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“Swimming” in the Okavango Delta

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

The pristine sandy "beaches" and clean thermal waters of the Delta.

When I talk about swimming in the Okavango Delta, I’m not just referring to the Land Rovers which plunge through bonnet-high water or the hippos who spend most their day submerged, but, yes, literally swimming in the Delta. Everybody swims in the Delta, even the water-loathing lions and sceptical tourists! Who would imagine that you can jump into these swampy waters filled with crocodiles and hippos and where lions, leopards, buffalos and elephants linger not far away. And, even more surprisingly, discover that the Delta’s water is much warmer, and its soft Kalahari sand even whiter, than in Asian or African coastal resorts.

From Land Rover to mokoro to speed boat. Each time, a new experience and a different view of the Delta.

After our adventurous mokoro ride, we opt the next day for a motorboat ride to a sandbar in a sheltered lagoon. These shallow metal boats – with their powerful engines – are perfect for zipping around the maze of waterways and channels in the Okavango Delta. Even though it’s “wet” season, the water’s not as deep as it usually is at this time of the year.  Every so often the engine gives a warning sound that we are getting too close to the underwater reeds or a hidden sandbar.  The cumulus clouds above are mirrored beautifully on the tranquil waters of the lagoon. Birds, especially cormorants and cute pygme geese, skim gracefully along the clean waters of the Delta. We get a lesson about the local plant life. If you ever thought that papyrus was just about ancient Egyptian manuscripts, think again. This reed-like plant is sweet inside and edible; elephants apparently have a sweet tooth as they’re often seen chewing on it.

Papyrus is versatile ... it's also sweet and edible.

Compared to the slow pace of the mokoro, the motorboat trip is more of a thrill ride. Barobi, our guide, seems to be enjoying his time behind the wheel of the boat, steering it around the bends like a Delta-style Schumacher. While the mokoro is slow, relaxing and quiet, this boat is louder, bigger and faster. I guess we’ve woken up every crocodile within a one-kilometer radius.

Finally, we reach our destination – a remote lagoon with crystal-clear waters, white sandy beaches and not an animal in sight. We set up our picnic table and drinks and take a dip. The water is clean, warm and feels untouched by today’s industrialized world. It’s waist-high and you feel the soft Kalahari desert sand below your feet.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in the Delta, swim, like everyone else!

The perfect swimming pool - clean, warm and not too deep.

When in the Okavango Delta … do a mokoro ride!

February 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Scary and relaxing ... glide through the waters of the Okavango Delta in a local dug-out canoe or mokoro.

Before going to the Okavango Delta, I was asked what kind of activities I wanted to do. I saw a picture of two people sitting in a dug-out canoe, less than 20 centimeters above the waters of the crocodile- and hippo-infested waters of the Okavango Delta, 100 meters away from a massive male elephant, with an unarmed oarsman balancing precariously at the back of the canoe and said “Wow, look at that. Scary. There’s no way I would ever get into one of those things.”

Fast forward two months and I am gliding along a tranquil reed-lined waterway, passing crocodiles sleeping with one eye open on the banks, watching birds glide overhead with no sound apart from the swish-swish of the pole as our guide expertly navigates the shallow waters of the Delta.

Just in front of us, his colleague is on the look-out for “danger” – meaning wide awake crocodiles, hippos, elephants, anything we shouldn’t get too close to. After the initial minutes of being too scared to move in case I unbalanced this wobbly looking boat, I relax and start to enjoy the ride.

The mokoro (also confusingly spelt makoro or mekoro) is a common type of canoe used to get around in the shallow waters of the Okavango Delta. The oarsman stands in the stern and pushes it with the pole. Traditional mokoros are made from the trunk of a large straight tree, like ebony, but today, they are more commonly made from fiber-glass. They’re popular at the water camps like Xigerato get tourists around, but they’re also, easily overturned by hippos. To an inexperienced tourist, this might seem like a death sentence, but Barobi, our guide, assures us that the waterways used for the mokoro rides are too shallow for hippos to bathe comfortably in and for crocodiles to hide in. “Hippos are highly territorial so just don’t go into their territory,” says Bairobi, our guide confidently.

A guide goes 150 meters ahead to make sure we don't disturb any sleeping beauties.

The idyllic wetlands Xigera Camp, where we spent two nights, is probably one of the best places to do a mokoro ride. Located in the heart of the exclusive Moremi Game Reserve, there are hidden waterways, deep lagoons, sandbars and deserted islands within a one-hour radius of the camp.

A mokoro ride in the Delta is an absolute “must do” even if it at first seems terrifying. Our guide, like many of the others, learned to handle a mokoro at the tender age of seven. It’s a careful balancing act – the simplest sudden turn or twist could land the passengers in the water.

... and the odd hiding or sleeping crocodile.

Was the mokoro ride scary? Yes, in the beginning. Am I glad I did it? Definitely. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Drifting along the tucked-away waterways of the Okavango Delta, past the large round water lilies, seeing the reflection of the clouds on the mirror-like water, watching colorful kingfishers, cranes and egrets, and topping it off with a sun-downer on the banks of a small sandy islet, it was one of the most relaxing, and memorable, experiences in my life.

Meeting the “locals” on the Zambezi

February 12, 2011 7 comments

Some of the Zambezi's "local" residents.

Whether you are a “first timer” to Africa, a back-packer, on a family vacation or on honeymoon, Victoria Falls caters for just about everyone. While elderly couples sip Afternoon Tea at Victoria Falls Hotel, families mingle at the Boma Restaurant, safari lovers hop around Mwange and Chobe national parks and adventure-junkies can enjoy white water rafting, helicopter and micro-light flights over the Falls and bungee jumping.

The Zambezi river cruise is well worth doing, regardless of your adrenalin-level. We go with a smaller local travel company which charges just USD 15 per person (bigger ones like Wild Horizons charge double the price) for a two-hour river cruise with drinks and canapés, transfer to and from the hotel and, if you’re lucky, a close-up encounter with hippos thrown in. All in all, in a place where the average tourist excursion will set you back at least USD 50, this is a bargain! The boat operators are creative with their cruises – you can choose a breakfast and sunrise, lunch, afternoon or sunset cruise so basically, they run all day.

The mighty Zambezi is the fourth-longest river in Africa, running an impressive 3,540 kilometers from Zambia up to Angola before it empties into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. Besides an amazing supply of African birdlife, the Zambezi is home to many a crocodile and hippo.

We set off on our peculiar looking flat-bottomed river boat and within minutes have spotted the first crocodiles and a family of 12 hippos. Now, forget the idea of hippos being cute and cuddly, these grumpy buggers kill more people in Africa each year than any lion or crocodile. Usually, you’ll just spot their bulging eyes and massive jaws as they surface for air or if they’re hungry, you’ll see them standing on the banks with their massive a***s facing you on the banks. This time, however, we are treated to both views. Half the hippos bathe in the water, keeping a wary eye on us and opening their mouths to roar every so often in case we forget who’s the boss of the Zambezi. Hippos are highly territorial so stay out of their space, otherwise they won’t be impressed. One guy even reverses back into the bank to do his business, too lazy to get out. Several clamber ungracefully out of the water to munch on the grass close by before plunging his two-tonne frame back into the water again. It’s a rare sight to see them getting in and out of the water and we watch them spellbound for half an hour.

Zambezi river cruise: a tourist trap but well worth doing.

In case the hippos haven’t already realized we’re there, our on-board drummer and singer turns up the live music, probably to distract us from the rain which has started falling (it’s the rainy season but it’s still warm) but which we hardly notice.

Heading into our mooring slot, instead of us spotting the local wildlife, a smart Zambezi crocodile has spotted us and thinking he might get lucky if one of us is drunk enough to fall overboard, starts swimming at a marathon pace in our direction. Crocodiles like to “ambush” their prey in the water and can live for long periods without eating due to their slow metabolism. So, as long as we stay on the boat and he stays in the water, we’re not part of the food chain. Still, I wouldn’t fancy wandering around the banks after the sun sets.

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