They passed our camp in the night, the lions. Their tracks were everywhere. G.B. couldn’t say how many, but he knew that they were nearby, snuffling and stalking through the moonlight with that big-bellied, king-of-the-jungle swagger. G.B. and Ranger Rick were thrilled, I slightly less-than. I gave my flimsy tent a second look, wondering how well the nylon could hold up to the claws of a hungry jungle cat.
I’m not an outdoorsman, never have been. Lions are all well and good from a distance, but I didn’t like to think of them crouching in the elephant grass, stomachs grumbling, while I stumble through the darkness, fussing with my fly.
It was our third and final morning in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, an African Venice of winding waterways stitching together the largest inland delta system in the world. We’d been planning to pack up camp and begin our lazy, gliding passage back to civilization when G.B., our guide, came back with his excited report. Suddenly, the day was thrown off-kilter.
Ranger Rick, a.k.a Rick Wellbeloved-Stone, a high school science teacher from Charlottesville, was game for a pursuit. He was just days from a return flight to the dullness of Dulles, and he wanted feats of daring and bush bravado to awe his students with back home. Excitedly following the paw prints scattered around the campsite, he and G.B. were already charting the path most likely to bring us within a couple of whiskers of our leonine prey.
It wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I’d signed up for our trip, a three-day mokoro, or canoe, safari through the placid channels and lagoons of the Okavango. The delta — the crown jewel of Botswana’s wilderness circuit — stretches across nearly 6,000 square miles of wetlands in the country’s fertile north, fed by the waters of the Okavango River, which begins its journey in the highlands of Angola and flows for 1,000 miles before emptying into the delta’s countless tributaries. At the peak of its seasonal flooding, which occurs during the dry season in July and August, the delta swells to nearly three times its normal size. On the hundreds of islands that dot its waters you’ll find one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. Game crowds in from miles around: elephants, zebras, kudus, gazelles, buffaloes and, yes, more than a few lions.
The delta is as extraordinary as it is unlikely in Botswana, nearly 70 percent of which is covered by the Kalahari Desert. When I visited during dry season last August, most of the landscape was arid and bleak — a drab palette of yellows, browns, grays. Traveling from the capital, Gaborone, in the south, we drove for hours through desert that cast a monotonous spell: nothing but sky and earth and flat, dry plains covered in scrub brush, with only the odd listless frontier town to break up the journey. We arrived in Maun, Botswana’s tourism capital, like a desert caravan reaching some palm-filled oasis. The city was green, the trees hung with the delicate nests of weaver birds. The streets were clogged with Range Rovers and Land Cruisers shuttling ruddy Western tourists to their three- and four-star hotels.
In the years since Botswana began to rack up international laurels for its conservation efforts, the Okavango has become a tourist playground of luxury lodges, helicopter tours and fly-over safaris. The country’s focus on high-end, low-impact tourism has won it many plaudits, but for those accustomed to the budget safari circuits of South Africa, Kenya or Tanzania, it makes Botswana a difficult place to travel in.
One afternoon in Maun, I sat sipping coffee at the Bon Arrivee restaurant, watching the new arrivals at the airport across the road. There were couples on honeymoon and families in matching khakis: the mothers in safari hats and fashionable eyewear, the fathers with the sun-bronzed comportment of men who spend long days on the golf course, closing deals. Trailing behind them were porters carrying monogrammed suitcases and chic safari baggage, undoubtedly full of expensive skin creams and hair-care products. I was in yesterday’s shorts and a T-shirt I’d fished out of the bottom of my backpack. I felt small, broke and inadequate.
I’d pitched up that week at the Old Bridge Backpackers, a legendary stop on southern Africa’s overland safari circuit. The scene was a familiar one for old Africa hands: the leathery retirees at the bar, sunk deep into their mid-morning benders; the packs of British gap-year students rummaging through their rucksacks. Around the campfire each night, the air hummed with the drone of cicadas and the throaty song of bullfrogs. Safari tales were swapped, beers chugged; holiday couples staggered off toward their tents.
The place was sociable and homey; more important, it was budget-friendly. The campsite cost just six bucks a night; there were bottomless cups of instant coffee in the morning. While many of the tour operators in Maun were charging more than $100 a day for tours of the delta in traditional mokoro canoes, I booked a three-day, two-night trip for just over $140.
It was at the campsite that I found Rick Wellbeloved-Stone on the first morning of our trip, fussing with his lenses and tripods, rearranging the provisions in his backpack. He was trying to make room for a bag of granola and a box of wine. I warmed to him instantly. He had an easy air, a blend of small-town American folksiness and the spiritual poise of an Eastern philosopher. He struck me as a man who enjoyed life. Over breakfast he told me about his training as a wilderness expert: He was an alum of Tom Brown Jr.’s celebrated Tracker School. He’d once spent two days surviving on raw acorns in Yellowstone after a black bear ransacked his bags. In my head, Rick Wellbeloved-Stone had already given way to my nickname for him, Ranger Rick.
We set off that morning on a speedboat that took us some 20 miles into the delta’s interior. G.B., our guide, and his young partner, Alaska, met us at the start of our journey in Boro, a small village of mud-brick huts on the delta’s fringes. I spent an hour touring the village as they packed our provisions into the canoes.
Boro was part of a community trust, a cooperative that employed more than 200 men and women from the village as polers for local hotels and tour companies, pushing tourists through the delta in dugout canoes. On this Sunday morning, though, business was slow. A man sat outside a small hut, tipping his head back and swigging warm sorghum beer in thirsty gulps, wiping his mouth against his sleeve. Ranger Rick circled, squatting in war photographer stance, his camera clicking and whirring.
For G.B. and Ranger Rick, it was love at first sight. Though thousands of miles, two decades and several tax brackets separated their respective upbringings, they shared an affinity for the wild. Poling our way across the delta, the sun hot on our faces, the gnats swarming, they took turns calling out the names of the birds they saw. On land, they were adept trackers. Each morning, while the sun was still low in the sky, we set off to explore the island where we’d set up camp. The paths around our campsite were like a wildlife superhighway. But where I only saw scattered prints and piles of dung, they saw nighttime scuffles and mating dances and carnivorous feasts, as vivid as if they were playing out before us in high definition.
For two days, it was an idyllic sort of life. We spent the mornings following skittish zebras and gently loping gazelles across golden clearings; we watched a family of elephants slow-footing it through the bush, trunks tearing at leaves and branches. In the afternoon, we swam in shallow pools, the cold water a welcome break from the day’s terrific heat. Time seemed to stretch as endless and unhurried as the delta’s waters. We sat around the campsite, lazily swatting at flies. In the evenings, we poled our mokoro through the dusky half-light, the sky banded in bright orange and red, until night, as it always does in Africa, arrived with the suddenness of a curtain being drawn.
By our final morning, I thought I’d gotten my money’s worth. Now we were tempting fate, rushing headlong into the path — and perhaps the jaws — of nature’s fiercest predator. I reappraised G.B. and Ranger Rick as they crouched over a set of prints. If you were going to spend a morning chasing lions through the bush, I figured, you couldn’t pick a better pair to lead you.
We broke camp just after dawn; whatever anxiety I felt dissolved like the morning mists. Zippered into my fleece, my hands cold, the air sweet, the sun warm on my face, I thought that there was nothing on Earth like early morning in the African bush.
We picked up the trail not far from camp: the dainty paws of at least one female and the large, imposing mitts of a male. G.B. and Ranger Rick squatted, inspected the spoor, showed me how the sharp ridges of a freshly made track contrasted with the duller contours of older prints. They were in their element here, divining where the lions sped up, where they rested. Suddenly we saw a flock of quelea birds lifting from a treetop — something had startled them. We double-timed it through the bush, past the oversized skull of a buffalo and the bleached bones of some sorry prey. Again we found a fresh set of paw prints, a confusion in the sand. But the lions were nowhere to be found.
Hours passed. The sun climbed high above us. I was hot and tired, and our water bottles were almost empty. Still we pushed on. Already the writer in me was hard at work, imagining how I would embroider this story in future tellings.
I knew that G.B., too, would be sharing it with other travelers, just as he’d sat with us and told us tales around the campfire. Born in the delta, he poled with his father across the channels as a child, steadying himself in the bow of the mokoro the way his father taught him. In the shallow waters they fished for tigerfish, pike, bream. Once his father had chased a lion from their camp, frightening it with roars. Often G.B. thought of the days when they slept beside the fire, the night sky heavy with stars, the future as far off as distant birdsong.
Warming his hands on the campfire on our last night, he told us about the canoe he would soon build for himself — not a fiberglass boat, like the one he used now, but a wooden mokoro built in the old way, from the trunk of a sycamore fig. The good trees, he said, were deep in the delta’s interior. It would take a month for him to reach that mystic place, to fell the right tree and hollow the trunk and make sure the canoe was smoothly hewn. “We will work like crazy boys,” he said, laughing.
I pictured him poling deep into the delta — a journey his father might have taken 40 years ago, before the mokoro safaris and helicopter tours, before the luxury lodges serving haute cuisine by the delta’s watering holes. In that ancestral place, his father might have chosen a tree with all the gravity and portent of choosing a bride, knowing that his life’s fortune would depend on each warp and knot, on the strength of the wood.
Above us the crescent moon was like an anchor plunged into a sea of stars. Ranger Rick had taken out his iPhone, cueing up an app that showed the constellations when you pointed the phone at the sky. G.B. took the gadget and held it up, as if in offering to his God, to his father’s departed spirit. His people, the Yeyi, had never turned their imaginations to the heavens to create their mythologies, he said. They had never used the stars to guide them. What navigational tools did they pass down from father to son, I wondered? Lost in that nettle of straits and channels, how did they find their way?
I thought these things as we finally turned back toward camp, our legs sore, our sweaty shirts stuck to our chests. The tracks in the dirt had grown confused; for a while we’d lost the trail, and by the time we picked it up again, we knew that the lions had put too much ground between us. Already we were miles from camp; the sun was beating like a drum on our necks. It was time to head back.
On our way to the campsite we followed the cries of a fish eagle perched somewhere in the treetops. The fish eagle was a good portent for the Yeyi, said G.B. Because it was never far from water, you knew, if you’d lost your way on land, that the delta’s waterways were near at hand. “If you hear that, you know you won’t sleep hungry,” he said. And in the morning, you could worry about what the next day would bring.
Vourlias is traveling in West Africa and working on his first book.