The honeymoon suite was not quite what we had expected. Twin beds were shoved together on an elevated platform at the rear of the room. White mosquito netting hung overhead, ready to be let down to enclose us for the night. In place of windows, we found blinds of reed. Cloth drapes provided the only shield between the bath area and the remainder of the suite.
It wasn't the Ritz. It was better. We were guests at Crocodile Camp, a wildlife lodge perched on the banks of the Thamalakane River as it flows south from the Okavango Delta to Maun, Botswana. Eventually, the river meanders into the Kalahari Desert and disappears without a trace.
We hadn't come to Africa for luxury; we had come to view the extraordinary diversity of mammals and birdlife that congregate in and around the Okavango Delta, the largest inland freshwater delta in the world. We weren't disappointed: During our three-week visit, we encountered lechwe antelope skipping through the swampy grass, baboons swinging among tree branches, eagles soaring above the palm trees and hyenas skulking through the underbrush.
What we didn't expect to find was comfort. Our tents were large and airy, and we slept on solid, German-made cots. We enjoyed cocktails and conversation at sunset. And while there were no crystal-and-china candlelight dinners in the bush, we dined well and fashionably late, with main courses ranging from grass-fed Botswana beef to red-hot camp chili.
From the very beginning of our tour, we reveled in the wildlife of Botswana. On our first morning in 7,200-square-mile Chobe National Park, a pair of cheetahs lazily stretched beside the water within a stone's throw of our vehicle. As we watched, each cat gingerly tested the water and slowly waded in, finally losing touch with the bottom and swimming strongly to the opposite shore.
We spent several days in Chobe and Nxai Pan, a lush, pastured reserve due to the recent spring rains. It was filled with hundreds of small springbok antelope that leaped in evasive action at our approach. From there we made the half-day drive to Maun, a bustling frontier town of mostly unpaved roads. But Maun was only a brief stop en route to the Okavango Delta, the unique watery wilderness that was the focal point of our safari.
We reached the heart of the delta after a leisurely, five-hour motorboat ride north from Maun. Pairs of fish eagles, with bleached white heads and chests, surveyed our passing from their posts high above the river. Occasionally they would call to one another -- an eerie, high-pitched, drawn-out sound, projected with neck thrown back and bill pointed skyward.
At our approach, crocodiles eased themselves from the sunny banks into the river, where they lay concealed beneath the surface with only the occasional pair of protruding eyes to reveal their threat. Tiny malachite kingfishers flashed bright blue and orange as they darted from stalk to stalk. Plunging into the river, they grabbed small fish with their long pointed bills.
The river narrows as it winds northward, the exact course changing from year to year with the seasonal floods. Along the banks, great puffs of papyrus reeds filter the sun, creating soft pinks and blues against the pale green background. Tall ivory nut palms float on the breeze, completing the picture of a tropical oasis.
In the delta, we made our island camp in a small clearing under a high leafy canopy, invisible from the main channel of the river. Exploration began early: The local guides arrived at 7 a.m., just as we were finishing our breakfast snack of tea, bannock and cold cereal.
Our guides, dressed in tattered clothes that looked like hand-me-downs from past tourists, spoke a minimum of English, despite the fact that it is the official language of the country. These men are Botswana's counterpart to the Venetian gondoliers, providing a scenic tour of the delta by mokoro, the narrow, flat-bottomed boats that are the primary means of transportation here. While nervous passengers sit on a layer of straw thinly covering the bottom of the boat, the driver stands at the rear, propelling the craft by planting his pole and pushing off. As the boats have only a few inches of draw above the water line, the polers' task is not easy, and a minor weight shift by one of the occupants can create a precarious situation.
On our forays, our mokoro drivers assiduously avoided the deep courses of the river, where hippopotamus lurk. Instead, we traveled across reed beds, where curtains of green grasses parted with our approach and closed again behind us. In more open places, water lilies floated on the gentle ripples we made as we passed. Their pale pink blossoms opened slowly with the morning sun.
We saw tiny frogs clinging tenaciously to the reeds. Bright green ones with gold stripes, larger white ones with red dots, and some almost translucent -- all resisted our efforts to dislodge them for closer scrutiny. Aboard the boat, spiders wandered harmlessly over straw seats and exposed skin.
We disembarked at various small islands, quietly following our driver-leaders, who plotted a course without benefit of trail, compass or map. Walking safaris afford a different glimpse of wildlife than one finds from a Land-Rover or a boat. The viewer is on the animal's level, visually and psychologically. It was both exciting and scary, particularly when we stumbled upon some Cape buffalo.
I had heard about the buffalo, that feared and unpredictable beast, but I was not prepared for a close-up meeting. It was mid-morning and we were trailing behind the locals through a mixed grass and woodland area. Abruptly, the first man stopped and crouched down. We crept forward to his vantage point and saw three large dark brown mounds resting only 30 yards away. The massive heads were crowned with thick broad horns, a headdress suitable for a half-ton terror.
I don't know how long it took them to notice us -- it seemed forever in the anticipation of my imminent death. Suddenly, one beast snorted and rose, lumbering to his feet, then wheeled and charged through the brush in the opposite direction. His brethren quickly followed. Our trusty mokoro drivers seemed unperturbed, perhaps because they knew they were fleeter of foot than the tourists.
Our lowly vantage point provided more positive results when we came upon a pair of impala antelopes that were, for a few extended moments, oblivious to our presence, being caught up in the primordial chase of the mating rut. These fawn-brown, smooth-coated, exquisitely sculpted browsers are prevalent in woodlands from central and East Africa to the Cape of Good Hope. Through binoculars, we stared at the large soft brown eyes, flanked by sensitive twitching ears. The spiraling horns of the male commanded respect, although his visible harem was rather small.
To explore other, less waterlogged areas of the ecosystem, we boarded a six-seat Cessna airplane one morning, bound for Maun. The plane flew low, affording us glimpses of herons fishing in a lagoon. We spotted elephants grazing nonchalantly and startled some antelopes with our engine noise.
At the airport in Maun, our four-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz Unimog was waiting. This indestructible transport was perfect for us -- open on all sides for unlimited game viewing, but with a roof to shelter us from the sun and our one rainstorm. The seven seats looked as if they had been transplanted from a Greyhound bus, complete with high backs and seat pockets. They certainly provided good comfort as we lurched over rutted roads en route to Moremi Wildlife Reserve, a 1,160-square-mile area of grasslands and woods at the eastern edge of the delta where we camped for three nights.
We carried a formidable library on board the Unimog: heavy tomes on the birds of southern Africa, thin volumes on the snakes of the region, books on trees, mammals and more. But all of it was almost superfluous, as our naturalist guide-driver-cook-mother hen knew more than enough to satisfy our curiosity.
Our days in Moremi were full. Emerging from our sleeping bags at 5:30, we took a morning game drive from 6:30 until about noon. Midday provided the opportunity for hot showers in a canvas enclosure erected under a tree. Napping, eating and reading were popular as well, although happily it was all rather free-form. The so-called evening game drive began about 3:15, with a return to camp only when darkness fell.
At Moremi, the palm trees of the delta islands were replaced by thorny acacias, with feathery boughs extending gracefully on horizontal planes. The grass was long and flowing, an ideal hiding place for the stalking predators. Later in the year, the dry season would shrivel the vegetation and it would be the prey that had the advantage.
From the high seats of the Unimog, our view was unimpaired by the tall grasses. The wildlife practically paraded for us. Majestic, heavy-horned greater kudus drifted through the woods; fat zebras gathered in small herds, their white stripes flashing brilliant against the green background; tsesseby antelopes, with gunmetal-colored flanks and horns like Vikings' helmets, grazed warily in the open. A lone lioness peered, yellow-eyed, through dense brush, her face framed by leafy branches. Bull elephants herded towards the river, trumpeting, with ears flapping and trunks swinging.
Our camp bordered a river where the hippos came at night, roaring at each other in mock battles. A pearl-spotted owl, the smallest member of the owl family found in southern Africa, whistled in the high branches above our tents. Our guide kept this tiny bird of prey in his torchlight while we focused field glasses from below. The next day we located the bird's largest relative, the giant eagle owl, which we surprised and flushed out of a well-concealed perch.
We almost ignored the small brown birds, as the large bright ones were so prevalent.
They were all new to us: seven species of kingfisher, with their distinctive long orange bills; 20 varieties of raptor, carnivores with heavy curved beaks and nasty talons; iridescent starlings, like holographs flashing blue, green and purple; ubiquitous lilac-breasted rollers, stocky birds of lavender, powder blue and raspberry.
From the food to the transportation, from the habitat to the inhabitants, we were treated to an endless array. As I flipped through the field guides at the end of our trip I was astounded, not just by notations of what we saw, but even more so by what we did not.
The nocturnal leopard eluded us, as did the gregarious green pigeon. What an excuse for returning to Botswana for our second honeymoon.
Patricia Randall is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass. WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights to Botswana from the United States. You can fly to Johannesburg, South Africa (on British Airways from Washington via London for $2,514 round trip, with restrictions); Harare, Zimbabwe (on British Airways from Washington via London for $2,547 round trip, with restrictions); or Lusaka, Zambia (on Zambia Airways from New York for $1,552 round trip, with restrictions), and connect with a flight to Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. The round-trip fare from Harare on Air Zimbabwe, for example, is $408. From Gabarone, flights depart daily to Maun, the jumping-off point for Okavango Delta safaris. You can also fly to Maun from Harare via Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on Air Zimbabwe for $266 round trip.
The basic low-season economy fare round trip from New York through Johannesburg to Maun is $2,129 and is good from roughly mid-January through the end of May. High-season rates, in effect the rest of the year, are about $56 higher.
WHEN TO GO: The rainy season in northern Botswana runs from November through April, with the heaviest rains in January and February. The annual flooding of the Okavango Delta begins in April and, depending on the level of runoff from the Angolan highlands, extends into August. Located south of the equator, the country experiences its warmest weather during North American winter, and is generally drier and cooler during May through October.
WHERE TO STAY: Among the lodges in or around Maun are Crocodile Camp (P.O. Box 46, Maun, Botswana), Okavango River Lodge (P.O. Box 32) and Island Safari Lodge (P.O. Box 116). Rates at all three range from $25 to $35 per night, single, to $35 to $70, double, with Island Safari Lodge the most expensive. All three offer delta trips. INFORMATION: Botswana Embassy, 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, 202-244-4990. -- Patricia Randall