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Botswana Adventure By Nancy Rhodes

Previously published in Fairview Town Crier
Fairview, NC

Breakfasting under the mopane trees, game drives over sand tracks, bush showers, evenings around the campfire ("bush TV"), and sleeping to the bass notes of hippos in a nearby river, our Botswana safari was a magical dream-come-true. My sister, Barbara, and I agreed a year ago to plan a trip to Africa. Her impetus was reading the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency book series by Alexander McCall Smith. A devotee of book tours, she said that we could combine a safari with a two-day "No. 1 Ladies" tour in Gaborone, the capital and site of Mma Ramotswe's fictional detective agency. After the fortunate discovery on line of African Excursions headed by a man who used to live in Botswana, our trip started to take flight. Our itinerary would include two days in Maun, gateway to the Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve, a six-day "comfort" safari for just my sister and me, followed by a flight to Gaborone for our two-day "Mma" tour. After numerous phone calls and emails, shots and malaria pills, trip insurance, and a serious talk with my health insurance provider, I was ready to go. Barbara and I shot our carefully packed duffle bags onto the beltway at JFK Airport Sunday morning, July 18th, for the 18+ hour trip to Maun on South African Airways and little Botswana Air. By the evening of July 19th, we were sitting in the circular open-air bar at Marina's Camp, sand in our shoes, and stars in our eyes. The adventure had truly begun.

Our trip coincided with Botswana's dry season, which lasts generally from May to November. While night temperatures can drop into the 40's, days are warm under clear blue skies. The Okavango Delta, Africa's largest inland delta, and Moremi Game Reserve have permanent water all year, hosting large populations of animals. These populations are also swelled in the dry season by animals from the Kalahari desert searching for water. On the morning of the 22nd, Barbara and I were picked up at Marina's by our safari guide, Mike, and Bailey, a 23-year-old New Zealander and daughter of tour operator. On the road we met up with Fred, our cook, and Bollie, our camp assistant, driving the support truck loaded with food and camp supplies. We caravaned past traditional villages of small thatched-roof homes, donkeys and goats grazing by the roadside. Fairly quickly, the gravel road ended, and we drove over sand, passing through clouds of dust thrown up by oncoming vehicles. Nearing the Moremi gate we had our first look at wildlife, a waterhole enjoyed by a herd of zebra and giraffes. Mike shut off the truck engine and we watched the animals. It was as though we had been dropped into the Garden of Eden, albeit glossing over the eat or be eaten aspect of the animals' lives. Mike told us that the giraffe's spots darken as they age, which explained the wide variation of colors we saw, from the softest brown to black. After growing up with years of nature documentaries, suddenly we were seeing the real thing! To say that my mind was blown away was an understatement.

Our safari days started with an early morning wake up in our tent where we'd slept warmly under wool blankets. Breakfast was at a table under the trees, joined by Mike and Bailey. Morning game drive began around 7:30. We would lumber over sand tracks and through deep puddles of standing water, stopping to watch animals we encountered along the way. Mike was a knowledgeable and kind safari guide with an engaging sense of humor. His insights about animal behavior and his willingness to share his progress towards becoming a highly licensed safari guide were just two of the unexpectedly wonderful aspects of our trip. Morning tea, served out of a thermos and accompanied by biscuits, balanced on the hood of the truck, happened each morning about 11:00. Around 1:00 or 1:30, we would make our way back to camp, eat lunch and shower in our canvas stall under a bag of water that had been heated on the fire. One of our favorite Mike stories was of a lady on another safari who was just beginning to enjoy her bush shower when she suddenly ran out of water. Looking up in puzzlement, she saw an elephant trunk reaching over the canvas wall sucking up the last of her water. Mike never said what happened after that. His advice to us was if you hear a noise in camp, don't unzip your tent and stick your head out. Otherwise you would be safe.

Around about 4:00 or 4:30, Bailey would get out the tea things, and we would have refreshments before setting off on our evening game drive. One night we had Fred's "bush pizza," a beautiful creation of homemade dough, ham, and feta cheese, cooked in a pot over a wood fire. Then we would set off into the bush again, occasionally encountering other safari vehicles. Mike and the other driver would have a brief conversation in Setswana, and he might say, "They heard there's a leopard ahead," and we would be off at top speed to join a small group of other vehicles watching a leopard in a tree. By 6:30 or 7:00 we would return to camp and eat by lamplight, served by Fred in his white chef's coat. Baked chicken with wild sage, potatoes au gratin, roast vegetables, pasta Bolognese with meatballs, sausages, squash soup, salads, and hot bananas drenched in bittersweet chocolate and nuts enchanted our nights. The man was a genius! One night we toasted marshmallows around the fire. Evenings we slept to the sounds of territorial hippo grunts or the trumpeting of elephants far off in the trees.

Highlights of our game drives included twice being surrounded by a large breeding herd of elephants, the two times I ever felt scared, a close encounter with a mated pair of lions who lay down beside our truck, his low rumbling growls clearly audible to our ears, and sipping a glass of South African wine next to a serene hippo pool as the sun set. We also watched a sleepy leopard on a tree branch suddenly tense and stare down at a herd of impala grazing closer and closer to his tree. A fluid movement to standing position and a leap off the branch came to nothing, and he ambled off without his dinner. Giraffes, antelopes, baboons, and zebra were frequent sights. We even spotted a pack of African wild dogs, colorful with their white, brown and black spots. On our last night in the bush, hyenas circled around our campsite, their eyes glowing in the beam of Mike's flashlight. Only after we all zipped ourselves into our tents did they come into camp and sniff around the fire.

After our safari ended, we took a short flight to Gaborone, where our "No. 1 Ladies" tour would begin. We were picked up at our bed and breakfast by Joe, our Botswana guide, for a tour of the city and locations central to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Of course, we stopped at Zebra Drive, the fictional home of Mma Ramotswe. The city had recently renamed the road Zebra Way in hopes that tourists would stop ripping the signs off their posts to take home as souvenirs. We also stopped at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Mma Ramotswe's church, and were dumbfounded to meet the Bishop of Botswana, Trevor Mwomba, outside the church door. Given Alexander McCall Smith's habit of putting some real characters in his books, we shouldn't have been completely speechless to meet someone who played a role in the series, most especially when he married the fictional Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Bishop Mwomba graciously shook our hands and asked us where we were from. When I introduced myself and told him North Carolina, he said, "Oh I know where that is. Botswana has a companion relationship with a diocese in your state.

At each place we stopped, by the trees in front of the Parliament building, at the Botswana Defense Club, on the road to Mochudi, Mma Ramotswe's ancestral home, or by the railroad tracks where her mother died, Joe would read an excerpt from the series in his beautifully accented English. We also stopped at the set of the television series filmed in 2007, now surrounded by a chainlink fence with guard, the trees growing in around the little detective agency at the foot of Kgali Hill. We also visited the Mokolodi Nature Reserve, featured in the book "Blue Shoes and Happiness," for a game drive, giraffe tracking , and picnic lunch under the trees. We also got to pat the two tame cheetahs that had been orphaned as babies.

On the taxi radio, our last day in Botswana, "Country Roads," "take me home; to the place I belong. . .," our feelings were bittersweet. It was difficult to leave behind the places and people that we had come to know. Our first days back in the USA, an adrenalin rush of trip experiences shared with family and friends. My advice to you is simple; go and do what you dream.

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