Odyssey in the Okavango
Flying into Maun, Botswana, over endless tree-speckled land, I can’t help but notice just how flat it is. Like, Arkansas flat. There are little light-catching tin houses dwarfed by birds with wingspans meters wide, soaring between cotton ball clouds. It’s hard to settle on the horizon, for it appears like a mirage in never-ending strips of blue and green.
This is the jumping-off point for the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s most prolific wildlife habitats and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And for me, jumping off means boarding yet another plane, this one teeny tiny and up in the sky for just 15 beautiful minutes. From up there the landscape is still glaringly lacking elevation, but with plenty of rich texture adding visual interest. Rivers snake, glistening, through plush green carpets of foliage, while ponds and water holes reflect the pale blue sky’s every whimsical wisp and puff. Like a homemade diorama, round huts come into focus surrounded by what look like drips and globs of paint, spiderwebs of pale tan sand threading through—animal highways, I recognize after a second.
Obviously no animal is going thirsty or hungry here, I think to myself as we cruise to a landing, grazing gemsbok coming into focus alongside clumps of palm trees and termite mounds that, if I didn’t know better, I’d mistake for drip sandcastles.
Duke, a sturdy Motswana (the word for a person from Botswana; a group is Batswana) guide with sleepy eyes and a strong handshake, fetches me in an open-sided safari vehicle from Chitabe Camp, where I’m staying a few blissful nights. I know we’ll get along once he suggests starting the safari drive immediately, skipping check-in and afternoon tea. “We have everything that nature can offer,” Duke tells me of the Delta as we roll off under intensely blue skies to see if we’ll get lucky—that is, see all the predators in a day. “It’s all up to Mother Nature to decide what to show us.”
Rhinoceros were reintroduced here a year ago, so even they can be found among the lions, cheetah, leopard, buffalo, hyena, wild dogs, elephants, giraffes, zebra, wildebeests, and half a dozen other antelope. My ears perk up when he says it’s baby season. According to Duke, many animals give birth around now—January, in the middle of the low period from November to April—because the rainy season provides plenty of water, food and better cover from predators.
This private concession of 28,000 acres is indeed thrumming with life. An impala stops in our path and does his business—a true welcome to the bush. “Vultures invite themselves to a kill like unwanted guests at a wedding,” Duke is telling me of the original party crashers he’d spotted, circling. These ugly birds are usually harbingers of something dead and, fortunately for me, this is no false alarm.
Just 15 minutes after landing we drive right up to a leopard! An absolutely massive dominant male at that, fattened by the recent meal his body is working so hard to digest as he lays half conscious, belly and entire torso, really, heaving, stretching out the black rosettes on his velvety white stomach. His enormous furry paws—theirs are retractable claws—are clean and surprisingly cute. “I saw you were lucky, your face was shining,” Duke beams, thrilled to have given me such an impeccable welcome. Leopards are solitary and extremely well camouflaged, so finding one is far from a given.
I’m fairly certain we made eye contact—like an adrenaline injection straight to my veins. But, according to Duke, leopards can’t discern individuals in the vehicle, only one very large shape since their eyesight is not the best during the day. For his inauguration, Duke tells me, a chief must wear a leopard or lion skin, signaling that he is confident like a cat, a good leader and a neutral mediator. “You have to be brave.” For that reason, leopards have been hunted quite a bit over time. Now, he says, skins are passed from father to son to protect the species.
It turns out I am lucky. After a couple-minute interlude in the form of a mongoose, duck and African ibis, we come upon two very dead buffalo that likely clock in around 800 pounds each, looking almost comically like plasticine props on a Hollywood film set. In the wild, I’ve noticed, a creature looks fake the instant it’s killed, its energy or spirit—whatever you believe—seemingly exiting the corpse swiftly and leaving a cold imposter behind. The unmissable melody of deep, rapid, labored panting interrupts that thought, however.
The culprits, two large male lions, their majestic black manes mashed and tousled into enviable bed head, are sprawled out beneath low trees. These are proper kings of the jungle, their bellies distended with proof. “They’re being greedy with two buffalo,” says Duke, “but with temperatures rising and global warming hitting, you never know when is gonna be your next meal.”
Before reaching Chitabe we see more of the approximately 500 bird species in the Delta—including my favorite, the lilac-breasted roller, resplendent in all the colors of the rainbow—and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it giraffe mating exercise that goes on for days, split-second mounting alternating with bouts of quite impersonal, sly “flirting.” Let’s just say female giraffes are incredibly patient. (Further evidence of that: Their gestational period is 14 months!) There are gruesome marabou storks with fluffy peach necks; monkeys with impossibly long, slender tails; a warthog trotting across the savanna, and all-female herd of impalas and their babies, each one an exact replica of its neighbor. If there’s any variation in their brown ombré coats and large doe eyes, it’s imperceptible to me. They are truly like mannequins lined up in a shop window.
We find a pride of lions with a dozen cuddly cubs, the moms wearing stone-cold poker faces as they intently watch a dazzle of vulnerable zebra across the wide plain while the sun sets in a fiery display. (For the record, I’m ready to jump into the pile of playful pups, until I notice them sharpening their teeth and claws on sticks.) They’re looking for dinner—anyone unsuspecting, young, old, weak or wounded—and begin slowly dispersing, movements synchronized as they communicate through body language. As the zebras come closer, the lionesses flatten themselves behind lumps of earth; I’m on the edge of my seat as the sun sets and stage dims, the night making them invisible to me, more dangerous to their prey.
The pristine environment here is like nowhere else on earth, constantly in flux and comprising wetland, dry savanna, plains and woodland. Tectonic activity created this anomaly of a delta, or alluvial fan, where the water does not flow into a sea or ocean, but into the Kalahari Desert basin. The closest thing to mountains are ubiquitous termite mounds, which actually become islands when the savanna floods each year in June and July. For this, I’m told, they are the most important organism here. We think of termites as destroyers, but here they’re builders. There are no fences between concessions, and the approach to tourism is high cost, low yield, causing less environmental impact and damage than many African safari destinations.
Wilderness Safaris’ Chitabe is a perfect example of this edict, as it’s perfectly luxurious and built specifically to have zero impact on the land. A wooden boardwalk curves gracefully around a large sausage tree like an impala’s horns, connecting the tents and elevating guests above wildlife threats. A solar farm provides energy, and there’s no plastic to be found.
From this African idyll, each drive provides a lifetime’s worth of photo ops and discoveries. There are rainbows, and breakfasts beside hippos. A procession of 20 elephants parading by, trunks high in the air to smell us. Red and yellow–beaked saddle-billed storks eating flying termites like we throw popcorn into our mouths, and fantastical velvet ants the same dense pile and the color of a ripe tomato. Rambunctious young pups from a pack of African painted wolves 18-deep play fighting around a water hole, their perfect reflections jumping and scampering about with the slightest of ripples.
The beauty of safari is in these wildlife experiences, yes. But also its perfect lesson in impermanence, and the joy in it. Deltas are delicate eco-systems that are defined by constant change, and things are different minute to minute here. No day or mere moment can be replicated. A baby elephant is always cute, but with each sighting you’ll discover new behavior or notice another adorable detail. Being in the Delta is a reminder to appreciate—everything. Especially our vulnerability as humans. It’s living in the moment, because each one is fleeting, and special.
Like when we happen to be in the right place at the right time, meeting up with five guys from the rhino conservation unit who chaperone us while approaching, on foot, a pair of 4,500-pound beasts they’ve tracked. I don’t have time to think, I just follow, willing myself to stay calm as I move closer and closer to 9,000 pounds of wild animal mass armed with hacked-off horns—one conservation method used to undermine or deter poachers is to cut off their prized keratin signatures (they do regrow). Only bushes separate my inconsequential figure from these ancient and endangered dinosaurs of Africa, pacing as if to show off their size, strength and dominance.
I imagine I’m breathing as hard as that leopard as I capture a few frames, if only to later recall this thrill. Because it feels once in a lifetime, and it is. Yet there are so many more of these encounters on deck tomorrow.
Please stay tuned for part two—all about the time elephants made me cry—in the next issue, October 24.
“The public deserves the truth”
I heard these words the other night from the world’s foremost dolphin activist Ric O’Barry—formerly a trainer on the beloved ‘70s TV show Flipper—and they’ve stuck with me. They’re embedded as I struggle with the horrendously graphic footage I viewed in Louie Psihoyos’ Academy Award Best Documentary–winning film The Cove, under the stars at Drifter Surf in Bali, before Ric appeared for a Q&A.
Ric is in town, on my island home, working to rescue captive dolphins from chlorinated hotel pools and building the world’s first (the first—isn’t that crazy?) dolphin sanctuary. Some will transition out of the sea pen into the complete wild, eventually, while others, blinded by the chlorine or completely toothless thanks to a dolphinarium, will never again be capable of living free. The four bottlenose dolphins rescued from Lovina’s Melka Hotel are the first in the world to have been microchipped so we’ll know what happens to them next.
In The Cove, released a decade ago, we see Ric and Louie putting together an Ocean’s 11–style tactical team to expose the horrific bottlenose dolphin slaughters and trafficking in Taiji, Japan. Taiji fisherman use sound—as important to dolphins as sight is to us humans—to corral these beautiful creatures into a dead-end cove they close with a net and then, at about $200,000 a pop, sell to dolphinarium trainers. The rest are murdered. They get about $600 per animal for their meat, generally disguised as whale and sold to unsuspecting Japanese consumers who have no idea this kind of thing even occurs. Every year tens of thousands of dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji—still! Even after this film. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.
I sat aghast as Ric spoke after the film, in which he’s heroic and determined and brought tears to my eyes for revealing the devastating horror facing dolphins in this world. I felt especially heartbroken and uninformed. They have absolute power to make my day—let’s be honest, week—when I see them while surfing in LA or Malibu. And I see them almost every time I’m out. A glimpse of their glistening gray skin gliding through the water, their fin cutting through the surface, and my heart jumps inside my chest. I usually shriek, sometimes I paddle in their direction to get a closer look. Other times they swim just under my feet. I feel drawn to them, and oftentimes, so it seems, they are to me. When dozens, maybe hundreds, surrounded our Galapagos mega yacht, Ecoventura Theory, this summer, I rode the bow with them, lying my belly on the wood, head, shoulders and camera projecting over the front to witness their balletic liquid play.
I, like many other contemporaries of mine, have been to SeaWorld—I think I was about six years old. I’m sure I was delighted, I mean who wouldn’t be? Dolphins are absolutely spectacular. They’re talented, intelligent, emotional, fabulous and beautiful. We didn’t know better then, but we do now. When Ric said that China has recently opened 80 new dolphinariums, in response to its burgeoning—and not just burgeoning but exploding—middle class, I felt livid.
Ric knows every gruesome detail about how dolphins are treated at SeaWorld and dolphinariums on every continent—did you know in these environments they’re regularly fed antidepressants and ulcer medication because they’re so stressed? He’s been on the front lines trying to shut them down for decades. At almost 80 he’s not slowing down one bit.
Ric’s knowledge owes to the fact he started as a trainer. He switched sides abruptly when his favorite of the Flipper dolphins, Kathy, committed suicide in his arms. She looked him in the eye, he says, and stopped breathing. Ric defended this admittedly bold statement with a fact: Dolphins and whales don’t breathe automatically like us humans; theirs are conscious breaths, each time.
So what can be done? To start, never buy another ticket to a dolphin show again. Anywhere. “The dolphin show is nothing more than a spectacle of dominance,” said Ric the other night, “that only serves to perpetuate our insidious perspective of nature.” And encourage everyone you know to find cruelty free entertainment, too. There’s plenty of it. This multi-billion-dollar industry can and will crumble if we stop encouraging and demanding it.
After all, as Ric said, “the greatest way to make change is by example. And that’s what we have an opportunity to do.”
All words and photos belong to me, Kathryn Romeyn.
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