A Night Out In Botswana
I will never forget the night in Botswana when I was asked to beat the drums in the middle of the bush on the edge of the vast Okavango Delta to help save a young man's life and guide his rescuers back to our bush camp, and safety.
The day had started normally enough - if that is the right word for a westernized traveler – with a four hour long journey under the blazing African sun in a hollowed out log known as a mokoro, propelled by a muscular black man wielding a wooden pole long enough to reach the shallow bottom of the crystal clear water. Most of the time we followed the fairly narrow channels kept clear by grazing hippo's, interspersed on occasions with large tracts of water covered by the leaves of huge flowering water lilies that were home to a fascinating display of bird and aquatic life.
We were glad to reach our destination and to be able to massage our bums into life again – next time I will definitely take a blow-up cushion. Our temporary home consisted of a semi-permanent central area built from rough-hewn logs and comprising bush-kitchen, a restaurant-pub area, and a semi-enclosed lapa where we spent most of the evenings around a roaring fire. The beer and wine were well chilled, and the food exceptional. The rest of the camp consisted of half a dozen basic two-man tents, a communal long-drop loo, and a fabulous bush shower open to the sky. We were encouraged not to stray away from the immediate area as there was no fence, and lions had been seen recently.
A young French couple in their mid-twenties ran the camp, assisted by a game tracker named Tabansi, a cook, and a cleaner. Monique, who was a fully qualified Michelin chef, conjured up the most amazing meals in a primitive wood-fired kitchen. Philippe, who had a degree in nature conservation, was our guide and constant companion during our three-day stay.
The guests were five couples and a single lad named Paul, who was out from England and visiting the bush for the first time. At the end of our second day, we were enjoying the late afternoon over a few cold beers while wondering what the tempting aromas coming out of the bush kitchen might mean. All of a sudden, Philippe stopped the conversation dead with a sharply raised hand. Where is Paul, he asked. Nobody knew. Then the cleaner remembered seeing him bird spotting at the edge of the camp.
Philippe was suddenly serious beyond his age. Sending the game tracker for his rifle – a monster capable of stopping a full-grown charging lion in its tracks – he explained to us that he and Tabansi would go in search of Paul in the growing darkness while we were to remain within the central area and keep a sharp-lookout. I was to beat the drum in the corner of the bar every five minutes so that they could find their way back to the camp in the dark. Just after Philippe stopped speaking, we heard the low call of a lioness followed by the grunting of a male lion. They sounded very close.
As I beat the drum, I remembered the determined looks on the faces of Philippe and Tabansi as they strode off into the thick bush with just a torch and the last rays of the setting sun to guide them, and one chance only to stop a charging lion. The conversation died as Monique lit the oil lamps in the pub before returning to a kitchen that had fallen silent.
After half an hour or so, we were startled by the sharp crack of a dry branch breaking suddenly in the darkness. Instantly very scared, we turned to look in the direction of the sound. The sight of Philippe's torch between the trees was one of the most welcoming things I have ever seen. He and Tabansi had found Paul half way up a thorn tree clad only in a pair of torn shorts, eaten half alive by mosquitoes and a subject of great interest to the small pride of lions gathered around the base.
Later that same night, after Monique had pulled out all the stops with kudu steaks and Philippe had produced some bottles of particularly fine red wine, Paul told us that he had forgotten the quick African transition from day to night, and assumed that twilight would follow the day. He lost his way but kept his head long enough to climb as high up the thorn tree as he could.
That time at least it all ended well. If visiting Botswana, please remember this - the people are friendly, the food and accommodations are great, but the game is wild and will not ask before it bites. Forget the difference, and you could well end up supper for the lions, as our young Paul nearly did.