Game drives in the Delta are not like those on the grasslands of the Serengeti or Kruger National Park. We are in a wetland here and we have to get from island to island. There are no bridges or ferries. The solution is the Land Rover which can cross just about everything from marshy land, small forests and one-meter-deep water (or boat). It amazes me how much hardship these “workhorses of the African safari industry” can take.
As we head off to Chief’s Island from Xigera Camp, I’m amused to see that Barobi, our guide, is shoeless. I soon discover why. After we have crossed one of these meter-deep channels, he opens the door of the jeep to let the water out – the floor of the jeep is covered in about 20 centimeters of water. Going through these channels is not for the faint-hearted as you see the water rising up and up and over the bonnet and wonder how much deeper it’s going to get. The thoughts of getting stuck halfway through is not a pleasant thought! But these camp guides are well trained and know exactly what they are doing so you need to sit back, relax and let them do their job.
Back on dry land, something stinks. It’s a hippo. I learn something new today: apparently you can smell a hippo before you see it because these guys stink even though they spend half the day under water. “This one seems to be a little late getting into the water” says Barobi. I look at my watch, it’s 10.00.
We bump along “the main road to Maun” which is a dirt track and a real bone rattler. (Maun is the “capital” of the Delta, and one of its main gateways.) We’re getting what Botswanan-born Lindi calls “an African massage”.
Chief’s Island is well worth the journey. The two male lions we watch for almost an hour are magnificent. They are brothers and, apparently the family ties are strong. “These two brothers are very close. They lick each other’s wounds and take care of each other,” says Barobi. There’s also a lioness but no sign of her, although I wonder if she’s closer than we realize.
If you are into bird watching, Xigera is paradise. If you’re not, you’ll still enjoy watching them, and you need to keep your fingers crossed that you won’t end up in a jeep with some “bird fanatics”. We’re on serious business looking for the lions on Chief’s Island but some of our companions seem more excited about spotting a bee-eater or fish eagle, or, to make my blood pressure rise a few more notches, a “sausage” tree which is probably one of the most common trees in Southern Africa. You will spot these “bird loving” people easily – they have huge binoculars, carry a birdwatching book from the camp and will exclaim “Oh is that the African doo-diddley-doo bird” when they hear a bird at least 100 meters away. You meet some characters on safari in Africa- people from all parts of the planet and all walks of life. That’s what keeps it interesting. You talk to people you would probably never cross paths with back home. Although, saying that I didn’t really understand why a couple at Tubu Tree Camp were so upset that they had only seen leopards and no zebras, usually zebras are the most common animal you can see in Africa, but you’ll be hard pushed to get close-ups of leopards!
The Okavango Delta has two faces: dry and wet. The “dry” winter officially runs from May to October; and the “wet” summer from November to April, but, in recent years, this is also becoming less predictable.
The Delta looks completely different during the two seasons – during the wet season many areas turn from swampy grasslands to mini-lakes and visitor activities move from the Land Rover to motor boats. I visited in January, at the peak of the “wet” season, enjoying the hot, sunny and humid summer days and with the occasional thunderstorms at midday and in the evenings. If you want to have a bit of both “wet” and “dry” in January – Tubu Tree Camp, with its large grassland areas, is a great base for Land Rover safaris and wildlife viewing (especially leopards); follow up with a few days at the water-based Xigera Campto experience the other side of the Delta.
Sitting on my balcony at Tubu Tree, looking at the zebras and wildebeest grazing on the “lawn” in front of the camp, I find it hard to believe that in just over a month, this area will begin to flood and turn into a mini-lake. In August it will start to dry up again. Later we see some photos of the Land Rovers “swimming” along the road to the nearby airstrip. During the flood season 80% of the dirt road network surrounding the camp turns into waterways. The Land Rovers, the main mode of transport, are well able to handle water up to the bonnet but there’ll be fewer stops to view the game as the engine will cut out if the jeep stops moving. If a jeep gets stuck, as can happen occasionally, the camp has two tractors offering a “rescue” service. “It’s not a true delta safari unless you get stuck in or break down. This doesn’t happen often but remember this is the bush and anything can happen,” Justin, the camp manager, tells us. It’s all part of the adventure and that’s what a trip to Africa should be about.
Dry or wet?
So, should you visit the Delta in the wet or dry season? There are pros and cons for both. In the dry season the Delta is transformed into a patchwork quilt of shimmering grasslands and small waterways. This is the best time for Land Rover-based game drives as there are plenty of herbivores (zebras, wildebeest, buffalos, impalas etc) around and it’s also much easier to spot, and get close to, lions and leopards. Many of these animals are not year-round residents. As their grasslands fill up with water, they move on to other areas in search of food before returning again in the dry season. Those that stay in the flooded Delta will have to adapt if they are to survive. Like the animals have adapted to the harsh habitat in the deserts of Namibia, so too has the Okavango wildlife. Even the cats, who notoriously hate water, swim from island to island in search of their prey.
On the other hand, in the rainy season, the Delta really turns into a massive 15,000-square-kilometer floodplain dotted with little islands and lagoons. Visitor activities tend to be more water-based, such as the popular dug-out canoe (mokoro) ride. You’re more likely to see elephants and hippos frolicking around in the water, and the red lechwe antelope, but it will be harder to find the cats. “One camp manager [in another camp] even had a resident croc living in the water under his tent during flood season,” laughs Tubu Tree Camp manager Jacky. So whether you go in dry or wet season, you’re guaranteed plenty of unique experiences. And, if you visit in dry season, you’ll probably want to go back in wet season too, or vice versa.
Ask any person what they want to see on their game drive, and 90% will most likely answer “the cats”. “You have to remember that when you go home you won’t see an impala or zebra, apart from in a zoo, maybe,” points out Justin Stevens, one of the camp managers at Tubu Tree.
But going on safari is about much more than seeing the cats, it’s about experiencing the bugs at dinner, seeing the birdlife, sitting around a campfire listing to the bush noises, having a sundowner under a Marula tree watching an African sunset. But most of all, it’s about enjoying being at one with Mother Nature without the hassle and curses of modern day life – cellphones, internet, Facebook, traffic jams, office politics, stress and daily agendas. Every day in the bush animals fight for survival, for food, to protect their young. They have much more important things to worry about than about how they look in the mirror, having the latest car or iPhone, following a rigid daily routine that’s about as flexible as an iron rod, or about what people think of them.
Of course, every person on safari in Africa wants to see the “Big Five” – that’s the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – and tick them off their list. On this trip to Africa, I learned there’s also an “Ugly Five” (the unattractive hyena, vulture, wildebeest, warthog and marabou) and the “Secret Seven”, a mainly nocturnal collection of the serval, African wild cat, porcupine, civet, spotted genet, pangolin and aardvark.
If you’ve got a leopard obsession, Tubu Tree Camp, on the Jao Concession, in Okavango, has one of the best leopard populations around. According to Johnny Mowanji, our guide, ten “non-shy” leopards have already been identified in the camp’s vicinity, making it one of the best places for leopard viewing, but this can change.“We’ve seen territorial battles and leopards are always coming and going,” he says. On the down side, because there are so many leopards, there are less lions. There was a pride of lions in the concession but as they had recently had cubs they were keeping a low profile.
According to the two camp managers, no day at Tubu Tree is ever the same. They have been “held hostage” in their tent for an hour and a half while two lions mated outside their door. And it’s not uncommon for leopards to drink out of the bird bowl at the foot of the reception area. The staff take it all in their stride but do confess to being “a little scared when lions come into the camp.” Interestingly, the Botswanans are terrified of geckos, who they believe have evil eyes, like snakes. These harmless fly- and spider-eating creatures often end up dead in the staff quarters.
By my second day in the bush, I’m confident enough to hop in and out of the truck. Johnny has assured us that as long as we stay close to the jeep or tent we are not part of the food chain. They don’t associate a jeep or tent with food, but wander around in the dark when the predators are hunting and then you might find it’s a different story.
After our morning game drive, we’re surprised by a “Bush Brunch”, set up under a fig tree close to the camp. The staff have laid a tablecloth and buffet and are enthusiastically frying sausages and omelettes. Well, I think, if the animals haven’t already heard the pots and pans and the banging as the table and chairs are put in place, surely, they’ll be interested in our bacon and eggs. By the time we’re finished, an hour later, we haven’t had a single four-legged visitors.
I’m still amazed by the lack of animal attacks on tourists in Botswana and the “non-aggressive” nature of the animals compared to their counterparts in Kenya and South Africa, for example. “It’s all about respecting the animals,” we are told several times at the camp.
A two or three-night stay per camp in the Okvango Delta is perfect. Two, from my experience at Tubu Tree, was too short as we were so busy with our game drives and activities that we didn’t have time to just hang out at the camp and relax. I would have loved a day to sit by the cute little pool, reading a book … but most importantly, instead of going out to look for the animals, to sit back and let them come to visit us in the camp.
If Tubu Tree Camp is not wild enough for you, there is a “hideaway” about a 10-minute drive away from the camp. It’s basically a few wooden steps leading up a tree trunk to a wooden platform. Many people book it in the search of adventure but chicken out when they see it.