DECADES ago, I lived on the banks of the Kavango River in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. It was an idyllic place, but the devil finds work for idle hands even in paradise and one year some friends and I decided to pay an illicit visit to neighbouring Botswana.
We constructed some rather ramshackle canoes from corrugated iron roofing sheets, sealed fore and aft with scaffolding planks cut to size and shape. The canoes weren’t pretty, but they were stable and didn’t leak much. We paddled down the river, fishing for tiger and bream, skirting hippos and crocs, and camping on the banks till, after two days, we crossed into Botswana. The Kavango, which starts off in Angola as the Cubango, becomes the Okavango once it enters Botswana. It is a wondrous river whose clean, sweet waters are fast-flowing.
Too fast, anyway, for us to paddle home. So we offloaded kit, scuttled our picaresque craft somewhere south of Shakawe and yomped home over the next week. This time we took care to avoid elephant, buffalo and lion, all of which were in abundance. I’ve always treasured time spent on and alongside that river. As I headed north from Mboma boat station within the Moremi Game Reserve to Ngindi Island in late November, my head was awash with memories. It was the first time I’d been back in 30 years. It was as beautiful and unspoiled as ever.
The Okavango is one of the largest inland deltas in the world. The river doesn’t flow into the sea; instead, its annual inflow – on average around 11 trillion litres – either evaporates, is absorbed by plants or sinks into underground aquifers. The delta has a permanent surface area of some 6 000km². This can increase almost threefold between June and August (ironically Botswana’s driest time of year) following heavy rains 1 200km away in Angola.
The delta was declared a World Heritage Site in 2014. The size of the area, abundance of water, paucity of human habitation and the Botswana government’s “take no prisoners” approach to poaching means the delta teems with wildlife. Being restricted to the river means, however, tourist game-viewing is limited to what is at the waters edge. But when sightings include elephants grazing placidly in the reeds, belly-deep in shallows just a few metres away, you’re immediately aware this is a very, very special place. Ngindi is a private island within the delta, home to the Sun Destinations, operated Xobega Island Camp, an idyllic off-the-grid tented retreat whose three-star status belies its authenticity, comfort and charm.
Because Botswana takes the environmental integrity of the Okavango so seriously, anyone wanting to run a camp or lodge in the area is required to fly sideways through the eye of a regulatory needle. That means solar power (just enough to power a couple of cellphones but not a laptop), chemical toilets and woodfireheated water for canvas showers. Not that, at the height of summer, you really need or want hot water; with temperatures exceeding 40˚C from late morning, even water drawn straight from the river feels tepid. And it’s not as if you can take a plunge in the river, the presence of crocodiles and hippo (the cantankerous latter are responsible for more human deaths in Africa’s inland waters than “flat dogs”) makes bathing a no-no.
To compensate, the camp staff keeps a constant supply of cold drinks – “gin and tonic, anyone?” – coming. The morning and evening boat sorties bring blissful relief from the heat. Just backing away from the jetty perks up everyone’s spirits and when the boat lifts its nose and spray blows back over the occupants, the sultry discomfort of the preceding night (there is naturally no air-conditioning in the tents) or day is quickly forgotten.
Okavango sunsets are truly magnificent, the placid waters and rich, darkening skies providing the perfect backdrop for (especially) the abundant birdlife. After spending an engrossing hour at a noisy breeding colony of storks and ibises, we head to the narrow entrance of a tributary to the swamp where I’m overwhelmed by a sight that will remain with me forever. A tall tree exploded with life as nearly 70 yellow-billed kites erupted from the foliage. They swirled around and above us, silhouetted by the dusk, for some minutes before returning to their roost. As an avid birdwatcher, I was entranced. I have a slight regret in that I was unable to cast a line and land a bream for dinner. It’s only the local population that is allowed to fish Okavango.
Commercial fishing is prohibited. Botswana took the lead in African wildlife conservation by banning hunting in 2013 … with the exception of certain birds under specified conditions. This followed more than a century of intensive killing, particularly of the giant elephant herds that migrate southwards from Angola and back again each year. The legacy of this greedy slaughter is evident at Tuskers Bush Camp, a 365 000ha private concession less than two hours’ drive from Maun which, before being taken over by Sun Destinations, was a vast hunting ground. Our group visited an elephant “graveyard”, a midden of bleached bones made all the more poignant by fresh spoor made by elephants passing by … honouring their ancestors, perhaps? Tuskers is far from gloomy, though.
Late one night, one of my colleagues and I were enjoying nightcaps outside our tent when two male lions strolled past about 20m away. The camp isn’t fenced and the next morning their tracks were all over the boma where we’d dined the night before. Apart from enjoying the myriad elephants – including a tiny baby sheltering under its dam – spotted on game drives with knowledgeable guide Pilot, I was greatly entertained by a family of dwarf mongooses that had taken an old anthill as their home. A lantern-lit braai at the base of an ancient baobab while the last “super” moon of 2016 glowed above was an absolute highlight of the stay. The first leg of our trip from Tuskers to Xobega was conducted by vehicle via Moremi Game Reserve.
Moremi is enormous (half a million hectares), rugged and – at that time of year – very hot and dusty. Like anywhere else with a surfeit of standing water, it is a wildlife paradise with all the usual southern African suspects but with the addition of indigenous red lechwe and the super-shy sitatunga. There are nearly 500 bird species, which made the two “twitchers” in the vehicle very happy but our enthusiasm was not shared by the other occupants at the end of the eight-hour excursion.
I had to contend with a great deal of muttering as I focused on a beautiful African hawk eagle while we finally neared the boat that took us to Xobega. I had the last laugh on the river, though, when we spotted a broadbilled roller, the “leopard” of the Botswana bird world in terms of elusiveness. The iced gins would just have to wait.
● Get to Tuskers Bush Camp and Xobega Island Camp by flying into Maun with SA Airlink, from Johannesburg (daily) or Cape Town (five times a week) airports. Xobega can be accessed by Mack Air charter from Maun. Safari lodges abound but most of these aim at international tourists while those run by Sun Destinations take the South African currency into consideration. Extensive renovations have since taken place at Tuskers and Xobega. For details, go to www.sundestinations.co.za