There’s definitely an assumption amongst African safari guides that what us tourists want to see above everything else are the big cats. So we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to track them down. If we do get lucky, the lions are generally fast asleep and the leopards are sitting quietly and looking in every direction except towards us and our cameras.
They’re lovely and everything, sense of power at rest, dignity in repose, magnificent mane etc. But they don’t actually do much beyond yawning. In comparison, your elephant is a non-stop flurry of movement. He always has things to do, places to go, other elephants to meet. He eats, drinks, trumpets, knocks things over, gets that prehensile trunk working all over the place, makes a low growling sound you can feel as well as hear, and sloshes about in mud baths with a look that says ‘yeah? What?’ Plus he’s absolutely enormous, of course.
We’re all agreed that watching active elephants is far better than watching sleeping lions and their adorable but also sleeping cubs.
Maybe we’ll get to see a big herd of them later. For now, we’ve swapped Shaka and his Landcruiser for Hector and his Mokoro canoe. The Mokoro is a traditional dugout used in the Okavango Delta, and our guide Hector is punting us at a languid breast-stroke speed along the reed-fringed river. It’s very still and peaceful, a point made by Hector, although he has to break off from a tuneless whistle to tell us this.
The seven of us are in four canoes. We take it in turns to stop and marvel at a tiny little Angolan Reed Frog. Despite his minuscule size he produces a loud chirping sound each dusk that I had thought must have been made by something much larger. That’s why we marveled rather than just looked. Without the knowledge that he makes this kind of noise, he’s really just a small frog.
But then we approach a bend in the river and see an elephant emerging from the bush.
And a big fella too. Wait, here’s another one!
Wow. This is getting good. Then a third shows up.
Then another. And another. They keep appearing from the treeline and head for the water. I lose count at sixty.
Looking around I see interesting groupings and activities.
I swap Nikon for iPhone and shoot some video. It’s then that I notice we’re virtually surrounded by a hundred or more elephants.
It might not look much now – I’m not the BBC Natural History Unit – but for us it is one of the undoubted highlights of the whole trip. It’s ironic that it happens during our brief little canoe trip, rather than during the total of around 36 hours we spend on safari with Shaka. Michael senses this, and when we get back to shore and Shaka asks if we saw anything, he says excitedly ‘Yes! We saw this AMAZING frog!’
Our final five-hour game drive is to the airstrip. No wonder they jokingly refer to long road trips in the bush as an African massage. The first few hours are OK, but after that the constant swinging and bouncing starts to get to me. I’m tempted to make up animal sightings – ‘Cheetah!’ ‘Mountain gorilla!’ ‘Minke whale!’ – anything to get the vehicle to stop for a while.
We do see a few things along the way, then reach the airstrip and watch a number of little planes arrive and take off until Evan and his Cessna arrive. We say goodbye to Shaka (‘you must come round to our place next time’), fly to Maun Airport where we switch to a bigger Avro RJ85, and head for Johannesburg.
While we’re waiting for our connecting flight at Maun Airport, a TV news report says that Donald Trump has fired another of his White House staff, one Sebastian Gorka. None of us knew his name so assumed he’d only been appointed while we’d been away. With Trump, anything’s possible.
Carol certainly knows how to pick a hotel. Johannesburg’s Monarch Hotel – nothing to do with the RIP airline – is perfect in every way. A building with history (it used to be the telephone exchange), a suite of large rooms with myriad lighting options to play with until I remember I’m supposed to be on holiday, an amazing power shower evidently modelled on a car wash, and a bed big enough to exert its own gravitational pull. Which explains why I couldn’t get out of it the next morning.
The hotel’s also handy for the local shopping mall. We go there to pick up tourist tat tasteful souvenirs and half a dozen bottles of great value South African wine. Then we realise we need to buy a new suitcase to carry it all home in, thereby offsetting most of the savings we’ve made on the wine. Oh well.
During our final dinner on the African continent we have one of those ‘what was the best part of the holiday FOR YOU?’ conversations. You know, the one where the answer ‘all of it, really’ isn’t allowed. Well, a standout impression for me is the friendliness of everyone we’ve met. Of course, most of the people we met are those whose very livelihoods are dependent on them not being hostile to tourists. But even so, they go way beyond the level of service you could reasonably expect in most European countries. And it’s also nice to visit countries in which Britain has had a colonial involvement and not get a sense of lingering resentment. On the whole, South Africa, Zambia and especially Botswana seem happy to embrace and even celebrate Britain’s part in their histories. Otherwise we’d have visited Mosi-oa-Tunya rather than Victoria Falls.
We fly back to Blighty on a British Airways Airbus A380. My word, this is a seriously impressive aircraft. Did you know it’s twice as long as the distance of the Wright Brothers first flight? Yet it needs a shorter runway than a 747? I could bore you for hours about the A380. Maybe another time… (If you haven’t experienced it, here’s a good place to start.)
We take off bang on schedule and greet the dawn at LHR a tad earlier than advertised. We’d been forewarned by the Daily Mail about the ‘shambles’ at Terminal 5, with passengers having to queue for hours to get through immigration, but we fly through border control in under a minute. Baggage reclaim is another story, though, taking a full two minutes to pick up our bags – precious wine bottles mercifully intact – and whizz through customs.
So that’s that. What a waste of bloody time. Kidding! It was utterly fantastic. All of it. Once again, massive thanks to my wife Carol – the definitive holiday-maker.
Cumulative distance travelled: 25,200 km (15,600 miles)
Number of flights: Nine (I’ll plant the trees later)
Number of 36-exposure rolls of film used (equivalent): 132
Keep/delete photograph ratio: 1:12
Positive views of Trump or Brexit encountered: 0
Mosquito bites: 0