Viewed from above, an elephant is a curious sight. Longer and considerably heavier than the light aircraft I was flying in, each member of the herd was unperturbed by the fact that our descent onto the dirt airstrip was only a few tens of metres above their heads. In fact, the only one who was nervous was me: the plane in question sat five or six people, including the pilot.
There were only the two of us onboard. The frame rattled, the cabin was unpressurised, the engine sounded like a souped-up Nissan Micra, and I was in the co-pilot’s seat. The job of a bush pilot might sound thrilling, but you have to contend with the fact that the aircraft might as well be made of Meccano.
Safaris in Botswana are not for those with a fear of flying, and having breakfast before take-off is ill advised. Still, there is something incredibly exciting about buzzing across the Okavango Delta at a height level with the birds, low enough to pick out individual trees and larger animals, yet also with panoramic views of the sweeps of the rivers and occasional patches of trees blackened by lightning-strike fires. Camps in the delta region and neighbouring concessions are few and far between, and as road access is negligible, especially during the wet season, a short air hop from air strip to air strip is generally the only way in.
Arriving at Gomoti Plains Camp, a kudu blocked the way to my tent. The standoff was only momentary — he glared at me, snorted, then spooked and skittered away — but it was a reminder that in Botswana it’s animals, not people, who take centre stage.
Independent since 1966, Botswana has a human population of just over two million people in a territory considerably larger than Spain. The country is wealthy compared to its neighbours, thanks to well-managed exploitation of its diamond reserves, and agriculture and tourism also contribute significantly to the economy. The government has successfully pursued a low volume – high value tourism model, so although it’s a more expensive safari destination than the likes of Kenya and Tanzania, the cost is justified. There are typically no more than a dozen or so guests staying on any one reserve, the big game concentration is high and growing all the time, and the quality of the camps and lodges is second to none.
I travelled to Gomoti Plains in the dry season, though there still seemed to be plenty of water around. Hippo bobbed up and down in the channel nicknamed the Hippo Highway, and buffalo came down to the water’s edge to drink. A waterway which never dries up cuts straight in front of the camp, so you can kayak pretty much from the door. With plenty of guides and very few guests, the day’s itinerary is supremely flexible.
My guide, Mott, and I set out by 4x4 late in the afternoon, once the heat of the day had subsided. There were just the two of us in the vehicle, zigzagging through grasses and scrub and fording an occasional stream or patch of marsh. Mott’s an affable character with a passion for birds, and also an uncanny ability to sense exactly where the best game sightings will be had.
Mott’s first major spot of the day was a fully grown male lion chilling out in the shade of a tree. The lion was clearly hot — and therefore somewhat lethargic — beneath his impressive Aslan-like mane, and he showed no signs of caring or moving and we inched closer and closer in the Land Cruiser. We stopped barely a vehicle’s length away and watched him for a quarter of an hour or so until he rose, stretched, and slunk away into the bushes behind.
All of Africa’s Big Five — lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, and rhino — live in the Okavango Delta, albeit in varying numbers. You can’t not see the elephant and buffalo herds; sightings of the other three are a matter of luck, combined with the tracking skills of your guide. It turned out to be our day.
There were many things I had hoped to see in Botswana and was delighted by: the giraffe, ostrich, and a pack of African wild dog to name but a few. But I was completely unprepared to see a rhino. The survival of rhino in the wild is such a bleak picture that it hadn’t even occurred to me we might just stumble upon one by accident.
Mott and I rounded a corner, chattering away. There in front of us, unmissable and unmistakable, was a large white rhino with both his horns. He was chewing away at a particularly tasty patch of grass, and didn’t even look up from his feed. I was concerned that the noise of the engine might startle him and drive him away, but it didn’t. We moved closer. Still the rhino didn’t move, save to reach forward and grab the next mouthful of grass. There was a lump in my throat.
A year ago there was just one white rhino in Gomoti Plains. Now there are 34. NGO Rhinos Without Borders is steadily relocating threatened populations from South Africa to Botswana where they know they will be safe.
Gomoti’s rhino are the latest arrivals; around 150 rhino have made the move in total. As the human population here is so much smaller, poaching is correspondingly lower, and poachers are easier to spot. The rhino also have their own designated defence force, SAS-style soldiers and rangers who are always armed and on watch, but remain hidden from view so that neither the rhino nor the tourists are disturbed.
I kept my eyes peeled, expecting to spot someone, but their camouflage must be very good indeed.