In the middle of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, there’s a vast wetland. It’s called the Okavango Delta, and it’s the largest inland delta in the world – over 16,000 square kilometres during the wet season. Its source is the seasonal flooding from the highlands of Angola. The water travels via the Okavango River before spilling into the desert sands, creating a maze of lagoons, islands and swamps. Known as the ‘Jewel of the Kalahari’, it’s a paradise for wildlife.
Travelling in a dugout canoe, called a mokoros, we glide across lily-covered waters and past palm-lined islands. Although wildlife is scarce in the midday heat, I spot an African fish eagle perched on a tree, and zebras meandering close to the shoreline. I dangle my hands in the cool waters as we ply along, but quickly withdraw them as our guide nonchalantly reminds me of crocodiles. Almost on cue a hippopotamus emerges fifty metres ahead of our mokoros.
Our guide manoeuvres us into a side channel, where we stop and wait. The hippo has now submerged and we are vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, our guide is adept in these matters. By watching the ripples on the water he can tell if the hippo has moved past us. When it’s safe to continue our journey, we head to a bush camp on one of the islands.
I feel a sense of freedom, camping in wide-open spaces where wildlife roams. It’s what I expected of Africa. And the camp rules only add to my excitement. Don’t pitch your tent on animal paths, particularly those of hippos or elephants. Make sure you zip your tent up at all times. Don’t go near the water at night. During the day be vigilant and watch for eyes protruding from the water. Don’t feed animals that stray into the campsite. Finally, don’t wander too far from the camp.
The Okavango Delta is home to an abundance of wildlife including lions, elephants, buffalos, hyenas, wild dogs, warthogs and monkeys. There are also more than 400 species of birds. On our first game walk in the late afternoon we see herds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope. We track them for a short time, but can’t get closer, as they uncannily maintain their distance from us. Early next morning, I join a guide and one other person on a short trip to another island.
Once there, the highlight is our first encounter with an elephant. We crouch on a small hillock and watch as it pushes his immense weight against a small tree. Creaking the tree splinters and crashes to the ground. Suddenly the elephant pauses. Listening. There are voices. A group of people approach from the opposite direction, and I realise we’ve inadvertently surrounded him.
Abandoning the tree, the elephant moves slowly away from the noise, heading towards us. Elephants have an acute sense of hearing and smell, but their eyesight is limited. I hold my breath, not daring to move. The huge beast comes within twenty metres of us – its body swaying and ears flapping – and then, as if sensing us, changes direction again. As he moves way, I resume breathing and look at my companion, who is stifling a nervous giggle. It doesn’t get much better than that and gives us a taste of what is to come in Chobe National Park (which is known for its great herds of elephants). To read my blog about Botswana’s elephants click here.
We spend three days in the Okavango Delta and then, on our way back to Maun, stop to meet the families of our guides. The children are gorgeous and very excitable, so there’s lots of laughter and photographs – it’s a wonderful way to end our journey into the ‘Jewel of the Kalahari’.
Excerpts from this entry were first published, as a longer article about Botswana, in Adore magazine. The magazine is no longer available but there is a blog – see Adore Animals.