6 mins

Canoeing the Okavango Delta, Botswana

The Selinda Spillway, an offshoot of Botswana's famous Okavango Delta, has been dry for 30 years. Until now...

Sunset over the Okavango Delta (Andries3)

That’s a runway?” I asked in disbelief as the pilot set our Cessna 206 into a very steep dive towards what can only be described as an overgrown menagerie.

Elephants paused momentarily from chewing on trees to flash their angry tusks at us while a small herd of zebra bolted for cover, kicking up dust as they went.

“Yes, I do believe it is,” she replied calmly, one eye on the impending ground, the other on a map of Botswana’s Okavango Delta that was tacked to the window. “But it doesn’t look as if they’ve cut the grass in a while.”

The flight up to the Selinda private concession, just north of the world’s biggest inland delta, had been a treat of wet and wondrous scenery. The flooded fields, swamps, lakes and channels of the Okavango are particularly stunning viewed from above – especially when you add in hundreds of elephants ploughing through the shallows like barges.

“OK – one more 360…” said the pilot, cool as a cucumber, “and as long as that chap down there has shooed away the wildlife, we’ll be good and safe to land.”

I craned my neck and peered down at the landing strip where a khaki-clad gentlemen was running around, waving his hands above his head and scattering the hornbills and guineafowl at his feet.  

A true pioneer

After a brief rest in my tent on the banks of the Selinda Spillway, the waterway linking Botswana’s Okavango Delta with its Linyanti and Kwando systems, I bumped into Matt Copham, a burly lad who was busying himself with a pile of canvas bags and canoes. On a hanging bough above his head, a pair of African fish eagles bickered tunefully over a dead bream; just upstream, no more than 100m away, a single-file cavalcade of elephants crossed the water with stately grace.

“I trust you’re ready for our canoe adventure?” asked Matt with a wry, knowing smile. “We’re the first group to attempt the Spillway this year. Who knows what we’ll find out there?”

I looked at the elephants – who were splashing around, having a lark – and I looked at the eagles, who had started eating their fish. A lion roared somewhere close by; a hyena giggled in response. A hippo snorted and the elephants played a mariachi tune.

Yes. I was ready.

A fine flood

There is no place in Africa, perhaps even the world, that embodies the spirit of wilderness and wildness in quite the same way as the Okavango Delta. It’s certainly untamed, and even though it’s a safari buff’s mecca, the tourists are spread out over an area of some 30,000 sq km – overcrowding is rarely an issue.

Well, not as far as humans go. But the same cannot be said for the animals. They’re everywhere – and there are lots and lots and lots of them.

“Will we need to be wary of carnivores?” I asked Matt, with an air of false nonchalance.

He responded with a withering look that said: ‘don’t be so silly’ – “It’s the vegetarians we need to look out for.” “Particularly hippos, which can be a bit cheeky at times.”

I swallowed, and sweated, then shuffled my feet. Perhaps I wasn’t so ready after all.

The Selinda Spillway, which we would be tracing in canoes for 70km, is quite the phenomenon in this neck of the woods. For around 30 years it has been as dry as the British sense of humour. But last year the heavens opened in spectacular fashion and the Okavango River – the source of the floodplains – flowed like it has never flowed before.

Usually, the Delta is inundated by some 11 billion cubic metres of water annually; most of that will evaporate, some will sink into the Kalahari, but none will make it to the sea. However, during the 2009 rainy season there was far more rain than average; as a result, the Delta backed up and the Spillway began flowing. “For the first time in 32 years it’s possible to canoe the entire length of the Selinda Spillway,” glowed Matt.

Later, as we gently paddled over glassy waters – so still they reflected the sky in perfect symmetry – Matt filled me in on the dos and don’ts of surviving the Selinda Spillway Canoe Trail.

“There will be no crocodiles and very few hippos along our route,” he told me, “but if we do have an encounter, the protocol is to stay as close to the margins as possible. Should a hippo display and act aggressively, we should leave; should he attack and topple us, then we must calmly swim to the bank and depart post haste.”

Aaaaaaargh! I thought to myself.

“Piece of cake,” I said.

A close encounter

Hippos, though benign and comical in appearance, are rather thug-like in their attitude towards humans. Consequently, they send more people to their graves than crocodiles, lions and leopards combined: a statistic that was certainly foremost in my mind when we chanced upon one of the great lumbering beasts.

“Remember to stay close to the margins,” Matt advised as the hippo’s dark and menacing head vanished beneath the murk. A row of little bubbles appeared at the surface, charting the animal’s sub-aquatic trajectory towards us.

“Easy… easy…” cautioned Matt. “Wait for it, wait for it… Now, a little more vigour with the paddles, if you would.” 

And with that we rounded the corner, just as the giant beast exploded from the water, tusks scything the air.

“What did I tell you?” chuckled Matt, as I nibbled my nails. “They’re cheeky little buggers!”

Later that day I learned from Matt that we were not in any real danger, and that territorial bull hippos will usually display in this manner.

Fortunately, the majority of the stretches we travelled were uneventful and mercifully shallow (far too shallow for a hippo, at least) and at times it was possible to escape the tropical heat by taking a dip in the Delta’s beautifully clear waters.

I snorkelled for a bit, amazed by the fish and frogs I found swimming around the branches of submerged bushes and shrubs – vegetation where, only weeks previously, birds would likely have been nesting.

“Nobody knows how long the Spillway will stay open,” Matt told me as we navigated a particularly stunning section of river. It was late afternoon and the setting sun had cast a pink-and-orange glow over the underside of the clouds; a scene mirrored perfectly on the water’s surface. “It may dry up by the end of the year or it may stay open. We just don’t know. But what I can tell you is that this trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something very few people have done or will be able to do again.”

He then went on to explain that, even if the Spillway continues to flow, it will soon become clogged with papyrus, lilies – and hippos. None of which are conducive to an agreeable canoe trip.

“But for now, for a while at least, it’s open and it’s pleasant.”

In spite of the occasional hippo scare, sunburn and mosquito bite, I couldn’t have agreed more.

At home with the hippos

For four days we drifted slowly over this flooded world, accompanied by the ever-present hope – and fear – of encountering elephant, buffalo or hippo. Each evening we hauled out to a readymade flycamp (usually on an island) around a crackling fire. The camp chef, who accompanied us in his own canoe, was a culinary master who could rustle up a variety of five-star servings from the fire’s coals.

Roughing it this was not but, regardless of the fine wines and comfortable mattresses, sleep did not come easily. The Delta symphony typically began with the song of a thousand million frogs, all of them shouting for potential mates –very, very loudly. Toads then joined the orchestra, then a variety of nocturnal birds such as owls and nightjars, plus the tenor tones of bats, crickets and mosquitoes. The baritones were the work of territorial hippos and arrogant leopards.

All in all, it was an amazing sonata – one that peaked with a lion’s roar, the cracking of bones and the crash of an elephant pushing over of a tree.

Our last night on the trail was one of the most nerve-racking yet most fantastic evenings of my life. The camp had been erected on a wooded island criss-crossed by numerous well-used hippo trails. All night I lay immobile, listening to hippopotamus belly laughs and the sound of the lumbering beasts passing within metres of my tent. I hardly slept a wink, kept awake by a mix of fear and exhilaration.

Come morning – heralded by a glorious sunrise and a mug of steaming hot coffee – our little group of intrepid canoeists had had enough of untamed Africa. When Matt announced over breakfast that we only had a few kilometres to go – but that those few kilometres would be heavy on deep channels infested with hippos – we all opted to opt out.

It still looked magnificent from the back of a safari vehicle. The morning light illuminated the still water, full of hippos spouting steam like overworked pressure cookers. Elephants browsed on the far bank and birds of all descriptions waded by the water’s edges.

It was Africa in its best and purest form. As we drove away from the water, I looked over my shoulder at the Selinda Spillway and could almost see the reeds moving in and closing it up, just like the curtains on a show’s final act.

Perhaps I will be the last person to canoe this trail; perhaps the Spillway will remain open for decades. But nobody knows for sure. Not even the hippos.

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