Facing my fears in Botswana

Updated: Mar 2, 2019


Riding at Okavango Horse Safaris, the most magical place of them all

Kafka said "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." I believe this, am moved by this, that the swimming words inside the covers of a book might thaw our humanity that sometimes shivers, naked and wrinkled blue like a pickled raisin with ice on its eyelashes. It gives us, the purveyors of words, a purpose. I hope one day I can build a raft for someone to set sail on their own violet lapping waves. What treasure! The boats take some building, the books some writing. But beyond just the sentences sewn to the flapping fragments of our souls, I think there are a number of things that can crack that frozen sea. Dogs, always dogs. Love. Obviously, love. And sometimes, in healthy doses, a little bit of fear does wonders.


I am generally a risk adverse person. I know where the closest exits are, am aware of the pros and cons of most situations and am a general catastrophiser with a list in my head on what could potentially go distastrously wrong, and how best to mitigate it. The lists in my head curl in scrolls. Expiry dates. Flight departure times. Potential traffic. The yoghurt smells whiffy. Driving in the city. When will I see mum next? Walking down a darkened street. Creaking floorboards. Small details whirling like winged murmurations, the potential panic in them setting my heart a flutter and my intestines a'wrigglin'.


Living in Botswana's Okavango Delta was a glacial expansion and at times, a ricocheting rubber band snap of my gentle cotton wool life. The spectrum of comfort and its marked notches of ease obviously differ from person to person, wildly swinging from the agoraphobic huddling at home, her human connections gained only through the white glare of a television screen; to those exploring their physical and mental limits in snowcapped mountains sliced with crevasses or tiptoeing along a high line strung between sky scrapers. While my line in the sand might seem Herculean to some, to others it's akin to walking in the park, tossing popcorn to squirrels.


When I first arrived in camp I was tremulous about even walking to our tent after dinner. Given, there were no lamps lighting my way. Our open aired canvas and pole abode was tucked behind the stables, a five-minute stroll in the nebulous night away from the heart of camp. We made our way over the electric fence which was strung up at dusk to deter big cats and other predators, but I knew the elephants walked the same paths, stepping over the fence like a crack in the pavement. To an onlooker my flashlight would have looked comical, an epileptic disco light or the exhaustive searching of a Squad teams' rifle scope. I was on high-high alert, the sweeping glare of my torch on the look out for giant wrinkled grey bums behind corners and around trees. But as the days slipped by, without my noticing, my standards of long-honoured, closely held baubles of safety were twinkly discarded. I gave a cursory glance behind corners, listening instead for tell tale cracks and creaks of branches being made short work of for an ellie's supper. I kept half an eye out for scorpions and snakes, but with a rehearsed muscle memory, no longer peering with heart stopping regularity into shadowy pockets.


A frozen lake I didn't know I harboured was leaking a little water, long translucent cracks dancing across its crystal surface, aglow with scintillant shards. Miss Rules and Regulations had to bend a little to a new environment, with elemental winds out of her control. There were no rules here, and shit certainly happened. Keep your wits about you and hope for the darn best.

But another level of stepping into fear for me was the safari's second camp, named after the long fringed Mokolwane Palms that forest its banks. A much wilder camp, where buffalo and elephant ramble right through the centre, mostly at night but often during the day. A beautiful camp, overlooking a gleaming expanse of flood water, wild and free. But this wildness was real. These enormous animals weren't to be played with. There were dangerous, and could hurt or kill you as easy as pie. It wasn't a game, and there weren't second chances. Something my naive, Western self kind of academically understood, but rationally, I felt there were always second chances. Monsters in the dark were meant to be fictional, not hunkered down under a camel thorn tree near your stairs, horns thickly curled over its skull like a Swedish girl's braids.


To get to the camp, we waded the horses through a kilometre of thickly reeded water, at times swimming through deep pools. We tied a rope around our waists in case we fell in the water and needed to be fished out quickly. A boat buzzed ahead of us, shooing away hippos and crocs. Our horses knew their jobs, padding through the mud, snatching mouthfuls of sweet river grass and long lily reeds. We'd reach the other side and hold onto their slick backs as they scrambled up the banks, winding our way down the hard packed track winding through the trees to the stables, holding on with our knees, hoping a quick shy wouldn't land us breathless in the dirt and sticks.

Now I know, for those more extreme than I, of whom there are millions, this is a doddle. But walking back to my bed, again built near the stables so I, as management, was able to get to the horses quickly should chaos ensue, was a new minefield in mind management. The dam walls had split open, the sea rising in my throat so I could taste the salt. With blood singing in my ears I was aware that there are monsters in the night and I, in fact, was the intruder. A sobering, bone-shaking truth that made me well aware my night-time horrors, back in my elephant-less, buffalo-barren home, were limp and colourless, the soggy watercress of fears.


We had risk mitigators. Bear bangers, a pencil sized explosive wand used in Canada to fend off Grizzly Bears, that you could detonate. I very nearly bear-bangered several birds who rustled at the bushes with, I'm sure, bloody minded glee. I knew to get behind a sizeable tree if being charged, and not stray from its protective trunk. Or scramble up a termite mound. Don't flee in panic; you can't outrun them. But in my limited time at this camp, I didn't see one hairy nostril or quizzical eyebrow or stamping, trunk-like foot. Not up close. And I write this now under fluorescent lights humming in an airport motel, where I have more to fear from my own kind then anything; a far far cry from those sultry breathless nights, lulled by the metallic whine of a mosquito and the grunting bark of a hyena. But the waves crash inside me, still. And when they start to sparkle with frost, thin membranes shot with salty veins of ice, I think, and remember, and write. I pick up a dog, I notice. And I read a book.


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