo La Tau: Beauty in Numbers
To the southern reaches of the Okavango Delta, we flew to Leroo La Tau, a camp whose lodge and rooms were positioned atop the bank of the Boteti River on the edge of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
Our aprés-lunch routine revolved around a dream-like nap on our veranda overlooking the river basin. As each day advanced, the area would turn into a playground for zebras, elephants, cows that drifted in from a nearby village farm, and maybe a predator or two. Mid-nap, I might catch a glance of a dozen zebra down by the water taking a drink and grazing on fresh patches of green.
I’d drift off again, thankful for more time. A noise nearby might startle me. This time, a bull elephant would enter the scene and playfully throw sand on his back. Imagining this was just a dream, I closed my eyes and opened them still, attempting to orient myself in my slumber.
Yes, the bull elephant and zebra were still there below me. This wasn’t a dream, but rather the view from our back deck.
I could have stayed there for hours, drifting in and out of sleep and watching the scene at the river, but our afternoon game drive was waiting.
“What would you like to see? This is nature, so there are no guarantees. But if I know your interests I can try to focus our drives,” Lasty, our guide, asked just as we departed on our first afternoon game drive together.
“If it walks, runs, flies, buzzes…I would like to see it!” Berndt, a fellow traveler from Germany, called from the back seat of our cruiser.
His request was almost cliché. But it wasn’t. He opened like a child, spreading wildlife and bird guides across seats amidst the excitement. His energy was more remarkable still that he was a safari veteran of over twenty years across Africa.
He didn’t carry a camera. Only binoculars.
When the late afternoon light softened, Lasty perched our cruiser on a hill overlooking the river valley. As we set off to descend for a closer look at the animals taking their final drink of the day, Berndt took a sweeping look around him, as if he was taking everything with a single inhalation.
“It’s beautiful! This is so beautiful! Thank you, Lasty, for bringing us here.”
Whatever jadedness might have caused me to consider this anything but pure unfettered joy simply evaporated. Berndt’s gratitude — for our guide, for nature, for the sliver presented just before us, for the privilege of all of this — was infectious.
While I had been enjoying the scene until then, I looked at the view below me with fresh eyes, with the aid of joy and innocence by osmosis, and realized just how correct Berndt was. In its smallness, in its vastness, in the truest sense of the word, this was beautiful, as in “full of beauty.”
By watching others around me, I re-learned an important lesson. There’s no end to what and how we can appreciate. And there is no limit to which we can allow other people to positively influence our sense of awe. In a liminal moment of shared gratitude, we can choose to navigate one threshold of wonder beyond to something greater.
The next afternoon we descended into the river valley for one last time, the final game drive of our visit to Botswana.
The unassuming Boteti River served as the point of convergence for vast herds of zebra. Our experience was the prelude to the annual zebra migration, the second largest in Africa. As the dry season continues, zebra are forced to leave the further reaches of the desert in search of water.
Just as I’d grasp the scale and volume of animals, more would seem to pour into my field of view. I noticed the odd bark of the zebra, something you’re more likely to hear amongst such numbers of them, their varied markings, their tendency to skittishness in this environment.
Lasty provided context: “If you think this is a lot, you should see this in a month. We will have 25,000 zebras here.”
I couldn’t imagine their numbers so multiplied. What already fixed my gaze was more than enough to astonish.
A few hours later we stopped on the other side of the river for our sundowner, one final drink to mark the end of the day. As we enjoyed our gin and tonic — glasses to the sunset — I noticed Lasty’s gaze jump from a spot on the bank above us down to the last of the zebra at the watering hole below.
“Do you hear that?” Lasty asked.
I heard nothing.
“I think it was a grunt of a lion.” Lasty said. “The zebra are looking that way, at attention. There’s something moving down the hill. See it?”
At first I saw nothing. Then I narrowed my gaze in dust of the waning light. Eventually, I could make out a shadow moving through the bushes.
We followed the lion’s tracks, right to him. Under our gaze, in the faintest shadow of our cruiser, a juvenile male lion nonchalantly took a drink of water, enjoying a sundowner of his own, with a view of the zebra.
In the wonder of the moment, I imagined how tomorrow’s “newspaper” along the Boteti River might read.
From the dining room that evening, I glanced up at the lodge laptop connected to satellite internet in the loft reading room. In all our meals, I’d barely noticed the space as peaceful as it was, let alone the computer.
No one was on it. Apparently, the world could wait.