The Skies of Africa, Part 1: Nxabega

How is everyone doing? Interesting times, and it can take some determination to block out most of the media frenzy so that it doesn’t rub off on you. I love this article by Smarter Travel, Tips from Italians on Handling the Lockdown with Grace and Style — lots of things that made me smile.

I’m always up for a little escapism when I’m stressed, and a recent email from one of the safari companies we’ve travelled with gave me the idea for this extended blog post.

Going to the continent of Africa is a transcendent experience – a visitor will come back changed. It’s believed that Africa affects us so deeply because, going back hundreds of thousands of years, it’s where all of us – our species as human beings – originated. There’s certainly a feeling of great age there.

My hubby and I have been very fortunate to have been to Africa several times, so over several weeks I’m going to take you on a virtual journey to beautiful Botswana in southern Africa.

These are long reads, so get comfy.

First, prepare yourself some tea or coffee – preferably served in a metal cup, stainless steel or speckle ware, such as you might use on a camping adventure – and a plate of cookies (any kind will do, but feel free to have an exotic flavour if you like). If you need to eat gluten-free food, on one of the safaris the camp chef made us delightful gluten-free corn muffins. If you can’t have caffeine, get yourself some Rooibos tea, a hearty herbal tea that we enjoyed on our first safari.

Next, if you have an old-fashioned oil or kerosene lamp, light that up for atmosphere, and imagine yourself in the orange and lavender African dusk as we journey together.

Getting to Botswana is an adventure in itself. We flew from Canada to London, England, then 11 hours to Johannesburg, South Africa, then a smaller jet to Maun in Botswana, where our safari guides met us and loaded our baggage onto small bush planes with propellers. There’s not much room on the bush planes, so your luggage must be compact, soft-sided and lightweight. My hubby bought a duffle bag for the purpose, but I found a great backpack-style bag with lots of pockets and a small set of wheels. When I’m getting up at the crack of dawn deep in the African bush and trying to dress myself in near-darkness, I want to be able to locate the various parts of my outfit!

As we chugged along just 1,000 feet above the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s famous wetland and the location of our first bush camp, we could see small bits of island dotting the vast shallow floodplain. Our guides pointed out channels made through the swampy waters between some of the islands, made by elephants and hippos as they wade through and graze on the water plants.

The Delta is created by waters from the Okavango River, which, instead of emptying into the ocean, dumps itself into the northern part of the Kalahari Desert, creating one of the largest wetlands in the world. The deep blue waters are always there, although they swell and shrink from one rainy season to the next, so the Delta is the permanent home for all kinds of wildlife. If you’re a birder, it’s an absolute paradise!

The flight to our first bush camp lasted about half an hour, and then we were coming in for a landing on a tiny strip of sand in the middle of nowhere – the bush airstrip used by several camps and lodges. Our baggage was transferred into a couple of waiting open-sided safari trucks, into which we all piled in for the roughly 90-minute ride through the bush to our camp.

The first thing you notice in the Delta is the salty, pungent scent of wild sage in the warm air. The landscape is filled with sage bushes, tall and short palm trees, and high slender termite mounds studding the deep sandy  Kalahari base. The mounds are the genesis of the islands themselves, as termites start gluing together soil above the waters, and seeds germinate on the fertile exterior.

The few roads wind through the Delta, skirting trees, tall mounds and shrubbery – they’re meant to be minimally invasive – and we rode along with all of our senses engaged as the trucks bounced along the deep sandy surfaces, drawing our breaths in as we began to see wildlife! Your first sighting in Africa is typically a herd of impalas, the antelopes with the buff coats, pretty ears and striped rumps. These antelopes are so successful a species that, despite being the favourite prey of the big cats, they can be found on much of the continent. The first time we went, we were delighted to see them all, until after a few days and many sightings later, someone would say excitedly, “Look, over there, I see some…oh, it’s just more impalas.”

Safaris through the wettest part of the Delta often involve crossing from one island to the next. Sometimes there are log bridges, sometimes your safari truck will just wade directly through the waters.

The vehicles are specially designed with exhaust pipes that snorkel upward above the hood to keep them dry. It can feel a bit like the parting of the Red Sea – on one game drive I was sitting up front next to our guide and had to quickly raise my feet above the water that came rushing into my seating area (thankfully not as high as my seat itself).

After going on safari, driving back home isn’t nearly as much fun!

When we finally arrived at our bush camp in the Nxabega section of the Delta, the camp staff all came over to welcome us, show us to our assigned tents, and lead us gratefully to a delicious lunch. Here the camp is set up overlooking the permanent floodplain in the Delta, set more-or-less safely back from the water (one morning the meal table had to be hastily moved).

The tents are a wonderful combination of comfort and exposure to nature. On our first trip to Botswana we were in 9′ x 9′ dome tents with just our 2 comfortable cots, but the same safari two years later featured three-part tents with a large sleeping section, a middle section open to the sky so that a canvas bucket could be hung overhead for our showers along with a table with a metal sink and water pitcher, and an enclosed toilet section with a flushable toilet connected to a canvas cistern outside at the rear.

After lunch and a bathroom break, we had a chance to explore the camp and settle in for the next two days.

We had embarked on what’s called a mobile camping safari, spending two nights in each of four camps in different habitats in Botswana.

Safaris typically follow a format created by the earliest commercial safaris:

  • Rising at dawn for a full or continental breakfast and then heading out on a morning game drive in the cool of the day when the animals wake up and are active
  • Mid-morning break for tea/coffee and biscuits in the bush
  • Return to the camp around lunchtime. The day has usually gotten hot by this point, so the animals are often hiding in the shade, so it’s an opportune time to enjoy lunch and relax in the camp, perhaps writing in your journal or playing cards with a gin and tonic.
  • Afternoon tea, a holdover from the early British days of safari, followed by
  • A late afternoon game drive when the temperature is dropping again and predators are often out on the hunt
  • Return to camp at dusk for showers and dinner around the campfire.

The camp chefs are expert at creating some amazing meals over a wood fire – even cakes are possible. Wine and beer are generally included on safari, while hard liquors can be arranged. Some passengers will bring their own supply; Johannesburg airport won’t sell liquor to non-nationals, but Maun has a “bottle store” (aka liquor store) and you can arrange with your guide to make a quick excursion when you land.

After dinner we sat around the table with our guides, chatting, listening to the tinkling sounds of tree frogs and fruit bats all around us, watching the sky turn indigo and purple, then black, and all the stars coming out to twinkle overhead.

The campfire stayed lit all night, and lanterns were hanging outside our tent flap, to keep the animals away (mostly). After a busy day in the fresh African air, bedtimes are generally early and well-earned.

Our first night as we lay in the tent, just some canvas and mesh separating us from the African wild, listening to all the night noises, we experienced such a thrill of excitement at being so immersed in that legendary continent.

With a permanent source of water, the Okavango Delta is a treasure-house of a wide variety of both land and water animals and birds. We saw elephant herds with babies, long-necked giraffe grazing in the tops of the thorn trees, troops of Chacma baboons rooting through the long grasses, zebra and tsesebe well-camouflaged in the shadows, saddle-billed storks…and lions.

The first sighting of a lion in the wild is sensational. We spotted this female lounging in the shade just a few feet off the road, watching us with her great, beautiful golden eyes. The animals seemed surprisingly relaxed around safari vehicles, but it’s essential to keep quiet and seated, especially around the big cats. Our guide told us that the animals see the vehicle and all its occupants as one big ‘animal’, but if the guests start making too much noise and moving around, the lions and leopards will recognize that there are several ‘prey’ inside and will attack.

This is the critical part of safety on safari: always do what your trained and experienced guide tells you to do. It will keep you alive – not that safaris are overly dangerous, but you can get yourself into trouble if you don’t follow the rules.

The guides are extremely knowledgeable about all the animals and how safely they can be approached, where the different animals like to hang out, how to read tracks in the sand and follow other clues (like a large concentration of vultures watching from a tree) to where a cat has just made a kill and is feeding.

One unique adventure in the Delta is a ride in a traditional canoe, called a mokoro. These canoes were the sole means of transport through the vast delta waterways for a long time. All of the guides on our safari were native to the area and had grown up poling a mokoro around the waters. In the cool morning air they drove us over to the muddy boarding area a short drive from our camp and helped us step carefully into the canoes. As they poled us out into the shallow floodplain, we glided silently and softly among the water grasses and sunlit lilies, slowing down to look at painted frogs, stick insects and exotic spiders on the stems of reeds, or watching monkeys cavort in distant palm trees.

For our morning tea break, our guides pulled into a small scrubby island and set up a table with thermoses and tins of cookies. Across the water, a big bull elephant waded up to another island and noisily tore up great chunks of grasses for his own breakfast.

There’s a section of the floodplain that’s deep enough to host hippos and crocodiles, and for that part we were taken out in a motorboat through avenues of papyrus and night lilies to watch the sun set in amber serenity over the still evening waters.

On our final morning in Nxabega, enroute to the little sandy airstrip to fly to our next camp, our guides spotted a lion hunt in progress and we stopped to watch.

It was an absolutely brilliant piece of strategy. A mother lioness (who happened to be collared as part of a wildlife study) prowled through the tall buff grasses, slowly but inexorably driving a young warthog toward the dirt mound that her daughter was perched on ready to pounce. When the warthog was close enough, in a flash the younger lioness had leapt and captured it. Then came the hardest part of the experience, hearing the heartrending cries of the little warthog, its own mother watching helplessly from a distance. This was nature in its most primal form, the cycle of life as one creature gave up its life to feed another – easy to recognize but difficult to witness.

After that piece of high drama in the grasses, we moved on to the airstrip to continue our adventure in a drier section of the Delta, the beautiful Khwai reserve in Moremi, on the other side of the floodplain.

Join me in two weeks for Part 2: Khwai. Next week we’ll embrace the playfulness of April Fool’s Day and look at the whimsy of board games, another great way to pass some of the time we currently have on our hands.

In the meantime, the excellent safari company that we used, &Beyond, has posted a playlist of African music that you can download from a selection of online music apps.

If you’d like to make an authentic African soup, here’s one of my favourite recipes, which I believe I got from an issue of Gourmet magazine many years ago (although I’m not positive). It’s quite easy to make in a couple of hours, and makes a good-sized pot of hearty, delicious soup that also freezes well. An important note: include all the fresh ingredients as stated (both colours of peppers, fresh garlic, etc.), or the soup will not taste as good. You can substitute water and some raw chicken thighs for 4 cups of the broth and the cooked chicken at the same time as the canned tomatoes – I prefer to do it that way instead of adding cooked chicken at the end. I also add extra chili flakes for a little more heat. If you’re vegetarian you could try substituting sweet potato for the chicken – I’ve never tried it that way but I think that might be an interesting flavour combo.

African Peanut Chicken Soup

serves 8 to 10

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 lg red pepper & 1 lg green pepper, each seeded and chopped into approx. ¾” chunks
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp peanut or canola oil
  • 28-oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • ¼  tsp. dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste 
  • ¼  tsp black pepper
  • ½  cup long-grain rice, uncooked
  • 1½  cups diced cooked chicken
  • 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

In heavy pot cook the onions, peppers and garlic in the oil over moderate heat, stirring, until the onions just begin to brown; add the tomatoes with the juice, the broth, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, and simmer the soup, covered, for 1 hour.

Add the rice and the chicken and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Add the peanut butter, stirring until the soup is smooth. Serve hot with biscuits, rolls or fresh bread. This soup can be doubled or tripled and also freezes well.