It was a chilly start to the day, zooming along dead-straight tar roads to Botswana in an open jeep. Tamsin, who we picked up from The Sprayview Hotel, was my travelling companion for the day and we spent the entire trip there shrouded in blankets with our hair going haywire.
The border checkpoints were a non-event compared to the Middle Eastern experience I was used to, and we drove straight into the park on arrival.
Before long we were oohing and ahhing over some banded mongooses. Very excited we were at seeing our first exotic animal in the park, and we both took pictures. Next we came across two male impala which also excited us; it wasn’t till later we realised this was the equivalent of seeing rabbits, they were so common. We did sight several puku though, which are apparently very rare and only seen in three different locations, one being the Chobe riverfront. It was excitement plus from there on.
After seeing loads of elephant pooh on the roads the whole morning, we finally came across a whole herd washing themselves down a riverbank behind lots of foliage. We waited breathlessly for them to come up, and in our anxiety, took some unnecessarily average shots. They seemed so lazy and at ease down on the banks feeding themselves water, probably completely aware of our presence but not caring a jot. Eventually they began to amble up and poke their heads around big trees to peer at us. Such tiny eyes! Such loose baggy skin crimpling over surprisingly lanky legs! We were thrilled when we spied some babies toddling with the group: their trunks hung long and flaccid from their faces as thought they still hadn’t found their purpose in life, dangling thinly, but occasionally snuffling at something of interest. We lingered for over half an hour and took many photos.
We saw many other species over the course of the morning, including some fat glistening hippos stacked around on a distant riverbank.
We returned to the park entrance around noon and proceeded to pick up food for our river cruise. I was somewhat wary of ‘the cruise’ as I didn’t want to waste hours drinking and eating on some huge boat when there was so much to be seen in the parks around the roads. I needn’t have worried. Tamsin and I loaded ourselves onto a small motorboat, made to sit around four very comfortably, with an overhead awning. The cruise ended up being a repat of our morning drive except by water, and that we were so much closer, and that we had the most delicious and decadent lunch.
The elephants made our whole day. We sat in our boat quickly munching on ham and Brie, ready to grab our cameras with greasy fingers at any moment lest they should do something interesting. Through the olives, meat and cheeses, we watched three bull elephants posing (one paraded to show us how well-endowed he was and we were suitably boggle-eyed) and helping themselves to water and clumps of mud which they dug up using their feet and trunks in combination. While we sipped on fruit juices and mineral water they decided to cross the river, which provided us with another reason to buy shares in Kodak.
It was fascinating to watch the interplay of communication as the lead bull crossed the river with only his head and periscope up. The other two, clearly much younger and less experienced, anxiously trotted up and down the bank unable to commit themselves to the strongly flowing river. The bull called to them and rumbled encouragement, and eventually they nervously launched themselves. According to our guide, they had reason to be nervous, but not of the river. The other side is a different country in many respects. The war in Angola has seen the death of many elephants that wander into the wrong areas.
Taking off upstream we were up to munching on some luscious grapes when we started spying some hippos at close quarters. Both Tamsin and I were aware of the damage they are known for (not to mention that they are responsible for the greatest number of dead tourists) and were more comfortable seeing them from afar. This was also the case with a large shiny yellow-green croc sunning himself on the riverbank. Even our guide Kaiser said he wasn’t very comfortable getting close to him.
On another close encounter with hippos, when we were feeling a little braver, (and more desperate for close-ups) Kaiser decided to tell us about a guide who hadn’t seen a hippo which, after being practically run over, overturned the boat. The people on board managed to swim to safety but they didn’t find the guide until a few days later, rotting and decomposing in the water as a result of having been bitten in half by a hippo.
‘Well thanks for that Kaiser, I think we might just be moving along now!’ As a storyteller, Kaiser clearly hadn’t quite perfected the art of timing.
Having a flower fetish when it comes to photography, Kaiser kindly obliged me by trundling alongside several beds of waterlilies. We also saw papyrus growing wild, which I was pleased with, having seen none in Egypt and only a few cultivated examples at Kew.
It was only when we eventually made our way back that we began to notice minor details like sunburn.
On our way out of the park we came across some more banded mongooses. We laughed at our reactions compared to that morning. Kaiser must have rolled his eyes when he heard us rhapsodising, but we realised he probably experienced the same process every day.
The drive home was not so cold as the morning, but still required blankets. We spent most of the time chatting about our delight with the day, our future travel plans and much else besides; so engrossed were we that when our driver Conrad slowed the jeep to a halt we didn’t realise why until our gaze followed his pointing finger. Up on the road ahead was a giraffe stood stock still in the middle of the road watching us. We hastily made a dive for our camera equipment and then gave Conrad the okay to slowly approach. He slowly began to amble off the road but he thoughtfully looked back at us through some tree branches, giving us a framed shot from the shoulders up among the golden-green foliage in the toasty afternoon light. Being a considerate giraffe, he waited some time for us to snap our fill and then turned and sauntered off in a nonchalant manner. We still couldn’t believe it as we drove off to cover the last 40km to Victoria Falls.
The scary thing for me, is that this is just the very beginning of my whole trip. Perhaps I’ve still got time to call my stockbroker about those Kodak shares…