Beware the aroused Hippo
The hippopotamus, if disturbed while mating, is not a happy bunny. Sugar almost learned the hard way, surprising a pair in the act while fishing from his mokoro in Botswana's Okavango Delta. One reared up in front of him, the other bore down from behind.
For a horrible moment or two he thought his time had come but he managed to manoeuvre his canoe into the thick, long grass and the hippos quickly lost interest. Had one gone for him, it could have bitten him in two as easily as if he were a cocktail swizzle stick.
He related this tale as we glided across the inland delta in the brilliant light of early morning. It taught him, he said, to steer clear of the deeper channels, where hippos were more likely to be concealed. They copulate with the female submerged and holding her breath. But fortunately it appears sex in the morning is not their thing. We needed to cross several such channels, however. So I asked him apprehensively, when was the mating season? “Now”, he replied.
We were on our way to one of the many islands formed as the flooding Okavango River, which begins with torrential rain on Angola's Benguela Plateau, ends its journey months later as a shimmering network of rivers and lagoons in the Kalahari Basin, where most of it evaporates. Thus Okavango Delta is one of the few that do not empty into a sea or ocean. Native plants and animals synchronise their biological cycles with its floods. This year's water levels were among the highest in 25 years.
Sugar was our guide's Anglicised name, English being Botswana's official language. In Tswana it was Sukiri. He had been poling mokoros since he was seven, balancing at the rear like a gondolier. Traditionally, mokoros are dug outs, made using the whole trunk of a tree such as the mopane. But such trees can take 200 years to reach sufficient maturity and the government had been trying to discourage deforestation – so this one was fibreglass.
The delta is a place of intense beauty. Lilies dot its placid surfaces. Their pads support the chestnut and white African jacana which stalks delicately on feet which evolution has stretched to spread their weight, appearing to walk on water. Hence its alternative name – the Jesus bird. The eye is caught suddenly by a tiny malachite kingfisher, with scarlet bills and flashing blue plumage. Crocodiles slide furtively from view at our approach. Hippos, observed from a respectful distance, feed noisily, munching great bundles of grass.
Sunset is a sudden fire, quickly extinguished. We watched it from the waterside bar at Eagle Island before being escorted back to our “tent” by a staff member, in case a dangerous animal had slipped into the camp unnoticed. Tent was a loose description. It was an en suite thatched hut with a bed under a mosquito net, his and hers wash basins, air conditioning, a phone and a wooden balcony with loungers. This was not for those who feel camping should involve an element of hardship.
The lodge was one of three in Botswana run by luxury operator Belmond. To reach them we flew overnight to Johannesburg, spending a day there and a night at the tranquil and luxurious Westcliff Hotel, now a Four Seasons, and flying north next morning to the small delta gateway town of Maun. From there we reached our first stop by light aircraft. Savute Elephant Lodge, lies outside the delta on the enigmatic Savute Channel, which fills with water only once every 25 - 30 years or so. It was about due but during our visit but remained dust dry and the herds of huge elephants which give the camp its name gathered instead at artificial waterholes. On an afternoon game drive a keen eyed fellow traveller noticed lion tracks and after a long search our guide found us a big male, lazing beneath a bush about 50 metres away. But male lions are the animal equivalents of couch potatoes and this one wass true to form. We hung around silently for maybe ten minutes in fading light before he deigned to raise his great head, allowing us a proper sighting.
A short flight took us on to Khwai River Lodge, a camp on the edge of the delta. Sitting by the pool there with binoculars was enough alone wo make the stay worthwhile. A purple heron waited motionless for the flicker of fish. Red lechwe (antelopes) grazed on the flood plain and the inevitable hippos lumbered and snorted through the long grass just a few metres away.
Excursions with a guide known as KG and his dreadlocked trainee assistant Bob – after Marley, that is – proved deven more rewarding. Towards dusk we tracked down our first leopard, a female. slinking cooperatively close in the undergrowth with a cub. She seemed totally unfazed by our presence or the clicking of cameras.
Early next morning we were driven across a rackety wooden causeway into the Moremi Game Reserve, where we sight ed wild dogs stalking impala. “One of those impala is going to be someone's breakfast”, said KG, but they were too fleet of foot. They showed the dogs their black and white rump M markings – which guides called “bush McDonalds” - and pranced off among the trees and scrub. The dogs turned their attention to a group of lechwe but were frustrated again as their intended prey splashed into a small lagoon and stayed there, defying their reluctant pursuers to brave the crocodiles.
Days in camp began at 6am, with coffee and biscuits delivered to our tent. Then it was s a light breakfast at 6.30, of porridge, perhaps or the universal African staple, mealie meal, a game drive and a huge late morning brunch. Mornings were very chilly but by now it was hot and there were three hours or so to relax or swim before afternoon tea and another drive. Drinks after dark were served around a fire of mopane wood, which is so hard and heavy it will burn all night. Dinners, under a blaze of stars, were memorable. Besides delicious dishes such as sweet potato soup and Cape Malay chicken curry, we sampled warthog stew and crocodile tail.
Before each evening drive, evoking shades of mad dogs and Englishmen, we were invited to order sundowners. These were consumed later as we stood by the vehicle, watching two hippos scrapping in the river, KG poured an American lady tourist an enormous beaker of white wine. “Now”, he teold her, “you will see pinky elephants”.
This is a version of an article which appeared originally in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine