The Okavango Delta, Botswana

11 August 2018

[Above photo: Wild dogs preparing for the evening hunt with their pack of 11.]

As Linda reminded me when we were attempting to plot our next moves after Windhoek, Namibia was the focus of our trip, with Botswana and Zambia as embellishments.  Having been in the Okavango Delta, one of the largest delta systems in the world, it is difficult not to see it as a destination more worthy than most.

After spending two nights camping at the Okavango River Lodge on a grassy verge at the edge of the flow and a day in dusty, busy Maun, we travelled by speedboat 45 minutes into the Delta to Boro, a Bushman (San) village of about 300 inhabitants. There we climbed into a mokoro, a 16 foot long traditional narrow low-sided canoe, piled in our luggage and watched the world go by as our guide for 3 days, Stewart, poled us upriver. After 1 ½ hours we pulled to shore and set up camp adjacent to a young couple, Tom and Anna, from UK. We enjoyed each other’s company for their two-day stay. After they left, we enjoyed the silence and beauty. 3-4 hour game walks were punctuated by short mokoro rides and lazing around.

The mokoro is better than ACE inhibitors for elevated blood pressure: silent, smooth, in Nature. Whether poling up the side of a “main channel”, of which the Delta has many, or swishing through reeds in the marshes, we’d come upon herds of zebra, red lechwe (medium-sized antelope), and wildebeest. One evening we travelled in the mokoro to a lagoon inhabited by hippos, responsible for more deaths by animal than any in Africa, save mosquitos. One swam towards us, repeatedly submerging for 4-5 minutes only to reappear much closer. We felt nervous, since if he decided to get fierce we’d have no way out. They can move very quickly, both on land and in the water, despite their bulk.  We were amongst reeds and grasses in 4 feet of water with no land nearby. He was curious and eventually returned to his pals at a distance from us.

We saw all manner of birds, from Fish Eagles and Blacksmith Plovers to Sacred Ibis, Coppery-tailed Coucals,  and African Jacanas. I now can distinguish 4 kinds of doves by their call: “Work harder, drink lager” (Cape Turtle Dove), “I am a RED-eyed dove” (Red-eyed Dove), Laughter (Laughing Dove), and “My mother’s dead, my father’s dead, my sister’s dead, what shall I do, do, do, do, do?” (Emerald-spotted dove).

The game walks on the mokoro trip were wonderful.  We three would walk softly across the savannah and through the sparse bush, alert to sight and sound. There was elephant scat all around; much of it contained very hard pooh-covered spheres a bit smaller than a tennis ball. Elephants apparently eat palm nuts for the fruit surrounding them; the nuts and their hard casing are indigestible. Passing through an elephant helps the nuts to germinate. They are also used by local craftspersons, like ivory for netsuke (Japan) or scrimshaw (US and UK), to carve and dye. They are often fashioned into jewelry. There were Palm, Jackalberry (African ebony), Sausage-fruit, Leadwood, Rain, Marula, and Camel-thorn trees scattered about. Water in the Okavango River, which arises in Angola, takes months to traverse the Delta.

Walking across the islands was a bit like walking across a WWI battlefield in France after cease-fire. Aardvarks dig huge holes all over, eating the insects within. Blind mole-rats leave heaps of dirt from excavating their tunnels. And the termite mounds are 15-20 feet tall, with a spire at the top to which they retire with their queen when the lower levels flood. The spire also helps with temperature control. They look like bombed cathedrals.

No guns are allowed in the Delta, so our guide instructed us how to respond to various charges: an elephant or Cape Buffalo—run like hell and get behind, or better, up, a huge tree or massive termite mound (buffalo only—an elephant will smash the latter to smithereens). A lion charge: you are already dead so don’t hasten it by running or turning your back.  [Since I’d hope to be running away from, not toward, the lion, that seems redundant to me.]  Stand still with your hands, palms up, in an attitude of “I have no money. See?” They may charge three times or so to see if you are aggressive or will turn into prey by running. Then they may go and lie down nearby. Walk slowly backwards, facing them. Change your trousers later. In every other game park we’ve been to the walks are all accompanied by a guard with a semi-automatic rifle. And I don’t believe it is simply an attempt at full-employment by creating another unnecessary position. Many government jobs Malawi and Mozambique seem that way to me. Three people sitting around an office, chewing the fat. One of them wields a stamp which he uses with a muscular, definitive flourish when someone passes him their passport. The others look on, chewing.  He sits down again. It’s not like he needs a rest from his exertions.

After returning to Boro, which resembled the bustle of a bus station in a large, developing-world city with many mokoros, polers, and whites milling about, we jumped on a tiny aluminum skiff with a 90 hp Mercury on the back and a teen-aged driver for a rocket-ride back to Maun. We were going 40mph, at least, and the channel is remarkably serpentine and disguised. It was a rush and I was prepared to leap straight up and off, if and when we hit ground and stopped abruptly.

Before the above mokoro trip, emulating the simple life of San fishermen (Ha!), we went into Wilderness Safaris in Maun. They are a fabulous organization, with affiliated resorts all over Botswana and Namibia, and strive to engage and help their communities, preserve the environment, and bring in foreign dollars. They are doing just that, it seems, and we booked two nights at a posh lodge, Chitabe Lediba, in the Delta. We knew we’d enjoy it after the mokoro camping, especially.

We have now flown deeper into the Delta in a Cessna Caravan to a lovely 5 chalet resort. Sitting in our chalet, Linda whispered to me, “Come out and you don’t need your binoculars.” Twenty feet away, next to the walkway between our chalet and the lodge is a mother elephant and her baby, eating the brush. This place is crazy with animals! As our little plane landed at the resort’s airstrip, a giraffe was standing at the verge and an ostrich dashed across the far end, pursued by some sort of feline. On our 9 km drive to the lodge, we saw several herds of Burchell’s Zebra, herds of kudu and impala, an elephant, a Lilac-breasted Roller in flight, more giraffe, and a Bateleur Eagle.  Lots of promise.]

As we arrived at the lodge after a brief flight and a brief game-drive, the staff were singing and clapping in beautiful welcoming harmony to greet us. A brief orientation was followed by a fabulous brunch; the manager ate with us, explaining the routine. Up at 5:30 AM for a quick breakfast then an early game drive until 11AM followed by brunch and a rest. High tea at 3:30 with a 3 hour game drive from 4-7, then supper. While we’d like to stay for a month, we’ll be blimps at this rate. I am going to enquire, with serious intent, about kayaking the length of the Delta. It is done and there are guides to assist and one or two support boats to carry baggage, fatigued paddlers, and old men who have o’errun their abilities.

Our first evening game-drive was stunning. We watched and followed a leopard at close distance as she climbed a termite mound to observe a group of Tsessebe antelope about 500 yards away. Her camouflage made her almost invisible unless she was moving. After a bit we continued and, only the highlights here, saw a dead zebra under a tree with a huge female lion and two cubs gnawing on her innards. Another large female was lying on her back while two more cubs suckled and another two cubs wrestled. After ½ hour, the first lioness left her feast and lay on her back and the suckling cubs switched spigots. We were 40 feet away, mesmerized. On our return to the lodge in the dark we saw a Serval Cat, slinking about.

Supper was another glorious feed—free wine, beer, g&t, whatever—and we hit the sack. The latter turned out to be half the size of a football field with a soft, warm, light duvet and probably 800 thread-count sheets. Much of the night I’d awaken briefly to find Linda gone. I thought she couldn’t sleep and was in the other room, reading. Ha! She was fast asleep on the other side of the bed, it was so large. At about 2AM I heard a strange gurgling sound and imagined she was up, drinking from her bottle. Nope, she was still asleep until I woke her. Then we heard all manner of sounds of movement, brush crashing, etc. Thinking we were about to be eaten and the gurgling was a hungry predator’s empty stomach, we awaited our fate. After 10 minutes, I realized that whatever it was out there, if it were a carnivore we’d already be quietly killed and eaten so we relaxed and imagined it was the elephant pair from the day before, munching some tasty brush.

Awake at 5:30 for the AM game drive, it was another stunner. A mother and baby white rhino, immense, wandered by. Many magnificent birds. Elephants, solitary bulls and groups of mothers with calves, were everywhere. Giraffes aplenty. Back to the zebra kill to find the same cast of characters but little zebra left. It had been the size of a quarter horse and the lions were clearly intoxicated by the protein load, ripping at meat before collapsing to sleep. The cubs were cute, if a bit morbid, playing with the carcass which now consisted of the empty skin and a huge rib cage, plus head and extremities. The vultures patiently awaited their turn. We watched with a perfect view for an hour or more. On our continued drive to the lodge after 4 hours, we rounded a copse of trees and there were long tables set for 15 (two safari vehicles plus some staff), a singing, clapping welcome, and Compari with orange juice as a start. Then all manner of fresh-baked focaccia, braii steak, bacon, sausage, 3 salads, eggs, fresh fruit, etc. As we were being served, across the small lagoon where we perched trooped a group of 7 mother/baby elephant pairs. They drank and a couple of bulls nearby gave themselves dust baths, as if on cue. Brunch was accompanied by a constant stream of elephants traipsing by and glorious birdsong from the adjacent Jackalberry trees which were busy with Burchell’s starlings, filling themselves and the air.

If I come to Africa again and book a lodge, it will definitely be through Wilderness Safaris.  (We did get the local, not international rate, since we’ve been living in Malawi, which was helpful.) A Cape Town resident at the lodge has been to a number of their sites and says they are always different, always of excellent quality, and always contain a surprise or two. Once their al fresco meal was set at the base of a huge termite mound. A nearby mound had been vacated by the termites and a bit of spadework turned it into a pizza oven, from which were drawn 4 varieties of excellent pizza.

Tonight we’ll drop by the Wild Dog den where they are raising their puppies. Another visiting family here saw them kill and eat a small warthog, about which they had very mixed feelings. It is awful to watch something be killed, but mesmerizing, as well. I’d be happy just to see them frolic.

I would think that dropping a bunch of money for three days and two nights, including flying in and out, would not seem worth it. But the animals we’ve seen makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience and well worth it. My Resettlement Allowance from Peace Corps will pay for the trip and then some and I have no real resettlement costs. What an opportunity!

I’ll conclude with just highlights. Watching the Wild Dogs, an endangered species, hunt was amazing. They fan out and while we didn’t see them get the kill, they apparently are very efficient and run in relay fashion so as to wear out the poor antelope. We saw them again the next evening but their bellies were still full and they mostly just lay around and listened with their huge ears. On a morning drive, out of the mist we began to see Cape Buffalo—-more and more until a herd of 300+ emerged. Back to watch the two lionesses and 6 cubs, who had left only skin and bones of the zebra. Then we watched a leopard who was 20’ up a Jackalberry tree, stretched out over two branches, tail and one leg drooping down. She was disguised by the leaves and awaited an unsuspecting Impala to graze  on the berries underneath, whereupon she’d drop from the heavens and have supper.

Today we went for a game walk instead of a drive.  The guide had to drive to the other side of the lodge to get us, since 5 elephants, including a tiny baby, were browsing all over the parking area. As we readied to leave, a jackal raced down the boardwalk past us.  Our guide had a large-bore bolt action rifle, which was reassuring, as when we got down from the safari vehicle, a loud lion roar greeted us. If you encounter a deserted termite mound—one of those where weather has opened up the tunnels—and it is clean all around, beware: snake within.  Other animals use them for burrows, as well, including mongeese. We saw a 3+ foot Monitor Lizard on a tree branch, almost invisible. On our final drive back to the lodge, we stopped by a giraffe carcass. It had fallen yesterday while crossing a marsh with other giraffes, couldn’t get up, and drowned. Staff pulled it out of the water with a truck and a pride of 9 lions did the rest. Most of it was gone when we arrived. Six of the lions were resting in the shade at the side of our dirt track, one lying fast asleep in one of the tracks. We left the track, pulled up 20 feet from them, and sat with the engine off. After I sneezed loudly, a huge young male began to scrutinize us, me in particular, with his immense amber eyes. I avoided eye contact, and held motionless, wondering if he had been instructed that you don’t attack scale-less, claw-less, fur-less humanoids in Land Rovers. After 15 minutes or so he went back to gazing off into the distance with that intoxicated-on-fresh-giraffe-meat look. We began to breath again. Three of the females were guarding the carcass from the huge, hooded vultures that hovered near, wanting their share.

These 4 days have provided such a rich exposure to Nature in her most primitive, all creatures either looking for protein or looking to avoid becoming someone else’s supper, all breeding and caring for their young in between the above searches. And done so sustainably (100% solar electric, etc.), thoughtfully (They hire professional teams to survey their water table, their predator count, the Wild Dogs, etc. every few years.), and fairly (Good salaries, profit-sharing for all employees, etc.), Wilderness Safaris is an organization to support and use. We fly out in 2 hours and head to Nxai Pan tomorrow on our way to Chobe, Victoria Falls (Zambia, this time.), Lusaka, and Malawi.

PS We had to chase a giraffe and 6 kudu off the runway so the plane could land!

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