In Botswana, an all-hours safari

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Elephants in the Chobe National Park in Botswana. Safaris offer up-close views of animals including lions, giraffes, and hippos. (Charmaine Noronha / AP)

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana - This is crazy. I'm racing through the bush in Botswana in an open jeep on safari - at night. All is pitch-black, as though I'm hurtling into a void.

It sounds like a Fear Factor challenge, or even a Late Late Show joke, but it's neither. A night-drive safari is one of the top activities for visitors to this southern African nation. Never mind that the guides constantly warn guests never to venture out after dark, that it's too dangerous to walk the few steps along a lit path from the rooms to the dining hall once the sun sets.

Yet, here I am, at 9:30 p.m., with my teenage son, my husband, and five other family members in pursuit of that very peril. How safe is this, I wonder? How can anyone see anything lurking in this black hole? And if I do encounter a creature of the night, will I live to tell about it?

I huddle deeper into the scratchy blankets as the wind whips at my hair and my teeth chatter in the cold. I notice the stars, crystal clear. That's a plus. This mix of primal fear, adventure, and anticipation of what waits out there is seductive. I ask my son, Rohan, if he has spotted anything. He shakes his head no.

We are four days into a six-day safari in the Okavango Delta. Covering more than 6,000 square miles, the delta is a maze of channels, lagoons, and islands lush with wildlife, a perennially blue-green jewel in the vast Kalahari Desert. We have done game drives several times before, including in Kenya, Tanzania, and India, but we never have tried our luck past sunset.

Night safaris are not allowed in Botswana's national parks. Outside them, however, on reserves known as "private concessions" where park rules do not apply and tourists are fewer, they have become increasingly popular - especially at luxury facilities such as Ker & Downey's Camp Kanana, where we are staying for the second leg of our trip. A night expedition, which offers a thrill no daytime romp can match, was one of the draws of Botswana.

Yet, a half-hour into our first nocturnal safari, I am ready to call it a night and return to my comfy bed and the warmth of a hot water bottle. We've seen nothing. I'm sleepy. But minutes later, Kenny, the guide, calls out above the rumble of the jeep.

Hippo!

At first, all I notice is a smudge of blacker blackness moving quickly. Then, the vehicle's powerful spotlight - the trick to a night drive - illuminates its rump. A hippopotamus, all right, but not like one I've ever seen before.

Usually, hippos are spotted in pools of water, where you see a rocklike hump, or those little Shrek ears, maybe a yawning jaw. But this one is on the move. Hippos travel across miles of grassland to graze at night, and we have interrupted its meal, which doesn't seem very nice of us, honestly.

Who knew a hippo could run so fast? My heart is racing, too. Kenny tells us this is a baby - and that, at any moment, Mama could show up, none too happy about this jeep chasing her kid.

For several adrenaline-pumping minutes we follow, then veer away from the hippo's path. Kenny says he has heard the mother's angry snorts. It is no longer wise to be between her and Junior.

As our eyes adjust, it becomes abundantly clear we are not alone out here. Periodically, we see glowing pinpoints of light in twos. Most are yellow, but some, closer to the ground. are red. Creature eyes. Kenny explains that yellow eyes are impala, considered the decoration of the bush. The red ones are crocs.

Two hours later, we return to camp, alive.

A few days earlier, our safari began in a tiny, tin-can plane from a modest airport in the town of Kasane en route to a strip of land in the Okavango Delta. Along the way, we got bird's-eye views of giraffe groups, called "towers," and elephant herds. Our first stop was Camp Okuti, along the Maunachira River in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. The spacious, en suite rooms are built along the banks of a lagoon in the style of an African village hut, with pegged wood floors, animal-hide carpets, an arched reed roof, and outdoor shower with a view.

For the most part, this was a traditional safari, with jeep rides during the mornings and afternoons, sundowner cocktails to enjoy the brilliant African sunsets, and R&R back at camp before family-style dinners and campfire drinks.

Though the wildlife in Botswana is not as dense as in Kenya and Tanzania, the encounters are often more personal. Our vehicle got nearly within touching distance of a family of elephants munching leaves off trees.

At Kanana, another tin-can plane ride away, it seems anything goes. Besides the night safari, the camp organizes walking safaris, which our group takes to calling "poop safaris," because the guides spend a lot of time pointing out animal droppings and analyzing the contents. We trek in single file, shortest to tallest, with a rifle-toting guide at either end. We don't really see much, this noisy group of humans tramping through the grass, but it is fun to be out in the wild.

In the afternoon, we take to the water, speedboat racing through the channels and lagoons of the delta. Papyrus looms over us, and the boat lingers at a private island heronry, where we spot storks - marabou, yellow-bill, and open-bill.

On the last day of our safari, rumors abound about a family of leopards in the vicinity. While some in our group go fishing, the rest of us set out in search of the great spotted cats.

After a good chunk of the day without any leopard luck, another guide radios his good news. He has found them. Our guide, Maipa, revs the jeep, and we're off at Mach speed. At a copse, one leopard is stretched out on a fallen tree trunk, another walks in the tall grass, and, most amazing, we see a cub in the higher reaches of a tree. Even Maipa cannot believe the sighting of three leopards so close. "Take a picture!" he urges. "Quick!"

At the base of the tree is a kill, a reedbuck with a bloody flank. Because this is a private concession, we are able to go off-road and inch fairly close to the cub. We lose sight of the other two leopards in the grass.

That night, we make a final night drive, hoping to see the leopards again and show the beautiful creatures to the contingent who went fishing.

We head straight for the trees. The spotlight scans the limbs. There, in the shadows, we see the cub. The kill has been dragged high into the branches. We can hear hyenas howling in the distance. It's eerie and thrilling, all at once.

This time, no one complains about the frigid temperature or the hour. After several minutes, Maipa says, "OK. We've bothered them enough with the light. Shall we go?"

Reluctantly, we agree.

As we drive back in the cold blackness, I can't help but think what a late-late show we caught.


Botswana by Night or Day

Want a ride on the wild side? Or are tamer pursuits your pleasure? There is an abundance of options in this flat-terrained country about the size of France - bordered by Zambia and Zimbabwe to the northeast, Namibia to the north and west, and South Africa to the south and southeast. For information on all things Botswana: www.botswanatourism.co.bw


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