The rumble of the motor steals away our words. We remain silent as the bush plane glides low over the Okavango delta. The drama of life is playing out one of its favourite pieces just a few metres below. Coming from the winter stillness of Lapland, it is as if nature had garnered all of its forces here in northern Botswana.
We land on Sable Alley camp, a luxurious enclave in the middle of the African wilderness. The camp is located on the eastern end of the Okavango delta. As we get off the plane, we are welcomed warmly by our hosts. Their bright smiles and candour are characteristic of Botswanans. They lead us to the camp. It is minimalistic and elegant in its design. The camp blends seamlessly with its surroundings. The dividing line between wild and human is somewhat blurred. A family of hippos are pleasantly going about their business in a lagoon, no more than 30 metres from the camp!
Clearly, this safari plays by different rules. We have become accustomed to a separation between our world and nature. We have put up a fence, literal and figurative, to keep us safe, to keep us apart. When we step into the natural world, we usually do it with the blunt force of the hunter or the conqueror. That often results in the rift becoming even wider. The conventional safari can hardly be dissociated from that attitude. However, a new approach is emerging, one that recognises the need of contact and connectedness with nature, one that is raw and honest.
Sable Alley is located in the middle of Khwai Private Reserve. It used to be a hunting concession, but conservation efforts have turned into what we see today: a refuge where animals can roam free, without fear of man. In fact, the hippos seem not to mind us at all. They have become habituated, which means, they no longer respond to our presence. At first glance, this might seem artificial. Isn’t fear of humans a trait that most animals share? I soon learn it is the contrary. In Khwai, we are no longer a threat. Because there is no fear, the animals behave according to their nature. We can experience the true wildlife. And that is the real prize.
We have come to Botswana during the green season. There are fewer animals but they are in better shape. The landscape is lively with colours, bedecked with the glimmer of the pools and the water holes. For someone who comes to a safari with the sole intention of ticking all the items on a list, the low season can seem unappealing. Coming during this time of year is for the connoisseur, for those who are sated only by meaningful encounters, by the vital potency of the Okavango.
We go on game drives twice every day. Trackers are sent out before us. Their job is to read the signs of the wild and to locate the animals, so our chances of sightings are much higher.
Ras Saaza Taitso has been a guide for twenty years, and he is our interpreter. I can sense that he has a deep connection with nature. He is not the encyclopaedic guide that bombards you with data you will inevitably forget halfway through dinner, but a weaver of stories. Soon, we find ourselves in the middle of one such narrative.
We come across a pride of lions. Two males, and two lionesses, mother and sister.
“This is a very special time for the pride,” Ras says. “The sister of the mother has been away to give birth.”
Lionesses separate themselves from the pride to give birth. They hide their litter in caches in the bush. They must come back to the group to socialise and to hunt, leaving the cubs somewhat vulnerable in their first, critical weeks.
A third lioness appears and we witness a ceremonious greeting. It is a moving scene, even for the inexperienced observer. The lionesses butt their heads against the chest of their kin, they nudge each other with their paws, and they growl in acknowledgement. Lions depend on the pride to survive.
My eye is turned to one of the males, who even in relaxation commands awe and is an imposing figure.
“How is that lion called?” I ask Ras.
“He is called lion,” he responds with a chuckle.
Anthropomorphism is a way of metaphorical thinking whereby we attribute human characteristics to animals. Many naturalists despise it because it projects one’s own personality onto the animal. It is a way to comprehend nature that is centred around our own emotions and worldview. It is an obstacle to the true enjoyment and appreciation of the natural world. In its worst forms, anthropomorphism tries to project morality, even politics, onto the animal.
Back at the camp, I am battling with Ras’ perspective. I can understand his stance but I wonder if we can truly make an objective observation of the natural world. A hippo in the lagoon yawns and makes a fearsome display of its powerful weapons. Other hippos snort and fan their tails with gusto. They are not affected by my preconceptions. They are, in every sense, their own.
I enjoy dinner and assault the bar before settling in for a night of sleep. My thoughts haven’t left me, but I have been travelling for weeks now, and the seducing softness of the palanquin bed does a good job. I sink into the darkness of a dream I won’t remember.
A safari that is all about seeing the largest numbers of animals doesn’t allow for the discovery of the individual. Even if we must understand the world in general terms, true experience is not a generalisation. Quite the contrary.
The sun rises over the Okavango and the bustling activity of daytime creatures, myself included, starts with a stretch and a yawn. Under the light of day, the family of hippos greet us with enthusiasm. The murky thoughts from the previous evening are gone. I would say, even the sun is greeting us with a certain reverence!
On the first game drive of the day, we track the lioness that has been away to give birth. We are no longer after an impersonal sighting. Thanks to Ras’ expertise we soon find her. She is at one of the caches, where she keeps her litter. She is carrying one of her cubs by the scruff of its neck. We are joyful and excited. We get to sit nearby, in a proximity I would have thought impossible. I find myself in amazement, mouth-agape.
“Is it true,” I ask Ras about something I read before, “that lionesses will abandon a cub if she cannot find at least another of her siblings in the cache?”
“Yes, that is true.”
Sandy, my wife, takes me by the hand. We are assaulted by conflicting emotions. It is difficult for me to hide my feelings so I go for conversation instead.
“Why is that?”
“Lion cubs have a low chance of survival,” Ras explains patiently. “By abandoning a single cub, the lioness can quickly reproduce again and have a better chance at a larger litter.”
The mathematical coldness does little to assuage my feelings.
Couldn’t we take the cub, to spare its life? It’s impossible. The grown lion would not know how to hunt, nor would it be part of a pride, it would never survive in the wild. Its place in the world is here, not in a zoo, not in a private collection as a pet. The best we can do is nothing but observe. All of a sudden, nature seems to adopt a cruel demeanour. I cannot help but feel anguish for the future of the cub.
The comforts of Sable Alley and its unobtrusive beauty had begun to grow on me. The camp spoke of harmony in the natural world. But tonight, nature felt… hostile, a force surrounding us with a will of its own, a violence we could hardly understand. I felt small, at times exposed to a power I could not control. From our veranda we could listen to the growling of the lions in the dark. They were hunting, chasing their prey, setting traps, sinking their sharp teeth into the still beating flesh of their meal. I felt a rush and a shudder. I could only think of the cub, perhaps already abandoned to die; gripped by hunger, fear, desperate calls that would go unanswered, until a leopard or a hyena…
In the morning we follow the signs of battle. We find one of the lionesses guarding the carcass of a kudu. The male lions are nearby. The mother is missing.
“Can we track her?” I demand, a little too eagerly.
Ras agrees and we go to the last know cache. We find her en route to the pride. She is carrying one of the cubs...
I let go a sigh of relief. There were more cubs! We follow her and witness a momentous rite in the life of these lions: the cub is being introduced to the pride. From this moment on, it will enjoy the care of the lionesses and the protection of the lions. In a couple of years it will be a hunter in its own right. This pride is assured continuity.
The lioness will introduce the rest of the litter later on. For the time being, the cub that had robbed me of my sleep is safe. The dark aspect of nature begins to recede.
We are relaxing in our private veranda, drinks in hand, and we are in a light mood. The hippos, who still seem to be completely oblivious of our presence, are growling and enjoying the pool. Then, a rumble in the bushes stirs behind us. An elephant emerges from the thicket and passes right in front of us. Sandy and I look at each other and all the tension is relieved. The elephant sets its sights on the pool. The hippos protest loudly and try to dissuade the intruder, but the mighty elephant has no intention of yielding. He takes over the water, drinks his fill and wallows to rid himself of the heat. We laugh, we are gripped by pleasure. We understand.
There is something about nature that must remain hidden to us, something we can never fully understand, but that we can nevertheless acknowledge. William Blake said it best when speaking of the Tyger:
Did He smile his work to see? Did He who made the lamb make thee?
We spend our last day at Sable Alley tracking a breeding herd of elephants. This is composed of mothers and their calves. Elephants lead complex and rich social lives. We track the herd to a water pan. They are drinking with their expressive trunks, which they also use to spray water liberally. The calves are playing around their mothers, going underneath them nonchalantly and wriggling on the ground. One by one they leave and disappear into the vegetation.
Ras takes a guess as to where they might be headed. We drive to a clearing and wait. We have been idle for 15 minutes. The sun is beginning to set, the smell of the wild sage is soothing. There, in the middle of the wilderness, things become clearer. The mysteries of nature are a gift to us. Some of them we can understand through science, some of them will remain closed. Either way, they will always be the everflowing source of wonderment and inspiration.
In the current state of affairs, we have an important role to play as observers. In fact, that we prevent the obliteration of Botswana’s treasures depends largely on our willingness to come and see, and to give value to something that is at times inapprehensible.
“You know?” I whisper to Sandy. “I don’t even mind if the elephants don’t come.”
We are happy.
I let go of my ambition, my eagerness for experience, I just become a consciousness in the vastness of the world. As if on cue, the elephants come into frame. They are grazing with their trunks as they walk. We follow them for a while and return to the camp as the night is falling. Tonight the darkness brings a different emotion: rest.
Today we are moving to the skybeds, deep into Khwai Private Reserve. These three-storeyed platforms provide a unique way to experience the wildlife, rising up from the bush, like observation posts for zoologists, but with a healthy dose of comforts. Before we head there, we are in for a treat.
Next to a water hole, there is a hide. At noon, male elephants are looking for a drink and a respite from the heat. Males lead lonely lives, yet they sometimes join bachelor groups. From our hide, we can see one such gathering in close proximity. We watch them splash, drink and wallow. The opportunity to observe these magnificent animals at play makes me realise that yes, there is cruelty and injustice in nature, yet the greater part of life is founded on cooperation and community.
We arrive at the skybeds when the sun is setting, just in time for a truly African tradition: the sundowner. We gather around the fire and sip gin and tonic. The reason why tonic water is so popular is that it contains quinine, which can be an aid against malaria. The gin is just for pleasure. I relax and enjoy the sunset over the lush vegetation. Tomorrow we are leaving the Okavango for the Kalahari.
In the last few days, I have experienced wildlife encounters in an intimate, meaningful way. I have been enthralled by the stories of the animals that live in Khwai. I have learned to value wildlife not in an abstract way, but in a manner that is life-or-death. Most importantly, I have come to realise that we can be a part of this. We do not have to be the conquerors nor the intruders that put every creature on edge. We can be an integral part of nature.
A safari rekindles in the traveller the sense of wonder, and it nurtures a deep appreciation for life. The importance of the safari cannot be understated anymore, it is no longer a quirk or simply an act of goodwill. The wild places of Africa are under constant threat. By going on a safari, you are helping to conserve them; you are helping local communities thrive in a way that is fair and sustainable. That is a value that will stay with you forever.
Above the skybeds, the stars put on a show of their own. The constellations and the galaxies revolve above your head, with their plethora of mythical animals. Beneath you, the lions roam through the camp, and the wilderness expands in every direction as far as the eye can see. From the correct vantage point, it becomes evident that there is a place for everything, even us.
Where to stay:
For the environmentally conscious traveller, Sable Alley Camp combines all the glamour of the golden age of the safari, with the sensitivity oriented towards conservation and responsible management of the land. For a truly intimate and close experience of the wildlife, an ideal honeymoon or couple getaway, the Skybeds are truly without equal.
What to do:
Game drives leave several times each day. In Khwai you can spot an enormous wealth of wildlife and the guides are happy to accommodate according to your interests. Wildlife photography is superb.
When to go:
Rains usually start around november, which might sound inconvenient, but that way you can experience the animals a bit fatter and sounder. For spectacular migrations and multitudinous congregations, March and April are very good months.