To take the sting out of achieving the half-century my husband took me to Botswana. The Okavango Delta is an African paradise, filled with heart-breakingly generous people and the most varied and overwhelmingly rich mega fauna.We few from Maun to Pom Pom, which is a sandy clearing on the periphery of the flood plain, where we were greeted by giraffe, zebra, ground hornbill and kudu.
Not just one or two either! Huge, dust-raising multitudes of ungulates munched their way along the airstrip, not even bothering to raise heads or focus a gaze in our direction. By the time we reached Sandibe Reserve we’d had stones thrown at us by elephants (they drag logs across the roads to stop the land cruisers), seen two leopards draped lethargically from branches and counted at least twenty different species of bird.
Our accommodation was a small luxurious lodge, with outdoor shower (and yes the vervets do watch judgmentally!), four-poster bed and an uninterrupted view of the river. As the sun disappeared thousands of painted frogs, no larger than a postage stamp, began to trill a metallic upper C, at an ear-splitting decibel level.
On the night of my birthday, after having consumed monumental amounts of food and champagne, we wended our way unsteadily, along the un-lit path back to the lodge. After dark all guests had to be accompanied by a ranger as the hippo, notoriously ill tempered and with a tendency to roam freely around the camp (along with lion) might trample you just to make a point.
The housekeeper had run a bath for me and floated petals and scented oils on the surface. Just as I stepped in there was a loud hysterical shrieking, which was then accompanied by my husband yelling for me to ‘Come immediately.” I entered the bedroom cautiously, as the shrieking was now accompanied by the shape of a creature flailing in the long mesh drapes.
“That snake-,” my husband waved to a wall behind him, “-bit a squirrel!” Suddenly the curtain began to shake violently, as the squirrel skittered up to the railing and disappeared into the gap between the wall and the thatched roof. There was a flurry of scratching and then an ominous silence.
“What snake?” I asked, with a degree of trepidation. My husband moved back, lowered his tone and cautiously pulled back the adjacent curtain. Above our heads was a large snake. Its coffin-shaped head and extended body leaned improbably away from the wall in an ‘s’ shape. Its underside was grey with darker tones on the back. There had a been an enormous python squatting in the rafters of the dining area, where it occasionally shot out like a torpedo to try and snatch an epaulette bat, it’s success ratio was about one a fortnight, according to the rangers. But this snake was nothing like the python, it had a dynamic, slender frame and when it gaped its mouth was coal black. It was the most perfectly alien creature I’d ever seen.
In the tens of seconds that I stood alone and stared at the snake, naked as the day I’d arrived fifty years before, I felt an overwhelming and profound sense of gratitude and brevity. My mitochondrial mothers had also stood naked on this continent and for the brief, shining moments that they and I looked and contemplated the snakes around us, we must have shared the sense that paradise would soon be lost…