From the air, the Okavango Delta bleeds out as far as the eye can see. The snaking water tributaries have carved their way through impenetrable forest, rising during the rainy months to provide drinking holes for wildlife and withering when the dry weather warms the earth.
The Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta should be experienced by all travellers in their lifetime. Wildlife is free to roam within the borders and along channelled waterways. I travelled to the Delta in September as dramatic skies changed and morphed with the seasonal flux. The lure of dug-out canoes and a chance to escape the herds was at the forefront of my mind. That is not to say the Delta isn’t on a well trampled path because it is, but it is a real experience that offers something new to visitors; something that removes us from our everyday lives and opens our eyes up to things which we may have only previously seen on the idiot box.
From Maun, we drove along corrugated dirt roads which twisted and flexed on grooves channelled during the rainy season. Arriving at our terminal where dry brown road met watery grassland, our Botswanan guides greeted us with smiling faces. These fellows who are masters of the Okavango Delta, promptly introduced themselves and began loading our luggage into canoes with strategic disorder. I like Africa. Nothing is urgent. Everything can be done tomorrow. Don’t travel to Africa independently with a strict timetable. As far as I can see there are two types of urgent: NOW (which means it needs to be done but can wait) and NOW NOW (which basically means now!). Africa makes me smile; I see things I watched on television as a kid. It is wild and the air is scented with the sweet smell of fresh rain on grass and blood red dust in the air. It’s an earthy experience and being the continent size that it is, the variety on offer cannot be summed up in one blog.
My mate and I pushed out into the calm Okavango Delta, learning the turns and watching out for overhead reeds which danced and teased. The thing about dug-out canoes (or at least these ones) is I’m sure they are only meant for 2 people and with a third person rowing plus luggage, the water slowly inched its way inside as we sank lower towards the water surface, our luggage absorbing what it could. Pulling over to the shallows we jumped out to just below knee deep water whilst the canoe was drained. It only took a few short moments before we realised that our bodies had become the fascination of every leech in the nearby vicinity and they clung to our skin in earnest. They are slippery suckers!
Setting off again we navigated the eerie paths through open spaces and narrow channels which looked as though they had never been mapped; birds flew overhead and the sun radiated down like an equatorial gift from the gods. The front of the canoe split dense patches of luminous lilly pads, and miniature frogs watched as new arrivals darted past to the sound of camera shutters clicking. The air is sweet in the Okavango Delta; a combination of freshly cut grass mingled with honeysuckle and everything is still. Nothing seems to move in the stifling heat and it’s utterly peaceful. The world doesn’t feel like it has anything to do, it isn’t trying to be anywhere else and my legs relaxed over the course edges of the canoe, gently grazing the water surface.
Upon reaching our wilderness campsite for the night we emptied our luggage and promptly hung clothes up to dry. It was a campsite clearing used on previous tours, but a cosy space for our group of 10 with long drop toilets and all paper removed when we left. I like this. There are too many companies who wave the responsible travel flag but rarely do as advertised. As a tour company, it is your responsibility to hire local guides, use local services as much as possible, and to quote an extremely overused, but important quote – leave only footprints. Tucan Travel fits this bill and having worked for them for many years was pleased to see their efforts translated into reality on the ground.
We pitched our tents on the banks of the Delta for perfect views of the African setting sun, before donning swim shorts and wading into the silt laden depths of the Okavango. As we swam, long tail canoes sailed past with nets of fish from a lazy days toil, giraffe ambled past with their long necks outstretched and birds circled above poised to dive into the black depths for a bite sized snack. It is one of those monumental moments that inspire the travel bug (the good kind as opposed to 24hrs hunched over a porcelain bowl). It was a surreal experience which refreshingly heightened all my senses, and at that point in time, I could be nowhere else on earth. It was real and glorious. There were people on the tour who decided their budget could not stretch for the Delta and stayed in Maun. I never understood this. If your budget is small, stay at home and save until you are able to suck every experience out of your trip, or simply just make it fit your budget. Don’t drink as much, don’t buy souvenirs you won’t use but don’t travel on a plane, only to miss out on the highlights.
Each day of three, the guides lead us on wildlife walks. Although we saw rhino, grazing elephants, cautious zebra and giraffe, the walks were aimed at revealing another side of Botswana. The more intricate side which can be overlooked without proper guidance. The flora and fauna. What plants make medicines, recognising animal’s tracks and how to recognise an animal by it’s poo. That reminds me of a funny story whilst travelling in Alaska, someone asked the guide if the poo they had found was from a black bear, the guide inspected it and confirmed that no, it was in fact the common variety K9.
I always enjoy the forest walks, not because it is a visual feast but because it brings awareness of the entire ecosystem, one that doesn’t have to jump out and fill my camera frame. It is after all ultimately part of the food chain which affects the entire animal kingdom. Also it means I can get up close to termite mounds and if any readers have followed my previous blogs, I have a bit of a termite mound fetish – they just amaze me and I’m not quite sure why but they are my guilty pleasure.
The night skies in Botswana (actually all of Africa) are immense. The sky appears to be more stars than darkness which dance across the sky with a beautiful arrogance; completely aware of their effect on planet earth below. Whenever I look up at African skies I think of early explorers and tribal people navigating by constellations and planets across unchartered land.
Days in the Delta are relaxed but there is always something to do – just at a slower pace than you may be used to. When it was too hot we swam, when we dried off we swam, when the sun started to dip we went on a nature walk, when we came back we swam. As the sun set we slapped on mosquito repellent and traced satellites across the sky. But what stays at the forefront of my mind is heading out in the canoes in search of hippos as they lay semi-submerged beneath a layer of reeds. These tremendous animals cannot be out-rowed, out-run and must be treated with caution as they wallow during lazy days. We inched close enough to be at a safe distance and watch as they grazed the water in all magnificence.
The journey back to Maun after a Delta experience is slightly sobering. Yes, it is nice to get back to a warm shower and clean underwear, and as sad as it sounds a smattering of Wi-Fi.
A word of warning, the Okavango Delta does nothing to cure the travel bug; all it does is quarantine you in a bubble where the outside world doesn’t quite make as much sense as the snaking waterways and nature do. I had been re-infected with the itchy foot disease which lead me to Botswana – the same which has inspired me to travel for over 15 years.
Happy travelling folks!
If you want to read any other Africa blogs, check these out:
A guide to travelling Sudan
Everything you need to know about travelling in Cameroon
How to spot gorillas in Lobeke National Park
The ultimate guide to travelling in Ethiopia
The Danakil Depression – one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth
Tanzania – Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater