Join Africa expert Chris McIntyre as he cruises down Botwana's wildlife-filled Okavango Delta
The water gently lapped at the sides of the boat. Reed-frogs chirped, but nothing else stirred on the lagoon. Then a swirl of air came from behind. In quick succession, two pairs of outstretched talons slowed into a glide, swooping to pierce the surface and pluck a sliver from the water.
Huge wing-beats hauled wet feathers through the heavy air and back onto their perch. Sharp beaks tore into the fish. Finally, as the cameras fell silent, Walter, our boatman, stuffed another fish with a buoyant papyrus reed-stem.
“Ready with the new films?” he quipped, throwing it into the lagoon.
The boat’s motor started as the sky turned magenta, and the fish eagles took flight. Soaring high, they left the lagoon amidst its forest of feathery papyrus. Beyond, a mosaic of waterways, reed-beds and palm-lined islands stretched to the horizon. We were deep in the Okavango Delta, a shimmering paradise in the heart of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert.
North of Angola’s highlands, the Cuito and Cubango Rivers rise and fuse to form the Okavango, one of Southern Africa’s greatest rivers. Flowing south-east, it then flows down across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, tumbles over the picturesque Popa Falls, and into Botswana. There, it crosses the Gumare Fault where it starts to spread over the Kalahari.
As it enters Botswana, the Okavango’s meanders are bounded by parallel fault-lines, just 15km apart. This is the Panhandle, where the river’s channels are deep and strong. Further south, the Okavango escapes the bounds of the Panhandle’s faults to split into three major channels. These are rivers in their own right, which fan out across the flat Kalahari like fingers from a hand – the Thaoge heading south, the Boro south-east, and the Ngoga almost due east.
Between these, the land is very flat. With little gradient to guide its flow, the water seeps from these rivers into hundreds of side-channels and lagoons. When in flood, February to June, it also inundates many low, open plains in the area, forming a sheet of shallow water about the size of Wales, dotted with islands.
Eventually most of it simply evaporates. In exceptional years it fills the Selinda Spillway and overflows into the nearby Linyanti Swamps. Only a fraction ever passes right through the Delta, to escape along the Boteti River.
The pattern of channels in the Delta is complex and always changing. It is still not understood. Last century the western arm of the Delta, the Thaoge River, seems to have been the strongest. It flowed through to fill Lake Ngami. However, in the 1850s the great explorer, CJ Andersson, noted that Lake Ngami ‘... must have undergone very considerable changes at different periods. The natives have frequently pointed out to me places, now covered with vegetation, where they used to spear hippopotamus. Again, there are unmistakable proofs of it having been at one time of smaller dimension than at present; for submerged stumps of trees are constantly met with.’
Last year Lake Ngami was almost dry. Andersson discounted the “upheaving, or sinking of the land” – which we now think is the main cause of these changes in flow. However, in a system so unpredictable, even the paths made by hippos could affect the strength of the channels, and the whole pattern of the Delta’s erratic floods.
Questions of tectonic movements are usually easier than choosing the best way to visit, and where to stay. These are truly difficult questions. Some places within Moremi Wildlife Reserve, the national park that covers a slice of the Delta, can be reached by road. Such adventurous fun needs a fully-equipped 4WD, bush-wise travellers, and lots of planning. Moremi’s public campsites need booking in advance and are very basic: taps, toilets and cold showers.
Expect superb game-viewing, sometimes too close for comfort. There are no fences, so lions, elephants and hyena wander through the sites at North Gate, Xakanaxa Lediba, Third Bridge and South Gate. Perhaps this is the wildest camping in southern Africa – but not the way to find the Delta’s watery heart.
The growing town of Maun is the base for trips into the Delta. Several lodges here will organise for you to be punted into the Delta using a dug-out canoe or mokoro. Island Safari Lodge, Crocodile Camp and Audi Camp have all been doing this for years. This is the cheapest way to see the Delta, as you take provisions with you, and rough-camp where you stop. However, unless you travel for at least a week, most of your time will be spent on the shallow outer fringes of the Delta, seeing little of the deeper areas.
Visitors with less time go straight to camps deep in the Delta by light aircraft. Several of these market themselves to budget travellers, like Oddball’s and Gunn’s Camp. If you want to camp and feed yourself, these do offer a cut-price view of the Delta. But beware: stringent luggage restrictions and costly camp extras will squeeze your cash once you’re in there. So whilst less costly than the other small camps, these are never cheap.
If you can afford it, pay more upfront in the first place. Visit a couple of the twenty-or-so small upmarket camps, spending a few days in each to see several contrasting environments. Choosing these can be difficult, as most of them are excellent.
Decisions are complicated by marketing blurb trumpeting Moremi Wildlife Reserve as the only area to see wildlife, and each camp as fulfilling your every wish. Neither claim is true. The reserve does protect a slice of the Delta, including areas of prolific game, but don’t be bamboozled: Outside Moremi is as beautiful as inside, and the animals don’t know the difference. Equally, most of the camps are situated in fascinating ecosystems – which vary enormously across the Delta. The wildlife varies with the environment, and the best camps for game-viewing are not always the best for bird-watching and vice-versa.
At the Delta’s deepest point, in the Panhandle, the water is cloudy and full of sediment. The vegetation is almost exclusively papyrus reeds, one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, which utilises nitrogen-fixing bacteria to propagate rapidly. Their shoots spring up, flower and die within three months, forming huge floating mats of roots, rhizomes, and rotting stems – which inhibit life beneath them.
This seldom bothers larger animals, or the river’s bigger fish. Hippos and tiger fish, the angler’s most challenging quarry, thrive here. Many of the Delta’s crocodiles congregate here too, laying their eggs on exposed sandbanks between September and January, when waters are at their lowest.
Aside from these, the only large mammal here is the sitatunga. This rare antelope, which is seldom seen, is unique in feeding upon papyrus shoots. They are adapted to swamp life with splayed hooves, swimming prowess, and an ability to submerge completely when fleeing.
Papyrus beds often seem lifeless, as only a few specialists thrive here. A favourite is the endangered African skimmer. These acrobats of the Okavango also use sandbanks for nesting. They fish by trailing their bottom bill in the water, and snapping it shut when they strike a fish. It is remarkable to watch.
There are a handful of deep-water camps, mostly in the Panhandle. Drotsky’s Cabins is a beautiful long-established camp on the banks of the main river, owned and run by an old Botswana family. Nearby, Nxamaseri Camp is further south, surrounded by floodplains (like areas in the lower Delta) and set on the edge of papyrus beds. Although south of the Panhandle, Jedibe Camp is another true deep-water camp. All primarily use motorboats to negotiate these areas of deeper water. You won’t see much big game in any of these – so go for the birding, the ambience, and perhaps try a little fishing.
Away from the Panhandle, the Delta is a more complex mixture. Islands ringed by tall hardwood trees overlook deep lagoons. Channels appear and disappear, meandering between permanent and seasonal swamps. In these shallows, papyrus gives way to a variety of rooted reeds and sedges. Endless reed-beds have filtered the waters, leaving them clear and tannic, as if splashed with a hint of Coca-Cola, and is usually fine to drink.
In this mosaic of water, everything moves and flows. There is too much to take in, so just relax in a mokoro and soak up the ambience. There’s a smattering of big game around, but this still isn’t the place to safari. Come instead for the myriad of birds, and the feeling that you’ve found the Garden of Eden. Soon the liquid notes of a coppery-tailed coucal will blend with the splashing turquoise flash of a malachite kingfisher. It’s enchanting.
Amongst the many shallow-water camps, favourites include Xigera, Camp Okavango, Shinde Island and Pom Pom Camp – all in their own exclusive concession areas. Xaxaba, Delta Camp, and the closeby Oddball’s and Gunn’s camps, all near the end of the Boro River, have adjacent floodplains when the waters are high, and the dry expanses of Chiefs Island for walking trips. Abu’s Camp is further west, and is noted for its elephant-back safaris and exceptionally high costs.
Before the 1950s, the Delta attracted big game from a thousand miles away. Like the Serengeti’s great migration, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest would trek from the interior in search of water. Lake Xau, Lake Ngami, and the edges of the Delta were inundated by animals.
Botswana’s controversial veterinary fences, built to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease, stopped this dead. Fortunately, the Delta still has one of Africa’s best permanent populations of game, augmented by the remnants of the great migrations before the fences. Elephants, buffalo, and all the region’s big game abound. The cats – lion, leopard and cheetah – are all relatively common; only rhino are absent.
Contrary to popular belief, the Delta’s whole interior is not flooded. Huge tracts are dry, including the Moremi Tongue and Chiefs Island. Here the game viewing can be superb.
Mombo and Chitabe stand out for sightings of wild dog, that rarest of southern African predators – a fact reflected in Mombo’s prices. Like Duba Plains and Vumbura, to the north, they stand in their own private wildlife areas. That is 220,000 acres for 12 guests: it’s no surprise that trips into the Delta are not cheap. Khwai River Lodge, Machaba Camp and Tsaro Lodge are all in a classic area for big game in the eastern corner of Moremi, shared with the campers at North Gate. Similarly, San-ta-Wani stands on the southern edges of Moremi, close to South Gate.
Xakanaxa Lediba Camp, Camp Okuti and Camp Moremi overlook the magnificent Xakanaxa Lagoon, adjacent on the dry expanse of the Moremi Tongue. They are superbly sited in the heart of Moremi for top game drives and boat cruises, perfect if you only have time for a short visit – although are close to the public campsite at Xakanaxa, so you won’t be alone in viewing the wildlife.
As I write, news comes in that the 1998 floods are going to be some of the highest on record. El Niño has swelled the rains in Angola, and water is still pouring into the Delta. The Selinda Spillway will probably soon surge into the Linyanti Swamps, which were almost dry last year.
Further north, the Chobe River is having its highest waters in 50 years. Water levels have been low for most of the last five years, and these floods are badly needed. Already the fish eagles are assured a great season’s hunting, as they soar over their vast watery mirror in the heart of the Kalahari.