Botswana, roughly the size of Texas, boasts the largest continuous stretch of sand in the world; the burning Kalahari Desert, never ending as only merciless deserts can be, spreading across 84 per cent of the country. Amid this arid white land of sand and scorpion, the Okavango Delta hangs like a jewelled centrepiece, a verdant pendant worn by a wrinkled desert witch with parchment skin. The flood water has its tendrilled beginnings in the Angolan highlands, which enjoys more than 47 inches of annual rainfall, and it takes six months to travel the sandy bottomed path down south. The Okavanago River winds its way more than 1400 kilometres across Botswana in a doomed search of the sea; taking its last breath in the desert, dreaming of crashing waves that it will never see. During the annual flood the riverbank splits its sides and the wandering waters trickle, marching across the savanna, the largest inland delta on earth covering some 15,000 square kilometres. This represents 95 per cent of Botswana’s surface water; 96 per cent of it will be lost to evaporation, 2 per cent will be absorbed into the underground water table and the final 2 per cent will meagrely drain into the Thamalakane River.
These flooded plains gleam from the air, its siren call drawing herds of breeding elephants and antelope, white clouds of zebra mingling with the towering heads of giraffe. Great hulking herd of Cape Buffalo, muscular and mean, ever watched by the amber-eyed lions skulking in the long grass. Glittering ribboned tributaries spin off, hippo highways snake along the earth, channelling through the reeds and grass with trundling efficiency. Crocodiles dwell lazily in the shallows unblinking and smiling, with more than 60 different species of fish darting in the briny coloured depths. The Lilacbreasted Roller, flashing turquoise amid the muted browns of the grasslands, looks like a giant butterfly, sun flashing on its sapphire tips. Lying in bed at night you can hear the wumph wumph of a hippo walking through the shallows to graze on the tender grass, their resounding chuckles echoing across the still night air like a skimming stone. In the morning, you’ll see their calling card; scattered dung slung along bushes by its sweeping stubby tale.
It’s the great dome of sky and its fearful sun that beats its way under your skin. The sun-queen rules Africa from her blazing throne; a violent reign, savage and glorious, unjust and merciless. At noon, the sky’s midday skin, naked and pale, is as fearsome as an unsheathed hunting knife, cold in its abandon and glinting blue as a flame’s heart centre. But then, she changes from warrior woman to mewling maiden or soft-haired lover, in the minutes of dawn and dusk. Skies of melody, dusty black and shyly streaked grey, a crimson striped horizon like the earth split open, revealing a belly of lava ocean. The flush of lemon heralds the rising copper sun, tangled with warm sweeps of pink and ochre. Wiping away the dew from the morning’s upper lip, the silver sandalled feet of dawn walk across the cool clean air, heaving the great red sun up like a burning cyclops eye. Then, the roughly hewn heel of day stamps down mid-morning and crushes the softness flat and the heat springs up from the dirt with dusty force, so that the tiny animals below hunker in the shade of the acacia or lie in the dwindling pools, waiting for its temper to subside.
The days, from May to November, are that of Australia in their sameness; the blue sky awaits the day, the sun the same in its savagery. It’s not until the summer rains come, and with them the black storms and lashed forks of lightning, that the moods of the sky change. There is comfort in this ever-present model; the solitude of the pitiless sun and its ever-present place. For those that come from green places who long for mist and scudding clouds it’s a terrible phenomenon, flat and open to the long violence of the sun, day after day. But for me, it feels like home. Riddled with similarities, generous in its honeyed dusks and flamboyant dawns.