It was still pitch-black outside when I heard the ring of my iPhone alarm go off, signaling that it was time to crawl out of my cozy warm bed to get dressed before my morning tea arrived. My iPhone screen showed it was just 5:30 a.m. – a god-awful time to be waking up while on vacation, but that’s how a safari vacation works. Animals are the most active in the early morning and at night, so you must be an early bird to make the most of the safari experience.
This morning would be a bush walk on Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta, so I skipped showering and just slipped on a fresh set of clothes and washed my face before I heard the call of someone outside my tent, bringing me hot tea to kickstart the morning. About 15 minutes later, I peeked outside of my tent and saw that it was just light enough outside for me to venture to the main reception area on my own – because animals like elephants and hippos can come through camp at any time, we were required to be escorted to and from our tents in the dark. But with the sun just starting to rise in the distance, I could safely go on my own.
After a very light breakfast, we hopped in a motorboat to take us to Chief’s Island to start our bush walk, spotting a nice herd of elephants along the way. The bush walk itself was a little nerve-wracking since we were just walking through the bush without much of a path and animals could be anywhere. Since two National Geographic explorers had recently been charged and stabbed by a buffalo, I was particularly nervous about running into that least attractive member of the Big Five.
Not long after we started the walk, we spotted elephants in the distance. And then suddenly, they weren’t so far away. And then, one was almost right in front of us, heading in our direction! Our guide, who was not carrying a gun, was carrying some noise-making device and used that to scare the elephant away – but not until after urgently whispering to the rest of us to get behind him and walk slowly backwards away from the elephant. I don’t think we were ever really in danger, but my heart certainly skipped a few beats!
During our three-hour walk, we also saw zebra, wildebeest, impala and baboons – all from a good distance, with no more close encounters!
We returned to the camp around 11 a.m. and had brunch/early lunch and then enjoyed a few hours of downtime before afternoon tea and another boat excursion. I took advantage of the sun popping out (it overcast throughout our walk) to take a shower in the outdoor shower attached to my tent. And then I spent a couple hours sitting on the deck outside my tent, reading and staring out at the bush. It was so incredibly peaceful and so nice to get away from everything for a while (have I mentioned I did not have internet access?).
Our boat excursion that evening took us in the opposite direction from where we had gone previously. Not that I really knew where we were going anyway – the Okavango Delta is like a never-ending swamp with no road access and just a whole maze of “rivers” and tributaries and streams that weave around dozens of islands. Because our close call with the elephant that morning wasn’t enough, we had a close encounter with a hippo during this boat trip. We spotted three hippos not far from the boat and as we were stopping for photos, one of the three dipped all the way under the water and seemed to be swimming toward us. Almost as soon as he did, our guide instructed us, “you take pictures, then we leave fast.”
And that’s exactly what we did.
As the sun started to set, we stopped on a small island for a “sundowner” – a fancy word for enjoying a drink as the sun goes down – and then it was back to camp for dinner and another early bedtime. Although I was in bed by 9:30, though, I laid awake for hours listening to the sound of an elephant splashing around in the marsh not far from my tent. I learned the next morning that it was right next to the tent just down from mine and they could feel their tent shaking throughout the night!
The next morning was another bush walk with plenty of zebra, wildebeest and impala sightings, as well as an elephant and a buffalo from the boat on the way back to camp. After brunch, we had the option to do another boat ride during the afternoon – kind of unusual as normally afternoons on safari are rest time, but of course I said yes. After a quick stop back for tea time, we headed out once more, this time in dugout canoes called mokoros. As we departed, I commented to our guide that I still hadn’t seen a giraffe. Well, ask and you shall receive!
Our guide had been with a different group in the morning and had spotted a group of giraffes. He managed to spot a couple near the same spot as we were in our mokoros. No one else saw them and we were confused when he pulled up on a riverbank and told us to get out of the boats. But after walking just a few feet, we spotted the first one, and then as we walked further, could see a couple more! They were so beautiful.
I had one more morning before I was scheduled to fly out to Maun and that was spent on yet another bush walk. And within minutes, we spotted another family of giraffes. I was so thrilled! We followed them for what seemed like an hour and as the sun slowly rose, the lighting was perfect for giraffe photography.
After we finally left the giraffes (or really, they left us), we continued the walk and almost immediately spotted a big pile of buffalo poo. This freaked me out because of the recent incident with the NatGeo explorers and it is known to be one of the most dangerous animals to encounter in the wild. After our guide pointed out some buffalo tracks heading in one direction, I was quite relieved that we headed the other way. My fears rose again, though, as we made our way back to our boat at the end of the walk. The guide stopped after hearing some rustling in the trees to the left of us and quietly muttered, “buffalo.” As soon as he did, I picked up my pace and wanted nothing more to return to the boat!
By mid-morning, we were back at the camp and I was taking a quick shower before transferring to the airstrip for my flight to Maun. From there, I would connect to Cape Town and start what would be more than two full weeks in South Africa. But it was safe to say I was already hooked on the safari experience!