I am sitting by the Chobe River in Botswana staring at more elephants than I have seen before.
It is just before the sun goes down and I have joined 11 other visitors and two park rangers on a trip into Chobe National Park. As we drive over the crest of the hill that looks down to the vast, sprawling river — Namibia lies on the other side — a huge number of elephants of all sizes appear out of the hazy, dusky light. They come down to the river in the 4,500 square miles of national park to eat, drink and play. It’s a magnificent sight. On the banks, elephant calves are spurting water at each other. Adolescent males play in the mud at the side of the river, rolling around with sheer joy.
Yet there’s more to the river than the great grey mammals. Farther on, it turns in to the Zambezi and tumbles over the magnificent Victoria Falls, crashing down 108m (354ft) in the gorge that divides Zambia and Zimbabwe. We are heading there eventually but right now my companions and I are setting off on an evening boat trip down the huge river. We see crocodiles, hippos and many birds.
This is not the first time I have been to Botswana. I was here 30 years ago, aged 20, with my brother, Will, who was living and working in Lesotho. We hitched across parts of southern Africa and went all over Botswana, staying in cheap and generally cockroach-infested accommodation.
It was an Africa overland trip like no other and it has stayed with me for all these years. I have always wanted to come back. And now I have. Although I am doing the same trip, this time I am travelling on the final leg of a month-long tour organised by Saga.
It’s a new venture for Saga, which caters for people aged 50-plus and is generally thought of as running the sort of trips that are sedentary and tame. As I sit and look at my companions, most of whom are retired, I wonder how on earth I got old enough to go on a Saga holiday. I think of myself as young, active, almost pioneering.
It seems so far away from the usual type of trip I go on. I’ve never been on an organised tour. I’ve never been deposited in hotels and told what time to meet for dinner. I am, in short, a free spirit used to going wherever I want, whenever I want. Let’s face it, though, time has moved on. Maybe a bit of organisation and cool air in a hot country is not a bad idea.
We’re a funny bunch (the other 11 people are aged from 62 to 68) yet imbued with some sort of pioneering spirit. Most of my fellow travellers have been to Africa before. The trip isn’t five-star because it’s not meant to be but the bus is comfortable. I am not hitching lifts in rattle-trap vans and staying the night in dives; nor am I sitting in 100-degree heat trying to hitch a ride out of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. I am frankly relieved to be ferried from one place to the next, with our Zimbabwean guide, Gift, organising us and giving potted history lessons over dinner.
Sometimes everything works. Sometimes nothing works and no one seems to understand or mind
As we sit in our tour bus the others tell me of their travels. Joy and John have been around most of Africa, Graham explored the dark continent in an old army bus and Angie and Clive are setting off to Ethiopia in a few months’ time.
And it turns out that this trip couldn’t be less sedentary if it tried. The main reason for this is Africa itself. Here, life marches to the beat of a different drum. Sometimes everything works and you get to where you need to be at the time you are supposed to be there. Sometimes nothing works and no one seems to understand or mind, which can be frustrating.
In fact, the first day I get to Africa I miss my connecting flight from Johannesburg to Maun and spend the night sleeping at the airport. My luggage gets to Botswana a day before I do. Then, when I do manage to get a flight out, the small propeller plane develops a mechanical fault.
Eventually I get to Maun and am transported to the most magical place on earth, the Okavango Delta. The heat is still stifling, and this is magnified because the only way to the camp where I am to meet my fellow travellers is a two-hour journey by mokoro. This is how the locals get around, on dugout canoes that they stand on and pole along the rushy, shallow waterways. However, there is no shade and because the Okavango is chock-full of crocodiles I am encouraged not to put my hands in the water.
Even though it is head-swimmingly hot there is something magical and rather soothing in the rhythm of the punting, the drifting of the boat, the gentle slap of the water on the side of the mokoro. It is surprisingly soporific.
In fact, by the time I get to our makeshift camp I am half-asleep. Then I meet my fellow travellers and everything perks up as they warn me of many things. There’s a snake in the camp. Have I brought any water? A torch? A pair of binoculars? Did I know that a hippo had come into the camp last night and trampled everything? An actual hippo.
Then Gift tells us about the Okavango. It is, without a doubt, an incredible place — thousands of square miles of flooded grasslands full of lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, antelopes and more. Most people fly to lodges deep in the heart of the delta. Others are picked up from local villages that abut the delta and are taken by speedboat to camps farther along the marshy rivers that span out like fingers.
However, I am to spend a night camping. I have a tent, a camp bed, a hole-in-the-ground loo and a makeshift shower. There’s no electricity or fridge and for dinner we are to eat local food, which is essentially beef stew with some maize meal (a bit like solidified porridge).
Before dinner, as the sun goes down, we all set out on mokoros and get poled through the shallow streams until we reach a pool where hippos are playing. It’s so beautiful and quiet, the only sound the clicking of cameras. All we can hear is the low grunting of the hippos and the sweet calling of the birds. The Okavango is considered a natural wonder of the world and at this moment I can see why.
However, after trying to sleep in the tent, somewhat worried about the nearby grunting noises and a black mamba on the loose, I am not that disappointed when we pack up to leave early in the morning. I realise I haven’t washed in three days. Although I consider myself a hardened traveller I am beginning to miss my creature comforts. That, I think, is part of the point of the trip
The next day it’s all change. We are back on the road in the air-conditioned bus heading — via Chobe and the Makgadikgadi salt pan, which shimmers like a mirage — to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. It’s a long drive. Our journeys take from four to six hours without stopping. We have to buy food and drink from wherever we can and then we’re off. Loo breaks are no more sophisticated than finding a bush to squat behind. Yet everyone seems to have bladders of steel and the bus doesn’t stop. One of my compadres explains to me that, three weeks into their tour, they have learnt not to drink on the bus to avoid the bush stop.
It still feels quite odd to be rushing through a continent that is famous for not rushing. It’s like looking at a movie, a multicoloured rolling backcloth of Africa that exists but of which I don’t feel particularly a part. Really, to feel part of it you have to slow down, get off the tourist trail and out of the bean can. Otherwise it feels like ticking off a checklist.
I don’t blame the tour guides at the hotel. Now Zimbabwe is back on the tourist map I can’t begrudge them the chance to use one of their few big assets — the magnificent falls that pound down in a way that is so mesmerising you almost topple over the edge. The previous time I was here I nearly drowned while whitewater rafting. My raft got stuck in the rapids and whirled around like a cat in a washing machine. I survived, battered and bruised, and vowed never to do it again.
So instead I separate from the group and wander round the town. I end up in the snake park and spend two hours with a charming snake handler. “Don’t go out in the dark,” he says. “If a buffalo doesn’t get you a black mamba will.” I leave the snake park and decide to go for lunch at the rather wonderful, colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. I was penniless all those years ago and desperate to eat there as I sat, gazing out at the Vic, watching the affluent guests come and go. Today I am one of those guests. I treat myself to a plate of red snapper and drift around the hotel, gazing at old photographs of Stanley and Livingstone.
On my final day in Africa I end up in the best place of the entire tour — Gorges Lodge, which sits in the middle of the bush high above the Zambezi. It’s a magical place, full of wildlife and with an incredible view. I sit on my veranda and watch ant-like kayakers bouncing up and down as they try to negotiate the rapids.
That night I end up at the communal table listening to everyone’s stories. As we sit with the fire blazing, the cicadas chirping for all their worth, I listen to tales of disaster (“Terrible heatstroke, you know”) and triumphs (“I’m 81 and I bungee-jumped over the falls”) and I realise that finally I am there, back in the Africa I know, away from everything yet everything going on all at the same time. It really doesn’t get better than this.
Need to know
Lucy Cavendish was a guest of Saga (0800 414383, saga.co.uk), which has a 25-night Africa’s Southern Soul trip taking in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe from £4,049pp. The price includes seven nights in hotels, fourteen in lodges, two in camps and two in flight, flights and transfers, twenty-three breakfasts and dinners, three lunches and fifteen excursions. There are various group departures throughout the year.
Mountains and pyramids: five great tours in Africa
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Details A 12-day trip in August, with most meals, costs from £3,899pp, including flights (020 3553 5015, exodus.co.uk)
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Safari in northern Namibia
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