The Okavango delta (or “the Delta” as it’s known by those in the know) is not a swamp, at least not in the conventionally unpleasant sense of the word.
|Not withstanding the Nile crocodiles, a relaxing trip can be had aboard a dug-out canoe (above) in the vibrant Okavango delta (below), an enormous mosaic of habitats.|
It is an extraordinary 18,000-sq.-km mosaic of habitats including lakes, rivers and temporary pools; baobab-forested islands, grassy savannah and near-desert.
The 1,100 km-long river that feeds the Delta rises in war-torn Angola (travel advisory: skip Angola) then meanders along the edge of northern Namibia before flowing into the vast, virtually unpopulated southern African nation of Botswana. Here it splits into countless channels before being swallowed by the arid sands of the Kalahari.
Hydrologists call this “disappearing river” phenomenon an “alluvial fan.” Tourist brochures call it “the world’s largest oasis.” This column calls it “absolutely sensational.” If you only visit one safari mecca in Africa, make sure it’s the Delta.
Living here are some of the largest and most dramatic concentrations of birds and animals to be found on the continent. Due to a Botswana government policy that favors “high cost/low volume” tourism, visitors need not expect the sort of safari over-crowding that sometimes mars national parks in countries such as Kenya.
Indeed, visit now and there is every possibility that you may be the only person staying at your lodge. Political upheavals in neighboring Zimbabwe have had a devastating impact on Botswana’s once-thriving tourism industry. Not fair. Botswana is one of the safest, richest and most stable nations in Africa, but the Zimbabwe crisis has damaged the reputation of the entire region.
“Every time [Zimbabwe President] Robert Mugabe opens his mouth we lose customers,” one lodge manager complained, showing us a copy of the latest newspaper. “Strike fear in white hearts, urges Mugabe” ran banner headlines. “. . . the white man, our real enemy . . . blah blah . . . the white man is not indigenous to Africa . . . blah blah . . . Africa is for Africans, etc.” Oh, dear. The man even sports an Adolf Hitler mustache. Not attractive.
Back to happier topics! Encounters with wildlife in the Delta are intimate, to say the least. By day the various bush lodges on the Okavango islands are the territory of human guests, fearless birds, inquisitive mongooses and scores of darting dragonflies.
By night anything can tramp or slink past, and usually does. Lions, elephants, leopards; virtually all of Africa’s biggest game rubs intimate shoulders with visitor accommodations. The only exceptions are black and white rhino, which are locally extinct.
One obliging aspect to Delta wildlife behavior is that the animals completely ignore sealed tents or cabins with closed doors. They simply don’t seem to register and might as well be termite mounds. So forget any grisly Hollywood spawned images such as elephants pushing down walls or gawping lions rending hideous gashes in flimsy tent fabric.
Leave the door open, or unzip the fly sheet, however, and you might as well be hanging out a neon “Eat Me” sign designed by Dr. Doolittle.
“Journalists?” inquired the manager of Mokuti Lodge upon our arrival. “You’ll have come about the hyena and the American kid?”
“Possibly. What happened?”
“Bad business. Kid left his tent open and a hyena ate him. We only got a few bones back.”
This sort of conversation should not put you off. If you follow the sage advice of the guides you’re safer in the Okavango than in Shibuya.
Walking tours are an Okavango must do. As always, the beauty of the environment is in the details; the tiny dappled frogs, the scampering baby wart hogs, the butterflies, the mole-rat hills, swooping bee-eaters, aardvark burrows and all the other little cogs that make the natural clock tick. A walking tour will also bring you into extremely close proximity with bigger stuff such as foraging elephant herds.
|Lilies grow only in clean water — and there’s plenty of it in the Okavango delta.|
A mokoro (dug out canoe) trip is also a Delta specialty. Poled, like punts, the mokoros glide through a wonderland of flowering lilies and rushes, across water so still, clean and clear that one might be crossing an aquarium. Naturally purified by reeds that efficiently filter out sediment and hippo dung, the water here is drinkable.
The area boasts some 550 species of birds and mokoro rides provide the ideal opportunity to encounter flocks of ibises, egrets, storks and jacanas (lily trotters). These latter fowl have huge flapping feet that enable them to run on water.
The waterways are also home to populations of fish, hippos (huge, but reclusive) and crocodiles, and are often almost unrealistically full of wallowing elephants.
Some of the lodges offer motor boat tours which will appeal to people who enjoy frightening away the birds and animals they’ve come to see. Horseback rides are also popular. Some safari outfitters even offer fantastically over-priced expeditions on tame African elephants imported from U.S. circuses.
Choosing the right safari lodge in the Delta is crucial if you wish to stay on good terms with your bank manager. All enjoy beautiful locations, usually overlooking a river or crystal clear lagoon. Prices, however, vary considerably.
Do not be alarmed by the word “simple” if it appears in the brochure. “Simple” in the Delta means that the lodge has decided to spare its guests waiters in bow ties, silver candelabras and about $600 extra a night per person. “Luxurious” means that you get the bow ties, candelabras and other essentials such as foie gras and a French chef. Also, the extra $600 on your bill.
As the kind of people who can afford to pay immense lodge fees are also often the kind of people who file law suits when their children are eaten by hyenas, the upmarket lodges tend to offer a more sanitized Delta experience. Simple places really get you into the thick of things.
Getting to the Delta is best done by light aircraft from Botswana’s gateway “city” of Maun. The Maun International Airport is a strong contender for first prize in “The World’s Most Uninteresting Airport” awards. It’s the sort of place where you have to wake the immigration official up before he stamps your passport.
The runway, by contrast, looks as if it is gearing up for a replay of the Battle of Britain, with hundreds of light aircraft arrayed in lines. Only five minutes after takeoff you are flying low over buffalo herds and all the natural marvels of the Delta are yours.