"There she is." On the sandy pathway just 30 metres ahead lies a lioness. She stares at us, her eyes flashing like stars against the dull glow of our guide's torch.
I hold my breath and the soft rustling of the long grass fades away into silence. Time seems to slow to a halt.
Then the hunting begins. The lioness's two 16-month-old cubs creep through the long grass, stalking a prey we can't see.
Gradually, an impala comes into view in the distance, hesitantly moving towards the hidden cubs. I catch myself mumbling a prayer for its life.
But as predator and prey inch closer to each other, a sharp warning cry suddenly rings out from another direction. The impala leaps away into the darkness and the cubs emerge from the grass, their languid moves betraying a hint of disappointment.
The spell that seemed to come over me during the encounter is broken. I breathe easily again. This is my first meeting with the king of the jungle in the wild and although it lasts only a few minutes, I am overwhelmed. I am in Africa, I am in the midst of nature's stunning creations, and I feel alive in a way I have never felt before.
Three days earlier, I was sitting at my desk in Sydney when the phone rang. It was the online travel editor. A colleague had pulled out of a safari trip and there was 48 hours to go before the flight to Johannesburg. "How would you like to go to Botswana?" he asked. I fell silent for a moment but I knew what my answer was. I had visited less-travelled destinations - from Iran to Kashmir to Burma - but I had yet to set foot in Africa.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I arrived at Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls Airport, but given its political troubles, I figured I should keep a low profile as a journalist. As I walked into the arrivals area, I glanced at the men holding cardboard signs at the entrance. "AUSTRALIAN PRESS" one sign stated in large, black capitals. I laughed. So much for any chance of subterfuge.
After three four-wheel-drive rides, two more customs visits as we crossed the border into Botswana, a walk through a muddy disinfectant foot-and-mouth disease checkpoint and a light-plane flight into the Okavango Delta, set within the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, we arrived at Pom Pom Airport, a small airstrip in the midst of bushland.
Waiting for us beside a 4WD were our safari guides, Lesh and Flame, and it was during this ride to the andBeyond Nxabega tented camp that we came across the lions.
As I bobbed along on the back of the modified army-green Toyota LandCruiser, I found myself reflecting on the silence of the delta as the evening sun, in all its fiery-red glory, set just beyond the horizon.
It was not about leaving the noise of the city behind. There was a different kind of silence that hung in the air - a stillness that improved my hearing; a calmness that freed my mind and allowed me to embrace the vast unspoilt wilderness of the delta and call it my own.
Unlike some of its neighbours, Botswana has pursued a low-impact, high-cost approach to tourism. The Okavango Delta operates like a big nature reserve. There are about 60-odd camps in the 17,000-square-kilometre area and any safari operator who obtains a permit is only allowed to build semi-permanent structures that can be dismantled in a day or two.
The tented camps are small. AndBeyond's Nxabega camp - and its Xaranna camp, which we visited two days later - consist of nine or 10 tents each.
Coupled with the luxurious set-up of each camp, the low number of guests means the rates are high, ranging from US$495 ($601) to US$1090 ($1323) a person a night.
There is no doubt you are paying for the silence and the untouched landscapes. The only humans inhabiting the delta are other tourists and campsite employees. When you travel across the lakes, you ride a boat or mokoro through water channels created by hippos.
If you come across a hippo on the way, you make way for the hippo, not vice versa. The same goes for the other creatures you encounter. If you chance across a herd of giraffes, zebras or elephants, you stay a respectful distance away and have to stay seated while you take photographs or watch them.
But the luxury ecotourism camps, such as those built by andBeyond, take this intimacy with nature a step further. While the tents are decked out in luxury - from king-size beds to indoor and outdoor hot showers - there are no fences.
On one side, you have lagoons and channels where elephants frolic in the distance and hippos emerge and submerge like mini submarines surveying enemy territory. On the other side, elephants and other animals trudge through foliage under the faint moonlight.
A sign outside the Nxabega camp states: "The camp is not fenced off; lions, leopard, elephant and buffalo are found in the private concession, there is no physical impediment to them entering the area around the camp; venomous snakes and scorpions are found everywhere in the concession area; under no circumstances is a guest to walk in or around the camp at night unless accompanied by a staff member."
The camp manager, Mark, says his colleagues were once trapped in the lounge area for half a day while a herd of lions lingered outside.
It is thus with a little bit of trepidation that I settle into my bed for the first night.
A fitful sleep and a 5am wake-up call a few hours later, I have only one question on my lips: "Did you hear the hippo last night?"
I had indeed heard a hippo rustling through the bushland - a sound I quickly learn to be familiar with. Over the next few days, I find myself tuning in to the "calls of the wild" that punctuate the quiet serenity of the delta, such as the grunts of the hippopotami as they emerge from the water just metres from the tents, the alarm cries of the impala when they sense a predator approaching, the soft splashes as elephants make their way across water, and the tinkling of hundreds of bell frogs as the sun sets.
The days are long but interspersed with rest periods and meal breaks. We rise at 5am for coffee and buns before a four-hour safari. We go back to the lodges for lunch and a few hours of siesta followed by tea. Then we head off on another trip around the delta - either by 4WD, speedboat or mokoro. On one particularly memorable evening, we ride on mokoros through reeds and water as the evening sky turns a warm pink and purple before we stop at a clearing to stretch our legs, savouring the glass of gin and tonic.
Dinner time is also a chance for our hosts to show off the delta's nocturnal sights and smells. On our second night at the Nxebega camp, we gather at tables around a large outdoor campfire and tuck in to a three-course meal as lanterns hang from a large, overarching tree and the stars blink above. It is a well-choreographed event that feels like a scene from a Hollywood film.
Day five arrives and it is time to leave the delta. As we speed along in a boat through the hippo channels - not unlike the title shots of CSI: Miami - I find myself struggling to say goodbye. I'm not ready to leave.
For me, the safari experience in Botswana is like nothing else. I feel a rekindling of humanity's long relationship with nature, a bond that has slowly withered away as more people move to cities. In just five days, the delta has restored that dying link with the physical world and made me thirst for more.
As Francesca Marciano wrote so aptly in her book Rules of the Wild, which was set in Kenya: "When you leave Africa, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent you're leaving a state of mind. Whatever awaits you at the other end of your journey will be of a different order of existence."
The writer travelled as a guest of South African Airways and safari provider andBeyond.
AndBeyond runs seven campsites, tented camps and lodges in Botswana. Rates include accommodation, activities (two game drives each day, bushwalks and river cruises), laundry, emergency medical evacuation insurance, transfers to and from airstrips, meals and beverages, including alcoholic drinks. AndBeyond can also arrange your flights and drives from Victoria Falls to the camps.
Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp is in an 8000-hectare private concession south-east of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in the delta in northern Botswana. It has nine tented suites. Each suite is raised on a wooden platform and has fans, an en suite shower and a wooden deck. Rates from US$495 ($601) to US$1090 ($1323) a person a night, twin share.
Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp is in a 25,000-hectare private wilderness concession and is also south-east of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in the delta. It has nine en suite tents with airconditioning, a private outdoor pool, an indoor bath-tub, and indoor and outdoor showers. Rates from US$650 ($790) to US$1550 ($1882) a person a night, twin share.
More information botswanatourism.co.bw.
- Sydney Morning Herald