On Sunday afternoon, we embarked on our fly-in safari adventure to the Okavango Delta. The Kasane International Airport is not quite as large as its name indicates and the check-in area was a packed, chaotic scene. However, a friendly porter expeditiously sorted everything out and soon enough we were out on the hot tarmac, ready to board a tiny, tiny airplane.
Stephanie had imagined that flying to Motswiri Camp would be an Out of Africa experience, flying low over the river and startling herds of animals. Although our pilot chose a scenic route with views of elephants, buffalo, and hippos, the actual experience of flying in a small, hot, and unpressurized vessel for over an hour is not as magical as imagined. Regardless, we all survived and landed on a remote airstrip to find a Land Cruiser waiting to greet us. Giorgio had the good luck to be seated shotgun and captured part of the landing on video.
We had chosen to stay at Motswiri because the camp specializes in riding safaris, with a stable of over twenty horses. Not just anyone is allowed to ride, though. Strict instructions accompanied our reservation: all riders need to be able to gallop away from predators and helmets are not provided. Since lessons at Bonnie Lea Farm do not typically involve uncontrolled gallops away from potentially lethal animals, Stephanie had been preoccupied with this aspect of the ride for over a year. Giorgio, of course, is an open rider and had no such concerns.
We arrived at camp just in time for high tea (how civilized!) and a short evening ride out into the bush. The two of us, along with two guides (one armed), had a quiet ride, spotting several elephants and other animals. There were no predators to gallop away from, just a few nice tracks for cantering and logs to jump.
The following morning, we awoke bright and early for a more serious ride. Unlike the other places we have visited, we weren’t the only experienced riders. The other guests were on holiday from the United Kingdom, where they regularly fox hunt. We quickly discovered that hunters are extremely serious riders (as well as extremely serious drinkers). We galloped across varied terrain full of unexpected holes, forded a river or two, and continually searched out the best logs to create a cross-country course in the bush. If we had encountered a pack of wild dogs as we had hoped, the hunting experience would have been complete. Instead, we encountered a lethal black mamba snake darting through the grass in front of the horses, making both them and us skittish for the remainder of the ride. Our guide did not hesitate to explain in excruciating detail how venomous a black mamba's bite is and the extremely low probability of survival (especially when you take into consideration that the emergency plane or helicopter is about 50 minutes away). As a reward for our efforts (and to celebrate not being medevac’d out after being bitten by a large snake), we were treated to a lunch out in the bush -- even Giorgio was impressed with the number of Bloody Marys and bottles of rosé that were consumed.
On Tuesday morning, our ride began with the sighting of a five meter python. Although these snakes aren’t venomous like the black mamba, the sight of such a large creature slithering through the reeds was enough to cause Stephanie to consider returning to camp immediately. Instead, we were off to gallop through the wetlands, with buffalo eyeing us suspiciously from the riverbanks and giraffes peaking through the trees.
Evenings exploring the river via motorboat and mokoro (dug-out canoe) complemented our daily rides. Although Giorgio failed to catch a fish and impress his father-in-law as suggested by one of the other camp guests, there is nothing quite like watching the animals and sunset with a gin and tonic in hand. Furthermore, our guide proved to be a much better fisherman than Giorgio, quickly catching one to feed to a resident fish eagle, seen swooping in for his prize below.
As our guide poled the mokoro downstream, we felt as if we were on of a safari-style Venetian gondola. Although a mokoro, at eye-level with the reeds, is not ideal for viewing big game, it is an incredibly peaceful mode of transport and offers other unique views. For example, we were introduced us to the river's ubiquitous reed-dwelling frogs. These frogs created quite the night-time chorus outside of our tent, particularly in conjunction with a visiting elephant or two. We were shocked to realize that such a small amphibian was creating such a loud noise!
And regardless of the game viewing, the sunset is beautiful from any location.
If it weren’t for the hippos blocking the route or the elephants crossing the water before our eyes, the river at Motswiri could easily have been Lake Minnetonka.
Giorgio, despite being a self-described “extremely strong rider,” was too worn out to ride on our final morning at Motswiri. Instead, we joined Don and Susan on what should have been a tranquil game drive. The herd of elephants we encountered had other plans, though, and mock charged the Land Cruiser. Our guide, apparently unfazed, simply watched as the elephants approached, flapped their ears and trumpeted loudly. One even stared us down from a distance of three meters and broke a large tree trunk in two, seemingly to demonstrate her strength. This was the first time we thought we were in any real danger on a game drive - mock charges feel very much like real charges.
Although Motswiri offered some exhilarating rides, we still did not encounter any of Africa’s endangered and elusive wild dogs. Perhaps we didn't drink enough of the camp's house rosé (which our traveling companions were constantly concerned would run out) to spot them.
#stephandgio (and #donandsusan)
PS: Although Giorgio continues to be less than enthused with the number of birders we have encountered and their obsession with stopping constantly to see the most boring specimen, here is a pretty cool picture of a kingfisher.