From encounters with hippos to buffalo tracking, a leisurely canoe trip through the wetlands of Selinda Spillway proves to be full of surprises for JINI REDDY
THEY hover at the surface in rows four deep like a shadowy armada.
The message is clear: "This is our patch, don't mess with us." Rile a hippo and you might feel its razorsharp incisors or tusklike canines sinking deep into your flesh. I don't want to rile a hippo and certainly not the 24 I count just yards from my canoe.
I'm in Botswana on a four-day river expedition. The country is known for its beauty, remoteness and diversity of landscape. There's an emphasis on "low-impact, low-volume" tourism, although this tends to mean "high end". That said, if you're looking for a destination in which to push the boat out, there are few better.
Not really a fan of game drives, the Selinda Canoe Trail offered me the chance to explore at a slower, more intimate pace. With no experience necessary, our small guided group was to paddle 28 miles along the Selinda Spillway in the north of the country which links the Okavango Delta (the largest and most pristine inland delta in the world) to the Linyanti and Kwando river systems.
It's a new trip. In 2009, the high rains of the wet season resulted in epic floodwaters. This meant that for the first time in 30 years the Spillway flowed in full, connecting the two waterways. Ample rains in subsequent years have ensured it continues to flow.
in subsequent years have ensured it continues to flow.
Flying into the town of Maun, I am met by a representative from Wilderness Explorations for our 40-minute light-aircraft journey to the starting point of the trail. From the window of the four-seater Cessna I take in some astonishing aerial views as the landscape shifts constantly between wetland and dryland.
Touching down on a "bush" landing strip, a safari vehicle (complete with cool drinks and Swarovski binoculars) is waiting to drive me to an eco-friendly camp in the Selinda Reserve: either Selinda, a relaxed, stylish camp on the banks of the Spillway, or the smaller, ultra-luxurious Zarafa.
My group comprises three Australian couples and guide Josh Iremonger, a 27-year-old Out Of Africa pin-up from Yorkshire who's made Botswana his home for the past nine years.
We drive for three hours through the bush to the starting point of the trail. Waiting for us there are our sturdy two-person We drive for three hours through the bush to the starting point of the trail. Waiting for us there are our sturdy two-person Canadian canoes and a support team who help store our luggage in the vessels before paddling on ahead to pitch camp.
With Josh leading, we follow in single file. This is no Bear Grylls-style outward-bound adventure, I quickly discover, but a lazy, deliciously relaxing journey.
The waters in the narrow channel are shallow and travelling downstream with the current makes for easy paddling, even for the novices among us.
Over the next four days we meander along, spotting exotic, brightly plumaged birds (my favourite is the stunning iridescent blue starling) and admiring graceful fish eagles with their enormous wingspans.
We also see a herd of stampeding buffalo, elephants leisurely drinking from the Spillway, shy giraffe and nimble-footed impala.
For long periods we see very little but the peace, the stillness and the sun act as a balm to our city-weary souls. In fact I'd go so far as to describe the journey as a meditative experience inducing a Zen-like calm.
Josh possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna. One morning we stash our canoes on the bank to track a buffalo in the tall grasses. As we shadow our "prey", Josh points out termite mounds, zebra tracks, butterflies, the dung of hyenas and leopard, the skeleton of an impala impaled on a tree branch (a leopard's kill) and the fruit of the marula tree, beloved of elephants.
Eventually, in a clearing, we glimpse the buffalo, an old male that's no longer part of the herd. His horns are black and his face as craggy as a mountain. It's a special moment but then the trip is liberally laced with them.
When it gets too hot, we swim in the shallow waters to cool off. At one point, I find myself lazing in the water in my bikini sipping chilled wine.
Life doesn't get any better, I think
It does though, thanks to that evening's lavish three-course feast which is prepared by our travelling chef, Dollar.
He and the rest of the support team meet us on the banks with welcoming smiles, a cool drink and a table laden with gourmet food: filet mignon and chicken with mustard sauce, spinach gnocchi, and chocolate cake, all washed down with fine South African wines. Somehow, Dollar even manages to prepare beautiful, fresh bread every day.
Our tents are spacious with netted windows, comfy bedrolls and fur-encased hot-water bottles.
Outside each is a canvas sink and a glowing lantern. "Proper" showers and toilets are ingeniously rigged up, too. The level of pampering is remarkable given the temporary nature of the camps.
The encounter with our barrel-shaped friends comes on the final day. As the hippos honk, snort and bellow, blow water and make their presence felt, we gingerly navigate around them. "Move to the left bank and follow me, single file please," says Josh.
Our guide is armed with a rifle and a bandolier of bullets but there's little chance he'll need to use them.
He proves one cool customer.
When, mid-pass, one of the grumpier hippos charges (possibly in halfhearted fashion but who's to know?) Josh slaps the water with his paddle.
"What's your problem, old man?" he croons softly. "We're out of your way, relax now."
As if by magic, our pop-eyed nemesis slinks off. So not just a canoe trip but a close encounter with Botswana's hippo-whisperer. You read it here first.
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1250/rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a four-day Selinda Canoe Trail with Wilderness Explorations wilderness-explorations.com) from £2,510pp (two sharing), full board.
Price includes return ights with SAA from Heathrow to Johannesburg, transfers to Maun, internal flights and bush walks. Botswana Tourism: 020 7647 1018/ botswanatourism.co.bw