Breathtaking Botswaha – Okavango Delta

22 November 2007

So, Botswana again. Seems like I just can’t stay away from our stable and decidedly affluent, northern neighbour. This time around, however, I’m aiming for an African experience that will be (for me anyway) completely different.

The parts of Botswana I have experienced to date are all as arid as they come, but if one travels to the Chobe National Park, you will discover a very wet flipside to a dry as dust country. This is the Okavango Delta, a wetland paradise unfolding along the lower reaches of the Okavango. I haven’t been here since an epic trip in an old diesel Mercedes in 1988, and much has changed since my early explorations of Africa.

On that trip I was hanging loose and flying solo, operating under the radar and with no budget to speak of. Today, my flight is courtesy of the PR agency for Wilderness Safaris, one of the premium players in the eco-tourism game.

The wilderness camps I will be visiting are Seba, Xigera and Savuti and by all accounts, I can expect blue chip service and accommodation at every one of these establishments. It is the Okavango Delta itself, of course, which elevates a visit to the region above your everyman savanna safari.

This vast delta, encompassing more than 192,000 square kms and with a river system spider-webbing through Botswana, Namibia and Angola, is a RAMSAR site of international importance. It is the largest freshwater delta in southern Africa, soaking an incredulous 9.4 cubic kilometers into the arid Kalahari basin every year.

The main rivers feeding into this vast marsh are the Cuito and Cubango, but the Kwando and Omatako also serve large parts of the adjacent catchment. Along these water courses, more than 600,000 people depend on the ebb and flow of the seasonal floods. They include the Botswana, Herero, Bayei, Kwangali, Ovimbundu and the !Xun and Khwe ancient Bushman people.

We fly into Maun, a sprawling frontier town haphazardly sprouting upon the edge of the delta. Locals describe it as a drinking town with a tourist problem, and it is stinking hot when we step off the plane. Customs run as smoothly as it can here in Africa and after an hour we’re back in the Air. This time, however, it is in a plane roughly the size of a bumblebee as we judder and drift through a cumulonimbus sky to Seba Camp.

The welcome, as is usual here in Africa, is unrestrained and from the heart and pretty soon we’re set up in a stilt tent overlooking a marshy stretch of grassland. A couple hundred metres to the left, right in front of the dining tent, a tranquil lagoon unfolds, resplendently adrift with lily pads and blooms.

We don’t have much time to settle in before it’s time for afternoon tea, and we set of on our afternoon drive with distended bellies and happy hearts. Elephants are everywhere, but it is jackpot time when we bang into two gigantic maned lions who had decided to bed down in the middle of the sandy road. They’re not that interested in us, and deign to cast us a derogatory glance before once again drifting of to sleep.

23 November 2007

When you’re on safari in Okavango, you better get used to waking up with the sun. coffee is brought to your tent at 05h30, breakfast is at 06h00 and half an hour later you’re off in a 4×4 with your guide. This morning, however, we’re in for a massive surprise. Baloo, our camp manager, has arranged for us to head off to the super-luxurious Abu Camp, where we will have the chance to partake in one of their legendary elephant-back safaris.

We take a brisk walk to a stand of indigenous trees and find the elephants ready and waiting for us. The saddles are enclosed platforms, which allow you to side-saddle your steed instead of straddling it, allowing enhanced mobility, especially when trying to grab a few photos.

Isn’t it ironic? Cathy and I have been separated for a few months now and it is for all intents and purposes my first trip since the break-up. And what is the elephant I end up riding’s name? You’ve guessed it – Cathy! She is a good elephant, I suppose, but stubborn as hell, and the mahout (Lucky) has a hard time controlling her. Which means that, for the duration of the elephant safari I am consistently hearing “No, Cathy” or “Come on, Cathy!” But swaying around on the back of a jumbo while the African savannah envelopes you tends to make up for just about anything and I enjoy the experience thoroughly.

It is uncanny how quietly these giant pachyderms can move through the bush, except of course when they feel like hauling up a young tree by the roots for a take-away snack. The mahouts, especially a wise old sri Lankan dude by the name of Sumi, are brilliantly trained, and there is absolutely no gratuitous use of their sharp-pointed elephant sticks.

After nearly 2 hours of navigating the woodland savannah trails, we meet up with our ranger, Boysie the Incredible Bushman, and head back to Seba camp for lunch and an afternoon break. I don’t really feel like the customary siesta, so opt to down-load photos and write my journal. From this perspective, Seba is an absolutely stunning base for a trip to the Delta. It is just small enough to be completely personal, and the service is therefore friendly and attentive, without being overbearing or intrusive.

Baloo, who is half-Belgian, half-Irish and grew up in Brazil, occasionally ambles past (in his big boots with two Leathermans attached to his belt) for a friendly chat, but otherwise I’m very much left to my own devices. After a while, I find I’m doing “the wildebeest” – when you’re semi-asleep and your head lolls on your neck in a long and lazy arc – so I decide to go in search of some action to wake me up.

I don’t have to look very far. At the lagoon in front of the camp, there are 3 mokoro canoes, so I decide to try my hand at poling. Baloo shows me how to position my feet (left foot pointing forward in front, with the right foot against the opposite gunnel and more towards the back) and I tentatively make my way into the middle of the lagoon. With your feet positioned flush against the gunnels, the mokoro is a damn sight easier to balance than a long board and quite soon I’m feeling in total control of the boat. You don’t use the pole only to propel yourself forward by pushing against the pond bottom, but can actually use it in a rowing motion while standing up.

It’s great fun whizzing around the pond on the mokoro and I can see fish rising all round amongst the lily pads. “Who knows, maybe I can snag one or two bream for supper” I think and minutes later I’m back on the mokoro, spinning rod in hand. It’s amazing how one manages to get into a balance comfort zone and I’m soon casting from the mokoro, if not like an old pro, then at least not like a jittery idiot.

I do not however manage to tempt a bream to the surface, but the African pike inhabiting the lagoon is a lot more accommodating. They may not be big, but they hit my spinner with a vengeance before fighting like frenetic freshwater barracuda.

We head out on an afternoon game drive after being strafed by a spectacular thunderstorm specifically searching for cheetah and hippo. We find the latter easily and a huge bull obliges with the customary gawping jawbreaker yawn for a few photos. One of the little guys is not to be outdone and stumbles to shore to do, like a bashfully playful puppy, an exceptionally cute impression of the “Chomp” hippo.

We have supper with Kate Evans who has just completed her doctorate here on elephant behaviour. She is an amazing woman and utterly at ease within her own skin here in the African bush. Good conversation, plus food and wine to boot, and you cannot really wish for more on a night out in the wilds.

24 November 2007

We’re leaving for Xigera, one of the water camps, today, but there is enough time for a morning game drive, so we head off once again with Boysie. Yet again, his incredible bush sense is so spot-on and very soon we’ve added 3 or 4 extra bird species to our list. Both Dickinsons kestrel and red-backed shrikes are firsts for me, plus there is a close encounter with a gorgeous lioness lazing in the long grass.

Back at the camp, we pack, say our goodbyes and then settle in for the bumpy flight to Xigera. Fortunately it is less than 15 miles and we’re there within a few minutes. Ndebo, our ranger, meets us at the airstrip and chats away amiably as we bump along the dusty track. Then he slams on the brakes ; our way into camp is blocked by a very argumentative elephant bull who snorts derisively as he advances to within a few metres of the 4×4. When he eventually does give way, Ndebo explains that this young turk seems to be the self-appointed security guard here at Xigera. It is pronounced Keejera (or !X/ as with a Bushman click) and means the “Place of the Pied Kingfisher”

Our afternoon activity turns out to be my highlight of the delta trip so far. A clear, fast-flowing channel runs right past the front of the thatched, central complex of Xigera and we’re to go on a mokoro trip in search of Pell’s Fishing Owl. These huge nocturnal raptors hide from the sun (and enemies such as the fish eagle) secreted within dense foliage such as that of the African mangosteen, and our rangers Ndebo and Simon have a pretty good idea where to go and search.

We don’t have the joy of poling ourselves and instead have to settle in like languorous fat cats as our guides navigate the narrow channel. Reeds, sedge grasses and papyrus literally form a tunnel of vegetation in places and we silently glide through this emerald green water worl. Squacco herons, African darters and crakes explode from the dense reed banks as we approach, furiously chopping their wings into the humid afternoon air before wheeling away into the strip of blue sky above us.

We stop at a sandbank and strip off for a cooling swim. The guides have scouted this and the shallow tea-coloured water is safe from crocs and hippos so we’re sure to survive the blissful escape from the searing Botswana sun. It’s summer after all, and so far the rainy season has not put in an appearance. A few hundred metres downstream, the channel opens up onto a broad lagoon and our guides warily congregate here. A water snort and low, menacing rumble tells us why. Approximately 60 m away from us, a pod of hippos fix us with a beady glare from their domain. The dominant bull edges closer, ears flapping and eyes bulging, while we stay stock still as per strict instructions from our guide. I grab a few photos and we retreat back into the channel just as the massive bull lumbers into a cursory dummy charge. These are phenomenally dangerous and I’m secretly pleased when we nudge back into the relative safety of the channel. Relative is the operative word, as the hippos head out into these during the late afternoon as they set off in search of grazing.

We haul the mokoros onto a grassy bank (at the end of a typical hippo channel!) and then tramp onto a densely wooded island – Jackalberries, marula and mangosteen crowd amidst knobthorns and lesser species, creating a perfect habitat for Pel’s Fishing Owl. Our luck does not hold sway for once though, and we head back to the boats without ticking off this amazing bird. The green-backed herons, white-faced duck, gallinules and a good dozen other species we see on the way back are ample reward though and the mokoro trip is unarguably one of the must-do adventures here at Xigera.
Miss the kids like hell. There are no means of communication except for emergency satellite phone, and I would love to tell them about all my little adventures. I did send them postcards from Maun, but hope that Savuti may have some way of contacting them tomorrow.

Other than that (and a nagging cough, courtesy of flu), I’m a-OK.

This morning we once again ran the gauntlet with the resident elephant bull here, but after a couple of minutes he got bored and let us off with but a fierce flapping of the ears. We’re en-route to the biggest lagoon in the area and will be exploring the Delta wonderworld by speedboat.

Simon is guiding us again and his knowledge is encyclopedic. I rate him as probably the best guide I’ve ever had on a trip and one can immediately hear that he has studied an environmental sciences degree rather than stock-standard nature conservation. We stop at an elephant dung pile and he explains in detail how the three different groups of dung beetles contribute to breaking down the organic matter by burrowing down and burying the dung balls containing their eggs. These they have to protect from secondary parasites, such as flies and wasps, which the female does by patrolling on the top of the dung ball while the male tunnels into the soil underneath it. Safely underground (that is, if a honey badger does not discover the larvae, a favoured delicacy) the eggs will hatch and allow the larvae to develop within the sustaining cocoon of the dung. And best of all, the dung balls break up over time, releasing all their organic energy into the nutrient-poor soil of the Kalahari Basin enveloping the Delta.

As usual, our bird sightings are out of this world. Western banded snake eagle, broad-billed roller and even a lonesome pink-backed pelican, seemingly lost on one of the arid plains. We reach the lagoon after a couple of hours, board the flat-bottomed motor boat and are soon zooming through the papyrus highway. Bird life here is raucous and a veritable cacophony of squawks and squeaks, twitters and tweets rise up like a manic symphony from the reed beds. The squaccos, greenbacks, rufous-bellied and black-crowned herons are all there, plus we add purple and goliath to our already impressive tick-list.

It’s not all about birds though and we spot several crocs. They’re mostly small, with the largest measuring around 2m, so not a man-eater by any stretch of the imagination. They get a lot bigger though and the thought of a 5 – 6m monster lurking down there certainly means you do not dangle any appendages in the water.

One of the most interesting phenomena in the delta is the barbell runs. These occur at various times during the season, and so far relatively little is known about this natural occurrence. These giant catfish seem to decide, at some unseen signal, to congregate in great hordes in certain channels. They then patrol the shallow water in a menacing phalanx, advancing together while driving smaller fish ahead of them. As the feeding frenzy grows into an orgy of snapping, surging and splashing fish, they churn the clear water into a muddy mess, further disorienting their prey and making it difficult for them to breath. Hordes of birds join in, with clouds of heron, egret, storks and kingfisher whirling in to spear an easy meal.

Our barbell run is not a quite as grand a scale as the one I describe above, but it is a spectacle nonetheless. I watch as the prehistoric catfish, gothic in their lumbering glory, swirl alongside and under our boat, while tilapia and djembe flee in panic, occasionally skittering across the water in a suicidal attempt to escape death by catfish.

After lunch we mokoro down the channel in one last attempt at finding the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl. At the sand bar, we once again stop for a swim and I try my mokoro poling skills in the current. This proves way more dodgy than the shallow lagoon at Seba and I battle to keep the dug-out in line, especially when heading upstream against the flow. One thing is certain – I am not about to do Moses, our poler, out of a job.

Refreshed, we continue along the channel to where the owls have been sighted most recently. While Simon leads us into the forest, the other guides set off to explore the surrounding islands. We find nothing, but Chaplin returns to inform us that he has found the roost.

We spot the baby first and it truly is the cutest thing ever. It basically looks like a Pac-Man that has been tarred and feathered and all you can really see is a snow-white ball of fluff with two coal-black eyes peering from an astounded face. The female appears a few minutes later and I get some gorgeous photos as they peer at us from up on high. We’re ecstatic, this is a huge one on any birder’s list. And not to mention the African skimmers we saw on the boat trip, making it a doubly big day.

26 November 2007

We decide to fit in a final water outing on our last morning at Xigera, but this time we pole upstream from the camp. Ripples coming from one of the tributaries alert the guides to a big beastie moving around and we edge past a massive hippo bull wading in a shallow pond. It is a gentle session, and I’ve fitted my macro lens and am on the lookout for the tiniest creatures inhabiting the delta.

Double-winged dragonflies whiz past, water spiders and pond-skaters skitter amidst the emerald lily-pads and butterflies flit from bloom to bloom. But the little guys who really get my attention are the frogs. The smallest chap is the long reed frog, a miniscule 20 mm amphibian, light green in colour and with a magical sprinkling of gold dust. Slightly bigger, but even more beautiful, are the painted reed frogs. They vary in colour and markings and can be spotted or rosetted, with brick-red markings on a vanilla body. Our poler Moses spots one in a lily bloom, and the little fellow obligingly poses for the camera until I’m done.

Sadly, this is to be our last excursion at Xigera and we rush to beg packed and ready for the 45 minute flight to Savuti. It proves to be a bumpy ride as we side-step a scattering of advancing isolated thunderstorms. It is amazing to watch these menacing cumulonimbus rainmakers, stacked high and shafting out solid pillars of rain onto the delta below.

From the air, it is also easy to see the natural forces which have shaped the Okavango delta. The marshy flood plains, multi-fingered feeder channels, shimmering lagoons and forested islands slide past below us as we head towards the drier Savuti area. It is incredible to think that, from where the water from the cuito and cubango (or Okavango in Botswana) enter the delta and to where it finally disappears into the 300m (or more) deep sand-pit that makes up the Kalahari Basin, there is a drop in altitude of less than 50 m.

This means the flow of water slows down to a seep, thus depositing all organic and sedimentary material it has been carrying along with it. Together with the fact that there are very few nutrients within the Angolan catchment area, plus the filtering effect of thousands of square kms of papyrus reeds, this makes the water of the delta incredibly clear and clean.

But the flipside of the Okavango is that it is a dynamic landscape. Constant shifts within the underlying tectonic plates shapes the landscape above it, controlling the ebb and flow of the life-giving waters of this wondrous region. One such tectonic movement so tilted the earth’s crust that in 1982 the Savuti River completely stopped flowing. Within a matter of a couple years, a flourishing riverine system morphed into an arid stretch of grassland savanna and literally thousands of hippos and crocodiles had to relocate to the nearby Cinyanti water system.

It is in this changed landscape that we touch down after a decidedly bumpy flight. Savuti Camp is set on the is set on the edge of this dried out river, and our tent overlooks the famous woodpile elephant hide next to the water hole. It seems improbable, but Roger, the camp manager, and his staff are even more friendly than the other Wilderness Safari people we’ve met so far.

We’re quickly briefed and booked in, and ready to set off on our afternoon game drive by 4 o’clock. Less than a km out of camp I glance up at the contorted branches of an old Jackalberry tree and look straight into the eyes of a reclining leopard. Tshepo, our guide, responds to my manic babbling, reversing us into position with a clear view of the big cat perched less than 50m away.

This exhilarating sighting sets the tone for the rest of the afternoon and evening with us adding tawny eagle, black-backed jackal, springhare, African white-faced owl and a pissed off puff-adder to our list. That evening turns out to be “traditional” night at Savuti, and all the guests congregate in the boma (or kgotla in Setswana). I’m elected honorary chief for the night (God only knows why) and am theoretically allowed to pass whatever laws I want for the night. As it turns out, I am a benevolent ruler, and everyone dines on morago, stamp, pap and traditional foods in a tranquil and decidedly non-despotic atmosphere before staggering of to bed.

27 November 2007

Savuti wake-up calls are at 05h00 and it is barely light when we set off on our morning game drive. Yet again, the gods of game viewing smile on us, this time leading us to a mangosteen tree adorned with a magnificent male leopard. I’m midway through changing lenses when David mutters “He’s moving” and snap on the 300mm just in time to triple-tap him as he sinuously slinks down the tree trunk.

“That was great,” I think, but Tshepo does not give up quite that easily. He coaxes the Cruiser into 4×4 and sets off into the bush, tracking the stalking leopard through the man-high mopane scrub. We catch up with him at another tree where he is inhaling the pheromones of a lady leopard with a self-satisfied smirk plastered all over his face. The he scratches around like an oversized tabby-cat before spraying the area with his own scent.

We’re less than 10m away from him now, and I just about crap myself when he launches himself riht at the camera. I needn’t have worried though, he had just leapt onto a tree stump right next to the vehicle and had now climbed onto a branch right above me and sits licking his chops while staring down at me with his flint-edged eyes, as if judging the trajectory before tucking into his next kill. He is ferociously beautiful, in the way of a gurka dagger poised to pierce your heart.

After nearly an hour in the company of this prime specimen, we decide it is time to move on. The rest of the morning is a touch tame by comparison, but we clock up a few more raptors as well as a mixed bag of bee-eaters, shrikes and waders. A pair of bull hippos up the adrenaline levels just before we head back to camp when a boisterous tussle turns into a full-scale battle. They literally launch themselves half out of the water, with jaws nearly 180 degrees agape to clash in a surge of muddy water, with their grunts echoing across Ciba Lagoon. Great photo opp just before lunchtime.

We’re still in search of the cheetahs and wild dogs, but they prove too tough a nut to crack, even for Tshepo, the Trustworthy. We do however bump into the Duma Tau pride and spend a slice of our afternoon with the eight lions where they’re sleeping off the indulgences of a baby buffalo kill. All good and we head back to camp for supper.

Or so we think. Roger and the brilliant Savuti staff have another trick up their sleeves and Tshepo trips off up the Savuti channel to where we can see lanterns flickering cheerily in the darkness. There is a cosy fire when we arrive, and pretty soon we’re all ensconced around a perfectly set table, tucking into some gorgeous bush tucker.

A massive thunderstorm which struck the area during the mid-afternoon has set off a myriad of flying ants and these winged termites now descend on our lights in a great shimmering cloud. It’s like African snow, or a visit by thousands of miniscule fairies from the insect world. It does end up making my Crème brûlée a touch crunchy, but it is an experience of a lifetime and I go to bed with my head a-flutter with good thoughts.

28 November 2007

Final day so not much to say. We pick off a few more birds on our morning drive and get up close and personal with a breeding herd of ellies. It is sad to think we have to say goodbye to Savuti, the Okavango Delta and all the new friends we’ve made. Pula Botswana! May it rain peace, goodwill and prosperity upon you for many ages to come!