Big sky in Botswana

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2005

MAUN, Botswana -- Everyone is kind in the bush.

In Botswana, the African sun pours from smiles. Somebody's wave is like a branch swaying in the wind.

Everyone is kind (I will see about the lions) except for the customs guy at the airport who won't let up.

"Why are you here?" he keeps asking, even when I tell him it's for a six-day safari.

My trip is run by CC Africa, I say. Camping in tents with a guide from this big tour company. Driving in safari vans to see the animals and to let them see me.

"No, no," he says. "Why are you here?"

Maybe he is asking me not logistics but life's Big Question. We could have tea and a talk. But at last, when I pull out my camera and a brochure picturing a giraffe, he nods. I get a stamp. I am allowed to pass.

I meet my safari group in Maun, a town with no more than three or four stores but with a large and multicolored herd of friendly goats.

This is my first time in Africa, and everything is a surprise. The goats. Our guide, Peter, who is not Botswanian but Swiss, and our safari van, a Toyota pickup with comfy seating, a canvas canopy, even a fridge bolted onto the bed.

Botswana, which sits in the middle of southern Africa, is big sky country, and the dry horizon seems to stretch on and on. Much of the land here is desert, including the famous Kalahari, but we will be camping in the Okavango River delta, which lures animals and makes the desert green.

We load up our gear, and Peter speeds us out of town along a dusty road. Bouncing around in back, besides me, are Wolfgang, from Vienna, and Andreas, a nervous German who has questions about birds, trees, African cigarettes -- everything we see.

Also in the tour group is Louise from Dublin, who spots our first impala, a suede-soft female who hops into the air when she sees us and disappears. And there is Anders, a middle-aged Dane who has the latest in safari khaki, a shiny new bowie knife, and a hunter's hat.

This is almost too cross-cultural for words.

Andreas is whistling as we drive deep into some scrubby woods. He is still whistling as we pull to a stop by a line of canvas tents and a table set with wooden bowls of snacks and glasses for wine.

Nxabega Okavango Safari Camp will be our home for the first two nights. This may be the bush, but CC Africa stewards do nearly everything. They cook and pour drinks, set up cots for sleeping, and clean up afterward.

"Any tsetse flies around here?" Anders asks warily, poking his head through the flap of the latrine. He doesn't look happy, but I am. Our stewards have somehow brought along and rigged up a porcelain toilet with water to pour in and flush. Luxury.

Showers will rain out of a bag that hangs on a tree branch, and in our tents is a selection of "African Grass" brand toiletries. Shampoo, conditioner, and gel. We've got it all.

Camp is shaded by a fat baobab tree, and as the light begins to die, we get a lecture on animals.

"Lions were here two days ago," says Peter, "but not a problem. We postponed dinner until they went away. Hyenas, the strongest jaws in nature. They'll be around looking for scraps as soon as it's dark."

We start detecting sounds.

Beep, beep, beep. (Peter tells us this is made by tiny frogs.)

Hoooomph. Hoooomph. Hoooomph. Hooooomph. (Hippos).

BreeEEEEEEeeeeeaaah-AAAMMMMPH. (Elephant!)

A campfire is crackling, and Andreas has stopped whistling.

"At night," he asks quietly, "will there be guards around camp? Don't we put up a fence?"

"Keep your tent zipper closed," says Peter. "You'll be fine."

Once I am tucked into canvas, I do not want to go out. Despite my three glasses of South African wine. Despite my Botswana-brewed "St. Louis" beer. "A satisfying blend of flavor and refreshment," boasted the can that I had crushed before turning in. Now I wish I had kept it.

Though the night is quiet, I think I hear a rustling in the leaves outside. I swing the beam of my flashlight and see nothing but the trunk of a tree.

I hear it again. It is crunching, not rustling.

Someone chewing on something brittle and hard.

Crunching or not, I've got to leave the tent. When I unzip the flap and edge outside, the chewing stops. I do what I have to do and grab my flashlight again and shoot the beam toward the fire.

Two mottled doglike shapes. Four electrified eyes.

I am back in the tent and zipped up before I take a breath. I lie there making sure my cot is squeakless and that I exhale gingerly. "Strongest jaws in nature," I think. Masticating. Swallowing. Probably wanting more.

It is dawn, and I am awake with my still-bright flashlight clutched in my hand.

"Yes, hyenas," says Peter blandly, when I ask. "They eat the chicken bones. The bones from the fire."

Suddenly there is shouting; there's a fanfare in the brush near Wolfgang's tent. A flappy ear pokes out. Now the wrinkled rear. Elephant. A big one.

. . .

Time for our game drive.

On each of our days of camping -- at Nxabega, Savute inside Chobe National Park, and Nantanga near the banks of the Chobe River -- we roar off in the Toyota at dawn.

The billboard on an ice cream machine we pass instructs us to "Get Ready to Assault Your Senses!"

We are ready.

Our lenses are out. Our shutters buzz and snap. Animals are everywhere, kicking up dust in herds, padding along alone between twisted shrubs.

No one ever told us zebras have tiny stripes on their tails and on their ears, and that their mane has stripes, too. "Yes," says Andreas, "and I don't remember seeing this at the zoo." Buzz, snap. Buzz, snap.

No brochure has warned us that the humpbacked, chalk-gray wildebeest looks like a cave painting popped to life. Buzz, snap.

That crocodiles have a crossword-puzzle pattern stamped on their backs. Buzz, snap.

Or that a leopard blends in slinkily, sneakily, in a forest dappled with dots of sun. Buzz, snap. Buzz, snap.

There is only one important animal, we think, that is missing. One that we have not seen or buzzed or snapped.

It is the one, says Anders, for which you come to Africa.

. . .

Lion, lion, lion, lion, lion.

I am saying this to myself, as if it's a chant. As if it's a prayer.

Lion, lion, lion, lion, lion.

It is our final Botswana day. We push off on a boat trip on the Chobe River, and there are baboons, and buffalo, and an elephant rumbling down a hill to drink.

We've got it all. The day is white hot. A monkey scampers beside us when we load up the truck and long-jumps in. We want him to ride with us to the airstrip. We've got it all.

Except for the one.

It is Wolfgang who, in our last half-hour, notices the shapes.

Low and lazy.

Swayback shapes that are resting. Now they're rolling in a field of grass. These are females, we know. And here's a round-bellied male stretched out asleep beneath a tree.

"Lion," whispers Louise.

There is a glow behind them that shows us each whisker, that somehow picks out the light in strands of fur.

Andreas lets out his whistle, soft and long.

Why are you here? I say to myself, remembering the man at customs. I want to see him again. I want to answer his question, once and for all.

Why did I come to Botswana?

Now I know.

Peter Mandel is a writer in Providence. His children's books include "Planes at the Airport" and "Boats on the River" (both Scholastic).

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