Best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith tracks the trail of his No 1 Lady Detective on an adventure-packed literary safari with Belmond.
What better prospect can there be for any author than this? Ahead of me lie six days with 16 readers of my Botswana novels—not in the usual setting of a bustling literary fair, but in the very country where those books are set. We shall be together on one of the few great adventures that are left in a shrinking world—a real safari in Africa’s most beautiful and unspoilt wilderness. But this is no ordinary safari—this is, as far as I know, the world’s only literary safari. This is the third time I have undertaken it—the last two occasions were memorable and I have every expectation that this will be so too.
The journey—and excitement—begins
Alexander McCall Smith
The excitement starts at Maun, the place from which most Okavango safaris are launched. Our plane descends towards the tarmac and I see that it has been raining. That is a good omen in Botswana—to arrive in the midst of rain is a sign of good fortune. The ground has been dry for months and the land is crying out for water. After the first few showers, the dust will be settled and the earth will suddenly turn green as plants spring back into life. This is a good time to be here.
My wife and I arrive a day before the rest of the party, to give us a chance to settle in and prepare for their arrival. In Maun we are greeted by Belmond’s regional environmental manager, Onx Manga, one of the tallest men in town. His presence is immediately reassuring, as is that of my guide of many years, Mighty, who is also at the airport beaming with that wonderful smile that Botswana gives its visitors.
We take off again for Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge, the most northerly of the Belmond lodges. It is a flight of some 50 minutes, across a landscape that is unimaginably broad. Down below us is a seemingly endless expanse of trees. If one looks carefully, the first sight of game might be had—usually of elephants among the trees, tiny dots from up here.
And then we are there, touching down on the bare ground airstrip, to be met by the characteristic safari vehicles that the lodges use. A singing welcome awaits us—one of the nicest touches that Belmond lays on. I am back in Botswana, and I am content.
Touchdown among the elephants
The main party arrives this afternoon. They are a friendly group, coming from all over the world, but all united in their enthusiasm for the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books and the heroine of that series, Botswana’s Mma Ramotswe. For many of them, this is their first experience of Africa, and I can imagine the thrill when we go off on our first game drive and see an abundance of elephants. From the camp in the evening, elephants are also to be seen, making their way out of the trees to the waterhole directly in front of the lodge. Where else in the world can one get so good a view of elephants in the wild? If there is such a place, I have yet to hear of it.
Savute lions come up close
If there are safari gods, then they are smiling on us. Today we find lions that obligingly carry on with their leonine lives right next to our vehicles. There are two males and a gaggle of cubs. For some members of the group this is their first sight of a lion in the wild, and it is a very special moment. The lions look the part: rippling muscle under tawny skin, impressive manes, and those very special lion-eyes that see you but at the same time do not see you. I could look into them for hours—at a safe distance.
Chasing leopards and wild dogs
It is a short hop from Savute to Khwai River in a small plane. Once we are there, more drives reveal more of the abundant game that lives in this part of Botswana. Leopards are spotted (of course they are) as are wild dogs. It is a great privilege to see wild dogs, as these animals are particularly endangered. They are a long way from our domestic canines, with their powerful, exaggerated jaws and their extraordinary hunting skills. Operating with military efficiency, these dogs chase their prey in a long spread-out line, with a fresh dog coming up from behind to take over from a lead dog once the latter becomes tired.
A highlight of this lodge is the boma evening. A boma is a circular stockade of wooden poles creating a meeting, or, in this case, dining area. The boma at the camp is lit with lanterns and has a log fire in the middle. A semi-circle of tables is provided for a meal consisting of delicious local dishes. Then comes the dancing and that wonderful African singing that brings a lump to every throat. I find it hard to believe that the staff of every Belmond lodge includes such a good supply of singers, but it does. This is because singing is at the heart of Botswana’s culture. You learn to sing when you are a child, and you sing all through your life.
Drifting through the Okavango Delta
Mighty escorts the guests
Eagle Island is the jewel in Belmond’s Botswana crown. Now we are in the Delta, that astonishing slice of land where the great Okavango River and its streams spread out and slowly drain away into the Kalahari sand. I have visited Eagle Island on many occasions in the past, and indeed it is here that I base one of the Mma Ramotswe novels, The Double Comfort Safari Club, the seventh title in the series. In that book, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi visit the Delta and sort out a rather tricky problem involving legacies and identity. In the course of their investigation they meet none other than Mighty, our guide and one of Botswana’s finest trackers, who helps them in various ways. I often put real people into my books, and it has given me great pleasure to have included Mighty in the cast. He signs books for visitors, who are usually rather pleased to meet a real character from the series.
Mighty is an old-school guide. He knows everything about the bush, from its smallest to its largest inhabitants. He knows all the trees and the birds that sit on their boughs. He can tell you simply by looking at the ground what animals passed by, and when. In my view, Mighty represents what makes Botswana the place it is: decency, friendliness, and love for the land. I feel privileged to count him as a friend.
Mighty takes us out on the water and on this trip, an evening cruise, we see something that reduces us all to silence – a massive hunter’s moon rising like a red ball above the horizon. The moon is closer to earth today than it will be for the next 83 years. We watch it float up over the mopani trees and are all aware that we have seen something precious and memorable, and seen it in a very special setting.
Beneath the velvet night sky
It is eventually time to leave Eagle Island and set off on our journey home. We have a final dinner together and I read to our guests a short story I have recently written. We talk about the books and the characters in them. And on our last night in the African bush, we think about how fortunate we all have been to experience this week of friendship and delight in this magnificent part of Africa. Will I do another literary safari next year? asks Jody, who has accompanied us on Belmond’s behalf. I look up at the sky, at the field of stars that stretch across the velvet African sky, and give the only answer I can possibly give.
by Alexander McCall Smith. Photographs of Alexander McCall Smith: Chris Watt
Alexander McCall Smith has lived and worked in Botswana, where his No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books are based. The series has sold more 20 million copies in English alone and has been translated into 40 languages. His next literary safari for Belmond is from 20-26 September, 2017.