From bone dry Namibia we moved on to the massive swamp that is the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This is where the Okavango River, which begins in Angola and crosses Namibia, empties into the Kalahari Desert. In the dry season it’s a large grassland cut by rivers and wooded areas. During wet seasons the grasslands flood, creating a huge wetland that grows to 15,000 square kilometers. Within it is a national park known as the Moremi Game Preserve. The delta has almost no roads, which means getting around is done by plane, foot and/or a local dugout canoe called a mokoro.
Our destination was Oddballs Camp on the edge of Chief’s Island in the heart of the delta. A ride on a 4 seat Cessna brought us to the dirt airstrip next to camp and we were met by our guide for the trip, Daniel. Camp manager Georgina then let us know the camp rules and amenities. Basically, we’re in the wilderness without fences and wild animals such as elephants and hippos enter the camp all the time. We may only leave the camp or walk around after dark with a guide escort, and if some large animal enters the camp stay in whatever tent you’re in. The pile of elephant dung outside our tent and the hippos and elephants hanging out along the river in front of the camp helped make the point. Our home for three days was a tent under a canopy with a small wooden deck in front and a private outdoor bathroom with a toilet and gravity shower.
Trekking the Okavango Delta
During our three nights at the camp, Daniel took us on three afternoon hikes and three morning hikes. This late in the dry season there wasn’t enough water for a mokoro safari but we still needed to use one to cross the river to get to Chief’s Island.
On the first hike Daniel taught us about what to do under certain extreme situations such as being charged by a big scary animal. It all came down to standing still until Daniel said otherwise but the details were interesting and informative. Basically, if a lion or elephant charges, stare it down and don’t look away. If a leopard shows up, DON’T stare it down. If a buffalo charges, run like hell to the nearest tree and climb, climb, climb. If a hippo is moving around in the water, don’t even think about being on the river.
This was our first time doing an all hiking safari and it was totally different from a game drive. It was an elephant dung minefield out there and a lot of time was spent watching where we stepped. Taking time to examine animal tracks, skeletons and droppings on the trail and moving quietly enough to approach shy animals was a real treat.
Among the highlights were:
-Following a pack of four African wild dogs two days in a row. Unlike our experience at AfriCats, these were truly wild and exceedingly rare to see. At one point we came within 50 meters of the dogs and I couldn’t help but be nervous around them. Remembering how the dogs attacked the poor baby Kudu back in Okonjima I kept imagining them hunting me down and taking my eyes out.
-Watching a spotted hyena as it roamed around us and the dogs. Turns out hyenas follow predators around to be first in line for leftovers.
-Seeing antelopes like tsessebes and red lechwes for the first time.
-Seeing a hippo jump out of a water hole and attack a Cape buffalo. They were similar in size and when the buffalo kicked the hippo in the jaw, the hippo retreated never to reemerge.
-Dodging elephants, cape buffaloes and hippos. All three animals are known to be temperamental and are dangerous when they get pissy. On our first afternoon outing we had to make a mad dash to the mokoro and cross the river quickly when we spotted a hippo slowly coming down the river towards us. Another time a herd of cape buffaloes blocked our route to our mokoro so we had to take a circuitous route to avoid being seen by them.
-Tracking a lion on foot and never really questioning the wisdom of doing that. We did not find the lion though.
-Finding the rare Pel’s fishing owl hidden high up in a tree. Serious birders would kill to see them.
-Having two elephants approach the camp during morning coffee and having one of them walk through camp with nothing more than a thin bamboo fence between us and it. At one point it tried to eat a seat cushion.
-Waiting as Daniel spent 20 minutes banging on a mokoro and yelling to try to make an elephant, more than 200 yards away, move away so that we could visit the village. He wasn’t successful and we didn’t get a chance to visit the village. Damn stubborn elephant.
-Going to bed with the sounds of lions roaring, hippos grunting, crocodiles splashing, and who knows what munching on foliage all around us.
-Seeing elephants and hippos at camp every morning.
-Enjoying the excited look on Daniel’s face when G gave him an 8GB SD card. Daniel was commenting that he can only get 1GB SD in Botswana so G offered his extra 8GB SD card. Daniel was more excited about the SD card than his tip.
Generally being able to walk around a savannah and being around the animals on their terms.
Overall, it was a unique experience for us. We didn’t get to do a mokoro safari, so we will have to come back at some point during rainy season. Our flight out afforded us more views of the delta and its animals. There is still a lot more to see. But next time drink a lot more water. The heat and humidity never let up.
Chief’s Island, Botswana