November to April may be low season in the Okavango Delta, but they can offer a truly unique experience: lush plains, plentiful wildlife and budget prices
High, high above the vast plain of golden bristle grass was a lone vulture. The bird was just a small dark spot against the blue wash of morning sky, already too bright for my European eyes.
"He's found something," muttered Ali, my guide, as he swung the Land Cruiser off the track and into the long grass. After two days in the Okavango with Ali Tiego I knew there was no point in trying to spot anything in the bush before he did. The vulture was a speck in the heavens, but it was enough of a clue. A minute later, he found them: three male lions asleep in the shade of a jackalberry tree.
The lions were immobile, great panting cats with round swollen bellies. We circled the tree just a few yards from the largest of the trio, his dark tousled mane framing a golden face. At the ticking of our diesel engine, one eye slowly opened, a yellow sliver of primeval strength that seemed to peer into my own soul.
There is nothing in the animal kingdom to compete with that steady hunter's gaze. Here on Chief's Island, in the heart of the Okavango, it was once a rite of passage for young BaTawana men to find and kill a lion with only a spear. To me, looking into this beast's eyes, it seemed an impossible feat. "They ate well last night," Ali explained. "Somewhere nearby we'll find the kill."
A few hundred metres away, a flicker of movement in the long grass gave away the presence of more predators. Three young black-backed jackals were playing tug of war with the hind leg of an impala. Surely this was too small a prize to be the remains of the lion's feast? Smartly striped and with bushy tails, the jackals looked like small, albeit elegant, foxes. And like the lions, their coats were sleek and clean. Clearly there was no shortage of food at this time of year.
But while I watched the jackals, Ali kept an eye on the distant vultures, cruising towards a patch of bush about a kilometre from where the lions were lazing. As we drove towards it I caught the distinctive stench of fresh meat - a warm, sickly sweet smell.
The vultures were hunched around the kill, hissing at each other, hopping towards the remains of what, until a few hours ago, had been a large blue wildebeest. Somehow, they had beaten the hyenas to the carcass; bloody ribs, an intact head and part of the rump still had flesh. From the jeep the shape of the animal was preserved, a shadow of the living form in skin and bone, crumpled like a discarded dress on the floor after a party.
Chief's Island has long been famous for its high number of predators. It lies in the middle of the Moremi Reserve at the very heart of the Okavango Delta, Botswana's remarkable wilderness covering more than 15,000 sq km. Each winter (May-August), waters from the Cubango and Cuito Rivers hundreds of kilometres away in Angola combine with local rainfall to create a floodplain.
Ten thousand years ago this whole area was a vast lake, but now the waters peter out in the Kalahari desert further south. The Okavango is perhaps Africa's last unspoilt wilderness. Botswana's safari industry is well developed, but the number of lodges in the Okavango has been carefully controlled.
Traditionally, the European winter has been the 'low season' for southern African safaris. From November to April northern Botswana experiences its wet season. For visitors the rain brings two problems: the chance of getting wet, and vegetation so thick that many of the animals are harder to spot.
But the rain also means there is plenty for the animals to drink, and the blossoming vegetation means that birds proliferate, as do insects and fish. As a result, many species choose the beginning of the wet season to give birth, ensuring that their new offspring will have plenty to eat. And plenty of baby impala means plenty of meals for the predators who have their own young to feed.
What's more, the green season sees substantial discounts in the Okavango. The lodges I visited were less than half-full, (although Okavango lodges have only ten rooms - sometimes fewer - so 'busy' is a relative term). The island is flanked by two of the Delta's largest rivers - the Santandadibe and the Boro. Flying in to Chief's Camp I could see no clearly defined island, just bushveld stretching to the horizon in every direction.
It is only at ground level you see the water at this time of year, until then it is obscured by the grasses and sedge, acacia scrub and umbrella thorns, jackalberry, marula and mopane trees.
During my first night at Chief’s Camp I heard lions in the distance, an echoing plaintive call reminding me of my inability to survive in this landscape without shelter. There are no fences at the lodge; all guests are escorted to and from their rooms as soon as dusk descends.
"We often see elephant in the camp," Ali explained. "And some of our guests just don't understand that these animals are not friendly. Last year someone didn't appear for breakfast because there was an elephant on the path. When the other guests heard that there was an elephant, two of them went running to take its photograph. But you can't take chances with 'ellies'."
Game drives started early - 5.30am - with wake-up calls and trays of tea and biscuits delivered to the tent. Driving along the rough tracks through the reserve in the still, quiet time when the grazing animals were stretching their limbs, I experienced a sense of peace.
Days passed in a cycle of early starts, three-hour game-drives, brunch, siesta, afternoon high tea, more game viewing (with a stop for sundowners) and back to the lodge in time for dinner. The daily pattern is just the same as in the dry season, although the high water levels make some parts of the reserve less accessible by road.
The rains had brought the bush to life. Zebra and giraffe, wildebeest and impala were everywhere. In just two days at Chief's Camp, Ali showed me wild dogs, hyena, hippo and crocodiles. If this was game-spotting at its most difficult, I couldn't imagine the dry season would bring better sightings.
Bird life, too, burst into action. Hammerkops with strangely shaped skulls skewered tiny fish that flapped and wriggled in rain-filled ruts. Iridescent woodland kingfishers whizzed past and black herons stalked the pans (seasonal ponds that dotted the veld).
At first the herons appeared dull-looking, unremarkable birds, less charismatic than the stately saddle-billed storks standing sentry beside the water. But then they showed us their party trick. Suddenly, legs immobile in the water, they hunched forwards, throwing their wings up and over their head like a vampire's cloak.
The effect was remarkable, turning the dark plumage into the shape of a perfect upside-down wok. "They cast a shadow," Ali explained, "so they can see the movement of the fish without the glare of the sun on the water."
Each day brought new discoveries. We found lions again, a different pride, with two lionesses and several cubs of different ages. Out in the open a large cub suckled noisily from its mother, oblivious to our presence. Not far away a male lion lay under a low acacia thorn.
"He's the old man," Ali said as we drove closer. The lion was thin, tired looking and panting heavily - nothing like the three males we had seen a few days before. "He won't last long if the young ones catch him," Ali said matter-of-factly.
After the first day I found myself watching the animals and the birds in a new way. It wasn't enough to spot and identify the common varieties. I began to take pleasure in the smaller, less obvious sights. A mushroom: freshly sprouted beside the sharp clean lines of a wildebeest hoof-print. Elephant dung: an impressive sculptural mound beside the jeep. I scooped a pinch and sniffed. All I could detect was the pure hay-like note of grass, nothing more.
And grasses there were aplenty, my nose assailed by waves of pollen that made me sneeze. Our jeep whipped through tall bushes of wild sage releasing a pungent perfume as we passed. We stopped for tea and crunchy rusks as the sun sank low behind the trees at the end of the day. Up close, Ali pointed out that the long grass hid a rich sub-carpet of other species, white sorghum, curling tendrils of tiny scorpion plants, bright yellow nidorella and wild basil.
After three days at Chief's Camp it was time to move on; a 90-minute flight by light aeroplane took us to the northern border of Botswana. From the air I saw the landscape of the floodplain gradually merge with the harder line of the permanent bush.
On and on it stretched in every direction uninterrupted, it seemed, by any man-made structures. And then, on the horizon a bright silver ribbon began to shimmer. We were approaching Kasane, the small town beside the Chobe River, described in the guidebooks as 'Africa's elephant hotspot'.
Ten minutes from the small airport, Chobe Chilwero Lodge sits on a ridge overlooking the river. On the other side is Namibia, and a few kilometres downstream, at Kazangula, the Chobe adds its waters to the mighty Zambezi.
Like the Okavango, Chobe has a high annual rainfall, and I saw some spectacular thunderclouds building on the horizon. Only in the afternoon did I experience the power of the rain; it came down in sweeping sheets that obliterated the view and sent everyone scurrying into the lodge. After an hour it stopped.
"These showers are normal," Patrick Runyemba, the lodge manager, explained. "But we can provide ponchos. It's not so pleasant doing game-drives in the rain but if people see elephants up close they usually forget about the wet!"
Because of the rains, I had been warned that elephants might not be easy to find; with vegetation so abundant elsewhere they would not need to stay close to the river. In the dry season (May-October) elephant sightings are guaranteed: after long treks into the forest to forage, they return to the river each evening to drink.
The predictions proved untrue. On the first evening at Chobe, with my new bush guide, Jost Mashanana, we found a herd of around 60 elephants on a marshy islet. One or two of the young males trumpeted at our small boat and flapped their ears as a warning.
And then they carried on sparring in pairs, consuming the high grass shoots and wallowing in the mud-rich flanks of the great river. And, like so many of the other species I had seen, they had babies, awkward unsteady things with trunks too long and legs too short as they stumbled on the soft ground.
There were new things here: small riverine antelopes called puku that barked like hoarse dogs; a Nile monitor lizard, or leguan, with mottled skin like bark. A grey-headed kingfisher darted from the trees, less showy and brash than its woodland cousins, but with a flash of bright tail feathers. Pied wagtails strutted along the banks whistling a high, sharp "tsiew-tsiew", a perfect counterpoint to the low "zwit-zworr, zwit-zworr" of the cape turtle doves somewhere in the forest.
The river was never silent. Next came the percussionists: a pair of bony-rimmed eyes and flared nostrils gave away the presence of the hippos. "Aaarp. Aaarp" came the low warning calls as Jost steered cautiously away.
Chobe offers different experiences to the Okavango and, on land, it feels less wild. In the park itself, unlike the Okavango - and whatever the season - you are much more likely to be watching animals along with a few vehicles from the other lodges nearby. But the river has a magic of its own.
On my last evening in Botswana a flock of birds covered one bank. They seemed drab things, with awkward curving beaks. They were open-billed storks, and Jost explained that the gap between the upper and lower bills allows them to carry snails and mussels that they dredge from the mud.
As we puttered nearer, the flock started to shift, rustling their wings. Alarm spread like a rippling sail. Then they filled the air, transformed into elegant shadows against a pastel sky. The boat turned homewards and the dark mirror Chobe stretched ahead, as if it would lead us to the edge of the world.
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