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Oct 23, 1:32 PM EDT

Botswana's Okavango Delta's got game


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AP Photo/Charmaine Noronha
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AP Photo/Charmaine Noronha
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AP Photo/Charmaine Noronha

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OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana (AP) -- I'm jolted from sleep by a deep and rolling roar and what sounds like the slithering paws of a large cat trawling through my cabin.

"Oh my God, I think something's in our room," I whisper, waking up my friend and roommate, Patricia Lawton.

"I know," she whispers back, adding a few expletives.

It might sound like the start of a Maurice Sendak story, but as we lay in our dreamy cabin in the great wilderness of Botswana's Okavango Delta, we were truly snoozing where the wild things are.

Days before, when our safari began, we were told never to leave our tent at night to avoid encounters with the wild things. But what if they came to us? For several hours, Patricia and I lay still, so afraid to move that we dared not even call for help. If this creature was in our room, the only thing that separated us from the potential intruder was a flimsy mosquito net billowing around our four-poster bed. At one point it sounded like an animal was dragging our backpacks around. I cursed Patricia under my breath, thinking she had once again left the patio door to our cabin open - a massive no-no while lodging deep in the savannah.

Finally I picked up the phone beside the bed, punching in random numbers since I had no directory.

"Something is in our room, we need help," I stuttered to the woman who answered. She alerted the safari staff on patrol. They discovered an elephant had been roaming around all night on the deck that lined the lodge perimeter, feasting on foliage shading our cabin.

Drenched in sweat - not from Botswana's sweltering heat but from our anxiety - Patricia and I hugged each other and laughed, slightly embarrassed that we genuinely thought we were about to be a large cat's meow.

That drama-filled last night of our safari was a fitting end to what had been a week of pure magic and wonder.

We landed in Botswana zombie-like but excited, after 48 hours with no sleep, traversing time zones on two back-to-back overnight flights and another four flights. The safari began as soon as we got to PomPom airport in Muan, Botswana. We jumped in a 4x4 after being greeted by two guides from our safari company andBeyond. Guide Kgosikebatho Marota asked that we call him Chief, and guide Kutlwano Mobe said he goes by Kuks.

Minutes into driving deep into the savannah, we were shaken out of our bleariness by the sight of vervet monkeys swinging through tree tops, herds of impalas prancing by and graceful woodland kingfishers with fringed, bright blue wings sweeping through the cloudless sky.

As if this wasn't enough to tickle my African-born but North American-bred fancy (I was born in Nairobi but raised in Canada), Chief beckoned us to look to the right of our jeep.

"Lions came through here this morning, probably tracking the buffalo we saw yesterday. Those are their footprints," he said, instructing the driver to follow them.

We drove through the vast expanse of sun-drenched land, sprinkled with acacia trees, bulbous baobab trees and towering termite mounds, steering over and through bushes. We turned a corner and spotted a pride of six lions sprawled in the grass, lounging in the blistering afternoon sun in post-kill splendor. Their lolling yawns revealed formidable fangs and hinted at the hard work that goes into ruling such a fine kingdom. The moment was pure magic, a "National Geographic" episode come to life.

The big cats are among more than 100 species of mammals and 400 species of birds that call the delta home. This diversity found amid the lily-speckled marshes, blue lagoons and picturesque woodlands make this place, set along the banks of the Okavango River, one of Africa's richest game-viewing destinations, albeit for tourists one of the continent's pricier ones as well. Conde Nast Traveler magazine recognized the Botswana government's efforts to conserve the Okavango's environment while balancing the needs of local people with a 2013 World Savers Award for a sustainable destination in a developing country. Our tour company has also been working with the government to reintroduce rhinos into the delta.

After hours exploring the bush, we headed back to our campsite, bathed in a tepid outdoor rain shower under a sliver of a crescent moon and prepared for a Botswanian feast of seswaa -beef stew served over thick pap, a type of maize porridge. We stuffed ourselves silly and traded stories under the stars with fellow safari-goers. Tuckered out, we retreated to our luxury tents - with indoor plumbing to boot - which we slept in every night except the last, when we were in the cabins.

A 5:30 a.m. wake-up call began another day of exploring where zebras, hyenas, water buffalo, elephants and giraffe coexist and roam free. We left the wilderness of the delta to head to Chobe National Park, the third-largest game park in Botswana and one that boasts one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa, including the largest herds of elephants. It lived up to its reputation: Just after entering the gates into the lush terrain, we were greeted by a journey of giraffes munching on acacia trees that dot the plains. Our guides imparted this interesting fact: As a defense mechanism, once the acacia foliage is torn by a foraging giraffe, the plant emits an airborne gas, ethylene, alerting nearby plants to increase tannin production, which the giraffes don't like. The animals then move upwind to dine on plants that failed to catch the drift.

Our exploration and biology lessons were not limited to land. We jumped into a boat and cruised down the Okavango River, where we saw elephants frolicking in the water alongside their adorable offspring, glimpsed a hippo bobbing in and out of still water, and staked out a crocodile hoping to see its jaw snap.

Back in the 4x4, a torrential downpour suddenly lashed us without a moment's notice. Chief hit the gas and it was like we were in our own version of Noah's Ark meets "Life of Pi" as animals whizzed past, the wind-swept rain making it difficult for us to even open our eyes in the open-sided car.

"You're not in Canada, anymore, are you?" he shouted from his water-soaked seat.

Definitely not, I thought, as water buffalo bolted by us. Drenched and slightly startled, though, there was no place I'd rather have been than this self-contained sanctuary where nearly every creature I'd read about since childhood came out to play.

"Let the wild rumpus start!" I hollered back.

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If You Go...

BOTSWANA TOURISM: http://www.botswanatourism.co.bw

OKAVANGO DELTA: http://www.okavangodelta.com/ . Conde Nast Traveler sustainable destination award: http://www.cntraveler.com/world-savers/2013/okavango-delta-world-savers-awards

SAFARI: andBeyond, http://www.andbeyond.com/ . Rates vary by length of tour, time of year and other details.

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