African Diaries — The Wetland Eden of the Okavango Delta

African Diaries — The Wetland Eden of the Okavango Delta

In the mainly roadless immensity that is Botswana, the landlocked southwest-African country where a sparse 2.3 million population is spread across an area roughly the size of France, adventure usually begins with a bush plane flight into the middle of nowhere.

Okavango Delta sunset.

Now, after over almost two weeks spent exploring the surreal, featureless landscapes of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and the barren plains of the Central Kalahari, my next nowhere is the Okavango Delta.

 

 

 

 

A Natural Wonder of Africa

Bird’s eye view of Delta.

There is no sign of human life below the chartered Cessna – only a patchwork of greens and ochers stitched together by narrow canals, all the way to the hazy midday horizon. The plane drones on for some 30 minutes before the bare ground slash of an airstrip emerges from the exuberant greenery. We are about land.

 

Zebras appear unconcerned by our presence.

Grey herons abound in the wetlands.

Rated one of the of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Okavango Delta is considered one of the most pristine oasis in the world. From its origins in the highlands of Angola, the Okavango River travels some 1,900 kilometers (1200 miles) to come fanning out into an intricate system of wetlands that cover some two-million hectares (77,000 square miles) of Kalahari sands before being swallowed by the desert.

One of the largest in-land deltas in the world, the Okavango boasts a unique eco-system that offers a safari experience unlike any other in all of Africa. It is renowned for the outstanding diversity and abundance of fauna that congregates to its waters. For my introduction to this intricate environment, I have trusted andBeyond Botswana for their long established reputation as a  conservation-driven, experiential travel company.

 

 

The Place of the Giraffe

The camp’s namesake pays frequent visits.

Today, I am headed for Xnabega (“the place of the giraffe” in Basarwa, the language of the river bushmen), one of andBeyond’s luxury tented camps. But since exceptional rains have recently flooded the camp’s own airstrip, my guide informs me in the course of his greeting that I have landed on a nearby, higher ground one. We now will have to drive a few miles to Nxabega (pronounce Na-ber-rah).

Sturdy tree-trunk bridges straddle the channels.

A few miles’ drive on a remote African bush trail can easily take a couple of hours. Ours does. After a visit to an obviously satiated leopard warily guarding the remains of its impala dinner as we gawk at it through the thicket, we stop for a tailgate picnic lunch. Reedbucks scamper away, red lechwes – indigenous wetlands antelopes – meld into the reeds. The camp’s namesake, a regal bull giraffe, struts across our path. Two hours and a few channel-crossings over narrow tree-trunk bridges later, we pull into the shaded clearing in front of Nxabega’s  main lodge to the warm welcome from the assembled staff.

Xnabega tented suites bring a high level of luxury to the bush.

Set under the lush canopy of massive ebony trees in a remote 8,000 hectare (19,8000 acre) private concession, Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp brings life in the bush to exceptional heights  of luxury. Nine elegantly appointed canvas suites raised on high platforms stretch on either side of the handsome multi-level dining and sitting lodge with burnished teak floors under a lofty thatched roof. Within the expansive space, exotic wood paneling delineate several inviting seating areas decorated in stylish, locally crafted furnishings and artworks, and the sweeping views of the surrounding permanent floodplain and lagoons.

Exceptional Wildlife Experiences

Even huddled high in a tree, this leopard remains vigilant.

These luxury accommodations, further enhanced by outstanding guiding and service are a mere backdrop for the extraordinary wildlife experiences that unfold consistently throughout my stay. My first morning wakeup call comes curtesy of an impressive bull elephant devouring the shrubbery a few feet away from my deck. The high points of a seemingly routine afternoon drive to the nearby boat landing for a sundowner cruise include sightings of a lion on the move and a leopard crouched high in an acacia tree. 

A painted reed frog clings to a reed.

While the customary twice-daily game drives are available, my favorite way to explore the delta is from the water. My fondest memories are from exhilarating boat rides through the watery labyrinth of papyrus-bordered channels and floating islands of water lily pads in bloom. Birds soar as we go by, tiny painted frogs cling their reed perches, and occasionally bulbous eyes emerge from the water, attached to unimpressed hippos unflinchingly asserting their right of way. 

An elephant challenges our presence in the channel.

I soon discover that there is no better way to enjoy the sunset than sitting low on the water in a mokoro (flat dug-out canoe commonly used to navigate the Okavango waterways) – expertly stirred by my ever cheerful guide. There, with  giraffes strutting in the distance and the occasional elephant wading across our path, I spend many contented moments taking in jewel-bright kingfishers darting in and out of the reeds, and iridescent dragon flies hovering about, as the blood orange sun dip into the lagoon

 

A breeding herd of elephants marches by my tent.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Air Botswana and Airlink operate scheduled flights from Johannesburg to Maun. From there, it is a short flight by light aircraft to the Nxabega Okavango Safari Camp airstrip, where andBeyond staff welcome the guests. A 15-minute drive in an open safari vehicle completes the journey to the Camp.
  • andBeyond Africais one of Africa’s leading luxury safari company, with exceptional lodges and camps in Africa’s most breathtaking wilderness locations.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Xnabega, Okavango Delta

Farewell to Africa – for now

Farewell to Africa – for now

“Once the red dirt of Africa gets into your hiking boots, you will never get it out.”  The place was Kuyenda, a tiny bush camp in the heart of Zambia’s remote South Luangwa National Park and the first stop on my first African safari. The year was 2006. The soft-spoken words came from a man who knew what he was talking about.

A LIVING LEGEND

Zambia South Luangwa, Phil Berry

Phil Berry is one of the most respected naturalists in Zambia.

Born in England, Phil Berry moved to Africa as a child and grew up in Northern Rhodesia long before it became the Republic of Zambia in 1964. And there he was still, now a living legend well beyond the Luangwa Valley, for his life-long dedication to the protection of elephants and rhinos, and as a pioneer of the walking safaris for which the park is famous.

I nodded. I was still groggy from the 48-hour journey from North America but after one single day in the bush, I already understood. The day’s game drives had taken us from elephants tearing at Mopani trees for their breakfast and hills dotted with skittish impalas ready to bounce away at the first hint of menace to a pride of lions still sleeping off last night’s feast in a shady glade. Then there had been a intoxicating African sunset and a lovely al fresco dinner under the black velvet and diamonds sky. I was already hooked.

CLOSE CALLS

Kenya highlands black rhino

In the highlands of Kenya, my first rhino sighting ever.

It took three trips before I was finally able to sight a rhino; and a close up encounter it was. I was at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the highlands of Central Kenya. My guide stopped our open land cruiser and pointed into the dense brush. “Rhino,” he whispered.

I got so excited that I jumped up to stand on my seat and brace myself on the overhead roll bars of the open-top vehicle, camera at the ready,thus forgetting one of the cardinal rules of game watching (no abrupt move). The startled black male rhino came charging out of the brush, coming straight at us before finally making a ninety degree turn a mere six feet from impact!

Okavango Delta Elephant

This old bull stares us down and out of his watery kingdom.

Who knew elephants could charge so fast in water? Also in the Okavango Delta, this large bull took exception to our boat navigating in “his” channel. He started menacingly toward us until we finally got the outboard motor into reverse.

 

 

 

BREATH-TAKING MOMENTS

Masai Mara newborn Elephant

Newborn elephant learns how to nurse.

We came across this elephant cow in the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya. She stood patiently while her hour-old calf tried to figure out what to do with its nasal appendage in order to start nursing.

 

 

 

 

Botswana - Leopard in the Okavango Delta.

In Botswana, my first sighting ever of a leopard in a tree.

While I had seen leopards on several occasions on previous trips, I didn’t get to observe one settled in a tree until my fourth visit to Africa. We were driving in the waterlogged world of Botswana’s Okavango Delta when my ranger pointed into the tree canopy right above our open vehicle. Lucky for us that this magnificent cat had obviously already enjoyed a large dinner.

 

 

Botswana-Kalahari lion

After a blood-curdling warning roar, this old timer resumed his benevolent attitude.

We were settling in to enjoy our tailgate sundowner cocktails in a sandy clearing in Bostwana’s Kalahari when we heard a chilling moan nearby. It turned into a high-energy rumble, then escalated into a full-blown roar that made the air vibrate around us and my entire body shake.

My guide calmly motioned to me to climb back into the cruiser. I certainly remembered the “no sudden move” rule this time! We then eased at very low speed in the direction of the roar.

Having served us notice that we were trespassing, the old lion had resumed a deceivingly benevolent demeanor.

UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

Then there are all the unique, memorable people I’ve met along the way, too many to include, so I will only mention these two:

Cobra

My great Zu/hoasi Bushman guide, Cobra.

In the Kalahari, Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet took me on a desert nature walk. He mainly spoke the distinctive clicking language of the Kalahari Bushmen, but somehow we understood each other.

 

 

 

Masai schoolgirl

Masai first-grader and her prized book bag.

In a country where the literacy rate for women is still only around fifty percent, I was delighted to meet this enthusiastic Masai first-grader at a charter school supported by andBeyond, the safari organization with which I was traveling through Northern Tanzania. She even let me admire her book bag, her proudest possession.

Location, location, location!

South Luangwa

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

The pilot of the four-seater Cessna meets me at the small Maun airport, Botswana’s gateway into the country for all safari-goers. Most of them are greeted there by bright young people in the crisp kaki uniform of the handful of safari companies that operate in the lush, waterlogged world of the Okavango Delta. My turn will come, but not today. I am headed into the sun-baked emptiness of the Kalahari, the great desert that covers about 70 percent of this landlocked southern African country roughly the size of France.

Magic in the Makgadikgadi

Botswana-Kalahari. Jack's Camp.

Jack’s Camp entrance reveals a world of unexpected luxury.

The plane drones on for an hour over a flat, featureless terrain all the way to the milky blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgaki, one of the largest salt pans in the world (4,600 square miles – or and area of 12 000 square kilometers). Then the barren eternity is interrupted by an improbable line of fan palm trees. As we get closer, acacia also materialise, then large green canvas tents. “Jack’s Camp,” my pilot volunteers as he begins his approach toward the oasis’ dusty landing strip. I am handed over to my awaiting guide and one short rocky ride later we stop in front of a sprawling tented pavilion that has me questioning whether I haven’t just stepped into a mirage!

Botswana - Kalahari. Guest Tent.

My tent, Number One, is decorated with antiques.

The polished teak floor is covered with mellow oriental carpets. Inviting lounges flow into each other, decorated in a safari style that harks back to the opulence of bygone era. There is a library, a bar with an antique pool table and a well-stocked drinks chest, a dining room with a long mahogany table that can easily seat a dozen. The walls are lined with natural history drawings, century-old photographs and engravings of long ago safari scenes. Display cases are filled with museum-quality local artifacts. My own tent is decorated in the same vein, including the bathroom where all the features and the washbasin are antique copper buffed to a flawless shine.

But what of the safari?

Botswana - Kalahari. Meerkats/

Meerkats emerge from their burrows in the early morning.

Jack’s Camp’s surreal luxury setting, with service to match, is only the beginning. The activities are adapted to the experience of desert life. Sunrise finds me silently waiting for a community of meerkats to emerge from their multiple burrows. Although wild, these gregarious squirrel-sized mongooses are sufficiently habituated to humans that they are unconcerned by my presence. I am able to closely observe their young at play and their rituals as they set out on their daily foraging for insects, fruit and lizards.

Botswana - Kalahari Baobab

Chapman’s Baobab is estimated to be 4,000 years old.

Botswana - Kalahari Bushman.

Cobra is a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder.

I marvel at the daily sight of hundreds of zebras and wildebeests arriving from the Boteti River to the west on their yearly migration to the pans. I have the pleasure to walk with Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet, who shows me the plants and foraging methods that ensured the survival of his ancestors for millennia. I gape at the sight of the Chapman’s baobab, a giant with a seven-pillar trunk 85 feet (25 meters) in diameter, the largest and oldest baobab in Africa (estimated to be close to 4,000 years old). Nineteenth century explorer David Livingstone initials can still be seen, carved upon its rock-like bark. I have my first ever sighting of an aardvark, this particularly rare and elusive nocturnal animal.

Riding into the sunset

Botswana - Kalahari sunset.

Sunset in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.

The most unforgettable experience of my visit to Jack’s Camp is a sunset ride deep into the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Our guide leads our small caravan of quad bikes (their balloon tires only skim the fragile crusty surface where heavier vehicles would sink) to what is truly the middle of nowhere. The copper sun slides from the cloudless sky behind the gleaming line of the horizon. With the rising moon, the surface of the Pan turns ghostly white. I lay down on my back on the warm salt crust and stare up. In this otherworldly space, unchanged for millennia, my eyes fill with countless stars, and my ears with a silence so deep I can hear my own heartbeat.

Good to know

  • Jack’s Camp is the flagship property of Uncharted Africa  a safari company founded in 1993 and managed by Ralph Bousfield, a naturalist and conservation expert who comes from a long line of African pioneers and adventurers. His own father Jack, after whom the camp is named was a legendary African hunter and safari operator.
  • To contact Unchartered Africa, E-mail:  reservations@unchartedafrica.com
  • Jack’s Camp is decorated mainly with original family antiques.

Location, location, location!

Makgadikgaki Salt Pans, Botswana.