Gaborone - Unbelievably, many South Africans used to call it “the swamps”, but this was a cruel misnomer because the waters of the Okavango Delta are so pure and crystal-clear that you can drink them as you drift along in your mokoro.
The legendary Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta system in the world, formed by the annual flood of the Okavango River as it flows down from Angola and then fans out into northern Botswana. Imagine a wrist and hand with long fingers extending from north to south, and silhouetted against 15 000km2 of wide lagoons, papyrus-lined channels, secret hippo paths, reed-rimmed waterways, islands, lily-studded floodplains and riverine forest, and you get some idea of the shape and size of this water wonderland.
Game and birds abound – 75 species of the larger mammals alone, and nearly 600 bird species – but time and time again, it’s the utter peace and tranquillity that impresses visitors most.
Botswana is passionate about conservation – nearly 18 percent of this big country (think France or Texas) is dedicated to conservation and tourism, with a huge range of accommodation options. Choose between upmarket lodges with interiors straight out of trendy design magazines, funky ones that should seem out of place in the bush but somehow don’t, or good old-fashioned traditional safari lodges with that Out of Africa feel. There’s something for all tastes and pockets, but be warned, Botswana’s ongoing environmental policy of high-cost, low-impact tourism makes it a pricey place, though worth every cent.
I’ve had a long relationship with Botswana and the Delta, since I first edited the in-flight magazine for Air Botswana some 30 years ago, and although I’ve visited dozens of times since, I have never lost my sense of wonder.
Late last month I fly with Lesley Simpson of Wilderness Safaris into the Delta in one of those little six-seater planes without which the Okavango would remain little visited, because many of the camps are only accessible by air. From the air the Delta looks drier than usual. The experienced guides at Xigera Camp (pronounced kee-jer-a), where we start our safari, tell us that they can’t remember the water ever being so low.
Situated on Paradise Island amid huge, ancient trees deep in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, we’re in one of the most beautiful areas of the delta. Wooden walkways connect the big, airy canvas-and-timber tents, each with its own private deck with views over the floodplain where puku, kudu, reedbuck and lechwe graze, and spoonbills, Yellow-billed Storks, Spur-winged Geese and all manner of smaller birds are dabbling about in a wide pan opposite the camp.
A special delight is your outdoor shower, where a tumultuous dawn chorus of birdsong will keep you company in the morning as you towel yourself dry, and at night, a backing chorus of hippos and frogs take part in their own Bush Idols competition.
This is the “Green Season”, when the bush is at its lushest and loveliest, all the migrant birds have returned (the colourful bee-eaters and noisy cuckoos are a special delight), impalas are ready to drop their babies, and tiny, comical bonsai warthogs rush about everywhere frenetically following their mothers. (At our next camp, Little Tubu Tree, we see a leopard feasting on one of these easy-picking tiny tots.)
But the Green Season also means that many of the camps have great economy deals, so always check websites for special offers.
We enjoy the obligatory, ultimate perfect water wilderness experience – an Okavango mokoro ride – where our poler effortlessly glides us through limpid channels where hippos and crocodiles lurk, white water lilies gleam in the sun, and fish jump. In days gone by, the mokoros were carved out of ancient jackalberry, wild ebony or sausage trees – today, in the interests of conservation, the canoes are made of fibreglass.
The following day we go fishing, but only Gomms, our guide, is lucky (or experienced enough) to catch a big bream. Lesley and I have our spinners bitten off by canny and fierce tigerfish, so can happily boast about “the one that got away”.
We are treated to a sumptuous dinner on the star deck under the shimmering Milky Way. As we reminisce about old times and bygone trips, we hear a rumbling sound, as an elephant sticks its head over the deck railings and gives us a thoughtful stare before ambling off into the thicket.
Our second camp, Little Tubu, is in the Jao concession, closer to the Delta’s panhandle. Here it’s possible to go off-road in an open game vehicle as we are no longer in a national park.
If the Hobbits and the Swiss Family Robinson had colluded to design a bush hideaway, they would have come up with the enchanting, intimate Little Tubu camp, tucked away between huge riverine trees overlooking a flood plain. Built of wood and canvas, the three tents and main lodge are on Hunda Island, which is the largest dry area during the annual flood – and so game and birds abound.
One lazy morning I decide to miss the early morning game drive and just chill on the viewing deck that overlooks a small waterhole. A breeding herd of elephants with a couple of tiny babies saunters by. A small herd of kudu is grazing nearby. A drinking Saddle-billed Stork indignantly sees off an approaching Marabou Stork, and a little yellow mongoose cautiously makes its way to the water, has a long drink, then darts off.
Hunda Island is known for its leopards and we find two of them – one on the evening drive, the other in the early morning. Shouting monkeys and the warning barks of kudu alert us to the first one. Bee, our amazing, knowledgeable guide, takes the vehicle into deep bush, twisting, turning, bumping and spinning as he tries to spot the elusive cat. He shows us where the leopard has rolled in wild sage to disguise its scent from its prey; where it has marked its territory; and as we finally make our way back to more open ground, it bounds through the long grass in front of us, as burning bright as Blake’s tiger.
Leopard Number Two on the following morning has killed a baby warthog, washed its whiskers, and is now on the hunt for the main course. We leave it as it steadily makes its way through the bush.
That night the camp staff set up a bush dinner for us under blazing stars. Lions are calling far off, but otherwise the night is still. The shadows of clouds scud across the open area where our table has been set up, and in the distance lightning streaks the sky and thunder grumbles.
An old Botswana proverb proclaims: “No one tests the depth of a river with both feet.”
I’d argue with that. Jump feet-first into the Okavango experience and be inundated with a flood of unforgettable water wonderland memories. - Kate Turkington, Sunday Independent