by Nancy McDaniel
So many times I’ve been on safari in Africa and I’ve always seen many wondrous things. People ask me if I go to see the animals. Of course I do. But there’s so much more to see than just the animals, remarkable as they are. On my most recent safari to Botswana, I saw little miracles every day. But I also heard them, smelled them, and felt them. I’ve never been so in touch with all my senses as I was on this trip.
A Magical Place Named Okavango
Our first camp was in the Okavango Delta, on the tip of Chief’s Island, at a place called Mombo Trails. The Okavango Delta is a magnificent place, lying in the midst of the Kalahari Desert, the largest continuous stretch of sand in the world. The Delta is a “magical 18,000 square kilometer wonderland of waterways, floodplains, islands and forests.” (Adrian Bailey, “Okavango: Africa’s Wetland Wilderness”) This is a place I’d been wanting to come to for the past several years. I was not to be disappointed.
At “Little Mombo,” we saw everything we hoped for – and more. We saw all the big cats: lions, leopard and cheetah, all closer than I’ve ever seen them before. Our Land Rover was the only vehicle around, so we were able to follow the animals closely, without disrupting them. Here, unlike in east Africa, when we came upon a cheetah mother and cub, it was just us, not a convoy of ten safari vehicles encircling the cats. We could experience their behavior, not just their presence.
The Brothers Lion
The first day, we encountered a young male lion, who turned out to be on his way to see his brother. We followed him and when they met, they cuffed each other playfully and affectionately. Then they started to move. We drove behind them as they ambled along single file, probably going somewhere, maybe not. We were close enough behind them that, for the first time, I was able to see the way they pick up and bend their front paws backwards when they walk. I saw more closely. I paid more attention. Every once in a while, the one lion would turn around and stare at us for a second, as if to say, “You’re crowding me. Back off a little.” And our amazing South African driver/guide Russell would hang back a little, ever respectful and mindful that this was their home. We were just the visitors, sharing their space and a special moment in time with them.
So Much To See
There is so much to see, even when there is “nothing to see,” as someone on a previous safari once commented. I suppose that a person could become blasé and immune to the natural wonder of this most magnificent place. But I never could. When there are no large mammals to see, perhaps someone could tune out. But the colors and the textures and the layers are always there to see – the blue of the sky, meeting the yellow of the tall “lion grass” and the lush strip of green just next to it. The yellow and orange and hot pink of the wildflowers that just pop out of the parts of the ground that are still dry, where the water has not yet flooded. The bare branches of the mighty baobab tree, reaching up into the impossibly blue sky, frame the sliver of the moon still visible at mid-morning.
Starry Starry Night
The incomprehensible number of stars and constellations made me wish I knew something about astronomy (I only ever was able to recognize Venus, Mars, Orion’s Belt, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way). One night, sitting around the campfire at Linyanti, after the paraffin lanterns were extinguished, I tipped my head far back and looked up. The stars seemed to actually be twinkling through the lacy branches of the tree we were sitting under. It looked like little white Christmas tree lights. I’ll never forget the magic of the moment and I’ll never look at Christmas tree lights the same way again.
With My Eyes Wide Open
My eyes become sharper and quicker the longer I stay in the bush. They become attuned to what is there, both what is easily visible and what is hidden. They dart, but purposefully, scanning the horizon from side to side. They move back and forth, much the same way as the tracker steadily scans the spotlight in a nighttime game drive. There is so much to see. I drink it all in. I cannot bear to miss any of it. I must see and remember it all. The camera in my head works overtime, even when the camera in my hand is not in use. I used to get frustrated when I couldn’t get a picture of something because of the angle of the sun or too little light. Now I just focus with my eyes and remember in my heart.
So Many Sounds
The sounds are like no where else in the world. The first night in the bush is always a bit unsettling. The cacophony of sounds, some dangerous and threatening, some just unusual and unrecognizable, some actually soothing. Waking up with a start: “Robyn, what was that?” Next time, “What was that?” Finally, “Nancy, did you hear that one?” Was it a lion kill (I was so sure that it was but no one else heard it so maybe not. Was it a dream?) Was it the amorous and ever-so-noisy sound of a rutting male impala? Or the alarm call of a chacma baboon? Or the heavy footfall of a buffalo walking close to the tent?
No elevated trains, no fire engines, no wail of ambulance sirens, no tipsy revelers returning home from the bars near my house. Just a mélange of sounds of the bush.
We Learn the Songs of the Birds
I love to listen to the bird songs, in all their variety and beauty (most of them, except the blacksmith plover. I grew to despair its noisy call, occasionally even shaking my fist and saying, “Shut up, you bloody bird.” Sorry, plover. Now I ache to hear your noisy cries when all I hear is the construction sounds of the building going up next door.)
We grew to distinguish the songs. There was the song of the Cape Turtle Dove: “Work hard-er. Work hard-er.” Or the alternate translation “Bot-swa-na. Bot-swa-na”. The omnipresent identification call of “I-am-a-red-eyed-dove. I-am-a-red-eyed-dove” (as though everyone didn’t know who he was by then!) The grey lourie’s annoyed lament: “Go ‘way. Go ‘way,” lending him the nickname of the “Go Away Bird.” The tropical boubou (which I still get confused with the brubru and the bulbul). The saddest sound of the mourning dove which translates to its family all being dead. I have mourning doves in my city backyard but they must sing in a different language here in Chicago that I cannot understand.
The Sounds of Silence
There’s another sound that I treasured, after we went deeper into the Okavango Delta, to a water camp called Xepa. We drove to it, often through the deep water, which was moving in, filling in the Delta. In another week or two, the water would have extended even more, making many of the tracks impassable, even with the Land Rover’s aptly named “Safari Snorkel.”
Here, at Xepa, much of our travel was by mokoro, the dugout canoes used by the local people to fish and move from place to place. Our mokoro poler stood silently in the stern and two of us sat on the floor of the mokoro. He smoothly poled the mokoro as we gently and quietly made our way through the papyrus reeds, water lilies and delicate spider webs (“Filaments,” Russell called them. What a lovely name, much like “gossamer.”) I sometimes closed my eyes and listened to the nearly imperceptible lapping of the water as we purposefully made our way. I heard the push of the mokoro’s bow on the reeds as we slid through a slender path of our own making.
Occasionally, the soft sounds of the breeze and the reeds and the water would be suddenly interrupted by noisy hippos – no way to know how close they were, as sounds travel so much on the water. But our ever vigilant mokoro polers knew to stay far away from hippos. And then the distinctive sound of a lion, carrying far across the water, announcing his presence to all creatures that might be around.
I Learn to Pole A Mokoro
One day Russell taught me the basics of poling a mokoro. Just me, I was the only one who wanted to try it. And out I went four separate times by myself to practice. I’m not ready for a career as a mokoro poler. I had the balance part down but the long heavy pole is a bit hard to wield and control. And the smooth strokes the real polers take, with two good-sized American tourists sitting as “cargo”, are deceptively difficult to replicate.
My mokoro forays opened up a whole new peaceful world for me, while the others took a mid-day nap, I ferried myself out through the reeds into the open water. Standing up in a clear pool full of pink and white and yellow and lavender water lilies, I saw the fragile-legged African jacana, (the “lily trotter”) tiptoeing gently across the lily pads. The only sounds were the songs of birds, the whirring wings of dragonflies and nothing else. I stood silently, drinking it all in – the sounds of silence, all my senses alert. Then I heard hippos, so I turned around and regretfully, but sensibly, poled my mokoro back to camp.
The Gentlest of Touches
Touch had always been my most underutilized sense on safari, until this one. This time we were able to do some walking in the bush. It was Russell’s favorite way to really experience the bush. We were able to share some of that with him, in the private reserves. It’s a whole different way of being part of the bush. You’re on the same level as the animals and you see them in a whole different perspective. But this section is about touch, not sight.
As we silently walked single file behind Russell, my senses were on high alert. I was not fearful, as I trusted him completely. This man was born to be in the bush. He knows it intimately. He feels it even more. It is his spiritual compass. He reveres it, while thoroughly understanding it. He is very much a white bushman.
I felt the high grass on my legs, sometimes punctuated with stickers and burrs (the aptly named “devil thorns.”) I got tiny scratches on my legs, but it was not an unpleasant kind of pain; It’s part of the whole experience. There was a section where we needed to take off our socks and hiking boots and walk through the crystal clear water which had recently begun to flood this area. The water came up midway between my ankles and my knees. Pure water, lifesaving water, sensual water. Then the shoes regrettably went back on, no more to feel the lovely soft squish of the mud between my toes.
Close Your Eyes So You May See
And then I discovered the best way to feel the intensity of the bush – with my eyes closed, forcing me to feel. We walked through the tall grass, I with my eyes briefly shut tight, with my hands and arms extended. Touching the tops of the grass, letting the stems and stalks brush against my arms and outstretched hands. Tears of joy came to my eyes. I felt intensely and completely part of nature, if only for a moment.
Smell the Freshness
There are amazing smells too; My favorite was the wild sage. It smelled so fresh and clean and lovely, like nature’s perfume – not sweet, almost musty. It was a distinctive scent, one which we grew to love and looked forward to experiencing again and again.
And the smell of the campfire, even when the breeze blew and brought smoke-induced tears to our eyes. The not unpleasant smoky smell of our clothes washed by the camp staff and hung out to dry (another smell – just impossibly clean fresh air). Even the perfume-like smell of “Peaceful Sleep,” the aerosol insect repellent provided in all the tents. I actually miss that smell as well as that of the lovely rosemary shampoo and soap in the tents at Linyanti.
When I reluctantly came back (I can’t say “home,” as the African bush feels increasingly like my spiritual home to me), people asked me if I saw lots of animals. Yes, I tell them, I saw everything. But the rest of my senses experienced this wondrous and miraculous place even more intensely. I miss it desperately and long for the day I will return to experience it all again – in all the ways I can.