Last updated: 04:17 PM ET, Tue May 26 2015

Dispatch: Flying Around the Bush in Botswana

Tour Operator | South African Airways | David Cogswell | May 19, 2015

Dispatch: Flying Around the Bush in Botswana

On my trip to Botswana with South African Airways Vacations I started with an overnight flight from New York on SAA to Johannesburg. From Johannesburg, as part of the same booking, I flew to Maun via Airlink, a franchisee of South African Airways. Arriving at the small airport in Maun I was greeted by a huge billboard on top of the terminal building: “Welcome to Maun, the Gateway to the Okavanago Delta.”

Once in Maun I went into the care of Desert & Delta Safaris, the safari lodge operator, and Safari Air, its sister company, responsible for providing transportation among Desert & Delta’s eight camps in the northwestern part of Botswana.

It was an enchanting experience from the moment of arrival in Maun, where I was greeted by the warm, friendly staff of Safari Air. It was a far cry from the mass market modern flying experience among big international airports. Everything was small and personal, including all the ticketing, identification and security procedures.

After getting checked in I was introduced to my pilot, a spirited young woman named Alexa. We walked out onto a tarmac where many small aircraft were lined up in rows. We walked over to one very small airplane with two propellers and about six passenger seats. I was the only passenger. She told me I had my choice of where to sit. “It’s all yours,” she said.

She closed the door on me and went up to the pilot seat, put on her headphones, started up the engine and set the propeller to pull the plane out onto the runway and taxi into position for takeoff.

We went rumbling down the air strip, gaining speed and when the plane lifted off the ground it was exhilarating. The earth rapidly receded below and I got an aerial view of Botswana from Maun up to my destination at Leroo La Tau, my first safari lodge in the Makgadikgadi Pans. It was an hour and a half flight, the longest of my three flights in the bush.

I could see the land below as it went through many changes from very dry areas to marshy areas with many winding rivers and smaller channels. As you descend again, the green fuzz changes to trees and you can start to see wildlife below. It’s surprisingly dramatic when you encounter African wildlife in real life and motion. Seeing them from the air is a whole other dimension of the experience.

The planes, the runway, the terminal — everything was smaller, personal, organic. From that first entry into the bush plane, in and out of jeeps and staying in cabins in safari camps, you never seem really separated from nature.

The experience of flying in a small aircraft over the African bush is thrilling, an adventure that could never be inferred from the experience of jumbo jet travel. You are really just right there. When you are taxiing on the runway, your face is only a few feet from the runway and you can see it. It’s not like on a big jet where you just vaguely imagine that you are on a runway. It’s right there.

On a tiny aircraft you’re not dealing with the gigantic momentum of a jumbo jet that can plow through the air currents. A small craft rides on those currents and you can feel them buoying you up, rocking you around.

In a jet you are pushed with the massive power of huge jet engines. In a small prop plane you are pulled gently by the propellers.

You’re never very high in the air compared to jet travel. You never get a sense of leaving the land. You are still down among the things of the earth, not stratospherically looking down on a planet that is clearly rounded as you are on an intercontinental jet flight.

About two thirds through the trip I felt us gradually descending and at a certain point I realized that Alexa had spotted her air strip up ahead, looking like little more than a matchstick in the vast wilderness. She was aimed for it and eventually we came down on it perfectly.

At the landing strip a nice man in khaki clothes was waiting and offered me a drink of fresh juice and a warm towel for my hands and face. Without much delay we hopped in the 4X4 and headed to the lodge, Leroo La Tau. He told me it would be about a 30-minute drive, but it really was the first game drive of the visit. Five minutes after tumbling out of the plane I was sitting in a jeep watching a herd of zebras flash by a few feet ahead.

We all know what zebras look like, but when you see a herd of them running together in the wilds, some playing, some fighting, some nursing, it is a dazzling spectacle. Their Op Art markings seem far too flashy to serve any adaptive purpose. The animal seems to defy the Darwinian survival imperatives to just proclaim its right to be flashy and gorgeous – even if it makes it stand out to the predators.

And it probably doesn’t. Perhaps nature has given the zebra the perfect kind of bar code markings to fog the vision of lions.

From the time I got out of the plane and onto the ground I was never far from wildlife. I could see elephants, giraffes, antelopes and buffalo roaming around about 100 yards from my cabin porch. At night the lodge staff insisted on escorting me from my cabin to the main lodge because the wildlife may walk through the property at night.

In the safari setting, nature is never separated from you by the steel, glass and concrete barriers we are used to in the West. Pieces of furniture are created with indigenous, organic materials, with an African cultural aesthetic. The design of the cabin incorporates a sensibility that blends into the natural setting, rather than assaults it.

When you are in your cabin, you still feel like you are among nature. Nature is not pushed out of the house. During the days that you live like that, it gradually penetrates your barriers, soaks in and subtly transforms you.

The transformation happens very quickly. By your first night when you tumble into bed happily exhausted, you can barely remember what life back in western civilization is like.

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