Camping in Botswana, in the middle of the African wilderness, suddenly seems like a really bad idea now that a lion stalks the perimeter of my tent. Pulling the blanket tightly over my ears I am desperate to block the sound of the slow and stealthy footsteps that lurk just metres from me. Meanwhile, in the tent next door, my guide snores loudly, totally oblivious to my distress.
Prior to travelling to Botswana I never knew that camping in a game reserve was an option, let alone a safe one. The survivalist in me assumed that accommodation on safari was limited to lodges and fenced campsites, and the thought of pitching a tent deep in the African wilderness seemed like a great idea if I wanted to get eaten by a lion, sniffed out by a pack of hyenas or trampled by an elephant.
The big bellied man behind the reservation desk roared with boisterous laughter when I asked with great concern, “But won’t a lion eat me?” Putting a hand on his belly to ease the jiggling, he assured me that I would be completely safe so long as I listened to the instructions of my guide at all times. Still feeling a little uneasy, my sister and I agreed to book ourselves on this so-called wilderness phenomenon known as a mobile camping safari.
"Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel like it might altogether be described as the existence of a person who had come from a rushed and noisy world, into a still country... So lovely as if the contemplation of it could itself be enough to make you happy all your life.” - Karen Blixen
We are introduced to our guide Moses and bush chef Rini. After shaking hands and exchanging a warm hello, my sister and I bundle into the rear of the open-back Toyota Land Cruiser. Khaki donned, seat belts clicked, camera unpacked and we are ready. Moses stands at the side of the car with a huge grin on his face, anticipating another amazing camping jaunt with a pair of city slickers.
We set off for Moremi Game Reserve, a 90-minute’ drive from the gateway town of Maun. Located in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Moremi is considered to be one of Africa’s most abundant wildlife sanctuaries. The mosaic of grasslands, forests, floodplains and lily lagoons give life to over 500 species of birds and wildlife such as elephants, buffalo, the endangered African wild dog and all the big cats. The endangered rhino has recently been reintroduced to Moremi, making it the only destination in Botswana where you can encounter the big five (rhino, lion, elephant, buffalo and leopard).
Bouncing and swerving, the Land Cruiser batters along the sandy 4×4 track throwing up streamers of dust as we go. Before long, Moses cuts the engine to point out a herd of elephants drinking at a waterhole. Scooping water up with their trunks, sensitive and aware of our presence, these gentle giants are chilled and relaxed. I watch with curiosity, as if they are celebrities dining at an A-list restaurant. “This is a bachelor party and these boys are out looking for ladies,” Moses tells us with a big smile.
Moses informs us that after being bullied out of a herd, male elephants have been known to form bachelor groups. Bachelor herds are brimming with testosterone and can often become aggressive, fighting with each other to determine who will dominate the group.
The rugged and sandy tracks of Moremi are overgrown in sections and poorly signposted, reserved only for experienced 4×4 drivers. Apart from joining a mobile camping safari, alternative ways to access the reserve includes flying into a private lodge/camp, joining a day tour from Maun or taking a scenic flight across the Botswana plains. For those who don’t mind becoming a carnivore’s tasty treat, there is also the 4×4 self-drive option.
“We are here girls,” Moses calls out as he parks the car in a small clearing in the middle of the bush. We’ve arrived at Xini Camp, a private campsite hidden deep within the Moremi Game Reserve where we will spend our first night in the wild. Swampy corridors and marshes dot the front of the site and dense green forest borders the other three sides.
As Moses and Rini pitch our tent, my sister and I gasp in horror at the croc-infested lily lagoons and well-trodden hippo trails just metres away. Looking at each other slightly amused, they both laugh and Rini cheerily chirps, “No stress in the bush, you girls are safe.”
A guided mobile camp is the most authentic and traditional way to explore Botswana. Tents are pitched in remote and quiet corridors of the bush, right in the middle of where the wild things roam, putting you smack bang in the heart of the action. Every couple of days tents are rolled up and taken to a new location, leaving behind no trace of your existence.
“You call this camping?” says my sister as we excitedly examine the spacious tent. Inside are bed rolls and thick mattresses, crisp sheets and soft blankets. A fluffy towel is folded on the bed and kerosene lanterns hang from tree branches around the campsite. “I feel so spoilt,” she says, popping open a frosty alcoholic apple cider.
At the back of our campsite things are a little simpler. Behind a sheet of African cloth sits the bush toilet – a wobbly toilet frame placed over a hand-dug hole overlooking the African bush. With all the howls, crackles and grunts coming from the surrounding bushland it certainly isn’t a place to sit and dwell.
After setting up camp we bundle into the Land Cruiser for a sunset game drive. Moses is determined to track the lion footprints clearly visible outside the campsite.
The wet season has just finished so the plains are swelled with water, giving life to this arid and harsh domain. We hang on for dear life as we speed through swampy marshes, drive past fragrant bursts of wild sage and bush bash our way across the remote and rugged savannah.
Rattling through a swampy pasture I spot a flock of birds that are busy pecking at what appears to be a cluster of half-submerged boulders. Abruptly, one of them moves. It’s a hippo and it yawns widely while flicking its tiny ears towards us.
"We are all children of Africa, and none of us is better or more important than the other. This is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind it what it is to be human.” - Alexander McCall Smith
Along the sandy shore crocs sun themselves with their ragged mouths open to help shed the afternoon heat, while on a nearby bank a column of golden sunlight beams down on a pair of giraffes gracefully munching on leaves.
We laugh at warthogs trotting off into the bushes with their tails pinned high. While impalas, tender and glossy-eyed, watch on as we slowly cruise by. As nightfall draws closer I can’t help but wonder about the fate of these creatures.
As the burning orange sun descends behind the grassy plains, a deafening silence falls as the shadows of predators start to lurk.
After devouring a plate of flame grilled fish washed down with a glass of sauvignon blanc, we star gaze and tell stories around the campfire before retiring to our decadent bedrolls for a night under canvas.
Shortly after falling asleep, I am abruptly awakened by crackling branches and a choir of grunting hippos impatiently tearing at leaves just metres from my head.
I hear another noise which appears to be more quiet, deliberate and stealthy. It is slowly pacing back and forth just outside the tent. I sit up quickly to get a better listen. Poking my sister in the ribs I ask, “Can you hear that?”
It’s a lion patrolling the grounds around our tent. Shuffling deeper into my bedroll I cover my ears with a blanket in an attempt to block out the noise. Rattled with nerves and too afraid to close my eyes, I distract myself by looking up at the night sky through the small gauze in the roof tent.
"You know you are truly alive when you're living amongst lions." - Karen Blixen
As the moon slowly drifts across the sky, a soothing column of moonlight settles over the tent bathing it in a peaceful and hushed silence.
Suddenly overcome with a deep sense of calmness and a long forgotten respect for these precious animals, I feel an ancient connection between me and these innocent creatures that linger so casually around me, living only in the moment as they are born to do. The link between them and me is undeniable and it seems that all my life I have been waiting to know just this moment.
Fly To Botswana: Botswana Airlines flies to Maun from Johannesburg daily, with connecting Qantas flights from most Australian capital cities.
Exploring: Moremi game reserve is best explored by mobile camping safari or staying in a fly-in/fly-out luxury camp and lodge. See www.unlimitedsafari.com