This is a place of spectacular contrasts. Where water meets fire, light meets dark, life meets death. Where the Okavango river, swollen with the winter rains of Angola’s highlands, flows down into Botswana, releasing water into a vast inland oasis. This is the Okavango Delta, a mosaic of papyrus, lagoons, grasslands and marsh; a magnet for wildlife at the peak of the dry season. There are no roads, no human constructions, no human influence at all.

We camp wild, travelling into the delta on traditional canoes called mokoros. Our local guide is called ‘Top Gun’; his father was a bushman and he’s lived his whole life here. He leads us on walks over wildfire scorched plains, under great baobab trees. He shows us lion prints in the ash and we follow them for a while; they are worryingly large and fresh. We pause at a lake where hippos wallow. The sun is low, the air is still, it’s serene. Until it isn’t. A hippo is out, the guides are shouting, no time to think just RUN!

That night we stargaze from another world. The Milky Way as I’ve never seen it, breathtaking in its twisting entirety, dazzling in its clarity. There’s the Coalsack Nebula, the Southern Cross. We stand, absorb, grin, it is profoundly peaceful. And then it isn’t. Bloodcurdling growls and groaning roars, so loud in the black. Back to the fire, hearts thudding, is it lions? Our guides smile, reassure. Not lions but hippos fighting. It’s a battle which rages all evening, a clash of testosterone and territorial indignation. After a while you get used to the noise.

The next day we are a procession of mokoros sliding through the lilies. I’m scribbling as we spot: malachite kingfisher, pied kingfisher, African jacana, painted reed frog, a group of red lechwe… Warm sun, cool water, calm. Fingers trail, poles splash, cameras click. A shout from ahead and Top Gun speeds up, overtaking until he gets to the front.

There, knee-high in the channel, three huge bull elephants. They are tearing up plants and they are in our way. I am in the front seat, and Top Gun is not stopping. Oh god. Closer, closer, and the elephants respond. Two of them move onto the bank, unhurried, they flick their ears and turn their huge heads to look at us. Fifteen metres away. Top Gun shouts at the third bull and slaps his pole against the water. The animal starts to move, then swings his head back at us and trumpets. His ears are flapping and his weight shifts as he turns. He is agitated and I have never felt so vulnerable. Don’t move, don’t speak, be invisible. Ten metres, closer. Shouting, slapping, utter terror. Then it’s over. With a final trumpet he’s out and on the bank; we pass in silence under their watch. I am visibly shaking and speechless. My friend thanks Top Gun, who was calm and in control. He shakes his head. “They’re being cheeky.” He tells us that people and elephants are meant to share the Delta, they have a deal. This coexistence of man and beast has terms, and the elephants were pushing their luck.

Two of the scariest encounters of my life, yet the Okavango Delta is still my favourite place. It’s a place of dizzying contradictions, where we are left grinning like fools one moment and shaking with fear the next. Dopamine and adrenaline. This is wilderness on an epic scale and here we are nothing special; this land belongs to the wild.

Out here, we are truly unplugged: we cannot get online and we don’t want to. Out here, we can reconnect with our wild history. It’s clichéd but it’s true. And it’s more than that really, because it’s not just that we can reconnect but that here, perhaps more so than many wildlife destinations, we have to.

My experience wasn’t the same as the others on my trip: in different walking groups, they didn’t get chased by a hippo; in mokoros further down the line, they may have only seen the elephants lumbering off as they passed. Some might say I was unlucky, but I disagree. I’m lucky because I felt all the contrasts. Here, in the delta, I felt more alive than ever before.

  • Jo Wimpenny
  • : Zoologist and writer based in Oxford, UK.
  • : https://twitter.com/JoWimpenny
  • : adult_(19_and_over_as_of_31st_december_2019)
  • : This is the first time this story has been published.

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