Call of the wild
'There were more than five. From all the roaring and grunting it sounded more like 10,' I say with David Attenborough-like confidence. It is my third day on safari, and a discussion about how many lions had wandered through camp the previous night doesn't seem incongruous ... especially considering the place is the aptly named Kings Pool in Botswana. It is 6am, the sun is slowly detaching itself from the horizon and I am about to embark on my second game drive. It turns out to be a good morning: zebra, giraffe, three lions sunbathing and a pack of wild dogs - Africa's most-endangered carnivore - gnawing on the bones of a recent kill of kudu, or African antelope.
After the concrete jungle of Hong Kong I am more than content with the morning's close encounters. But they turn out to be just the beginning. That evening we take to the jeep again - driven by knowledgeable guide Kabo, who confirms that 12 lions traipsed through camp the night before - and soon find ourselves in the path of a breeding herd of about 200 elephants. Those elephants we can't see we can clearly hear as they barge through the bush felling mopane trees (the tree's sweet bark is a favourite elephant snack). There is little doubt who is boss, but just to clarify matters a female elephant charges at us, her ears and trunk rearing in sync. I glance at Kabo, expecting him to slam the jeep into reverse and ferry us to safety. Instead he turns round and calmly informs us it was a mock charge, 'very different to the real thing ... you can tell by the ears'. I exhale for the first time in what seems like minutes, my white-knuckled hands still gripping the seat in front.
Gasping for a sundowner, we head to a river bank just a mock-charge from Namibia. The sunset alone would have been more than adequate entertainment, but this is Africa, where nothing - not even the gin and tonics - is done by halves. As the table is erected and the drinks poured, a troupe of curious baboons gathers to watch, soon joined by some nervous impalas, affectionately referred to as the McDonald's (fast food) of the bush. To my left, a lone, log-like crocodile rests on the bank and to my right a group of hippopotamuses snort. Strangely enough, I have already become so accustomed to being surrounded by wildlife my only concern is that my beer doesn't go flat while I am transfixed by the setting orange ball. On the return journey to camp Kabo spots a leopard, its eyes fixed on a herd of impala. And this is supposed to be quiet season in Botswana.
I started my safari in Zambia at the battery-boosting River Club. Nestled on the Zambezi River within easy reach of the stunning Victoria Falls, the River Club is the epitome of all things English ... its charming owner Peter Jones included. Not big on game, the River Club is huge on hospitality. It can arrange white-water rafting, abseiling or perhaps a bungee jump off the impressive 111-metre bridge over the falls. For those who are more chill-seeker than thrill-seeker, a soak in the outdoor, claw-footed bath, with its views across the Zambezi, is the perfect way to end a hectic safari.
From there I boarded a Cessna - my main mode of transport for the next week - for Kings Pool, followed by two more camps also run by Wilderness Safari. Xigera is in the pristine Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world, covering 15,000 square kilometres. Xigera is an ideal camp for bird lovers and the perfect place to put your feet up between game-drive camps. Whether you spend your time on a traditional mokoro dugout canoe ride or relax on your balcony, you come away with no doubt as to why it is nicknamed Little Paradise by industry insiders.
Next port of call: Duba Plains, one of the delta's most remote camps, one famous for its lion and buffalo interaction. Although I didn't witness a kill I did see something equally satisfying: six lionesses basking in the sun while their 15 cubs frolicked nearby.
The camps are remote - there are no ATMs, not even a mobile-phone signal - yet each has attained a level of luxury normally associated with multi-star hotels (instead of star ratings they have 'paw' ratings). Each camp also forces you to rethink your definition of 'tent'. These structures are decked out with heavy wooden furniture, crisp white bedlinen, flushing toilets and indoor and outdoor showers.
Life unfolds at the camps with precision. Wake-up call is at 5.30am with time for a light breakfast before four hours of animal-spotting. After such an extended period of staring into the distance for a glimpse of wildlife, giant termite mounds and dead trees morph into animals and you'll be pointing out 'lion logs' to your companions. Consequently, the bigger the camera zoom and binoculars the better. Everyone regroups for a hearty brunch at about 11am, when tales are swapped. After that it's siesta time or an opportunity to read or swim in the pool. At 4pm, drums reverberate around the bush signalling afternoon tea. After a slice of cheese cake, pie or some fruit salad, it's back in the jeep for another drive, punctuated by a sunset drink, before heading back to base for aperitifs and fine dining.
While most safari-goers have sightings of the Big Five (elephant, leopard, rhinoceros, lion, water buffalo) at the top of their check list, it's important to look beyond all creatures great and appreciate the small: the tiny, white reed frogs cleverly concealed in the Xigera waterways; the brightly coloured birds that make you reassess your anorak-wearing image of ornithologists; and the strange fruit of the
sausage tree, which, as Vasco the guide at Duba Plains informed us, was being commercially tapped as a possible treatment for skin cancer.
And in the true unpredictable nature of nature, some days will serve a feast of wildlife while others will be a famine. Game sightings in the Okavango Delta are dependent on the time of year, which camp you visit, water levels and most of all luck. I visited a few weeks ago and the land was surpris-ingly lush after heavy rain. It was hard to imagine the same landscape parched and dusty in November and December.
An African safari is widely considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But be warned: it is highly addictive and during the flight home you might find yourself planning to return.
Kylie Knott travelled to Zambia and Botswana courtesy of Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) and its partner in Hong Kong, Asia To Africa Safaris (tel: 2547 9863; www.atoasafaris.com), the only company in Asia specialising in safaris to Africa. She stayed at the River Club in Zambia near Victoria Falls, and in Botswana at Kings Pool in the Linyanti wildlife reserve, and Xigera and Duba Plains in the Okavango Delta. South African Airways and Cathay Pacific fly to and from Johannesburg daily.