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“Bye Bye” Okavango Delta!

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Loading up and ready to leave before the next thunderstorm strikes.

If you’re lucky, these guys might show up to wave you off.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the Okavango Delta, and to your favorite camps. Even though we’ve only been there for a week, it feels much longer and we don’t want to leave. The two camps we stayed at – Tubu Tree and Xigera – were extremely homely and well managed; I couldn’t find anything to complain about, even if I tried. 

Spending time in the Delta is a chance to recharge, to reconnect with nature and animals and will leave you reenergized. OK, maybe like me, you had some sleepless nights but you leave injected with a sense of admiration and love for this part of Southern Africa.

But all too soon, it’s off to the airstrip where Joel and our faithful Cessna 208B Grand Caravan are waiting to take us back to Kasane Airport.

Touching down on the tarred runway at Kasane, after a week in the bush (the same airport that we thought was tiny on the way out), feels huge; we haven’t seen a single car or shop, or heard the ringtone of a cellphone, for a week. On one hand, I see “civilization” with fresh eyes, but the other part of me craves the peace and nature of the Delta.  I miss the camps, the animals, the food, the people and our daily game drives. That’s the sign of a true vacation: one you don’t want to end … ever.

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.

Up in the air: Botswana from above

February 15, 2011 4 comments

From the A380 and Frankfurt Airport to boarding the Cessna 208B Grand Caravan at Kasane Airport, Botswana.

We’ve flown from Frankfurt to Johanneburg on Lufthansa’s massive A380, the largest aircraft in the world (and no, it may be bigger, but there’s no extra leg space in economy … unfortunately), with a South African Airways A319 to Victoria Falls International Airport and now in Kasane we board a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, belonging to Sefofane Air, one of the largest and best airlines operating in the bushes of Southern Africa. Their slogan matches their service perfectly: “Connecting you to the wilderness.” With each trip we make, I notice the planes are getting smaller and smaller. (Our next flight between camps in the Delta will be on a six-seater Cessna 206, but we don’t know this yet.)

The caffeine- and sandwich-free cafe at Kasane Airport.

Kasane airport is tiny but professional and friendly with a check-in area, café and not much else. We’re on the fringe of Chobe National Park but the only wildlife close by are the dead bodies of these huge hard-backed beetles that are harmless but also clueless – they just don’t seem to understand that their bodies weren’t made to climb vertically but they still try to clamber up walls, knocking themselves out and putting themselves in comas. The ones that don’t get concussion spend at least an hour on their backs trying to get upright again!

The café also amuses me – they’re out of coffee, tea and sandwiches. “I had sandwiches yesterday but they’re gone now,” sighs the smiling lady behind the counter. Famished after our early start we knock back a pizza slice and chocolate bar. Paying for our “lunch” is also a tricky matter as we have no local Botswanan pulas but she’s flexible and lets us pay in US dollars. Craving a caffeine fix, we try again to get some coffee, offering our coffee sachets from the hotel in exchange for some hot water … no chance, the kettle’s broken and there’s no milk! 🙂 It’s Africa, I’m on holiday and as they say in Swahili “Hakuna Matata” (No worries).

The waiting area soon fills up with well-heeled tourists (some in designer safari gear, some decked out in everything that would attract every single wild animal in the vicinity) and there’s an air of suspense as passengers hang around wondering which plane sitting on the runway will take them to their camp. Everyone is united by the thrill of the unknown – what’s waiting at the end of that plane ride.

We check in our luggage –as the planes are small there is a strict limit of 20 kg per passenger but unlike Ryanair, they’re not going to charge you an extra EUR 15 per kilo, if you’re over the 20-kilo limit you’ll have to buy an extra seat. And there’s no suitcase or trolleys are allowed … not that you’re going to be able to wheel a suitcase around the bush anyway! We’re handed our handwritten boarding passes which make a nice change from the standard eticket boarding cards which we’re going to keep as a “collector’s item”. Our 90-minute flight to Hunda is one of the longer ones in the Delta and we’ll drop off, and pick up, some passengers along the way.

The best seat and view on board.

I nab the cockpit seat next to the pilot, Joel from Kenya, who’s one of the more experienced pilots and has been flying in the Delta for two years. It’s rainy season now (January) so we’ll stay below the clouds, giving us a bird eye’s view of the fantastic landscape and elephants and giraffes below. Today there are a few storms lurking on the distant horizon but, luckily, nothing coming in our direction. These bush flights are on a tight schedule and I can’t help but think that coordinating the routes, aircraft and passengers (plus the supplies which they bring to the camps) and dealing with the ever unpredictable weather, without compromising on safety must be a bit of a headache. But Sefofane Air, and Joel, makes it look effortless.

View of Chobe National Park from above and "emergency" landing strip.

There are plenty of landing strips scattered around the bush so there are plenty of options for “emergency” landings if necessary to dodge a storm. The flights in the Delta can get a little on the bumpy side during the hot dry months which is why the flights are often earlier in the morning to avoid the hot rising air. From above, the aerial view is breathtaking … we fly over the Chobe National Park and zigzag along the mighty Zambezi River. The landscape is a patchwork quilt of luscious grass, flat-topped African trees, sandy airstrips and after 30-minutes we spot the swamps of the Delta. Flying in Botswana is not only the most practical, comfortable and quickest way to get from A to B, but it’s also like a long private sightseeing tour with the fantastic chance to see the country from above.

Finally ... we reach the swamps, lagoons and waterways of the Okavango Delta.

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