x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Botswana: songs of the Okavango

The Okavango Delta has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the African continent - perfect for a mobile safari through the bush.

Following sandy tracks in the Okavango bush. Andrew Eames for The National
Following sandy tracks in the Okavango bush. Andrew Eames for The National

Dawn in the Okavango Delta is a noisy affair. Outside the tent, the light hardens and the outlines of stunted mopane trees come into focus. The hippos down towards the waterfront have been bellyaching all night, but now the spurfowl join them, bickering under the bushes nearby. Vervet monkeys above in the rain tree add an argumentative descant, the cicadas start up their electric whine and a family of graceful impala scamper past, making rather indelicate grunting noises.

Talking of which, under the gazebo in the middle of our camp, our dining table has been laid for breakfast, which includes freshly-made porridge, scrambled eggs and toast. Guide Gareth is already there.

"Noisy, isn't it?" he says, with a nod to the bush. "I like to call it the 'Phew, I didn't get eaten in the night' dawn chorus." Reaching across for hot coffee, I mutter something about being grateful for that myself, although I don't feel ready to make a song and dance about it. After all, I don't want to attract the attention of some wandering lion when I've got a nice breakfast and he hasn't.

We're on a mobile safari in the southern African nation of Botswana, a giant country larger than Spain and nearly as big as France but with a total human population no greater than Hamburg or Birmingham. That makes it a nation where the wild things have an awful lot of freedom to roam, so it's not surprising that we, in our relatively remote camping spot, should be feeling a little vulnerable. But at least Gareth's got a gun.

While much of Botswana is an enormous sandpit - part of the Kalahari desert - it also hosts one of the highest concentrations of wildlife to be found anywhere in the African continent, thanks to a particular topographical anomaly; the Okavango. This is the world's largest inland river delta, creating a wetland area about the size of Wales, and its very existence is something of a miracle in a nation whose annual rainfall just seeps away into sand.

In fact the delta is fed by a river which starts in the mountains of Angola, two countries away to the north, so its water level has little to do with the local seasons. In Botswana, however, the river comes to a grinding halt amongst all that sand and it slowly evaporates - but not before it has provided the necessities of life to everything from the top predators to the tiniest termites.

And there we are, right in the middle of all of it, on our mobile safari.

This is a rather more adventurous variety of African journey. Unlike the more traditional flight-based lodge-hopping safaris, where the lodges are permanent structures often with electricity, DVD players and swimming pools, a mobile safari is self-contained, self-sustaining and can adjust its itinerary according to the seasons and the patterns of wildlife movement. Usually it is operated by two teams: first are the back-up staff, who go ahead and set up camp in a pre-designated location, creating a ring of tents, getting the home fires burning and preparing the meals. They are followed by the game drive vehicle, taking a more leisurely and circuitous route, depending on what there is to see.

This type of safari makes everything more accessible; the overall price to the customer is more reasonable because it avoids the high costs of flying everywhere and using luxury lodges; the wilderness is more accessible, with the flexibility of movement and without the need for such things as airstrips; and as for the wildlife, we had access to that - and it to us - 24 hours a day.

However this kind of safari relies much more heavily on the quality and the charisma of the guide, on whose shoulders rests the whole responsibility of keeping the clients safe, informed, fed, watered and entertained. And Gareth could certainly do all of the above; in our eyes, he was rapidly turning into a South African Crocodile Dundee.

We'd started in a game reserve within the Okavango system called the Moremi, where the first and overwhelming impression was of the devastation that too many elephants can wreak on mopane forest. Patrolling the banks of the River Khwai, we see a lion, herds of impala and curious giraffes. Gareth, who lets slip that he's actually a hunter outside the safari season, shows his versatility with a long dissertation on the architecture of a termite mound one moment and the next he's making a strong case for culling some of the elephants.

From the Moremi, we strike camp and head north, taking a quick diversion into a forest reserve next to Chobe National Park, where Gareth has the hunting rights. Everywhere there's more signs of elephant devastation and we see why he says the numbers need to be reduced. Gareth's clients (and he has guided everyone from Arab falconers to Princes William and Harry) pay handsomely for the privilege, and the elephant meat from those beasts he kills is welcomed by the villagers who eke out a living in the area.

It is clear, from what Gareth shows us, that hunting zones around the borders of national parks can make economic sense because they create a buffer zone that prevents the wildlife coming into conflict with settler efforts to raise crops and keep livestock. Hunting also produces revenue - clients will pay US$100,000 to $150,000 (Dh367,000 to Dh551,000) to shoot an elephant - that can be ploughed back into developing the local economy.

Despite protests from some wildlife campaigners, such hunting zones can also make a good contribution to conservation by preventing settlers from living right up by national park boundaries. As if to illustrate that argument, as soon as we cross back into Chobe we come across a whole pack of African wild dogs, their puppies in a dappled, piebald heap, chewing each other's ears in the heat of the midday sun. We count ourselves particularly lucky to have had this sighting, because wild dogs are the second-most threatened species on the continent despite the fact that, with a kill rate of 70 per cent, they are very successful predators. Their particular problem is they have not developed immunity to diseases carried by the settlers' dogs, with which come into contact around the perimeter of the park.

Beyond the dog encounter, much of that day's journeying, between one water source and another, is dusty, sandy and unforgiving, a desperate place to be if your vehicle breaks down. To keep us entertained Gareth demonstrates the correct techniques of sand driving, and tells us how the heat of the day causes the air to expand between each grain of sand, making the tracks treacherously soft.

All that changes as we approach the Savuti marsh, a massive area of waterlogged grassland that, like the Okavango, is also fed by rains that fall in far-away Angola. The marsh makes ideal wildlife-watching territory, with no trees or bushes to obscure the view. Instead, it is decorated with what look like stripes of paint, as maruma storks and pelicans jostle to eat baitfish on strips of open water. In the distance are huge, evenly spaced grazing buffalo herds, the freight trains of the plains. And closer at hand are dozens of warthogs.

Here, Gareth finds us troops of baboons, a pride of lions, a journey of giraffes and a dazzle of zebras. "How do you tell the difference between male and female zebras?" he jokes. "The male is black with white stripes. And the female white with black stripes." It took us a moment to realise he was having us on.

He also reinforces his superhero status by showing us how he can tell from the discolouration of a leopard's pawprint in sand that the leopard passed this way within the last couple of hours, and then by striding out into the marsh itself - never mind the crocodiles - to check its depth before driving through.

Eventually he pilots the vehicle right out into the middle of the marsh, where we sit surrounded by lilies, white-fronted whistling ducks, black-winged stilts, great white egrets and russet-winged jacanas, nicknamed the Jesus birds of Africa for their ability to look like they can walk on water. And there, while serving us a cup of hot tea, Gareth tells us how he once got into a tussle with a crocodile. As he shows us the scars, he adds quite casually that he'd had to stitch the wound himself, there and then, because he was a long way from any hospital. He was lucky not to lose his arm.

Frankly, if I'd heard this story on the first day of the safari, I wouldn't have believed him. But as he packed away the tea things and scattered the Jesus birds to go in search of lions, I felt quietly confident that, in his company, we would be joining in the "I didn't get eaten last night" dawn chorus, for some days to come.

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg cost from Dh3,810, including taxes. Return flights to Maun on Air Botswana (www.airbotswana.co.bw) cost from Dh1,594.

The safari

Mobile safaris organised by Pride of Africa (www.prideofafrica-safaris.com) come in different durations and feature itineraries. An 11-day safari costs from 25,981 pulas (Dh12,920) per person, based on two sharing, including all meals, accommodation, transport and game drives.