Elephants bathe in the Okavango Delta.

Elephants bathe in the Okavango Delta. Photo: Corbis

On a mobile safari by boat, plane and truck, Helen Anderson witnesses the ecological extremes of marshes and salt pans.

The Okavango Delta hums at dawn. I imagined I would be woken by the comical sniggers of hippos, perhaps the hole-in-a-balloon squeal of elephants - we passed plenty yesterday in a slow boat - but instead I wake to the industrial-strength drone of a million wild bees. Everything is alive and busy in the half-light: Wamuka, our safari chef, is lifting hot muffins from a tin "oven" trunk laid on coals, coffee is brewing, the bees are at fever pitch and Ralph Bousfield is calling the greater honeyguides. "You'll love their scientific name, Indicator indicator," our safari leader says, pulling a hollow palm nut the size of a golf ball from his safari jacket and cupping it to his mouth. "The last of the great honey hunters showed me how to call."

Within a minute, his nut whistle has drawn a chatter of birds, which hover noisily overhead. The honeyguides are clearly agitated because instead of following them to the closest hive, which is what we've signalled we want, we're seated for breakfast, listening to one of Bousfield's inexhaustible supply of astonishing true stories of life, the universe and everything in Africa. The flutelike tune that settles over us, he says, is the echo of generations of African honey hunters who have summoned and followed the birds to honey, and the trigger for a remarkable inherited response among the birds, which act as guides so they can feed on bee larvae and wax in raided hives. The nut whistle, Bousfield adds with a boyish grin, has passed through an elephant, been eaten hollow by insects and is smeared in wax from the first hive it was used to raid.

The honey hunters and their aerial guides, like everything in Bousfield's orbit, coexist in exquisite balance and beautiful complexity. There are few places on Earth where the seesawing balance of life is more fascinating or the biological adaptations more incredible than in landlocked Botswana. In a land mass about the size of Texas, with a population of only 2 million, Botswana is a study in environmental extremes, dominated by the vast Kalahari Desert and the pristine waterways of the Okavango Delta.

Regarded as one of Africa's pre-eminent guides and favoured by khaki-clad A-listers and royalty, 50-year-old Bousfield is a force of nature: a fourth-generation African explorer with a deep and intuitive understanding of the continent's human history and cultures, an encyclopaedic knowledge of African ecosystems, a best-of-BBC storytelling technique and undeniable chisel-jawed, blue-eyed charisma.

Every outing is an unscripted adventure, so when you're marooned in the Okavango and Bousfield announces, "Let's take a short walk," the only thing you know for certain is it won't be short. ("I have a problem with timekeeping," he says. "The longest game drive I've taken was 16 hours - I had no idea.")

We follow the honeyguides for a while, but they soon grow impatient with our dawdling.

Within 200 metres of camp Bousfield has dodged flying dwarfs ("Ah! A couple of Peters's epauletted fruit bats, 3 o'clock") and pointed out everything we need to survive in style on the delta: berries from the russet bushwillow for tea; sunscreen from the aptly named fruit of the sausage tree; a pizza oven in an old termite mound; a root powder for efficient depilation; medicinal fever berries that also stun fish for fail-safe hunting; hallucinogenic seeds; marula nuts with eight times the vitamin C of oranges; and a natural laundry powder. No one's timekeeping when we begin a game of elephant-poo petanque on a lawn mown by hippos.

Our mobile safari began with an aerial view of the delta in a six-seat Cessna, from the gateway town of Maun to a dirt airstrip near Moremi Game Reserve in the delta. "The traditional notion of a safari was a mobile expedition of hunters and explorers of 90 days or more," Bousfield says as we pile into one of the open-sided customised LandCruisers used by his Uncharted Africa Safari Company. "We're the last of the small, family-owned safari operations in Africa, and this is about the closest you can still get to the original idea."

Bousfield and his nephew John Barclay, who manages Uncharted Africa's mobile safaris, are immediately cheered when a ground hornbill flashes its white wing tips - a sure sign of a good safari. We encounter three of the big five (elephants, buffalo, a pair of frisky leopards) before we reach our just-pitched camp on the shore of Xini lagoon, but it's the smaller, less-obvious creatures that are the most compelling. As we bump along there are stories about klepto-parasites and the secret life of harvest ants, the lekking "dance-offs" among male antelopes and the endorphin-fuelled trade that motivates baboon grooming. We're a little high on endorphins ourselves when we arrive at a lantern-lit camp, with comfortable tents (wrought-iron beds, good linen, hot showers, flushing loos) and a table under the stars bearing a three-course meal of Botswana beef, South African wine, home-baked bread and chocolate tart. The hippos splash and chuckle all night.

Bed tea is delivered at dawn but we're not the first on the road. "Leopard tracks," Bousfield says at a glance, "and hyena heading the other way." Soon we're not so much game spotting ("a pair of wattled crane at 2 o'clock", "three female giraffes ahead", "magnificent male kudu at 3 o'clock") as glued to a series of soap operas. We hold our breath during a violent showdown between three male hippos, and follow a lioness, blind in one eye and limping badly, to a den where two hungry cubs wait. There will be no happy ending for them.

After a few nights under canvas, our team packs up without trace - not even ash is left behind - and we head deeper into the delta for a night in little white mozzie-net tents. All day a boatman named Luke steers a slow course through the delta's labyrinth of papyrus-fringed canals, stopping when elephants wade past and when we spy seven shy sitatungas, the rarely seen swimming antelopes adapted to living on reed pontoons. We eat lunch as the elephants do - half-submerged in pure, filtered water - though we're sitting on camp chairs propped in a shallow sandy lee, tiny fish nibbling on our legs.

Just before dusk we follow squadrons of birds heading to a roosting island. Noisy as a nightclub, the trees writhe with bills and feathers: great white egrets, night herons, black herons, sacred ibis, spoonbills, reed cormorants, darters - hundreds of birds. Silhouetted in the sunset, a pair of marabou storks mate briefly, then rest with long bills entwined, oblivious to their unruly bed mates. It's dark when we pull ashore at our roost: an enchanted forest clearing of strangler figs and ebony and sausage trees. Lantern light throws elephant-shaped shadows on a long table dressed with white linen and silver and on our sugar-cube tents beyond, all as improbable as a fairytale.

Almost as improbable is the passage the next day from the delta to Botswana's mighty desert. Uncharted Africa has four camps on the Makgadikgadi salt pans, "on the edge of the largest expanse of nothingness on Earth", Bousfield says with relish. This is his spiritual home, the place where his late father, Jack, a legendary hunter and pioneer, brought his wife and five young children in 1962. "Here he discovered the remoteness of his childhood in Tanzania," Bousfield says, "and he lived here alongside the Bushmen, the most incredible hunters and trackers, with an unbelievably intimate connection to their environment."

Ralph, the youngest, grew up on safari with his father, mainly in the Kalahari, though the family had a home in the closest town, where his mother ran the country's first wildlife orphanage. ("We grew up with animals," he says in understatement - even when sent to boarding school in Pretoria, Ralph took two spotted hyena with him.) The family's sixth generation in Africa - Ralph's son, Jack - was eight weeks old when he joined his first safari this year.

The Bushmen, known for their melodic language punctuated by four clicks, have a complex kinship system, and Bousfield is regarded as family by a community that lives close to the eccentric and wonderful Jack's Camp, established in memory of Jack snr. The bond is obvious when we walk and talk with Bousfield and an extended Bushman family, and when we join them later as the women take up a chant - seamless and hypnotic - and four shamans begin a fireside trance dance.

We're staying nearby at the mirage-like San Camp, the epitome of white-on-white safari chic. On the crunchy edge of a salt pan and set amid a handful of towering palms are six tents for guests, one for yoga, another for dining and a tea tent lined with cushions and rugs, in which to recline and gaze at mirages. Or the spectacular parallel universe of the Kalahari.

Meerkat manner up close

BATSHAMBI has spent every working day for the past three years with a clan of meerkats on the edge of Botswana's Makgadikgadi salt pans. He rises before dawn and cycles from his camp to the underground den into which the meerkats retired the previous night, and he's with them when they wake and hug each other, when they're foraging frantically for scorpions and grubs before the sun fries everything, and when their sentry sounds a predator alarm and they dive in unison into a honeycomb of tunnels.

I think about Batshambi's dedication and patience as he indicates the stubbly dune on which I should sit and wait. There are 14 meerkats on the move around us, including four playful kittens, little clouds of dirty sand indicating where each creature is digging. About 8.30am, the first burst of foraging ends and the clan settles. This is when the sentry meerkat seeks the highest vantage point nearby. For the moment, that is my shoulder.

"It's quite an amazing thing to be able to engage like this with wild carnivores that see us as nothing more than a very large termite mound," says Ralph Bousfield, whose Uncharted Africa Safari Company founded this 10-year research project, habituating four clans of meerkats that live near the company's desert camps. "We haven't fed them or protected them — we've just existed with the meerkats every day, so they simply see us as part of their environment."

There are twin benefits: for researchers, who can quickly and reliably observe the creatures; and as a unique experience for guests at Uncharted Africa's four desert camps on the Makgadikgadi pans.

Following the meerkats on foot in the pale morning light is absorbing — we watch their comical and endearing sociability, the interactions of babysitter with babies, the furious foraging. It's impossible not to anthropomorphise. And the moment I find one on my shoulder is unforgettable. The sentry is sitting beside my ear, so I can hear its constant peeping, among 16 meerkat sounds used to communicate specific threats and alerts to the clan (the alert for the top predator, the martial eagle, differs from those for other predators and for rival meerkat clans, for example). Suddenly, I see the desert as a meerkat might: a seemingly barren landscape so full of life that obsessive vigilance is necessary. Two of the kittens — only a hand span in size — crawl on my trousers and scratch gently.

The clan doesn't stay long. When they move on, so does Batshambi — a lone figure dressed in green, receding into the desert.

 

FAST FACTS

Getting there Qantas has a fare to Johannesburg from Sydney (14hr non-stop, about 12hr on the return leg) for about $2200 low-season return, including tax. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see qantas.com.au. Air Botswana and South African Airways fly from Johannesburg to Maun, near the Okavango Delta in north-west Botswana (1hr 25min), for about $510 return.

Touring there The Classic Safari Company, based in Sydney, arranges five-night mobile safaris in Moremi Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta from $US4950 ($4770) a person, including tented accommodation, all meals and drinks, guides (Ralph Bousfield's guiding can be arranged separately), game drives and activities; internal flights not included. A mobile safari can be combined with stays at Uncharted Africa's four desert camps on the edge of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. For example, a night at the chic San Camp (open mid-April to October) costs from $US990 a person, including all meals, drinks and unique guided activities, including mingling with meerkats (see above) and walking with Bushmen. The other camps are open year-round. For bookings for mobile safaris, desert camps and Johannesburg hotels, phone 9327 0666, see classicsafaricompany.com.au.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of the Classic Safari Company, Uncharted Africa and Qantas.