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When in the Okavango Delta …

February 27, 2011 4 comments

It's a tough life in the Okavango Delta!

 

Make sure you …

1. Take a flight from Kasane or Maun for a fantastic view of the Delta from above.
2. Hop in a mokoro (dug out canoe ride) ride: Xigera Camp is a great spot for this.
3. Swim in the thermal waters of the Okavango Delta.
4. Enjoy a sundowner on a deserted sandbar, enjoying the fantastic African sunset.
5. Get up close with the leopards around Tubu Tree Camp.
6. “Camp hop” – don’t just stay at one camp. 2-3 nights per camp is perfect. Combine a “grassland” and “water-based” camp for two very different experiences.
7. Spend a night in a hideaway, if you dare.
8. Enjoy a “bush brunch” of bacon and eggs in the middle of the Delta.
9. Talk to the staff and other guests. Part of the fun is sharing your experiences and hearing the “bush” stories, especially around the campfire enjoying the nocturnal bush sounds.
10. Take the chance to explore Southern Africa … you can combine the Okavango Delta with the sand dunes of Namibia, the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe & Zambia, the teak forests of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the vast elephant herds of Botswana’s Chobe National Park or the rugged beauty of the Cape area in South Africa. Wilderness Safaris have a great network of around 60 top-class, eco-friendly lodges and camps across Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and the Seychelles. Logistics and coordination can be tricky so it’s often best in Southern Africa to use a safari company to organize accommodation and transport.

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.

Behind the scenes at a luxury bush camp

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Every little detail is taken care of at these camps, even the 11.00 coffee break during the morning game drive.

You’ve most likely paid a hefty sum of money to stay at a super-exclusive, eco-friendly and unforgettable lodge in the middle of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. On the surface everything may seem to run like clockwork, but, behind the scenes, the staff work hard to make sure the guests’ stay is as pleasant as possible.

The hyenas favorite area: the kitchen.

All the staff at Tubu Tree Camp, like the other camps in the Okavango Delta, work a seven-day shift, doing three months on, one month off. Most of the staff are Botswanans, coming from the local communities around the Delta, but there are expats here and there, like Canadian-born Justin and South African Jacky at Tubu Tree, who have spent two years at the camp, pretty long by camp manager standards. Like in many camps in the Delta they are a couple. Many camps in the delta prefer to hire couples as it means the managers will find it less lonely, and, hopefully, stay longer.

The alarm clocks for the managers go off at 4.20 every day. They need to get up and make sure all is in order before the guests get up at 5.30 for their morning game drives. Some of us reading this blog probably moan every morning about rush hour traffic or an overflowing email inbox, but, for the staff at Tubu, they’re getting up during the predators’ “hunting time” and it’s not uncommon for them to have hyenas sniffing at their door or elephants trying to stick their trunk into the shower, at this time of morning.

South African Jacky admits it was a bit nerve-wracking in the beginning and took a bit of getting used to. Justin, who grew up in Canada and was used to seeing grizzly bears rummaging through the thrash in backyards, takes it a bit lighter. Before being hired, they were put through an intensive one-week test period at the camp. Of course, as per Murphy’s Law, they said they didn’t see a single animal come into the camp during this time.

“Our families don’t really understand what we are doing. They think we see leopards at camp every day,” say Jacky and Justin, “but we don’t really. It can happen, but it doesn’t happen every day.”

The biggest challenges of working in the bush, according to the two managers, are the logistics, and not knowing what’s going to happen each day. “But that’s also part of the fun,” says Jacky. “There’s never a dull moment. For example, you never know what the guests are going to be like, who to pair with who on the vehicles. We have to think about all these things.”

Besides looking after the guests’ best interests, the local wildlife occasionally adds some challenges. “One time last year, at 4 a.m. some elephants burst our water pipes, we have had hyenas breaking into our kitchen …there are lots of challenges every day,” she adds.

The camp’s kitchen is a favorite hang-out spot for the local hyenas. If they are really hungry and there is nobody in the kitchen, they might try to break in. Hence the large steel locks on the door and the teeth marks on the side of the chest freezer which bear witness to this.  The baboons also visit the kitchen daily but, unlike the hyenas who are less subtle, they try to “sneak” in.

Garbage is separated and stowed safely away.

With wild animals loitering in the neighborhood, the staff have to be very careful not to leave any food or garbage lying around. “This would encourage the animals to start ‘begging’ or scavenging for food leftovers,” explains Justin, something that the camps want to avoid at all costs to preserve the natural habitat.

Garbage is also carefully handled. It is separated – for example, food waste is burned – and then taken out of the camp, either by plane or truck. Every effort is made to keep the camps as natural and environmentally friendly as possible so as not to interfere with the natural ecosystem and to spoil the animals.

Oil and gas supplies ... not part of the elephants' tree and shrub eating plan, luckily.

Every Friday, the camp gets fresh supplies; the provisions are ordered in advance. The staff try to keep stocks up and never let a plane come or leave empty handed, as, it’s good to stock up on supplies before the rainy season, just in case… The camp also has a supply of gas and oil drums for petrol which luckily the elephants don’t touch. “It’s not wood and they can’t eat it,” we are told.

Far away from towns and other camps, Tubu Tree is self-sufficient in water and energy supplies. It uses water from its own springs and runs its own generator eight hours a day which provides enough electricity to power the camp. Great care is taken to use resources efficiently and guests are encouraged to avoid recharging batteries and leaving lights on which gobbles up the energy supply.

Laundry is done by hand in the camp’s two-basin laundry room and hung out in the sun to dry (or indoors during rainy season). A small hut with metal gauze around it and a cold tap flowing over it, is used as a natural “cold room”.

Jacky checks out the camp's "refrigerator".

Each staff member has his/her own tent and they share a communal kitchen and bathroom area. Guides, however, have an ensuite toilet and shower. The tents are quite basic – a bed and place to store your stuff but many staff bring some personal belongings to make it more homely. In the evenings, they hang out together, huddle around the fire in the winter, or weave the colorful baskets which are sold in the camp’s shop. There are no TVs or internet so the only news they get from the outside world, during their three-month work stint, comes from the guests or through the radio contact with the Delta’s “capital” Maun, a 30-minute flight away.

All in all, it’s not a bad life. True it must be hard to be away from family and friends for three months, but on the other hand, they get perks from working for larger travel companies like Wilderness Safaris. For every month they work, they earn a bed night which they can use for family and friends to visit them or they can use it themselves to visit another camp. There also seem to be a lot of opportunities to grow up the ranks and to transfer between camps, making it an interesting career path. It’s a funny lifestyle and setup but in one way, those of us sitting at a desk 9-5, five days a week, must in some way we tempted by it!

Only the best for the guests: great service, food and a smile.

Next stop: the Okavango Delta

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The stunning Okavango Delta, one of a kind.

The Okavango Delta is a never-ending 15,000 square-kilometer swamp, formed where the Okavango River empties on to a basin in the arid Kalahari Desert. What makes it even more unique is that it is filled with water that comes from 1,000 kilometers away. It is considered one of the most spectacular landscapes in Africa and ranks high on the wish list for visitors to the “Dark Continent”. It’s just a shame it is such a trek to get there and that it’s so expensive. But that’s what also makes a visit to the Okavango Delta so special, making it an unforgettable experience.  It’s a “once in a lifetime” experience but I want to make it a “twice in a lifetime” experience – we visited in between the dry and wet season but I want to go back at the peak of the flood season, to see the Delta’s other face.

Unlike South Africa, for example, which has gone down the high-volume, lower priced route, Botswana has strictly controlled its tourism industry to keep it more exclusive and upmarket. This means that there’s a limit to the number of guests allowed in the parks at a given time and you won’t see ten jeeps parked around a family of cheetahs with drivers frantically radio-ing other guides to let them know about their “find”. Instead, the whole safari experience in Botswana is kept intimate, personal and the animals enjoy their peace and quiet, unthreatened by humans. It also helps that Botswana’s population is only around two million, so I guess the animals outnumber the people.

The Botswanan wildlife is also lucky that they live in a wealthy country – some say one of the wealthiest in Africa with a healthy supply of diamond mines and a GDP per capita of almost USD 14,000. As a result poaching hasn’t been as extreme as in other African countries. And because the animals have not been aggressively hunted, they’re not overly aggressive towards humans. It goes both ways.

Touching down at Hunda airstrip, no customs clearance and no security checks ...and no wildlife on the runway.

We touch down at Hunda airstrip, a ten-minute drive from Tubu Tree Camp where we will spend our first two nights in the Delta. Anxious to get on his way, the plane revs off down the runway before I climb out of the cockpit and realize that my handbag with everything I diligently lock up in the hotel safe – passport, US dollars, credit cards, iPhone, wallet, along with my daily essentials for the bush (insect spray, sunscreen, make-up, camera and notebook) – have taken off with him. (I put my bag in the cargo hold of the plane as there was no space in the cockpit.) The camp staff radio the pilot and, amazingly, 24 hours later, I am reunited with my handbag which has made five or six stops in the Delta including an overnight stay at Sefofane Air’s hub in Maun (the “capital” of the Okavango Delta). Even better, everything – every single US dollar – is still in the bag. That’s a major thumbs up for the honesty and helpfulness of the airline and camp staff.

A warm welcome at Tubu Tree Camp.

My first impression when we pull up at the five-tent Tubu Tree Camp, where all the staff turn out to welcome us with a song, followed by sandwiches and iced tea, is “wow” – a  feeling that stayed with me for my entire stay and is still with me every time I look at my photos.

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