This would make a lovely honeymoon spot, I think as glittering reds and russets reflect on the swamp waters of the Okavango, Delta camp silhouetted against the cacophony of screeching cicadas and curdling call of a lone hyena. It is nothing like the luxury of today’s safari accommodation, but to my twenty-year-old eyes it depicts the pinnacle of romance. I am staying at Oddballs’.
Our camp consists of a bar roughly built around a tree trunk. I don’t remember other facilities. Perhaps a basic toilet, but by now we are used to taking a spade and digging a hole in the bush. ‘Not too far from the others’, we’ve been taught, to avoid becoming prey for hungry lions, ‘and keep a lookout for snakes’. It’s comforting to keep site of the wooden dug-out canoes near the bar. Though it’s the mosquitoes that attack us most at Oddballs’. We don’t have beds or nets, but simply roll out our sleeping bags and huddle beside the warmth of flickering embers from our mopani-wood fire.
It’s 5am and we’re clambering into Mokoros, sleep deprived from squandering our Pula on too many Castle lagers with the novelty of a ‘pub’. We’re a motley crew of international student researchers from Cape Town university and have travelled through South West Africa (now Namibia), along the Caprivi strip and into a remote area of Botswana. We are now on Chief’s Island.
My feet straddle the canoe, toes tingling as the cool water laps against my calves and feet, cleaning the ingrained dirt of barefoot travel. The rhythmic splash splash of the paddle lulls me into a vigilant silence as my eyes tune to the shadows, observant of each shivering reed, ears listening to rustles and snuffles on the land. My senses have never felt so alert and, originally dismissed as the city kid from England, the group are surprised at my occasional ability to spot carefully camouflaged animals. It’s me who spots the zebra that morning, but our guides who spot the lilac-breasted roller, hornbills, lechwe, then the long, log-like back of a nile crocodile.
I am nervous to stretch my legs on a mudbank and suppress my earlier desire to swim before we head off on foot through savannah towards a dense thicket. One of the guides bends repeatedly, lifting and releasing handfuls of dust to check direction of the wind. Sweat drips down my back and I look forward to the cool. But my pleasure is short-lived.
The guide is waving, gesturing for us to hide. My tree is narrow, but I stand, inert. A large grey mass is looming through the forest. We are so close I can almost feel the thick leathery wrinkles. An inquisitive trunk reaches high into the foliage, snaps a large branch and feeds the leaves into its mouth. It isn’t alone. We cower, mute, as a herd of giants amble through the bush, silent except for occasional crackles of splintering twigs. I desperately want to believe in their poor sight, and can only pray that the wind doesn’t change.
The lengthening shadows indicate we’ve been there a while. It’s only once I sense the rocking of the boat that I begin to exhale and feel the tension ease from my body. The familiar splash of paddles and bellowing bullfrogs serenade our safe return to camp.
The sky fills again with clashing colour, our fire barely visible against a cinnamon and golden syrup backdrop. We toast coconut marshmallows on the end of fallen twigs and huddle into our sleeping bags as the temperature drops. I opt for a space between two fellow campers, mulling the story from the barman about trampling hippos causing most deaths in Africa. But there is something about my fear that alerts my connection to life. I have never felt so expansive and present as I do now, lying under the stars listening to yelps from the bush.
Thirty-five years on, I sit in a suburban semi-detached house in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, this second lockdown in the middle of a British winter. Rain batters the windows and the skies loom even greyer as daylight dies at 4pm. Media promoting avoidance, distance, caution fuel societal anxiety and I wonder at the impact on the next generation living in fright of faces and touch.
I’ve read that Delta camp has a treehouse now. That would be my honeymoon dream. But it’s to Oddballs’ I’d love to go back after lockdown, this time with someone special, to share the intensity and sweat of midday heat on sun-kissed bodies, dirt-filthy feet, sweet scents of woodsmoke, lying on a mokoro dragging wooden cups and drinking water straight from the swamp.