OKAVANGO DELTA — We were one short hour into a four-day expedition down the remote Selinda River, hugging the shoreline to avoid hippos, when a 12,000-pound bull elephant advanced and challenged.
I could smell his musk and feel the air as he shook his head.
“Remain calm. Sit tight,” our guide, Josh Iremonger, said quietly. “He’s just being a teenager.” Sure enough, moments later the elephant backed up.
Two realities struck me. I was headed far outside my comfort zone. And for the duration of this trip I would trust this unpretentious young guide with a soft voice, a big gun, and the profile of a Hollywood actor.
The adventure is called the Selinda Canoe Trail, a 28-mile wilderness meander through northern Botswana on a river that seasonally performs a vanishing act. A thread of the Okavango Delta, the Selinda is part of a network of waterways created when summer rains fill streams that flow inland. From June through August, Selinda is navigable for canoes. And then it dries up.
For a paddler seeking a remote experience in Africa, the river has two remarkable attributes. Since it is seldom more than a few feet deep, it is (usually) too shallow for hippos and crocs. And because the river flows entirely within operating terrain of just one company — Great Plains Conservation — tourist traffic is tightly controlled. No more than one flotilla (comprising eight guests, a guide, and four supporting staff) is on the river at a time.
Our group, some new to canoeing, included my wife and two grown children, two Britons, and two Aussies. For three-plus days in September we were seldom closer than 50 miles from the nearest civilization, which might be a few huts at best. We saw no other people, heard no engines, stumbled across no trash, and encountered no evidence that anything from one horizon to the other had changed for millennia. Not only did the Selinda take me out of my comfort zone, it catapulted me delightfully outside my element.
The classic Land Rover safari mixes people with wildlife aboard a vehicle familiar to the animals. You are invisible. On the Selinda you are a foreign object aboard a tippy canoe, quite visible — and vulnerable. The status of the river guide falls somewhere between protector and savior.
“Here we are visitors. The animals are in charge and we play by their rules,” Iremonger briefed us on the first day. “We are often the first humans they have ever seen.” Or eaten? Some of us contemplated this the previous afternoon when a series of mishaps (stuck vehicles without tow ropes, flat tires without lug wrenches) stranded us into the dusk on a lonely dirt road. These things happen in the bush, the locals say. “TIA. This Is Africa.”
Of English descent, Iremonger, 29, has guided for Great Plains since 2010, the year after its Selinda adventure began. To date some 400 guests have taken the trip without serious mishap, according to a company spokeswoman. So far, Iremonger’s .458 Winchester Magnum rifle has been only precautionary.
“If I ever had to use it, I will have failed,” said this taciturn man who believes the animal world could teach us much. “Everything here has its place. Everything is functional, nothing is wasted.”
A case in point: Frequently we would go ashore for an interpretive hike, in tight formation like the Seven Dwarfs plus one behind the guide. During one such foray, Iremonger stopped to examine what appeared to be a clump of chalk. It was decayed hyena feces. Lions might have killed and eaten a buffalo, then vultures picked the bones clean, then hyenas ate the bones for the calcium that turned the poop white, and now insects were finishing the job.
Life recycled; efficient, functional, sustainable.
Our first hippo meeting came midway through day one. The river was shallow but had pockets of hippo-deep water. Iremonger had spotted the animal’s ears and eyes above the water a few boat lengths ahead and quietly ordered us to halt. Seconds later — WHOOSH! the river erupted and what could have been 6,000 pounds of bloated sausage popped up grunting and snorting with a gaping maw. One tight corner took us past 10 hippos. Independently bobbing and grunting, they were close enough to share their dank breath.
Our daily routine included an interpretive morning hike, then breakfast, a paddle until lunch and a nap, then more paddling until dusk. We might cover 12 miles in a day. The staff in their own equipment-laden canoes would leapfrog ahead to prepare lunch and the evening campsite.
They caught our boats coming ashore, unloaded them, made the campfire, pitched the tents, sheeted the beds, filled our individual wash basins, erected the tented latrines and warm-water showers, mixed the gin and tonics, cooked the meals, popped the wine corks, set the lamp-lighted table, put the napkins in the napkin rings, and did the dishes. Camping?
Of the myriad episodes that took me to new places on this trip, two stand out.
I was awakened late one night by a stampeding herd of water buffalo not far from the tent. The ground shook. Then the air filled with a blood curdling, raspy bass roar of a lion, followed by nasty screams of squabbling hyenas. Then total silence. The next morning, I asked Iremonger why such a herd could not have stampeded right through our campsite. I was curious about the nuance of tent placement in the bush.
“They could have,” he responded.
The other episode evolved more slowly. We were perhaps 2 miles from our final campsite when an animal, standing still in the water, came into view with odd features — huge hind legs, a towering emaciated torso, and a left front leg grossly swollen and severely bent the wrong way at the knee. The life form appeared to be made of malleable clay.
The closer we got, the more we realized this was an elephant that had broken its leg. Crippled, it would not live long.
For days we had photographed anything that moved, but no one reached for a camera as we passed the doomed creature in silence.
Iremonger later explained that he had seen the lame animal a week earlier. The elephant had probably stepped in an aardvark hole. It visibly disturbed Iremonger to elaborate.
In an exchange of e-mails after the trip, Iremonger said he had passed the site on the next expedition. White bone was all that remained of the elephant, and it was vanishing.
Life recycled. Efficient, functional, sustainable.
This is Africa.David Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.