Botswana safari with a twist: you helicopter in & paddle a canoe out
'You can't really set out an itinerary in advance," said Michael Turner, who would be leading us into the bush.
"Everything that we do on the Selinda Adventure Trail will be entirely determined by the weather between now and then. The only thing we can guarantee is that each trail will be unique."
Although it was winter, the day was hot when our tiny plane bounced in to land in the Selinda Reserve in Botswana's Linyanti region, and the sweet smell of warmed, wild sage filled the air.
Yellow-billed hornbills cackled in the trees lining the runway and warthogs sifted through the lion-coloured grass on their knees, digging for rhizomes and bulbs.
The small runway was a hive of activity with Cessnas bringing khaki-clad tourists to stay at one of the lodges in the concession, or carry them forlornly off to far-away homes.
I was brimming with excitement, as our adventure was just beginning.
We were going to travel to the far end of the Selinda Spillway and slowly make our way back under our own steam, by foot and canoe for the next four days.
The Selinda Spillway enjoys something of a mythical status when it comes to adventure safaris. It flows only intermittently, making canoeing a rare and unguaranteed luxury. The local name, Magwegwana, translates to "small pools of water" - proving the point.
Each year, Angola's rains swell the Okavango River and empty out into the Okavango Delta while rain from the Caprivi is brought via the Kwando River into the Zibadianja lagoon. In outstanding times, the Delta and the easterly Linyanti swamps are temporarily linked via the Spillway, attracting an unbeatable amount of wildlife.
Our little group was lucky. After a dry start to the winter, the waters flowed late into the season. As we embarked on the final Selinda Adventure Trail of the year, the channels were high enough to ensure plenty of canoeing. Where it got too shallow or reed-filled, we would walk. Either way, it was up to us to move through this wild landscape.
To drop us 45km down the Spillway was a shiny, ocean-blue R44 helicopter. If you have never travelled in an R44, the trail is worthwhile entirely for that journey, low over the water with herds of elephants and buffalo spread out below, the sun flashing off the wetlands and winter-dormant trees reaching up towards you. It's an astonishing way to travel and utterly exhilarating. We landed right next to four canoes, nestled on the edge of the bank, ready for us.
After a quick safety briefing - during which we were reassured that if we ran into trouble, the Spillway was shallow enough that we could step out of the canoe at almost any point - we loaded up and began to paddle.
Game driving is a pastime I could never tire of, but game canoeing ... it's so quiet.
Game driving is a pastime I could never tire of, but game canoeing ... it's so quiet
There was just the soft splash of a paddle through water, the songs of a hundred species of birds, the snort of an antelope or patches of musical clicking where reed frogs serenaded each other.
Mopane trees castanetted their last, dried leaves in the breeze, dragonflies dazzled in a multitude of colours and the tea-coloured water revealed schools of tiny fish against banks of white sand and submerged water lillies.
Canoeing is hard work when you're not used to it, but the beauty of the place, the sudden sight of a herd of elephants crossing downstream, the smell of the sage and the coolness of the water takes your mind from your muscles and puts it fully into your eyes.
As the sun dipped into an intensely orange horizon, we paddled up to our camp for the night - four two-person tents set up on the banks of the river, a crackling fire ready to settle around and wonderfully welcoming camp staff ready to ply us with the beverage of our choice before an incredible dinner cooked entirely over coals.
Hot, bucket showers were ready for all and toilets had been freshly dug below a comfortable seat. It's camping in a very comfortable way but there would be no trace left once we moved on.
We began to really get to know our group around that fire as an astonishingly clear Milky Way gave enough light to cast shadows, and scops owls added to the chorus of reed frogs until, eventually, sleep called too strongly.
Dawn came with a thousand hues and, after a full morning's paddling, we stopped for lunch with our feet in the water, toes investigated by tiny fish followed by a snooze in the shade, watching elephants slowly crossing the vast landscape.
The morning's chill had completely worn off and everyone took invigorating dips in the clear pools. Apparently there are no crocodiles in the Selinda Spillway - possibly due to its seasonality. Well, no big ones anyway.
What a thing it is to swim in Okavango waters in the least-visited area of one of the wildest concessions that remain.
It can take a little time for the mind to adjust. But the days extend much further than usual without outside distractions and there is plenty of time for that adjustment to come.
On the third day, we set off by foot, into the mopane thickets and through vast, antelope-filled plains, scorched by recent winter fires. We skirted elephants, followed big cat spoor down game trails, waited - hidden in the shade - for a pair of seldom-seen sable to walk almost to us, and (rather nervously) crossed the edge of a pan where four enormous hippos watched us with more interest than was really wanted.
Every step was a reminder of how far we have removed ourselves from these wild landscapes. Every step reinforced how much we miss feeling so alive and alert.
By the end it was as if we'd known each other forever. Cheerful canoe rammings, bird-identification mysteries, marshmallow toasting, river crossings, pool wallowing, sauvignon blanc sippings and a great deal of laughter had turned this into four of the best days one could possibly have.
Finding an elephant in the shower on the last evening seemed like the perfect way to toast this marvellous, utterly unique adventure. Stresses from our busy lives had long gone and while our bodies had certainly worked for their dinners, there was a real feeling of accomplishment at having travelled so far and so unusually in this wild place.
Admittedly, it did feel rather wonderful to sit on a comfy sofa again as well.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
The Selinda Adventure Trail runs seasonally from May to September. A decent level of fitness will make the trip so much more fun.
The four-day trail costs $2,985 (about R44,000) per person sharing (fully inclusive). Contact [email protected] for SADC rates or see greatplainsconservation.com for more details.
• Stephen was a guest of Great Plains Conservation.