There are few places on this planet as dreamlike and tranquil as the Okavango Delta. The experience of being gently propelled through the reeds on a Mokoro with the sound of birds, droplets of water from the poles gently dipping in and out of the water and if you are lucky some gentle African singing, easily beats any spa experience I have ever had.
The Delta is filled by the Okavango River that begins over 1,000km away in Angola. Botswana is a relatively dry country but Angola’s heavy January rains slowly make their way down the river to fill the Delta with this whole process taking about 5-months. The wet season in both Angola and Botswana is in summer but due to this slow flow the Okavango Delta isn’t fully flooded until July or August which is meant to be the peak of Botswana’s dry winter season. Those visiting during this time can enjoy something seldom found elsewhere in the world; an abundance of flood water during clear dry and warm winter days with hardly a cloud in sight.
In spring the flood waters begin to dry out eventually leaving a relatively small area that is often packed with animals seeking hydration which in turn leads to some fabulous game viewing. The outlying areas of the Delta return to the desert-like landscape of the Kalahari. Whilst the animals disperse over a wider area during the flood months the birds become more prevalent and more of the region is accessible by canoe meaning that any time of year is a good time to visit. We visited in late-August when the flood was in full-swing and but you probably need to forget for a moment any of your own notions of what a flood looks like. In the Delta there are no rapid fast flowing waters and instead the basin is simply filled with still clear water. It looks like a vast shallow lake made up of lots of channels and interspersed with lots of islands.
The day before we embarked on our Delta trip we had woken before sunrise at our campsite on the banks of the Okavango River so that we could make the border crossing from Namibia into Botswana before the crowds arrived. It was a Saturday morning and we turned out to be some of the only people there, in fact the Botswana customs officers hadn’t even shown up for work yet so after exiting Namibia we were processed quickly before continuing the five-hour drive to Maun.
Maun is a vibrant tourist town known for being the gateway to the Okavango Delta. It is the sixth largest city in Botswana and is set alongside the Thamalakane River. From our campground we enjoyed the unusual site of donkeys, goats, cows and antelope grazing together at the water’s edge, joined here and there by exotic looking African birds and the odd lizard.
It was here that the peace of our little group was broken as eight Australians joined us. Whilst they weren’t all friends back home they had been traveling through Africa together for a few weeks so were as well bonded as we were. I was excited to meet some new people. Things were getting a bit intense on our truck with the development of two romances. It wasn’t that I didn’t approve or wasn’t happy for the couples, it is just that sharing a small truck with four people who are newly loved-up takes the term ‘third wheel’ to a whole new level and I think the remaining seven of us third wheels were feeling that to different degrees. The idea of new people arriving to freshen things up and take the focus off the couples was appealing.
We first met the Australians at the campsite bar and whilst I liked them I also noticed that there were some pretty strong personalities there that were opposite to the personalities in our group. These were salt of the earth Australians mostly from small towns and for those of you not familiar with Australian culture think less Nicole Kidman and more Crocodile Dundee. It was pretty clear there would be a clash of cultures and personalities so I decided I’d try to stay in the middle but mostly just sit back to watch the show. And there certainly was one.
We set off early for our Delta trip the next morning. We were to spend two nights ‘bush camping’ which essentially means that your guides pick a good spot then you set up your tent, build a fire for cooking, dig a hole for a toilet and go without running water for as long as the trip takes which of course means no shower and bringing in enough bottled water for drinking, brushing your teeth etc. We packed up two jeeps, carefully ensuring our well stocked cooler was on board, and then left the truck behind along with our driver who no doubt would enjoy a few days of peace by the pool.
It was a bumpy ride to the small village of Boro where our Mokoro Polers lived. These were the people that would navigate the Mokoro canoes through the delta for us. There was one poler for each Mokoro which could take two passengers plus we had several extra Mokoros for our gear. We met our guide who explained how things would work; we would take a 40-minute trip on the Mokoros to our campsite which had been selected the day before, there we would set up camp and relax through the hottest part of the day before taking an optional evening safari walk. The next day would include another safari walk and an evening trip by Mokoro to view a hippo pod before we returned to Maun on the third day.
We divided ourselves into pairs with each being assigned a poler that has their own Mokoro. These used to be dug out of wood but these days they are fiberglass which is better for the ecosystem as they no longer have to chop down large trees to make them. Throughout the Delta there are a lot of Mokoros supporting tourist demand so this modern method saves a lot of trees. After making some adjustments to the load our poler pushed us off the beach with some difficulty and we were off. We had been warned to not make balance adjustments ourselves even if it felt like we were tipping over. Instead we had to give the poler our complete trust which soon paid off but it still felt precarious and took a bit of getting used to.
As our convoy traveled quietly and peacefully out into the Delta our guide would point out flowers, plants and trees of interest. We asked a lot of questions and found that the water is indeed crocodile infested, something that bothered my canoe-mate as she has a bit of a crocodile phobia. Our poler found that hilarious considering she came from the UK where there aren’t any crocs.
The reeds are thick, the water shallow and the bottom muddy which makes it hard work for the poler but for us passengers it was a wonderful experience, so tranquil that it was hard to stay awake. They rhythmic sound of the pole being pushed into the water, the resulting gentle push forward, the sound of the water parting and droplets falling back in as the pole was lifted out which was followed by a swift glide forward all served to make you sleepy. If you did manage to keep your eyes open you found yourself almost at eye level with the surface of the water, giving you a unique view through the vivid green reeds dotted here and there with pretty wildflowers and lily pads. Occasionally islands would appear in the distance, mostly covered with green grass and the occasional tall palm tree or termite mound.
Soon we arrived at our campsite on one of the islands. We worked quickly to unload the Mokoros and pitch our tents before the sun got higher. It was only about 11am yet the weather was unseasonably hot. By the time we finished lunch it was almost unbearable and although our campsite offered shade we would have to move every 20-minutes or so to get behind a different tree as the sun shifted overhead. Tents that had been pitched in the shade on arrival were now in full sun so there was no chance of taking a nap as they had become like saunas. The important thing to know about camping trips in the Okavango Delta during hot weather is that there is a lot of down time because it is simply too uncomfortable for the guests or guides to do walking safaris or get back out on the Mokoro with there being no shade at all out on the water. You definitely need to plan for this by bringing books, cards and so on.
By late afternoon there was some grumbling about the amount of time with nothing to do in the heat. Due to a series of unfortunate events and errors the new Australian group had experienced a hectic and dramatic trip before they got to us. After several weeks of traveling through Africa they were basically over it and would rather be by the pool at the campsite with a cold drink than out here in the sweltering Delta. So they spoke to their tour leader about leaving to go back to the campsite in Maun the next morning. Unfortunately some members of our group took that personally or saw it as an insult to our tour guides and so a great divide was created that only got worse over the next week or so. Whilst I managed to stay friendly with both parties things definitely deteriorated after that because that kind of group atmosphere in remote and sometimes challenging situations can create a powder keg environment. Now people are sub-consciously looking for things to get upset about and to blame other group members for. Even I ended up being guilty of bitching about things as the week wore on when I should have just kept my mouth shut.
That evening we sat around the campfire and despite the growing tension it ended up being a fun night but once it was pitch black we all remembered that we would need to use the bush toilet that had been dug in the ground shortly after we arrived. In order to protect privacy it was a short distance from the campsite and that wasn’t a problem during the day but at night, with the sound of grunting hippos nearby and the knowledge that there were lions in the area, we were a little nervous. Not only that but we were scared of accidentally slipping into the hole whilst trying to find it. Obviously this was more of a problem for us women who weren’t able to have a quick pee standing up.
So I came up with the Group Pee concept whereby someone who had an urge to go could yell out ‘Group Pee at 9-o-clock’ and we would all know to assemble at that time with toilet paper, hand sanitizer and plenty of torches. I would then lead the group out into the bush and find a good spot where we could pee together so that we felt safe but also didn’t have to look at each other while we did it. This created a lot of fun times. First of all, my good friends in London had got me a Shewee before I left thinking it would come in handy and it certainly did. This is a wonderful contraption that essentially allows a woman to pee standing up and is perfect for situations like this. The rest of the group were fascinated by it and this would be my first time using it so I was a bit worried. Rightly so as it turned out because somehow I did manage to pee all over myself. Keep in mind that there were no showers to clean up in so I was glad of the baby wipes I thought to bring with me along with a change of clothes.
Around the same time that I was yelling and complaining that I’d peed all over myself a hippo made a very loud sound indicating it was close by. One of our group then ran out of the bushes with her trousers and underwear around her knees screaming ‘oh my god a hippo’ quickly followed by ‘oh my god I’ve never run with my underpants around my knees before’. By now we were laughing so hard that those who hadn’t already been couldn’t manage to go. This was the first of many nighttime Group Pee events we would have in the African bush and they all generally resulted in hilarity. Although I am happy to say that I soon mastered the Shewee so that was the last time I humiliated myself.
The next morning the Australians left and we spent another long hot day passing time with games, reading and swapping stories. In the late-afternoon we set off in our Mokoros to view a large pod of hippo. This is a little nerve-wracking as hippos can and do capsize canoes in Africa, usually resulting in the death of any humans on board. However our polers were incredibly experienced, having grown up in the Delta and had spent most of their lives poling here as had several generations before them. So we kept a safe distance and had a really enjoyable sighting. It was a whole different experience to see them at eye level from almost within the water compared to viewing them from a game vehicle on land.
We then traveled to a small island to watch a yet another beautiful African sunset before returning to camp where the polers sang and danced for us around the campfire. We had camped alongside them for 2-days now and I think we had all become very fond of them. Some of them didn’t speak much English but we still managed to converse and enjoyed watching them go out on fishing expeditions then return to cook their catch for lunch or dinner.
Some of us sat up until after midnight finishing off the booze we had brought with us, sharing it with some of the polers and just enjoying our last night in the Delta. It was another magical night in the bush with the hippos grunting nearby, the occasional loud ‘crash and crack’ as an elephant broke off a tree branch and an incredible display of stars overhead. But always the best part of these evenings is swapping stories. Most are about experiences with African animals but sometimes the big questions about life and our existence are pondered too. It is comforting to know that every night around the world people of all races and cultures are sitting around campfires having similar discussions and when you are lucky enough to be doing this yourself the problems of the world seem far away and insignificant. It truly is a wonderful thing