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Road Report #3

OKAVANGO DELTA


Thursday, May 31 to Monday, June 4

First, a short geology lesson about this unique ecosystem.

The Okavango River feeds the Delta, crossing into Botswana at Mohembo on the northern border. By the time it enters Botswana it has already traveled 1,000 km from the Angola highlands, source of the floodwaters. Llittle local rainfall in Botswana is responsible for the water in the Delta.

Okavango DeltaThe Delta landscape is very flat; a termite mound is usually the highest visible landform. The floor of the Delta consists of sand, blown in from the Kalahari Basin. They expected extra high floods this season so the operators of the lodges on Jao Island bulldozed the sand up into high, dike-like roads. It is a peculiar site – these mountains of soft grey sand. I keep expecting to see dump trucks hauling it in but of course, this is the natural substrate. What lies naturally beneath the grasslands and swamps.

Once into Botswana the Okavango River breaks into three main branches to form a Okavango Deltapermanent swamp of some 6000 sq km. As it floods south, many arteries finger into the Delta, creating a seasonally flooded swamp of 12,000 sq km. The floodwaters peak at Mohembo in the north during March and April then takes four months to flow the 250 km south to Maun, peaking there from May to September. Enroute 90% of the water evaporates.

Our visit to the Delta coincided with the highest floodwaters so it was a very interesting time to see the Okavanago Delta at its peak. At our second lodge, for example, the roads that are normally traveled to and from the lodge were totally flooded out and we had to be transported and additional 30 minutes by motorboat to the lodge and to areas where the ground was sufficiently dry to permit game drives.

These waters have flooded and receded for millennia. But perhaps not forever. There is increasing pressure from agriculturalists who see the waters as the nourishment that will turn useless dry soils into fertile fields. Industrialists have their own designs on the Delta’s water and tourism operators see dollar signs in the Delta’s unique appeal to a growingly conservation-minded clientele.

Okavango DeltaBotswana’s prosperity has been based on its diamond mines but I am reading that these mines are becoming exhausted and the government is anxiously searching for alternative revenue streams. So the pressure on this natural asset will increase in the years to come.

The “luxury lodges” of the Okavanago Delta have long held a place in the “trip of a lifetime” category for many travelers. So much so that my research prior to this trip made me despair of our being able to see the Delta. However, we looked for a last minute deal in Maun and sure enough, if you are actually there in person and can leave within a few days Wilderness Safaris offers a 70% discount.

There are many companies offering trips into the Okavango Delta. I will certainly speak positively about our experience with Wilderness Safaris because our experience was a very good one. But I am sure there are many other companies who offer similar experiences so please do your own research.

We chose to put together two lodge experiences: two nights each at Xigera and Kwetsani. Different lodges offer different experiences, depending on their location in the Delta. Some, for example are more land based and offer more game drives over dry savannas. Some are most geared to meeting the desires of fanatic birders, others to those who want to fish. We chose these two because, while we can do dry land game drives anywhere in Africa, these two lodges (Xigera and Kwetsani) are within the flooded swamp so would give us lots of time on the water.

In each case your trip starts with a plane ride over the Okavango Delta. Our first flight was in a tiny 5-seater Cessna. I was offered the seat beside the captain – quite the trick to climb into as I had to clamber over the Captain’s seat and insert my legs under the controls. Sure glad I have those new knees. When the captain was giving us our Wilderness Air plane on strip in OK Deltasafety talk on how to get out of the plane in an emergency I instructed him that he should make it a really spectacular crash because there was no way I could get out of my seat in a hurry.

The flight itself is magic. From over 6,000 feet we watch the Delta roll out beneath us: its estuaries, fields of swaying reeds, millponds of lily pads, papyrus forests, isolated islets of a single palm, larger landmasses of leafy trees, hippo pools and the millions of miles of intersecting water routes. We don’t know what these are yet, but once we’ve made our first mokoro trip we’ll learn that the hippos move from land to water and back again in the morning and at night. When they do this, they tread the same path, Xigera Campkeeping these “hippo highways” free of vegetation and open for wildlife of all species, including the humans who ply them in watercraft.

Arriving at our first lodge we are blown away by the beauty of the structure and the facilities. Our chalets are built on stilts out over the swamp. Each is very private, connected to the common facilities by raised walkways. These are designed to keep us safe, but even so, once dark descends we must be escorted to and from the dining hall/ lounge areas by a staff person.

Deck at ZigeraAt first this seems like overkill but within hours we’ve witnessed our first giraffe chomping the vegetation five feet from our deck chairs. The next night it was a big bull elephant prowling the path beside our cabin. When I sat on the john he looked in the window at me. In our second camp a huge, multi-ton hippo was grazing right beneath the walkway as we returned to our cabin one night. Not to speak of baboons and monkeys of which there are many.

Bed at Kwetsani CampThe chalets are lovely. On approaching the first thing you see is the private front deck – truly a front row seat on nature at its best. Then you look into the door and see a bed that is festooned with romantic mosquito netting and beautiful linens. As one young honeymooner expressed, “I don’t know if we can do justice to that bed!” I have to admit it was a bit intimidating.

There are two showers, one inside and one outside. There are two sinks and a dressing area, as well as a loo.Kwetsani Camp

In both the lodges we stayed at the common facilities consisted of a large lounge with big comfy chairs and couches, a long dining table, a library with lots of books and maps about the area and the wildlife, birdlife and geology. There is a curio shop, of course. And there is a fire pit for evening events as well as lots of outdoor deck space for viewing the wildlife around the camp. And lest I forget, each had a small pool.

Whenever we arrive, whether our first time or from an activity, we are greeted with cool cloths to clean our hands and faces. Then food. Oh my, the food. It is soooooo good. All delicious and irresistible. Let me describe the daily itinerary at one of these lodges:

Wake up call at 6 am.

Breakfast at 6:30 to 7

First activity – game drive, boat cruise, fishing or mokora leaves at 7:30

Morning tea on the activity – tea, coffee, biscuits or squares

Return to camp for Brunch about 11 or 11:30 – eggs, sausages, bacon, macaroni and cheese or quiches or veggie tarts, fruit platter, muffins, toast, fresh baking.

Siesta till 3.

Afternoon tea – savouries like mini pizzas or bobootie tarts or small quiches and a sweet like brownies or sweet tarts or carrot cake or pound cake with fruit topping.

By 4 we are out on another activity. Sundowners as the sun sets – these are alcoholic drinks of your choice.

Return to camp by 6 or 6:30.

Dinner at 7:30 – the meal was always a big one, featuring a meat like barbequed rump steak or chicken or springbok which was excellent, served in a succulent sauce. Vegetables were always amazing, things like creamed spinach or spicy beans or steamed squashes. We had scalloped potatoes and cannelloni and rice pilaf. There was always an assortment of salads and fresh baked bread as well as a special dessert like trifle or mousse or bread pudding.

Can you gain 20 pounds in 5 days? I hope not.

Steve in MokoroSo, the activities. My favourite would be mokoros. These are shallow dugout canoes that are “poled” by a fellow who grew up in the Delta and knows what he is doing. I asked our guide if he had ever dumped his guests and he said, “Once. The lady jumped when a spider landed on her. I always tell my guests that we have no poisonous spider. Please do not react suddenly.

Right. The mokoro is a bit of a trick to get into. The poler beaches it on the muddy sand so it is very stable when you are getting in and out. You walk in and turn around and start to lower yourself with your arms until you cannot hold your weight anymore and then you just kind of go “thud” into your seat. Getting out is similarly graceful.

Malachite KingfisherBut oh, what a wonderful ride. We glide through the reeds, through the papyrus rushes, down the hippo highway and out into the river. We never go too deep because the poler has to be able to keep control with this pole. The canoe glides effortlessly through the channels with just inches of clearance, your body is effectively below the waterline. In contrast to the plane ride over, here in the mokoro we are observing the Delta at such a finite level. We see the tiny little painted reed frogs clinging to the reeds. We see the nests of birds so tiny they can attach them to reeds. The Malachite Kingfisher, a brilliant turquoise little fisher bird plays with us, flying just a feet ahead, stopping and watching then taking off again, just out of reach. If we Painted Reed Frogdo not arrive as “birders” we definitely leave as such, checking off the species in our newly-purchased birding guides.

The speedboats are fun. We tear up and down the hippo highways on what Steve calls the Okavanago 500. I ask our guide why it is we never run into a hippo if this is their route. “Well, “ he says. “Sometimes we do. See this scar on my face?” We MUST be out of these routes before dark.

The theory is that the hippo is afraid of the noise of the speedboat and of the water that is being pushed forcefully ahead. Sitting in the front of the boat I did see one very big croc start out into the canal then just before we hit him, make a great leap back into the rushes. I’m not sure a hippo would be so agile. When we do approach them in their pools, they all turn their eyes on us and watch every move we make.

HipposLying in bed at night, we listen to the hippos beneath us. They grunt and groan and sometimes roar at each other but mostly they just munch and munch and munch, all night long.

Using the speedboat, we are able to go out much further one day with our guide. We explore several islands looking at wildlife and birds and enjoying the landscapes. Sometimes by planning and sometimes by necessity. When you are a lady confined to a boat “Please find me an island,” means exactly what you think. On one such island we were greeted by an old bull cape buffalo. These can be very dangerous because they stand there looking very placid, like a big dumb old cow. But Cape Buffalo on OK Deltaunlike a cow, they will suddenly and without warning charge full on. I waited for this old man to move on before alighting on my island to “pick flowers” as the guide so graciously puts it. He always get out first and goes to see that is safe for me to “pick flowers.”

By lunchtime he takes us to a place that immediately brought to mind the term, “Garden of Eden”. We are treated to an extraordinary picnic: chicken, fresh buns,several salads, veggie quiches and more.

Later that afternoon we go to the rescue of another boat that was supposed to have returned to camp for lunch but has lost its power. We cannot fix their motor but stay with them till the mechanics arrive. The guides all stay in touch by radio and when mishaps occur they are quick to ride to the rescue. This particular boat was full of South African birders who were not at all nonplussed by their experience. First we arrived, then ten minutes later the mechanics, then a few minutes after that the lodge sent another boat full of food so the birders would not starve out there without lunch. This was all about two hours from the camp.

Game drives are another activity that we enjoyed from the camps. Our first was impromptu. As the small plane hit the runway at Xigera camp a leopard sauntered out of the bush and crossed right behind us. He was still there once we unloaded so the guide followed him. This safari truck, which has passengers sitting at various levels was amazing. Tekko, the guide was really boony-bashing, as we’d call it; driving up Leopardand over and into foliage and holes and hillocks. The truck was amazing. With its fishbone suspension, one wheel can be down in a hole while its partner is up on a hill and the truck is still level. We got amazing interaction with the leopard who was completely unconcerned by our presence.

At Kwetsani we had equally amazing experiences with two lionesses and their two cubs. We were so close to them and yet they just lounged about, indifferent to our presence. Apparently they see the trucks as just big blocks. As long as we don’t get out or start waving our hands around they are basically blind to us as objects within the bigger mass so they ignore us.

Elephant on OK DeltaElephants were also in abundance in the Delta. The one right outside our room was astonishing. A bit young though and hyper. When I started down the walkway he flared his ears and did a mock charge. I backed off and he went back to his destructive grazing. He was ripping the bark off the trees and pulling the center of young palms up to eat the tastiest bits, leaving absolute devastation in his wake.

We also saw a much more mature bull there, chomping on the the soft roots of water grasses. At 55+ years of age he will be working on the end bit of his third and last set of molars so soft food has become a necessity. When his molars are gone he will not be able to eat anymore and he will die. So he has seen it all and is not easily excited. He is very calm when people like us are nearby photographing them and just marvelling at being in his presence. He's like a grand old monarch. There is something so profoundly statelyElephant on OK Delta about him.

There is a lot of controversy about elephants right now. They have been protected for so long that there numbers are now out of control. Where they go, they destroy the habitat for other animals who are then forced out into the open to graze, making them easy targets for the predators. Then the predators become too numerous. The presence of elephants is equally incompatible with human activities like farming. In an hour they can undo months of work by subsistence farmers, leaving families without food to harvest.

The Botswana guides told us that a plan was developed to dart female elephants with a contraceptive that would prevent pregnancy for five years, giving the herds an opportunity to decrease through loss to old age. Seems sensible.

Steve & Carolyn early in the morningNot to the conservationists that say this is interfering with nature. But as the guides told us, nature has been “interfered with” to the elephants benefit for so long that this is why the problem has developed.

When we first went out each morning it was VERY cold. I wore a t-shirt, a turtleneck, my fleece pullover and my fleece jacket and a toque. Over that, I was provided a flannel-lined poncho that broke the wind and did a wonderful job of keeping me warm. Throughout the morning we’d peel it off like an onion so by noon we were down to shirtsleeves and sunburnt noses. But by the trip back at 4 pm the jacket was back on and the poncho pulled over again.

Back at the camp there is always hot coffee and food set out and the company is always congenial. The camps are always fairly small – maybe 10 to 20 guests at any one time. Botswana has chosen to take the high quality – low numbers tourism route so camps are restricted by the Tourism Ministry in how many cabins they can build in any one location.

Obviously it takes quite a bit of money to visit these lodges however we are evidence that it can be done frugally. Other guests we talked to seemed to be doing these trips as a “once in a lifetime” dream trip and were not overtly affluent. I think that people who go to these kinds of beyond-the-mainstream destinations share a passion for travel that makes them congenial table companions, wherever in the world or the economic strata they are drawn from. We enjoyed their company, all.

Staff at these lodges are also an interesting bunch. Invariably, the foreign born came to the area out of interest and stayed because they develop a passion for life “in the bush”. The locals are usually really local. Both the guides and the polers we talked to were born and bred in villages within the Delta and had grown up hunting, fishing and poling their way around the Delta. They are interesting people.

Would we recommend someone make a trip into the Okavango Delta? Absolutely. Unforgettable.

Allthough our flight between camps had again been on a small Cessna our flight back Resident Vervet Monkey at Xigerato Maun was in a larger 12-seat plane. A last, wistful overview of the Delta, this time with a deeper understanding of what we were looking at.

We picked up our bakkie at the Wilderness Safaris office. They’d kept it locked up for us there. All was well. While picking up some groceries in town we got into negotiation with a fellow about this big metal warthog he was flogging. We bought it for 200 pula (less than $30). No doubt he’ll cost more than that to get home! But I can already see where he will spend his old age, patrolling our back deck!

Tomorrow we are on the road again: first night at Nata then on to Kasane which is near Chobe National Park. We’ll look for a tour into the park and a boat cruise on the Zambezi River. Then on to Livingstone where we’ll visit Victoria Falls again. Stay tuned.

Carolyn Usher