Travel

Wildlife bonanza in the Okavango Delta

Gliding across the tranquil waters of the Okavango in a traditional mokoro.
Gliding across the tranquil waters of the Okavango in a traditional mokoro. Jill Worrall

LOVE, or perhaps lust, was truly in the air at Camp Okavango, set amidst the labyrinth of waterways, wetlands and islands that make up the world's largest inland delta.

It wasn't anything to do with the honeymoon suite either, but rather everything to do with the dozens of squirrels that were engaging in enthusiastic bouts of mating throughout the camp. It certainly gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "call of the wild" on the dawn walk to breakfast.

Clearly the squirrels were happy here, and why wouldn't they be? Camp Okavango is an oasis of tall leafy trees and statuesque palms complete with a lawn to romp over and thatched chalets to bound across.

The human occupants, both staff and visitors love it too, as apparently did the young crocodile that regularly sunned itself on the bank just metres away from our deck. No wonder that after dark one is escorted by a staff member to and from one's room to dinner - everything from lions to hippo can - and have - wandered into the grounds at night.

We reached Cape Okavango after a short flight from Kasane in northern Botswana.

From the arid landscapes of Chobe we began flying over the awe-inspiring spectacle that is the Okavango - a river that rises in Angola far to the north but never reaches the sea. Instead it mostly drains into a vast expanse of the Kalahari Basin which straddles Botswana and neighbouring Botswana. The annual influx of crystal clear water provides a haven for rich concentrations of wildlife of all kinds.

After a sweep over the landing strip to make sure it was clear of grazing antelopes or zebra the pilot landed us beside a tiny branch of waterways that meander through this 16,000 square kilometre semi-aquatic world.

A tiny tin shed was the only structure in sight but reassuringly our guide Erny, from Cape Okavango, was waiting for us with an aluminium motorboat. All around us was an expanse of water that at first glance appeared totally still but on closer inspection was flowing, almost imperceptibly in most places.

Beneath the surface fish were darting and - where the floating reed beds gave way to open water - pale blue and white water lilies flowered.

Erny powered up the engine and we set off into a watery world where two-to-three-metre-high walls of vegetation blocked out everything but the channels and lakes immediately around us. Herons, startled by the engine noise, took off lazily from their perches in the papyrus, legs dangling.

The boat twisted and turned through the channels until we passengers were completely disoriented. But Erny knew exactly where we were - to his experienced eyes there are as many landmarks through the delta as street signs in a city - a submerged log here, a sandbank there.

Late in the afternoon the camp guides took five of us guests on a walk across the island, past mahogany, baobab and sausage trees to the camp's own airstrip, which is still too wet to handle aircraft.

There's another jetty here though at which several of the traditional dugout wooden canoes, called mokoro, were tied up.

Our guides stood in the stern like Venetian gondoliers and poled us into the delta waters, which here were more expansive - a vast wetland.

The mokoros, even with us weighing them down, can skim across incredibly shallow water. We stopped to admire tiny reed frogs clinging to strands of grass and to watch the beautiful lilac-breasted roller birds, their chests iridescent purple in the late afternoon sun.

The mokoros slipped slowly, silently through the delta... time seemed to unwind, to flow almost as imperceptibly as the water.

We went to sleep that night, serenaded by a cacophony of frogs and the deep, throaty chuckles of hippos.

There was no waking to the dawn chorus though - we beat the birds to it. Being on safari means early starts and we had a boat to catch.

There was a chill in the air as Erny navigated our boat deeper into the delta. He was driving slowly, quietly this morning so we were rewarded as we turned a corner to see a large crocodile swimming ahead of us.

Just as we were about to land on another island, he heard something and signalled us back on to the boat. For a brief minute we thought he'd spotted a lion. Erny kept us in suspense as he reversed the boat back into the channel and around the bend. There, 10 metres ahead of us, were three hippos, nostrils flared and ears flicking with irritation at our appearance. They bobbed, otherwise motionless in the channel, emitting the odd snort, eyes beadily fixed on us.

Erny wouldn't take us any closer. Adult hippos can weigh up to two tonnes and can be notoriously aggressive especially if defending their young. We'd have been no match for them in our boat.

Back on land we set off on a walking safari. Erny was joined by Chilli, the designated lookout scout, although he was fairly relaxed - most of the big predators such as lions and leopards had followed the wildebeest and zebra herds away from the island in recent weeks. But we were still ordered to stand absolutely still and quiet as a female elephant with a tiny baby beside her moved into view. She too would not hesitate to attack if she thought we presented any danger to her offspring.

As we walked among the forest and across the grassland we encountered a troop of baboons digging rhizomes for breakfast, found a land monitor asleep in a fallen log and watched Lechwe antelope with their elegantly curved and ridged horns bounding through the undergrowth.

The remains of a buffalo stopped us in our tracks - there was only the skull, a few ribs and the hooves left. A pride of lions brought the beast down just a few days ago; hyena and vultures (several of the latter were still sitting on a dead tree nearby) were completing the clean-up job.

On the return journey to camp we saw one of the most extraordinary sights in our whole Africa adventure. As we swung around a bend we encountered a huge elephant in one of the large channels. It was swimming fast towards the far shore, ears flapping, trunk raised. Its four or five-tonne bulk was creating a white-crested bow wave.

We sat entranced until the elephant disappeared into the tall papyrus, leaving only its wake disturbing the usually calm waters of the Okavango.

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Topics:  travel travelling



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