You've Been Okavangoed - Spear's Magazine

You’ve Been Okavangoed

One taste of the jaw-dropping scenery and wildlife of Botswana’s Okavango Delta and you’re hooked, says veteran Doug McKinlay.

One taste of the jaw-dropping scenery and wildlife of Botswana’s Okavango Delta and you’re hooked, says veteran Doug McKinlay.

No one likes to talk about the proverbial elephant in the living room, but what about the real one in the shower?

Such was my predicament on my first morning at Delta Camp, a safari lodge in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta where adventurous guests stay in well appointed reed chalets or – in my case – in a tree house perched high in the canopy of a large Amarula tree.

With soap-filled eyes and washing in a shower open to the elements, I heard a low grunt and a rustle of leaves. Looking through the wooden floor-slats I discovered a large African bull elephant taking an unusual interest in my morning ablutions. It was enough to make even the most intrepid traveller feel a little self-conscious. Fortunately, my tree house suite, while designed to give breath-taking views across the savannah, also provided enough elevation to avoid me getting a tusk in my trunks.

Botswana certainly offers a different perspective to the usual long-haul destination. While over 70 per cent of the country is dominated by the Kalahari Desert, an extraordinary natural phenomenon occurs each year to transform the arid landscape into a lush, water-paradise.

Each January rain falling in the Angolan hills 1,600 kilometres to the north marks the beginning of a seasonal flood that takes more than six months to complete and will see more than eleven million cubic metres of water flow into the Okavango Delta, creating one of the world’s largest inland swamps. Its colourful maze of channels, lagoons, marshes and islands becomes home to an exotic wealth of wildlife – including my elephant friend there are buffalo, giraffe, lions, baboons and over 400 species of birds – along with thousands of visitors.

The lure of the Delta is intoxicating and has beguiled generations of British Royalty who are rumoured to have enjoyed holidays and even celebrated a milestone 21st birthday in the Okavango.

Delta Camp is one of the swamp’s more isolated camps; the emphasis here is on Mokoro – dugout canoes – and walking safaris.

Chief’s Island, in the Moremi Game Reserve, is a short 30-minute Mokoro ride from the camp and one of the best places in the Okavango for game viewing. Armed with nothing more menacing than a long lens on my camera, I boarded the canoe with my guide, Matsalidi Effeima. Mat’s knowledge of the Delta is uncanny; he can read the channels of the grass-filled swamp as easy as I can read a book. He expertly manoeuvred us around camouflaged hippos, the most unpredictable and bad-tempered residents of the swamp, while at the same time pointing out some the Delta’s abundant birdlife.

Stepping onto Chief’s Island is a bit Jurassic Park. With no gun and on foot, we must rely only on our wits to stay safe. It’s not long before we encounter a group of elephants feeding on palm nuts. Mat keeps us downwind so we can get within a breathtaking fifteen metres of the herd. As the herd moved off, we crept back through the golden savannah grass coming face to face with a small pride of lions, a big male up front.

‘Stand still and stare him in the eye,’ whispered Mat. ‘Don’t turn and run or he will think of you as prey.’

I didn’t need to be told twice. After a fifteen-minute staring contest, the lions moved off and we returned to the canoe. It was an experience I won’t soon forget nor is it one I want to repeat. On the way back to camp, we saw African fish eagles diving for bream, lily trotters hopping delicately along the lily pads, crocodiles sunning themselves on small islands and large groups of red lechwe antelope running and pogoing through the swamp.

Where Delta Camp can be described as rustic luxury, Selinda Camp is simply luxury. Comfort takes prominence at this camp. The guest tents – if you can call them tents – are big and airy, complete with an over-sized bathtub and deep comfortable beds. The views from the patios are awe-inspiring and take your breath away, looking out over the Selinda Spillway, one of the Okavango’s most important arteries.

In this area, the open-top four-by-four Land Rover comes into its own. On my second afternoon game drive, with the sun just starting its slow descent toward the horizon we came across a pack of African wild dogs. As one of Africa’s most endangered species this was a treat. If I didn’t know better they could be mistaken for any ragtag group of mutts I see at home playing on Blackheath Common.

However, any resemblance to domesticated dogs was well and truly wiped out when the pack went on the hunt. The results of them running down an antelope are too real to describe, but suffice to say it was an example of Africa in the raw.

My last camp on my Botswana visit is Shinde Camp. Again the accommodation is superb, with the tents hidden among a forest of Amarula trees, the fruit of which is a favourite snack for elephants, tending to ferment in their gut and thereby making them slightly tipsy. No wonder my tusky friend at Delta Camp tried to climb into the shower with me.

Although Shinde is also an excellent base for four-by-four safaris – I was lucky to see seven cheetahs while on a truck safari from Shinde – its location next to the permanent swamp also makes it the ideal venue for angling.

My last afternoon in the Delta was spent with Paul and CC, Shinde fishing guides. A well-stocked cool box – cold beer and snacks included – a few spinning rods and a large jar of worms was all we needed as we headed out into the clear waters of the swamp. After 30-minutes, CC picked the spot. By now, the sky had transformed itself into a deep cobalt blue and pink along the horizon, the perfect time to wet a line.

CC picked his spot well. Within a few short minutes he had his first hit, a large freshwater bream. It didn’t take long for Paul and me to follow suit. It seemed we couldn’t get the lines in fast enough; nearly every cast produced a catch. Within an hour we easily caught our limit which was barely time enough to drink what was supposed to be a relaxing beer.

A visit to the Okavango Delta is one of those experiences that remains fixed in the imagination. Even after seeing the Delta up close and personal, somehow it still feels unreal, that what you encountered was really only the stuff of David Attenborough.

It leaves you with the need to go back, for nostalgia’s sake and just to prove to yourself that it actually exists. From my perspective, a return visit can’t come quick enough.



 

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