Take me there Okavango Delta
As seasonal flooding replenishes the patchwork of channels, islands and floodplains in the heart of Botswana’s Kalahari, the Okavango Delta becomes a magnet for all kinds of wildlife, creating some of the world’s most spectacular game-viewing opportunities, writes Chris McIntyre
Our boat gently rocked as cameras were steadied. Reed frogs chirped, but nothing stirred on the lagoon. From behind came a swirl of air; a pair of outstretched talons slowed to a glide, and swooped to pierce the glassy surface. Slow, deep wing-beats hauled wet feathers through the heavy air and back to their perch. A flash of silver meant success, so it was a while before the cameras fell silent. Finally, Walter, our boatman, stuffed another fish with a buoyant papyrus reed-stem. “Get those cameras ready!” he quipped, as he threw the bait into the lagoon.
It was September, the middle of the dry season, and we were deep in the Okavango Delta. I’d been staying at Jao, a palatial camp with nine wooden suites perched implausibly on high wooden stilts amid a palm-covered island. Think of what Tarzan would have built if he’d had a few million dollars and an imaginative architect, and you can picture Jao.
My room was vast, with a romantic cushioned ‘gazebo’ area (a ‘sala’) at the end of its long balcony. I could happily have lived here, but to visit Jao without going outside would have been a waste. So here I was, on a motorboat in the Jao Flats, where the guide was cupping his hands to drink from the amber-coloured channel, as if to illustrate that the Okavango isn’t a stagnant swamp. Its clear, fresh waters flow from the Angolan highlands, cross a geological fault and form a true river delta on the sands of the pancake-flat Kalahari basin. They spread to cover an area larger than Wales, where virtually all the water eventually evaporates.
Top 5 Okavango Predators
Found throughout the Okavango, lion rest for up to 23 hours per day and so are most compelling viewing when hunting. Larger prides specialise: those in the Khwai area and at Savuti (in Chobe) often hunt elephant nocturnally, whilst Duba Plains’ pride is famed for buffalo hunts during the day.
Highly sociable and equally endangered, wild dogs prefer open country for their vast hunting territories. They occur throughout the Delta, but the best time to seek them is July to October, when they den. Then try Kwara, Vumbura and Chitabe in the Okavango, and the nearby Kwando, Selinda and Linyanti concessions.
Found across the Delta, leopard frequent tall, evergreen trees – where they often laze on branches. They’ll ambush prey at any time, but favour dusk and dawn to prowl, when they use stealth and power to overcome small to medium-sized antelope. Tubu Tree Camp, on Hunda Island, has enjoyed particularly good sightings for several years.
Occurring across Africa (and very rarely in Asia) these uncommon diurnal cats are the world’s fastest land animals. They run down small antelope, up the size of a springbok, but tend to move further into the Delta as floods subside. Seek them on larger islands like Chief’s Island, and drier areas on the edge of Moremi’s Mopane Tongue, in Vumbura and the nearby Kwando, and Selinda concessions.
Sociable animals, which live in clans led by a matriarch, hyena hunt as much as they scavenge. Largely nocturnal, they den in drier areas and their presence is betrayed by their distinctive whooping calls – and their faeces, which contain so much crunched-up bone that they are white when dry. Found throughout the Okavango, spotted hyena will scavenge around camps at night.
Like any delta, the Okavango’s channels slow and meander as they spread out, and in so doing the environment changes. In the north, the deep-water channels of the ‘Panhandle’ area are lined by tangled, floating mats of feathery papyrus. Among the fastest-growing of plants, despite the nutrient-poor environment, these thick stems can reach 2.5 metres in just three months. Wildlife here is limited, but iridescent red bishop birds weave their intricate nests from the papyrus umbels, and tiny malachite kingfishers dart from perch to perch in front of our motorboat. Once we’d glimpsed a sitatunga antelope among the papyrus, but these graceful swamp specialists are shy; they flee at the slightest disturbance, even submerging up to their nostrils to hide.
Infrequent sandbanks were each claimed by a resident basking crocodile, which invariably slid into the water as we approached. Occasionally they’d also play host to small nesting colonies of African skimmers. We’d seen these acrobatic birds flying just above the unruffled water at speed, their elongated lower mandibles carefully scything through the surface at a constant depth. While their bodies twisted and tilted, their heads remained apparently fixed at a constant height and angle to the water – only moving to snap their beaks shut on an unfortunate small fish.
Where the Okavango’s channels spread and split, the Delta proper is a patchwork of vast shallow floodplains and islands, veined by the larger channels. Relatively little of this is truly open water, but there are a few large, deep lagoons. Of these, one or two that have ‘tree-islands’ – water fig trees standing in shallow water – support the Delta’s greatest birding spectacle: the large heronries. Isolated from land-based predators, these are vital breeding colonies for some of the Okavango’s larger water birds. Nests balance on every branch and thousands of herons, egrets, storks, ibises and cormorants come here around August, timed so that their chicks hatch when water levels are lowest and fish are easiest to catch. By late February, the rush is over and only a few birds remain. Whatever time of year you visit, always keep an eye out for water snakes and leguaans (monitor lizards), which come to the area in search of eggs and chicks.
Much more of the Delta consists of vast, open floodplains covered sparsely in vegetation, which is dominated by the round, slender leaves of hippo grass. Approached from the air, these can seem as green and flat as a bowling green but, once overhead, the sky’s reflection betrays their watery nature.
This is the realm of the red lechwe, a sturdy antelope with shaggy, chestnut-brown fur and graceful lyre-shaped horns. Their hooves are splayed as an adaption to their muddy environment, and they range across the shallows in herds hundreds strong – splashing loudly as they flee from the slightest disturbance. Though at home in the shallows, lechwe need dry land on which to rest – and then they’re at their most vulnerable to the lion, leopard, hyena and wild dog which hunt them.
To understand the islands, remember that the Okavango’s floods are erratic and its water levels variable. Many floodplains dry out completely in some years, giving the chance for small mounds to develop. Often, but not always, these are termite mounds, made by the Macroternes michaelseni termite, and some of these mounds remain when the flood returns.
Jutting above the level of the flood, such mounds allow the termites to survive, and make a handy perch for birds. Eventually seeds take hold, and grow into shrubs and trees, fertilised by the guano from the birds that rest there. In some areas of the Delta (the Jao flats stand out) you’ll see such small islands everywhere.
Once started, the trees transpire, sucking water up. Inflows from the surrounding floodplains seep under the island, but the tree roots don’t take up all of the salts. So gradually the ground water under the island becomes saturated with salts – notably silica and calcite. Eventually these crystallise out underneath the roots and as this precipitate increases, it raises the ground around the edge of the island.
Over decades, this process gradually enlarges the island, raising it above the surrounding floodplains. However, as the island enlarges, the groundwater at the centre of the island becomes increasingly saline – and eventually toxic to plants. The wild date palms are the first to die off in the centre, as they are the least salt-tolerant, and they are followed by the broad-leaved trees. Real fan palms are the last trees standing, but as the salt concentrations rise, even they die.
Capillary action and evaporation force the supersaturated water to the surface in the centre of the island, where salt deposits coat the barren ground, which steadily becomes whiter and whiter.
These floodplains are dotted with innumerable tiny islands. Many are only a few metres wide, little more than a ring of bushy wild date palms around a termite mound, or sometimes with a real fan palm springing up through the centre, and surrounded by reeds, often including attractive bulrushes, with their velvety seed-heads and edible roots. There’s a constant process of island formation in the Delta and the larger, older islands may also have rain trees, umbrella thorns, the occasional bird plum or even the Kalahari appleleaf, which is so typical of the Kalahari’s drier interior.
Buffalo, elephant and – usually at night – hippo will graze their way across these floodplains, stopping at the small islands, but these shallow water areas are not a prime destination for game-viewing. Travellers come here for their ambience rather then their animals, and activities revolve around gentle trips being punted around in a mokoro (traditionally a dug-out canoe).
You glide quietly, close the water surface, and if you’re lucky you’ll find some playful Cape clawless otters on a fishing trip, or near-endemic Okavango hinged terrapins basking on a floating log. The painted reed frogs which call at night with clear, single notes like tinkling bells are all around, although you’ll need sharp eyes to see them, glued as they are to reed stems. Occasional clear channels have been cut through these watery fields of reeds. Apparently the perfect width for a mokoro, these have been made by hippos shuffling between deeper pools and favoured grazing areas.
While the Delta’s watery heartlands provide its iconic images, most travellers concentrate their time in its drier areas, where the game-viewing ranks with the world’s best. The successful conservation of these pristine areas for wildlife has been due to good luck and good planning. It started with a far-sighted move by the BaTawana people – a tribal group of Batswana society after which Botswana was named – who proclaimed Moremi as a Game Reserve in 1962 in order to protect it.
At its peaceful transition from colonial rule in 1966, Botswana had a small population and good governance. The discovery of massive diamond deposits soon brought the country a good income, taking the pressure off other sectors, such as tourism, to raise revenue. By contrast, the late 1980s saw the national parks under pressure from large numbers of self-driving visitors: their vehicles were damaging the environment of Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve.Increases in park fees raised revenue and decreased environmental damage; soon ‘high revenue, low volume’ tourism was government policy. With limited development possible in the parks, safari companies looked to the surrounding hunting reserves or ‘concessions’, which were rented out on long-term leases to professional hunters. Gradually, like ripples on the lagoon, these hunting concessions were taken over for purely ‘photographic’ safaris – and the wildlife increased as these areas became better protected.
Photographic safari operations now compete for long and costly leases on these areas, where visitor numbers are strictly capped, and environmental protection is enshrined by environmental impact assessments. All this is probably the most successful model for conservation though tourism on the planet – albeit at a high price for the visitors.
Thus today the Okavango has 70-or-so small, private camps, taking a maximum of 20 visitors at a time. Almost all are reached with short light-aircraft hops from the busy little airport at Maun, and the best trips combine at least two or three camps to experience a diversity of environments and wildlife.
The final leg of our trip was to the Kwara Reserve, on the northern side of the Delta. Covering 1,750km2 this private reserve is larger than Surrey, yet is limited to hosting a maximum of 26 visitors at a time, split between two camps. I’d first visited Kwara in 1996, just after hunting had stopped here; then game-viewing had been very sparse.
I was met at the airstrip by a jovial guide, Hobbs, and his tracker, Chester. “So you’ve come to find dogs?” Hobbs said with a wry smile as we drove along the sandy track to camp, passing a large and relaxed herd of impala, close enough to see their finely-marked flanks.
After afternoon tea an entertaining couple from Vermont joined us, but were slightly horrified at Chester’s corner-seat on the 4WD’s front bumper. What happens if we meet something dangerous? “Chester sits very still,” quipped Hobbs dryly.
Twenty minutes out from camp, we paused as Chester studied tracks on the road. A family of relaxed kudu picked their way around a tree-island in the distance: the bull with immense, cork-screw horns gently leading two cake-coloured females, heads rocking back and forth. Then with just a quick “Hang on!”, Hobbs spun the wheel of our open-topped 4WD and we bounced off the track and across the bush, following a spoor like bloodhounds. It was almost sundown before we found our quarry. Apparently oblivious to our presence, half a dozen wild dogs and about as many puppies lazed in a grove of low mopane trees. One of the rarest of Africa’s large predators, estimates suggest that fewer than 3,000 dogs are left. Their hunting style is unique, running down their prey over long distances, and so northern Botswana, with its continuous stretches of unfenced parks and reserves, is Africa’s best place for them.
We sat and watched, savouring every second. Forty minutes later one started to rise, then stretch, and soon they were all on their feet. There was great excitement and much commotion - yelping, licking and whining - before one by one they trotted off to hunt. We started to follow them but darkness was falling, and the dogs were too fast for us across such uneven ground. I didn’t mind; I’d been delighted to just sit and watch them.
National parks and reserves VS private concessions
The experience offered in the national parks and reserves can differ from that in the private concessions, so it’s worth understanding the pros and cons of each before you decide.
Moremi Game Reserve forms the core of the Okavango’s protected areas and here you’ll ﬁnd campsites and a few safari lodges. The wildlife and scenery are often superb, but you will share the reserves with other vehicles and people, so these public areas don’t offer the most exclusive of game-viewing experiences. Strict park rules forbid driving at night, conducting walking safaris, or driving off the tracks in these parks – understandable from a preservation perspective (given the number of vehicles), but frustrating when interesting game is spotted far off the track.
A few private concessions within Moremi Game Reserve – namely Mombo, Chief’s Camp and Xigera – do give exclusivity, although guests still have to abide by the same rules.
A patchwork of many private concessions covers almost all the Okavango around Moremi. Each covers a large area, typically 800–2,500km², and each contains just a couple of small, private safari camps at which guests arrive by air. They don’t usually have campsites or public access, so game viewing here is generally undisturbed.
These private reserves offer much greater ﬂexibility in their activities. Their vehicles are able to drive off the tracks when searching for game, most offer night drives, and some offer walking safaris guided by expert armed guides.
THE ONLY WAYS TO TRAVEL
In the saddle, rider and horse appear as one to other wildlife, allowing you close to relaxed herbivores. However, lion have the same perception, and so riding trips are strictly for experienced riders who can confidently gallop out of danger. Again, look towards riding specialists: Okavango Horse Safaris, African Horseback Safaris and Motswiri Camp.
Cost rating: *****
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