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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.

Island hopping in the Okavango Delta

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

"Cruise" control takes on a new meaning in the Delta.

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.

Getting from A to B, Delta-style.

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”.

King of the bush: it's a lion's life.

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.

Whether you're more into birds, cats, deer or plants ... the Okavango Delta has something for everyone.

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!

Coffee time! Little did we know the two lions were only 100 meters away.

Rainy Vs dry season in the Okavango Delta

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The African safari "workhorse" (the Land Rover) can take a lot. Even bonnet-high water is a piece of cake.

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.

Soon this road network will disappear under water, during the "flood" season.

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.

A hyena was here. It's much easier to view the wildlife in the "dry" season.

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.

Whether it's wet or dry, these grumpy water-lovers will always be around!

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.

Dodging the occasional thunderstorm in the "wet" season.

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