Few scenes in southern Africa are as life-brimming as Botswana’s Chobe river. To leave the sere thorn scrub of the Kalahari and stumble upon such a plain – an alpine-like pasture with a sheet of water slipping eastward toward the sea – that is rare refreshment in a thirstland. Life of every form, from the dung beetle to the elephant it follows, throngs these banks. Indeed, the largest remaining herds of elephant in Africa roam this valley.
Of an evening, in the plucky tourist town of Kasane, some friends and I were among those creatures drawn to the river. As nature lit the lamps of dusk, as the kingfishers and cormorants, the darters and yellow-billed storks, the swifts and egrets were borne away to their roosts, our boat slipped onto the silver stream. The last tourist craft sloughed its wake and made for home as a great stillness took possession of the world, an exquisite hour of sundown magic on a starlit highway. Some hand with the feel of ‘Hush’ was laid on us as murmurs died away in the silence. We were adrift in the gloaming – somewhere between night and day, between time and space, between this life and Yonder.
Finally – the whine of a starter announced return to shore. But cell phone lights switched on aft of us. The inboard motor had turned balky. Tense whispers rose and the floorboards were torn away as hands groped the controls and the wiring. What seemed drenched in idyll and romance turned to foreboding. An inventory revealed neither pole nor paddle. And the whispering beds of papyrus seemed to mock this craft of dreamy, helpless fools. We peered through the night taking the measure of distance and current – and of ourselves. What of the gauntlet of hippo and crocodile? As the current swept us on, we imagined downstream in the darkness the maw where the river, merged with the Zambezi, plunges over the precipice of Mosi-wa-thunya, Victoria Falls.
But the night, brooding and deep, was scattered as the motor sneezed to life and a milky wake surged away behind us, the prow turning toward the far shore where the lights never seemed so powerfully like home.
Call it sundown – tattooed-on-the-soul sundown – on an African river.