Financial Times - Wild abundance
January 17, 2009

A raindrop falls in the upper reaches of the Angolan highlands. It trickles off the waxy leaf of a rubber tree into a stream. The stream courses through the verdant Caprivi Strip of Namibia to join the Okavango, one of southern Africa's mightiest rivers. The river splits and sprawls out like a fan, spanning across a quarter of Botswana. This is where red lechwe antelope, saddle-billed stork and herds of buffalo come, thirsty for the sweet water that gives rise year round to water lilies, malachite kingfisher and lush wetlands.

From the right-hand seat of the cockpit, I scanned the Okavango Delta. It looks like a vast golf course with sandy hollows, pools of water, grazed greens and wild rough - but it is a golf course with teeming wildlife. Elephant lumbered beneath, giraffe gambolled and shiny hippopotamus reflected the sun.

The delta's delights are in the quiet details. In a traditional dugout, I punted down narrow hippo channels between papyrus sedges and bulrush. I circuited palm-strewn islands, created by the sediment of Kalahari sands and mineral salts. At sundown the tiny painted reed frogs began their cacophany.

Back on solid land, the safari vehicles roar out after dark like a military operation. At night the Okavango is extra special. The area is carved up into private concessions - like the one I am staying in at Xudum - so one camp and its handful of tourists have thousands of square kilometres to themselves. And unlike national game reserves, there are no regulations to stop you driving through the night, the witching hour for predators.

My tracker, Mogale, leant out of his seat to look down at the paw prints in the sand. "Leopard." He flicked his finger forward. "Going this way." My pulse quickened.

We followed. When the tracks peeled off the road, we peeled off too. Mogale manoeuvred a rose-tinted lamp to zone in on the game: wide-eyed owls, an occasional jackal and the red eye of spring hares bouncing through the grass.

We scoured until 3am but did not find our leopard. It did not make the journey any less thrilling. For it is not about what happens here, but the anticipation of what might. On return to camp, spotted hyena tore in front of our headlights. One turned to face us, reared his head and howled.

From Xudum, I flew to Maun, home to scores of safari operators, single-engine pilots, diamond miners and hustlers. It is a town where you have either wads of pula (the local currency) in your pocket or you're broke. Pioneering and cutthroat, it made me want to pack my bags and move there.

I drove south on a good road that was paved, straight and mostly empty. The bush was stubby camel thorn acacia and Kalahari apple-leaf, newly green in expectation of rain. Odd trucks overtook with a rumble, kicking up the dust. Goats and cattle moseyed on to the road. A lonely puff of cloud appeared - as if by magic.

I was following the route of the Boteti River, just a name change down from the Okavango. Since 1995, the river has run dry along this section but this year the waters are rasping miles beyond Maun. There is a buzz among cattle-farmers who live on its banks.

The upside of the drought for tourists is that it has concentrated wildlife around waterholes. David Dugmore, owner of Meno A Kwena Tented Camp, has for years been pumping up groundwater for thousands of migratory zebra. It has meant animals come in droves to his waterholes and guests have a perfect pitch to watch the parade of kudu, wildebeest and elephant.

Two lionesses had been taunting the zebra in the early evening, doing mock chases followed by leering prowls. Sunset exploded and in the sudden darkness I strained to make out the silhouettes, while Dugmore narrated the scene.

The zebra had come to drink and the lion were skulking nearby. There was an alarming trammelling of hooves as the herd swelled against the steep banks, before a piercing scream of slaughter. Within a minute it had diminished to a wail, an asthmatic-like panting and then a suffocating silence. There was the ripping of hide and flesh.

Dugmore's brother Roger, a mobile safari operator, led me on the final part of my trip. We were driving to the Makgadikgadi salt pans, a vast caustic depression in the Kalahari. If the rivers ran all the way, this is where the waters of the Okavango Delta would pour into.

The Makgadikgadi is a bone-white desolation with flickering distant mirages. I drove blindly. Nothing distinguishes one lobe of the pan from another except the surface of the earth's crust. At first it was grey and rough like rhino skin. Then it shimmered with salt crystals. Cracks appeared. The ground shattered and peeled, curling up like tobacco leaves. We got out of the car and pulled off our shoes. It crunched underfoot. My soles burned from the salt.

We set up camp and lit a fire. There were stars right down to the horizon, pulsing in the blue-black bowl of the sky. I counted 19 shooting stars before falling asleep.

Thunder woke me just before dawn. I felt a raindrop on my cheek and nudged Roger awake. "That's not rain," he said, as a second spot hit my face. "But it's coming." His words were full of hope.

Rain is "pula" in the national language of Setswana. It also means luck, health and prosperity. No surprise, perhaps, in a country that is 80 per cent Kalahari.

The rains were a month overdue but threatening. Anvil-shaped clouds had been bubbling up for days, far-off thunder growled and lightning crackled across the porcelain sky. Like the local Batswana, I had become obsessed with water. In this country, men stare for hours at dry riverbeds. They squint at the sky and ponder whether it might rain today or tomorrow or not at all. When the scorpions crawl out of their holes - some shining obsidian black, others like yellow glass - everyone sighs with relief. It is a sure sign the rains are coming.

A splinter of sunrise winked over the baked salt horizon. The heat started to rise almost instantly and we broke camp. Two pied babblers beat their wings above our heads and we followed the birds, just because we could.

We had not seen another being, save each other, for only a day but the solitude was immense, almost overwhelming. For it is harder today than ever in history to find a place without people.

We chased meerkats with their high tails and highwayman face markings, who scurried into burrows before cautiously peering out with perfect posture. An oryx bowed its head and speared its long straight horn into a thorny bush, desperate for the shade of a few gnarled branches. A ground squirrel puffed up its tail and curled it over its head to protect it from the burning sun. Life here may not be as obvious as in the Okavango but there is proof of a pulse in this featureless, barbed land. Yet as I discovered, the allure of this place is not for what is here, but what is not.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Carrier (