African Safari – Part Eleven
[If you’d like to read earlier posts in this series, please click on “Contents” at the top.]
Although we left Linyati with misted eyes, as much from the sadness of departing, as from the dense dust storm that blanketed us as we drove to the airstrip, once we were above the swirling blackness we were birds migrating to an oasis.
From above, the terrain looked as if we’d detoured from desert to tropics. Towering palm trees, clumped fan palms and other vegetation covered islands set into water that reflected the bright sky like shards of broken mirrors. We seven — Arleen, Arden, Marilyn, Peter, Bruce, my Peter and I — had all read the pre-trip information but none of us were prepared for what was waiting. We gasped collectively at the view as we landed on another tiny airstrip pasted across the mosaic of greens and blues.
A motorboat waited to whisk us through papyrus-lined channels to our next camp, Jacana. Named after one of the most common birds in the Okavango Delta, Jacanas are also called Jesus birds or lily trotters because their very long toes make them look as if they walk on water. Peter decided he should call me Lily since the Jacana and I have similar physical traits. He thought he was so funny.
The six-thousand square mile Okavango Delta, third largest inland delta in the world, looks like a giant bird’s foot spread across Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. In January, summer rains fill Angola’s Kubango River which flows a thousand miles southward. By July and August, Botswana’s winter, the delta is water-filled and lush. Since there is no outlet, the water remains, the birds return, fish that burrowed into the mud the previous year revive, and migrating herds of large animals come back.
Our mid-September visit was the last by boat for the year. The water was evaporating rapidly. (There are two weeks between safaris when the water isn’t deep enough for boat travel and the ground is too water-logged for wheeled vehicles.) We toured in fiberglass replicas of native mokoros — canoes hollowed out of tree trunks — instead of in Range Rovers.
Resident elephants on the little island were named Jack, little Jackson, and Spike. We never saw them but we heard them rustling in the bush like large, ghostly watchdogs. Odd that, because once males leave the matriarchal herd they live alone, yet these three palled around together, peacefully so far as anyone knew.
Peter and I were assigned to Cisco’s mokoro. He poled us effortlessly, or so it seemed. When he spotted a rare Pell owl swooping above us, he zipped us across the expanse of water as if we had wings too, and he maneuvered us close enough to see the bird perched in a tree. Minutes later he spotted two tsonga, extremely fast shy antelopes, as they dashed in front of us like hummingbirds with jets.
Massive Baobab trees dominate the area. They top out at one hundred feet and can store up to twelve hundred gallons of water that natives tap during a drought. In “Lion King,” Disney dubbed them “trees of life” because of their many uses — water storage, healthful fruits, rope made from the bark, oil for cosmetics.There are homes in some, and in one instance, a jail.
Cisco made me a necklace out of lily pad stems before we cast off the next morning. “Now, Mma,” he said with a grin, “we are betrothed.” Another guide made himself a sun hat with a lilypad leaf shaped into a cone. The flower and stem held it together, probably with a little spit and a dash of magic added.
We were gliding along the waterways when Russell abruptly signaled a stop and pointed to the island on our left. We could hear brush being trampled. Soon, a large female elephant poked her head out, flapped her ears, and trumpeted.
We floated, quiet, on the still water.
Another few minutes and she popped her head out again. I thought of ball toss games in amusement parks: “Step right up, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Hit the elephant and git yer toy.”
Our cameras were ready.
Then she blared another warning. Russell put his finger to his lips and whispered that we’d move further along, then stop and watch. It wasn’t long before she burst out of the trees as if from behind a theater curtain and splashed to the opposite side with a youngster on her tail.
The scene was so perfect, the action so well played, that we could almost believe that Russell had staged it just for us!