Full immersion – Travel Africa Magazine

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Shaped by water, with some of the most intense concentrations of wildlife and the most idiosyncratic landscapes on the planet, Botswana leaves nothing to compromise.

We all have our favourite safari destinations, but what makes this southern Africa country so special? We asked a man whose spent his life filming, photographing, and now fighting to protect the country’s wildlife: Dereck Joubert

I often ask myself why I love Botswana. It’s like asking anyone in love why they fell in love in the beginning. It is the lift of hair in the breeze, the fragrant scent that you can still remember from the first time you saw her, the sound of laughter that lifted your own spirit to the clouds. It is why I fell in love with Beverly, and with Botswana.

Even now I can recall the scent of wild sage mixed in with the particular elephant smells across the mopane woodland in the north, that no-man’s land between the rivers that bustle with life in the dry season and the vast wilderness that sucks up thousands of herds and makes then disappear into the greenery each wet season.

I think it’s the sheer wildness of Botswana that holds us captive, a place where philos-ophers and poets have sought refuge to find their souls, to write, to reflect and to create.

We are, I believe, most of all, the storytelling ape — homo ‘scriptus’ perhaps, a new term instead of ‘sapiens’, that means wise ape (and sometimes I question this definition). We each write ourselves into our own stories, as heroes, main characters, and so we should. But it is against a backdrop of the purity of nature that we play best.

Years ago, Botswana made a strategic determination to develop a tourism model based on high value and a very low ecological footprint. “The Botswana model” allows for just that kind of silence when you need it most, the pristine, the uncluttered. And it is the envy of many other countries.

I recently walked along the edge of a typical Okavango thick-reed island and stopped suddenly as the tall sedges parted. A shaggy-haired creature stepped out and also stopped. As we eyed each other — him weighing up if I was a threat, me wondering how long the magic would last before he bounded off — we shared a silent contract. Birds waited quietly for one of us to break the spell. I was watching a rare sitatunga antelope, and then he dipped his head down and start nibbling on fresh shoots in the reeds. It was mesmerizing. It was heartwarming; a moment of trust.

I believe that it is this trust between us and the natural world that rewards us most in life, in times when we are together, not opposing each other, not ploughing up rainforests or slaughtering wildlife or insisting that every acre pays for itself in dollar terms.

It already pays. With humans making up 36 per cent of animal biomass and our livestock about 60 per cent, that leaves just 4 per cent for wildlife. I would say it has paid a dear price.

Botswana is also home to about a third of the world’s elephants, existing peacefully so far. The Okavango is a place of peace and tranquility for them. And they reward us lavishly, feeding our creative inner souls when we sit in their company, watching them at play or in the mud, with babies, old females and bulls enjoying the moment equally. Their example reminds us to be playful in life. When they are ready to leave, every last one is helped out and the herd does a head count before moving off. It reminds us to have empathy and caring. And when they communicate gently in soft rumbles, and sensitively give space to others, it reminds us to afford dignity and grace to those we interact with. If you are ready to be reminded of those life lessons, in amongst the elephants of Botswana is where you want to be.

The safari I encourage and imagine daily is not one chasing around in pursuit of the Big Five (a colonial hunting term for the most dangerous animals to kill, when in fact it seems there is a more dangerous one roaming the planet in numbers of 7.8 billion). Nor is it the more gentle approach of ticking off the well over 400 bird species in Botswana. These are certainly worthy exercises, but a safari is more about that connection I had with the sitatunga or the elephants, where silence is the common language, and the real achievement is in finding the best in ourselves to reflect to them as they nakedly wander in and out of our lives.

But a trip to Botswana, like one to Kenya and many other places, also affords the opportunity to meet the people who most interact with these natural places, to understand the ancient culture of living in harmony. We have been so inspired by this that Beverly and I help fund a school and are developing the Great Plains Academy, where guests will be welcome to give a lecture and experience the sparkle in a child’s eyes as she imagines the unimaginable in her life. This too is an expression of respect and trust, affording dignity and grace that I hope is the underlying reason to travel at all.

Look into the eyes of a large male lion and you will understand the connection we have to the wild, and why we need to preserve it. When I was born there were 450,000 lions. Today we have just 20,000 left, with only 3500 males. Leopards are down in a similar proportion, to under 50,000, and elephants have dipped below half a million.

But their plight is mitigated by our collective will to do good. We have just moved 87 out of a target of 100 rhinos back into the wild in Botswana, with an exceptional breeding rate of 28 babies from that group. There is a global outcry when a dentist shoots a lion, a nation wants to slaughter elephants or baby elephants are shipped to China. So there is hope that we will ultimately do the right thing.

Why anyone would want to kill any one of these animals I have no idea, but the way we fortify the case for keeping them alive is through tourism, by spending time and money ‘investing’ in an industry that shows a real interest in seeing wildlife roam free, and at the same time providing respect, jobs and revenue to the people who risk their safety and security living near these wild places.

So, why Botswana? It is because it is still wild and packed with a variety of amazing moments, but most of all it is because it makes the case to keep it so at a time when decisions are being made about the future of Africa and how we interact with it. Because it is a showcase for nature.

I live in Botswana because it is the place I can sit on a fallen-down tree and watch as elephants feed gently around me. I learn from them and welcome their lessons on how to better live my life. Most of all, I wish for this to happen to you on your next safari to Botswana. It changes your life.

Dereck Joubert is a conservationist, filmmaker, National Geographic Explorer at Large, and CEO of Great Plains Conservation

Botswana’s enduring appeal is rooted in the striking landscapes that provide its endless horizons and nourish expansive wildlife populations – the unique features of the Okavango and Makgadikgadi in particular. This land has endured a simple but fascinating geological history over many million years, which has delivered to us the amazing country that we have today. By Mike Main

It is now widely accepted that the continents that populate our planet are in constant motion, slowly drifting across its surface. Some 300 million years ago Africa was near the southern pole, part of Gondwanaland, and glacial conditions prevailed. As it moved north and warmed, the ice cover and glaciers melted to form swamps, lagoons and rivers and the exotic vegetation of those times accumulated to form our massive coal deposits of today. Gradual drying over millions of years, and slow but continual movement north, turned swamps to mudstone to shale and in the depressed centre of the sub-continent vast quantities of sand collected, forming over time great depths of sandstone.

Around 180 million years ago Gondwana began to break up and massive sheets of basalt covered the land. Remains of this outpouring can be seen in South Africa’s magnificent Drakensberg Mountains and Victoria Falls, the rapids at Commissioner Kop in Kazungula and, further upstream along the Zambezi, the wonderful horseshoe Ngonye Falls at Sioma in western Zambia.

At first, the major rivers as they are today did not follow their present courses. We know that the Upper Zambezi, the Kwando, Okavango and Cubango combined to flow across northern Botswana and, via what is now the Limpopo, emptied into the Indian Ocean.

Tens of millions of years ago, an uplift of the land surface along a line running northeast-southwest – roughly from Harare through eastern Botswana and curving into the central Kalahari, like a ripple in a stretched blanket – interrupted the passage of this former river and, acting like a dam wall, caused it to back-fill over most of northern Botswana, creating a massive lake.

Over succeeding millennia the rivers, responding to regional warping of the land surface and river capture, were sequentially removed from the inflow so that, as each was excised from the system, a series of relatively rapid drops in the lake level can be discerned. Though quite clear on satellite imagery, the oldest shoreline is difficult to detect and, indeed, the 995 level was only recently discovered. However, the 945 level is very clear and easy to see. Today you can stand at a signposted stop 104km from Maun on the road to Nata, and see the ridge curving away to the north and south, a marker in this cluttered thorn-veld of the edge of a former sea. The basalt dyke across the Chobe river near Mowana Lodge in Kazungula held the lake at 936 metres before it was breached, allowing the lake to fall from that level to 920 metres.

Eventually, with the capture of the Upper Zambezi by what is now the river passing over Victoria Falls and the extension of the East African Rift Valley that stopped the Okavango in its tracks, the great lake was no more. We were left with the amazing salt pans we call collectively Magkadikgadi, but which actually consists of two major pans, Ntwetwe in the west and Sowa in the east.

The pans are a stunning spectacle: the morning and evening light quite phenomenal. It is strange that such a place can be so beautiful for it is quite featureless. The surface is flat and hard and relentless. You will see no stones, no leaves, no grass. On a grey day it can be hard to distinguish land and sky and yet, from the shores of the very occasional rocky island, for example, the openness, the vastness, the astounding silence and the unlimited sky are breathtaking. There are few places in the world where, on a moonless night, you can pluck so many stars from the sky.

Creeping down the length of Africa, a rift valley that saw its birth in the Dead Sea has followed a line through East Africa, along the Luangwa and up the course of the Zambezi to stretch itself via a pattern of faults to create what we call today the Okavango Delta. A trough, some 300 metres deep, now filled with sand, lies beneath that swirling mosaic of island and lagoon – the sun-sparkled jewel of Botswana.

The Okavango is the only significant surface water in the whole country. We are bounded in the east by the Limpopo and the north-west by the Okavango and the Chobe, all rivers that played a major part in the creation of the landscape we see today and all much less than they once were. But in their passing they have bequeathed to us the extraordinary Makgadikgadi and Okavango and the vast, once lake-bed that today supports Chobe and Nxai Pan National Parks and nurtures Botswana’s remarkable herds of game.

This feature first appeared in edition 87 of Travel Africa magazine. To buy this issue, please click here, or to subscribe and receive future printed copies of the magazine, please click here.

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