We round a stand of brush at an easy trot. The guide, at the lead, signals a halt. I comply, and look past him to the watering hole ahead. There stand two enormous bull elephants.
The mighty beasts are fully aware of our presence, but seem unconcerned by it. The horses stand quietly, watching. It is as if, they, too, sense the magic of the moment.
My fascination with elephants dates back to childhood. Never the toughest or fastest kid, I was often the subject of the neighborhood bully’s transgressions. I remember lying in bed at night fervently wishing I had an elephant. I figured nobody would mess with me if I was riding my elephant down the street. As I grew older, I came to appreciate the elephants’ sense of community. I learned how adult elephants circle around the babies when the herd is threatened, and that elephants will stand for days, mourning over a lost family member.
Combine a lifelong preoccupation with elephants with a equally persistent passion for horses, and where does that lead? Well, I knew my first encounter with a wild elephant had to be from the back of a horse. That would be the Perfect Storm of exhilaration for me. But given the considerable expense and effort associated with an African safari, my non-riding husband’s experience had to be equally thrilling. Too, I wanted our interaction with the natural surroundings to be intimate; to be comfortable, but not sequestered. Finally, I fully realize that Africa’s ecosystem has a much more significant role in the cosmic scheme of life than serving my personal enjoyment. So, I wanted to choose a camp with a minimal impact on the environment.
For us, RAW (Ride and Walk) Botswana – Motswiri Camp was the perfect choice. Specializing in horseback, walking, boating and limited vehicular safaris, the connection to nature at RAW Botswana is profound, but the footprint is light. The camp relies on solar power and natural water sources for most camp functions. Refuse is transported to the nearest city, Maun, for recycling. Small and highly personalized, RAW Botswana has only six canvas and timber guest tents.
The camp at RAW Botswana is strategically positioned near the Okavango Delta, along the Selinda Spillway, in an area rich with wildlife. Our alfresco meals were often accompanied by the sight of Cape buffalo or kudu grazing along the water’s edge. At night, we were awakened by the sound of elephants lumbering through the brush, only yards away from our bed.
As an equestrian, the riding at RAW Botswana is incomparable. With over twenty horses in the stable, there is a match for every rider preference. All the mounts are fit, well-trained, and willing. Most importantly, the horses are accustomed to the unique hazards of riding in the bush: elephant holes the size of small lunar craters, hidden antelope springing unexpectedly from beneath hooves, an ambush by a deafening swarm of flying cicadas. To be sure, the RAW Botswana horseback safari is an endeavor for experienced riders only. At any moment, horses and riders must be prepared to either stand, or make a controlled retreat from, an animal charge.
That said, most of our mounted game encounters at RAW Botswana were free of drama and full of wonder. We bore the wrath of a comically disgruntled warthog when we interrupted his mud bath. We witnessed an almost familial interaction between our horses and a herd of zebras. We had a quiet face off with a giraffe. We were scolded by baboons and scrutinized by hippos.
Returning to camp and reuniting with my husband, I was delighted to hear that his outings, on foot, on the water, and in the vehicle, were as rewarding as my own. He followed two young male lions hunting for prey….and female companionship. He spied hyenas napping in the shade, and stumbled upon a python. With the help of a RAW Botswana guide, he deciphered the language of dung and tracks. He learned to listen for clues in the cries of birds, and how to recognize the scent of a fresh kill.
We gained cultural insights during our time at RAW Botswana, as well. One of our guides, a Botswana native, confided that he was soon to be married. As is the custom, he saved for years in order to accumulate the ‘Bride Price’ required by his betrothed’s family. One evening, the RAW Botswana staff treated us to a lively traditional African song and dance performance. With very little prompting, the guests jumped from their seats and joined in the rhythmic gyrations. On a more sober note, we learned that Botswana, historically the African poster child for responsible stewardship of its natural bounty, is experiencing increasing political polarization. In the most recent election, representatives favoring expansion of the wildlife reserves lost votes to candidates supporting the farmers who are displaced by reserve expansion.
Our weeklong stay at RAW Botswana ended far too soon. Reluctantly, we made the long journey home. We are now, once more, half a world away, but the impressions of our time at RAW Botswana remain rich in my mind. I can picture that breathtaking moment when we first encountered elephants on horseback. The sight of those two massive bulls was astonishing; the physical realization of a lifelong dream. I can recall the sing-song greeting of the RAW Botswana staff member who appeared at our tent to wake us each day at dawn. I can visualize her silhouette, with the tray bearing our morning coffee balanced gracefully on her head. I can close my eyes and hear the roar of lions, a sound so feral and thunderous; it resonates through my very bones.
RAW Botswana – Motswiri Camp treads lightly in the environment, but, oh, so vividly in my memories.