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: Okovanga Delta

Disaster in the Delta
Darren Shea

Disaster did not strike. In fact, he introduced himself. Disaster was the name, when translated from Swahili, of our boat pilot for a three-day adventure in to the wet wilderness of the Okovanga Delta, Botswana. It could have been worse. His name could have been 'Bound to Sink' or 'Attacked by Hippo'.

The delta is one of the best places in the world to explore and meet Africa's wildlife on foot and without the protection of a 4-wheel drive. The only way in is by dugout canoe. The journey took four hours as Disaster, using only a pole, expertly navigated us through meandering rivers before we arrived at our remote tent camp for the next two nights.

We had barely hammered in the last tent peg when fifty elephants emerged from the forest across the river to bathe. It was an awesome sight as they hosed their bodies clean and then rolled around in thick mud that made the shower seem redundant. As a kid I would try and do the same thing but it only gave my mother an excuse to hit me hard.

Our first up close and personal experience with the elephants was only the beginning. It was time to set out on foot and do some tracking. Our guide for this part of the trip was simply called Dave. After his initial talk of how we should conduct ourselves in this wild landscape - be quiet, wear neutral colours and stick together - he stormed off wearing a bright orange cap and shouted at us to get a move on.

Ten minutes later, the crunch of the hard earth below our feet was replaced with the loud but low rumble of a lion. Dave stopped, tilted his right ear to the sky, and listened intently. He told us that the lion was some distance away but we were now hot on its tail. I began to panic.
Glimpsing a lion in its natural habitat is all well and good from the confines and safety of a large metal car but on foot? I could not convince myself that lions were vegetarian.

One hour later, the lion noises had stopped and so did we. It was time to find a quiet bush for some relief. Whilst others searched for privacy behind inadequate pieces of scrub, I pressed my ear to the ground, as a tracker would, and pretended to listen for animals. A huge roar suddenly erupted behind us. My initial reaction was to run. For others, this was not an option as many still had their pants around their ankles. We were told the sensible thing to do is stay still but over a period of one second you find your mind says run while your legs freeze to the spot. One thing we all did was turn quickly to witness a huge male lion dart across the track we had just crossed. It was barely 50 metres from us.

My heart was pounding. Adrenaline was pumping rapidly through my veins. I wished that I had already emptied my bowels before the excitement. The lion must have just sat there watching us as we walked by. I then began to wonder who was hunting who. Dave said we were lucky. I didn't know if he meant because we had seen the lion close up or that we were alive. With hindsight we should have seen this incident as a sign to head back to the relative safety of camp, but we put one shaking leg in front of the other to search for more scary animals that possibly fancied us for lunch.

It did not take long.

Walking through a clearing Dave stopped and pointed towards to the thick swath of spiky Acacia trees ahead of us. I saw nothing but greenery until two huge white tusks, attached to a very big grey head, appeared above the trees. I longed for another toilet break. Dave whispered that the best course of action was to head in the complete opposite direction, towards the lion! It was not much of a choice but we all slowly turned and walked away.

The elephant did not follow and the lion was nowhere to be seen. We made it back to camp safe, alive and full of heroic tales of how we had all stared danger in the face and won. I then retired to my tent to make a note that I needed to make a will when I got home.

© Darren Shea November 2004
darrenshea at

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