At Botswana Safari Camps, a Vacation on the Wild Side

By Jenny Hontz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 5, 2009

At Duba Plains safari camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta, there was fighting within the pride. A rogue lioness had killed four newborns, and their mother, breasts still engorged with milk, cried out over and over for her cubs.

I tried to hide the tears welling in my eyes, feeling it was silly to humanize a lion. But I knew how she felt. Just a few months earlier, I had lost a pregnancy at the midpoint, my first attempt at having a baby ending abruptly in despair.

With the worst of the agony behind me but the wounds still raw, this trip with Wilderness Safaris was an effort to restore my spirits. I had always dreamed of visiting Africa, and I knew a safari would be tough to pull off once a baby arrived. Though I never would have asked for it, now was my chance.

My husband couldn't get away, so my former college roommate, Heather, joined me on the journey. We decided to visit three safari camps: the brand-new, solar-powered Kalahari Plains Camp and two spots in the lush Okavango Delta, Xigera and finally Duba Plains, where the lion and the buffalo go head to head.

It was summer in Botswana, hot and wet. Signs of life -- and death -- were everywhere. The day before we arrived at Duba Plains, a pride of 10 lions had downed a buffalo, and vultures had already picked the carcass clean. Nature's cruel efficiency. I was happy to have missed the kill.

As luck would have it, we witnessed lots of life being created instead. At Xigera, a tropical oasis on Paradise Island overlooking a river, it was hard not to blush at all the activity. One afternoon, on the raised wooden walkway leading to my tent, an entire baboon family confronted me. I backed up as they advanced, but I finally froze, holding my ground a few feet from the babies. Then they all hopped to the ground, and the parents started mating. I was tempted to shout, "Get a room!"

The lions at Xigera were also getting busy. Or so we heard. It took us three days to find them. We'd spotted a huge dazzle of zebras and elephants that tried but failed to hide their girth in the bush. We'd taken a traditional mokoro canoe ride through water lilies and papyrus reeds, passing giraffes munching along the shore. But where were the lions? Where were the buffaloes?

Game drives can be an exercise in patience, hardly my strongest quality. It's not like a zoo. You can tool around for hours and spot nothing more than some fancy antelopes and a few warthogs. The good news is, you won't see any sign of human beings, either. For days, our view was never marred by buildings, cars or trash. Nothing but miles and miles of pristine wilderness and elephant dung.

I eventually learned that if I just relaxed and took it all in, things would work out. There wasn't a single day we didn't experience something new and invigorating. And in those rare moments when you're the one to identify some distant movement in grass, you will feel as if you've just dug up hidden treasure.

On our last morning at Xigera, we went on a wild ride in search of big game. It felt like a hunt, our goal to shoot them with cameras rather than bullets. We drove into the wind to follow a scent and studied paw prints in the dirt.

Our guide had grown up in the area and was a skilled tracker. He took us way, way off-road, hacking through the bush with a machete and driving over logs once he picked up the trail. We eventually gave up and found our way back to the main road, where the buffaloes waited for us, laughing, I'm sure. (I chuckled myself later that day when we flew to Duba, where 1,000 buffaloes roam in the open.)

We had given up on finding lions, too, and started heading back to camp. That's when we rounded the bend and stumbled on a couple right next to the road. "Lions!" I screamed, as we veered to avoid running them over. The male lion climbed on top of the female, biting her on the ear, and she swatted him with her paw. You would, too, I'm sure, if you had been mating every 20 minutes for four straight days without sleeping or eating.

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