Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - Xakanaxa, A Botswana Tale

Xakanaxa, A Botswana Tale

I tiptoe across the wooden floor of our tent to the rhythm of croaking frogs, the night-time chants of insects across the Okavango Delta, and the far-away roar of a lion. Reaching the open-air bathroom in the rear of the tent, I look up. Millions of stars are crowded together, golden lanterns in the black sky.

I just stand there for a long time, listening and watching. The night noises finally cease as dawn approaches. The sky becomes pink, violet, then a bright orange as the sun peaks above the giant acacia trees in the distance.

I hear a rustling beside the tent flaps and look into the tree branches above. Two large fluffy shadows abide there.

"Hu-hoo, hu-hoo, hu-hoo," a giant own calls to its mate. The other birds of the riverine forest and the delta are also awakening and contribute to the bird's solo.

"Wake-up call, wake-up call," Flo, the camp manager calls from outside our tent. "Breakfast in ten minutes." I see her walk to the next tent, all of which are nestled on the banks of the Khwai River overlooking the Xakanaxa Lagoon.

My husband, Tom, sits on the edge of the bed, yawns, and rubs his eyes. "What time is it? It's barely light. Seems like we just got to bed."

"It's beautiful," I tell him, moving to sit beside him on the bed for a few moments. Afterwards I put on my khaki shorts and top as I stare out at the mist which rises from the reeds skirting the delta before our wooden viewing deck. "You should have seen the night sky-and it was the most incredible sunrise."

"Did you get any sleep at all last night?" Tom reaches toward me, takes my hand and squeezes it, all the time smiling at my child-like enthusiasm.

"Not much. I was still too excited about our flight over the reserve in that six-passenger Cesna to get to the Moremi Game Resserve. All the migrating animals we saw. It was incredible."

Tom laughs. "That and the fact that they had to scare the baboons off the dirt runway before we could land. But I think we're going to love Botswana."

I was sure of it.

A few minutes later we walk from our raised screened-in tent and along the path toward the smell of freshly-brewed coffee. Birds chatter before us in the misty morning light and some sort of tree squirrels scurry across the path in front of us.

There is a chill and freshness in the air that we haven't experienced for a long time, having lived in the heart of London for over a year. It is a 'green' smell; the scent of crystalline water, of nature, and of living things. No longer do we smell exhaust fumes and hear the blasts of taxi horns and buses outside our window, but only croaking frogs, chirping birds and the buzz of insects, all competing to serenade us.

We enter the open air lounge at the camp. It sits on a deck above the delta. Colorful birds are everywhere. The deck is a tapestry of color. They greet us "good morning' with their chirps as they sit excitedly on the edge of cereal bowl perches anticipating leftovers. A mother monkey watches from a tree branch, clutching her baby to her bosom.

Our group has already assembled, as we are always the last to arrive. I blame it on 'Pokey Tom.' They include Peter, Mark, Nico, Dave, Colleen, Patty and Derrick, all from South Africa; Kirk and Susan from California; and the two of us, Tom and Christie, transplanted Americans, for now from the U.K. We are a tourist-looking crowd, all dressed in various stages of 'jungle wear.' 'Dr. Livingstone attire,' I suppose it can be called. We certainly create a scene straight from an L. L. Bean catalog, for we all wear khaki, of course, and wide-rimmed bush hats. We're also sopping with mosquito repellant and sunscreen, all highly anticipating our upcoming 4x4 exploration of the Okavango Delta and its environs in Botswana's Moremi Game Reserve.

"I'm nursing my aching back this mornig," Patty says.

"I guess we all get those darn aches as we age," I answer.

"At our age, if we didn't wake up with some aches and pains that means we're dead," she answers, a big smile on her face.

I laugh and nod my head in agreement and pour some coffee into my cup. Finding only one available chair, I head toward it. It is rustic and carved from wood. Its legs and back slant in a strange manner. It appears wobbly and not exactly ergonomic. But what the heck, I'll give it a try. I should try and learn the 'ways of the natives.'

I proceed to balance my coffee cup in one hand, a bowl of fruit and yogurt in the other and attempt to sit down. But I miss my target and tumble to the ground, legs straight in the air. Thank goodness I'm not wearing a dress! Of course coffee, yogurt, granola and kiwi fly out in all directions and splatter me with their bits and pieces.

Everyone rushes to help as I sheepishly get up, yet manage to laugh. "Guess I'm not so used to 'roughing it' any more," I say, my clothes sopping wet, now the color of a Starbuck's cappuccino. "Guess I've turned into a real Londoner."

We climb into one of the two vehicles for our group a half-hour later. They are olive green, open-air Land Rovers with bench seats and a canvas top. They all sport huge mud tires and are high off the ground. Of course getting into them can be a problem, especially due to our middle-age status, and we long for the agility of our youth as we try to climb up the steps and swing our legs over the side. But once inside, the view is splendid. It will be like riding on top of the world; like the view from the back of an elephant.

Our guide, Metsi, introduces himself. His name means 'water' in Botswanan. He tells us he was born in a Botswanan village deep within the delta, the son of a mokoro (canoe) maker. His skin is a rich, chocolate color and he always wears a smile. We sense right away that he knows and loves the delta and the Moremi Game Reserve. He can feel its purse, read its signs. We are hopeful that he will share his knowledge with us.

"Are there lots of mosquitoes here?" is Tom's first question, as he is totally paranoid of anything that can possibly sting or bite him, even though we are on Malaria medication.

"Not this time of year," Metsi answers, for it is the dry season when the rains do not come. "But there are tetse flies, and some Mamba snakes and lots of gnats.

Tom's face sinks, yet I know that he is thanking for those mosquito head nets that we hunted all over for in the U.K. for two weeks. Now I'm sure he'll wear his every day, and that everyone will think him from 'outer space' in his helmet-like headgear.

Leaving the rustic signpost that reads 'Xakanaxa-Moremi Safaris' we head into the woodland that surrounds our camp. The road, barely more than a trail, is a mixture of dirt and soft sand. And it is bumpy, especially in a vehicle with the suspension of our Land Rover. But we all juggle together in our vehicle like marbles in a jar as Metsi traverses one bump after another, and circles huge termite mounds the size of trees. Of course, we all hold binoculars and cameras in hand, awaiting our first discovery, the chance to take that 'National Geographic' shot.

It doesn't take long. Soon graceful-looking impalas with curved horns and brown, beige and white markings gaze up at us from their early-morning grazing. Although the most common of all animals in all of Africa, we never tire of looking at their beauty, their grace, and their huge brown eyes.

"We call them 'McDonald's' " Metzi laughts. "See the big dark 'M-shape' on their behinds? We all look as he continues. "And, like McDonald's drive-ins, there's one on every corner."

Our laughter is interrupted by a crashing sound beneath a nearby umbrella-shaped acacia tree, and discover a young African Elephant bull tearing at the branches of the bushes beneath it. We quickly gain a first-hand demonstration of the strength and power of this, the world's largest land mammal, when he plunders from the bush and heads across the road in the direction of what seems like a direct hit on our vehicle. A large cloud of dust exploads behind him. But suddenly he turns and heads in the other direction down the road, and we are all thankful for the near-miss. What if he had stampeded our Land Rover, picked it up and threw it across the road with his massive trunk. We'd be nothing but a pile of mashed flesh and metal.

"They're known as the 'gentle giants'," Metsi tells us. We all swallow hard, not so sure that we are quite ready to believe him at the moment.

A small herd of Blue Wildebeest catches our attention next. Their dark grey bodies glisten against the tawny-colored grasses that they feed upon. Several Bushell's Zebras are by their side. They all peak curiously at us and blink at the sound of our clicking cameras.

"They like to stick together," Metsi says. "They find safety in each other. They warn each other of danger."

We drive on through several mud holes, deep streams, and near-empty pans (holes) which are filled with water during the rainy season, and head deeper into the wilderness. More than ever we are thankful to be in the expert hands of Metsi and in this vehicle high above ground, even though are feet are sometimes emerged in the water. Are there crocodiles in these streams? Are the animals friendly around here? Or would they really prefer us for dinner? How would we ever get out of here alone? Which way is camp? Which way is north, or south for that matter? All these things go through my mind, but I decide to let them pass and enjoy our adventure.

"The leopards like it around here," Metsi says. "They like to sit up in the leafy parts and the trees and rest and watch for prey." We all tense up, begin to trace the treetops with our eyes and binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the most elusive and shy of all African creatures. Yet at the same time hoping that one will not pounce on our vehicle. "We spotted a leopard the other day," Metsi continues. "We saw its tale dangling high up in the tree."

Suddenly, we are all alert for dangling tails and we all scan the branches more closely, looking for a long golden tail spotted with black rosettes. But we are not to find a leopard this morning.

However, we experience plenty of other wonderful things, including hundreds of 'LBJS'-little brown jobs-which criss-cross the terrain and seem as common as ants.

"Tree squirrels," Metsi points out. "Some banded mongoose, there's some monkeys." We stare from our vehicle but often seen nothing but brown. How does he spot those little things? He must have built-in radar.

By now the sky overhead is a clear, cobalt blue. The sun is hot, now high in the sky. A soft breeze blows across the dried savannah grasses and the reed-surrounded lakes and water holes glisten in the distance.

There are plenty of sounds, too. "Cherrrr, cherrrr, kek, kek, kek," blurt a flock of Guinea Fowl as they waddle in duck-like fashion beside the road in front of us, pecking at the ground for insects and seeds. Their red faces, blue throats, prominent helmets and finely spotted black and white bodies stand out against the short dry grass. We are enthralled with this most common little bird, called a Chobe Chick in these parts. This bird who perches on scrub bushes at night; the one who is supposed to make a delicious dinner when roasted. But how could anyone eat anything so beautiful? Tom would love one of their feathers for his hat. I'll try to find one on the ground. I can tell that he is already looking.

We also spot many other kinds of birds, thanks not only to Metsi, but to Peter, Mark, Nico, Dave, Colleen and Paty, who all happen to be expert bird spotters. We quickly conclude that they all have had to pass Bird Watching 101 with flying colors in their South African schools. In fact, they are regular 'bird watching encyclopedias.'

"There's a Pied Babbler," whispers Colleen, "No, a White-Rumped Babbler," the guys challenge. Who were we to know? It was only a beautiful bird to us. "There's a Forktailed Drongos," Nico says. "Look at his long forked tail." It looked like a big black bird to us.

"And look at that Hoopoe," Dave spots.

"Hoop-hoop-hoop," we hear its cry, now thoroughly sure that this must be why it is called a Hoopoe.

One bird we do remember, however. This is the Lilac Breasted Roller; the one that graces all the bird postcards in African gift shops. And fortunately for us, one lands on a tree branch several feet from our Range Rover. It looks like a rainbow with its yellow head, lilac neck, turquoise breast, and orange-colored wings. "I never knew a bird could be so beautiful," I say, watching as it flies to join its mate resting on another branch.

It is soon tea time, and in the British tradition that is so much a part of Africa, tea is served. In fact, we soon learn that no proper safari could possibly be without it. So we pull into a beautiful grassy spot next to a large watering hole, which we soon decide will not become our 'cooling off swimming hole.' That's because at least a dozen crocodiles are sunning themselves along the shore. What surprises us even more is that some impalas and reedbucks are grazing nearby, and a Goliath Heron and a Sacred Ibis with its black and white plumage and long curved beak, hunt for food beside the crocodiles. Were they crazy? Weren't they afraid of becoming some crocodile's lunch? And why would the crocodiles pass up such easy prey?

Metsi must have read our minds. "The crocks won't go after them," he says. "They prefer fish and frogs from the water." Nontheless, we are still not about to go for a swim in this particular watering hole and would wait for the pool back in camp. We were not yet ready to forfeit an arm or leg as a crocodile appetizer. A nice cup of English breakfast tea would have to cool us off for now.

The two guides open the rear of our vehicles and produce flower printed tablecloths, homemade gingersnaps, teabags, sugar and the like, along with hot thermoses of water. It was all beyond belief-an English tea party right here in the middle of the African bushveld!

Of course the guys cannot pass up this opportunity of empty time to have a brief business meeting, and they gather in a group at the side of the lake and 'talk shop.' I continue to snap pictures, and Tom and Kirk both look at me with that 'if you dare take another picture right now you're dead meat' look. I ignore them and continue snapping away. They all look so funny in their khaki shorts and wide-rimmed Indian Jones' hats trying to hold a bushveld brainstorming session.

Teatime finished, we proceed across the endless savannah where we are told lions love to hunt and roam. All ears perk up as we listen for the roar of a lion, the almost mythical beast that we all dreamt about seeing in the wild and loved to observe in zoos during our childhood. All eyes are glued to the tall tawny-colored grasses, hoping to catch a glimpse of Africa's largest predator.

Several minutes pass. Nothing. We proceed slowly forward. Still nothing. That's when I see some movement in the grass about 200 yards away. It is actually a golden-colored flash. "Metsi," I say, "I saw something move way back there." I point with my finger and continue to strain my eyes in that direction.

"It's a huge male lion," he says. All binoculars turn toward where he points. He stops the Land Rover immediately and we all take up watch. The lion proceeds toward us. When he is about twenty feet of our vehicle, he suddenly stops, shakes his head and mane and moves to the top of a large sand mount in front of us; a perfect natural throne for this great animal, this 'king of beasts.' He sits down and just stares at us with his golden eyes. Of course we stare back, absolutely awestruck at one of the most beautiful and proud beasts that we have ever seen.

"He's very healthy," Colleen says. "Look at his coat. He's well-fed."

"His pride of female lions are taking good care of him," Metsi answers. "They must be around here somewhere."

We watch the lion for a long time, all of us totally enchanted, not caring whether we moved even an inch from this spot for the remainder of the day.

"Are you ready to go?" Metsi finally asks. "There are lots of other animals to see. But we've got to go back to camp for brunch and rest first."

Back in camp, we are treated to a tasty buffet brunch and we all stuff ourselves like it is the last meal we will ever eat. Afterwards, we have four hours to rest and relax before going out on another game drive. None of us really want to rest. We want to see more animals, hundreds and hundreds of them.

By now it is very hot, and the air heavy with moisture. We can finally understand the need for the rest period and assume that the animals are doing the same thing. Leaving Paty and Derrick to cool off in the dipping pool which Is inset in a wooden deck right next to the delta, we decide to return to our tent for a rest. On the way we pass mark reading an animal book in the lobby. Peter is lounging in a hammock alongside the delta. I wonder if he knows there is a baby crocodile underneath. He must have read the sign.

Our tent is dripping wet. This is because it has a drip system on its perimeter to help cool the inside during the day. It sounds like it is raining outside. Going into the bathroom, I find it in disarray. Everything is scattered on the floor. Our toothpaste is missing. I quickly check for my asthma inhaler and find it is still there.

"Looks like some baboons have been visiting," I call to Tom. But he does not hear me. He's reclining in the lounge chair on our viewing deck sound asleep. I decide to take a rest myself and the dripping water quickly lulls me to sleep.

"I can't believe this!" I hear Kirk say a few minutes later from their front porch. "Susie, you've got to see this! I was just sitting here reading my novel when I heard this loud sloshing sound in the water. Look who's come to visit!" Susie flies from their tent in her nightgown and Tom sits up straight on our porch like he is having a bad dream. I run outside to find out what is going on. Dave and Colleen also rush from their tent, cameras in hand.

Lumbering from the lagoon before our tents is a huge hippopotamus! We're sure that he must weaigh at least two tons, and he's close enough so that we can all look him in the eyes. But he ignores us and moves between our two tents, grazing on grass and other plants. Aren't they supposed to be the most dangerous of the 'Big Five?" I look at his huge square jaw and large teeth, which are capable of cutting a man in half. Then why are we all standing here and googling at him like he's a big helium balloon? We later learn that his name is Amadeus and two he is one of the two local hippos that like to visit.

Now unable to sleep, Tom and I walk over to the lounge for a cold drink. We hear hysterical sobbing from the lobby area. The manager, Jay, is talking to the young couple who is spending their honeymoon at the camp.

"They stole my birth control pills!" the young woman weeps. "Those damn baboons! Now what am I going to do? It's our honeymoon."

"We'll send someone to the pharmacy in Maun. They'll have some pills," Jay assures them, even though the pharmacy is a forty-five minute plane ride.

The woman's crying stops and we smile. Perhaps there will be less baboons around camp now.

Jay continues talking. "Those baboons are always getting into mischief around here. Why just last week they raided the camp next door and drank all their beer. Acted crazy as hell in their drunken state. That's why we have an electric fence around our lobby. They tried to eat all the leather furniture." By now the young couple is laughing.

We return to sit by the pool and enjoy our ice tea when Metsi approaches. "Are you two the ones that want to go on a mokoro ride?" he asks.

"That's us," Tom says. "Is it possible to take us? We'd really appreciate it."

"I'd be most happy to. After all, my father was a mokoro maker and he taught me how to sail them as a young boy."

We follow him to the dock and step into the hollowed out boat, barely deeper than a foot. I wonder how much protection it will give us from the creatures that must lurk in the delta's still waters and I wonder if I should cancel my adventure before it gets started.

But Metsi is an expert oarsman, and the boat glides through the water without making a sound, only the splish-splash of his single long oar, when he navigates the boat from the rear.

We see many water inhabitants, especially crocodiles, and I am seriously hoping that Metsi's boatmanship is as good as we think. It is certainly not a place where I want to be tossed out of a wooden boat to become crocodile snacks. I lay back against Tom and took in all the sites and begin to relax. Lilly pads are all around us, their flowers white and pink. Metsi stops by some reeds and pulls one out and makes a necklace for me.

"You can also use them as straws for drinking," he says. "And as a breathing tube if you need to swim beneath the water." I for one, was certainly not about to try that.

We continue on and into narrow inlet, after skirting behind several hippos. "Aren't they dangerous?" Tom asks.

"Not if you leave them alone," Metsi answers, pointing the bow of the boat around the next bend.

Suddenly before us is a loud splash. Up from the papyrus grass rises the largest elephant we have ever seen! And he looms not ten feet from our tiny boat! Tom winds his arms around me and we both just sit there in shock., certain that the beast is going to come down upon us at any second.

Metsi sees our fear, for he calmly remarks, "He's just out taking his afternoon bath. It's the only way they have to cool off. Don't worry, he's not going to spray you," he added, just as the elephant raised its trunk in our direction. Of course a good spray from an elephant is the least of our worries. We are much more worried about receiving him right on top of our boat.

But he does nothing but look at us, and continues with his bath as Metzi heads the boat back in the direction of Xakanaxi, our camp. So we have survived our mokoro ride, like the native peoples who live in the delta. Now that wasn't so bad, was it? Actually it was fun-especially now that it's over.

Several hours later, our group meets back at our two vehicles. Everyone looks refreshed, cameras and binoculars 'at the ready.'

"I have a feeling that we're going to see lots of animals this afternoon," Metsi says. He's right. Around the first curve we almost run into a herd of giraffes. They are so close to us that we can almost reach out and touch their velvet spotted coats, all in different shades of brown and beige; all camouflaging so well with their surroundings that it is sometimes hard to see them. They are incredibly graceful as they feed from the acacia trees, often taller than the trees themselves.

"They move on both legs on one side simultaneous a they walk," Nico tells us. "But they don't fall over as they balance themselves with the curve of their neck." We all stare at these huge agile creatures in motion and conclude that he is right.

We next spy a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. There are hundreds of them, a mass of dark, shaggy brown fur. They are huge, rather mean look, yet they pastorally graze like cows. But I do not think that I would like to try milking one, or to stare one straight in the eyes. The viewing point from the Land Rover is perfect. We watch them graze for a while and listen to their snorts, the powerful stamp of their hooves. The buffalo have recently dropped their young, which they keep within the depths of the herd away from the threat of predators. I wonder if there are lions nearby.

"Do you know how to tell the difference between a male and a female?" Metsi asks. We all shake our heads in the direction of the giant beasts with huge curved horns. "The females have hair between their horns," he says. "The horns of the male come together."

Quickly, we all identify both male and female buffalo, one after another. "We might find some lions around here," Metsi continues, having answered my question. "They love buffalo meat." I wonder how a huge chargrilled buffalo steak would taste myself. They did not look so tender to me. But then, of course, we do not have the incisors of a lion to tear our meat apart.

Metsi is right about the lion. Not far from the herd and deep within the savannah area of tall grass, he spies movement. The grass sways.

"Quiet," he says. Several female lions soon appear, followed by a huge male. They move silently, gracefully through the wheat-colored grass which is the same color as their coats. Reaching a mound beneath a baobab tree, they suddenly stop and recline beneath it. The male goes to the middle of the pride, yawns, and then lies down. Right before our eyes they sleep, knowing very well that we are only fifteen feet or so away from them.

"Don't they feel threatened with us around?" Tom asks. "How can they relax enough to sleep?"

"They are not afraid of humans," Metsi answers. "They have never been hunted nor frightened by man here in the reserve." He pauses and takes a deep breath in the total silence. "But the second one of us steps from this vehicle, they will all stand at full attention, ready to attack." But we are not about to prove him 'right' on that prediction.

"I think they are ready to make a kill," he continues. "They look like they have not eaten for several days." We anticipate what this hunt would look like; imagine the females of the pride all pouncing on a buffalo and tearing it to bloody pieces. I don't say it outloud, but I'm not so sure that I want to witness a hunt. In fact, I know I don't want to. But the others all look rather excited. I can tell that their adrenaline is high, even though no one says a word.

Soon five other Land Rovers approach our 'front row' viewing spot. Word has gotten out. All circle around like a group of pioneer wagons to watch the pride sleep. It is almost comical to see so many people standing in their vehicles in anticipation, necks craned, binoculars and cameras at the ready. But nothing happens. And the lions continue to sleep undisturbed. It is like they are members of a three-ring circus that has decided not to perform, even though their audience is waiting.

We finally tire of awaiting their next act and move on. "They'll probably wait until it cools down in the evening and then go after one of the buffalo," Metsi says.

Driving deeper into the endless savannah, we spot another female lion. She is very skinny and her coat does not look healthy. "She was probably expelled from the pride," Metsi says. "It is very difficult for a lion to survive on its own."

The colors soon begin to soften into evening, and the sky turns a light peach color, and the air cools as it blows across our faces.

"Time for sundowners," Metsi says. We pull up beside a large lake. There are several zebras-one with a baby-watering at lakeside. A crocodile lazes in the last rays of sunlight, and several hippo heads bounce in and out of the water. Impala and reedbuck graze in the distance. A scruffy warthog feeds on bended knees, and a huge troop of monkeys watches us from the scrub brush and flatlands, as does a troop of baboons. A flock of Guinea fowl bed down for the night, and starlings and sunbirds head for the protection of night-time roosts. It is all so tranquil, so beautiful. It is also like a scene from a Dr. Doolittle movie-so many animals, in so many places.

We all watch in wonderment as this scene around us becomes more animated. For soon the hippos emerge from the coolness of the water and onto the opposite shore to begin their customary nighttime foraging. The crocodile slips into the water and skirts it just below the surface, creating a ripple across the lake. The monkeys begin to groom each other's bristly coats and black faces.

"They like to eat the mites off each other," Metsi says. We find them cute and playful as they romp together on the grass. Soon the baboons carry their babies from one place to the next, still keeping us in sight. Then they all gather together and amble down the path beside the lake as the evening shadows lengthen. The grazing animals continue feeding, barely noticing our presence.

But suddenly this pastoral scene ends! A monkey screams out a warning of danger and all the animals begin to run in all directions. "Monkeys never lie," Metsi tells us. "They have excellent hearing and smell and can detect a predator from far off. The other animals pay attention to them."

This is very obvious to all of us as we stand at attention, ready for the action. Tom, Kirk and Susan all grab their cameras as the scene before us suddenly turns to chaos. Impalas leap into the air and across the meadow. The warthog jumps up from his knees, raises his antennae-like tail and darts into his hole. The zebras stampede across the grassland at lakeside and into the riverine forest as the young one struggles to keep up with the herd. The monkeys scamper up the trees and into their safe tree-top canopies.

We all sit in the Land Rover amazed. "I think there's a leopard over there in the bushes," Metsi whispers. "Everyone be very quiet."

We watch and wait. Metsi looks for movement in the short trees. "There, right there!" he points. "It's a young male leopard." We all look into the brown grasses surrounding the scrub bushes and see nothing.

But suddenly there is movement. A leopard with a gold, black-spotted coat creeps through the grass. He is so articulate, so graceful. His golden eyes gleam in the last light of day as he slinks through the grass and away from our presence, which he senses as danger. He has decided to forfeit his hunting for the time being.

"They are sly and elusive," Metsi tells us. "We won't see him again tonight. But now it's time for Sundowners."

We all alight from the two vehicles and stretch; some of us scamper for the bushes to relieve ourselves. Is it safe? After all, there is a leopard out there, and about a million other wild animals, like that crocodile that is about six-feet long; Then there's those giant two-two hippos, which we've been promised are the meanest of Africa's animals. But the call of nature wins and we all go into the bushes one by one.

Returning to the vehicles, we find cold beer, wine and salty snacks spread on tablecloths on the tailgates of our vehicles. Now this is the life. We'll never want to go home. I'm sure that everyone is thinking the same thing.

Sipping our wine, we watch the sky, which is now turning a bright pinkish-orange. The dark silhouettes of the trees are stamped powerfully on the still water and against the evening sky as it turns to a pale lilac, dimpled with bits of fluffy pink-tinged clouds. It is all so beautiful.

Of course Kirk is busy clicking that camera of his and Dave has his huge telephoto balanced on the hood of the Land Rover in order to capture the most perfect sunset. And Susan is snapping memories like there is no end to the supply of film in her camera case. We all pose for group pictures in the fading sunset, which turns our pasty complexions to a golden tan. Of course, I video everything, much to Tom's irritation. These will be precious to you someday, My Dear. I promise you.

As the sun dips below the horizon like a huge copper coin into the pocket of night, the sounds of the evening begin to awaken. The frogs croak; the insects hum; the birds sing their 'goodnight' calls to one another. It sounds like a large, outdoor symphony orchestra al natural. Then the first star appears on the horizon, then one more, then another as the sky becomes a dark gray. We are all overwhelmed, too speechless to talk. It one of life's beautiful moments and we all want it to last forever.

"I'm afraid it's time to return to camp," Metsi says. "We aren't allowed to be out in the reserve after dark." We all thank him for a most wonderful day on the bumpy ride back to the camp, all relaxed from the drinks and the rainbow-colored sunset. We are all anticipating the next few days ahead of us. One thing we know for sure. There will be some great campfire tales to tell this evening.

Reaching camp, we are greeted by the light cast by what seems like hundreds of paraffin lanterns, tiki torches and candles. It is one of the most wonderful homecomings we have experienced. The staff are there to greet us and the air is filled with the aromas of charcoaled meat and baking bread. Our stomachs grown as we walk along the tiki-lit path to our tents to shower and get cleaned up for dinner.

A glowing lantern beckons us to our viewing deck and welcomes us home. The beside tables hold candles, their flames casting shadows on the canvas tent. A bright blue Gheck races up the screened tent flap when we enter.

As I stand in the candle-lit shower and gaze up at the stars, I hear the serenade of insects, feel the peacefulness of the delta all around me. I feel overwhelmed, so minute in this grand scheme of nature. Tom surprises me with a glass of wine as I emerge from the shower and we sit out on our front veranda in our robes and clink our glasses together, a special time.

We all gather in the candle-lit open air lounge a short time later. The Papyrus grass next to it bends its bushy heads in the soft breeze and brushes against the deckside. A lone hammock along the riverbank barely moves in the stillness, and dragon flies skate across the dipping pool. The thatched high-ceiling room is rustic, yet warm. It is filled with 'bits and pieces' of Africa-carved hippos; heavy teak furniture; Sasol African guide books, and South African wines and liquors, displayed in a mokoro canoe turned liquor cabinet.

We enjoy our drinks sitting on crude wooden deck chairs-chairs which I now stay clear of after my morning encounter. I prefer to lean against the deck railing and Tom joins me. We all listen to the sounds of the delta and chatter about the wonders of our day here. Of course, we take some more group shots, just to make sure we capture the perfect memory.

In the open-air dining room, we gather around a huge wooden table, a rustic candelabra adorning its center. A large candle chandelier burns brightly above us, casting shadows on the wooden floor. The only music we hear is the night noise of the Ikavango Delta.

After dinner, we gather around the campfire on the raised deck which hangs out over the delta. In the firelight, we sip a sweet, creamy African liquor-Amarila--that warms our insides. The night air is cool, yet has a soft, marshmallow-like feel. The fire radiates warmth and crackles as the flames turn to glowing ambers. The stars seem to reach down to touch us. It is so peaceful, a perfect end to such a perefect Okavango Delta day.