Into the Okavango

Known as one of Africa’s most exclusive safari destinations, Botswana’s Okavango Delta offers more than just a luxe escape.

I’ve heard many a good and often exhilarating story about bush life and wild encounters but this time it will be more than just a story. This time, it will be my story.

I board the Airlink Avro RJ85 with nervous excitement and land in Maun after about two and a half hours. Coming from cold and rainy South Africa, the heat in Botswana takes me by surprise. Our jovial hosts greet our group at arrivals and usher us towards a small restaurant where we stop for some much-needed refreshments. After cooling down and peeling off as many layers of clothing as possible, we head back to the airport to board a small MacAir plane.

Flying over the Okavango Delta, which consists of scrub-covered islands in almost 3 000 square kilometres of swamp, I find myself catching my breath every few seconds. We are headed to one of the Delta’s newest, and relatively more affordable, offerings: Xobega Island Camp.

En route, I see a crocodile lazily basking in the sun and hippos glaring at me — bodies submerged, two pairs of beady eyes wide awake and alert.

The Okavango Delta is home to many hippo pods; they often congregate in the open waters where they forage for food. Photo Supplied.

The splash of the cold river water is welcomed, as is the cool breeze generated by the speeding boat. From afar, I see people waving on the riverbank and before we’ve even disembarked, we are welcomed with song and drink.

My room is a rustic Meru-style tent, complete with twin beds and an open-air bathroom, from where the eyes of sneaky primate voyeurs are often visible at night. The entire camp is eco-friendly, using chemical lavatories, bucket showers and solar-generated electricity. Traditional, hearty meals are served al fresco, making for a completely relaxed and laid-back bush camp experience.

Sega, the camp manager, informs us that Xobega has a resident elephant called Santos who occasionally visits and we should not be alarmed if we encounter him. Don’t be alarmed by a majestic mammal walking about the camp… Sure, sounds easy enough.

Later that afternoon, once the heat has somewhat subsided, we head to the river for a sunset cruise. Camera in hand, I take in the shimmering waters of the delta. As if on cue, the horizon erupts into bursts of yellows, pinks and blues — a remarkable sight to behold.

I fell in love with these magical sunsets.

A Jacana playfully hops from one waterlily leaf to the next. ‘Actophilornis africanus, also known as the African Jacana,’ one birder in the group points out. Our driver speeds up and I hear a loud thump as we make our way to more open waters.

‘A hippo!’ everyone shouts in unison. ‘He won’t hold a grudge. Hippos have thick skin,’ a fellow traveller says jokingly.

We pour ourselves some drinks and take in the last rays disappearing in the distance in silence. The quiet of the Okavango, only broken by the chirping of birds, cements this as my favourite time of day.

The quiet of the Okavango, only broken by the chirping of birds, cements this as my favourite time of day.

After an evening of tales around the campfire, my guide valiantly escorts me to my tent. The grunt of a hippo and the call of some other wild animal keep me awake. I hardly get any sleep that night. 

It’s freezing the next morning and I opt out of an early morning shower and head for breakfast instead before climbing aboard a mokoro, a type of canoe that seats two people, to navigate the shallow, murky waters of the Delta. 

Me on a mokoro, with my wonderful guide, Chase.

As we slowly make our way through the water, our guide tells us more about the flora. He picks a waterlily and quickly weaves a necklace. ‘We used to do this as children,’ he informs us. ‘You see, all you do is crack the stem then peel, crack then peel.’

My waterlily necklace!

After our mokoro adventure, we take a motorboat back to camp. ‘Welcome back,’ Sega greets us. ‘You have just missed Santos. He was over at tent 10.’

The ever-elusive Santos. I’m starting to wonder if he’s an Okavango Delta urban legend. 

Later at lunch, I’m informed that Santos also stole some oranges while our meal was being prepared — and I, of course, was asleep. ‘He’s a naughty boy, that Santos! And he loves his oranges!’

I better see Santos before I leave this island, I think begrudgingly as I make my way to bed.

In the quiet of the night, I hear leaves crackling and a tree shaking outside. My heart pounds.

In the quiet of the night, I hear leaves crackling and a tree shaking outside. My heart pounds.

Maybe he heard my silent plea or maybe it was the fruit from the sausage tree that I’d strategically placed in the pathway to my tent but Santos was finally here! I lay silent, listening to the elephant chewing. I’m too afraid to move, or even breathe, scared that I might startle him.

That night, I sleep wonderfully, knowing that this special, legendary creature finally came to say hello.

The following day, we say goodbye to Xobega and prepare for a five-hour trek through Moremi Game Reserve. As we enter, we see two vehicles parked to the left of the entrance. ‘There must be something there,’ our guide tells us. ‘I think it might be lions.’

Please let it be lions, I softly plea with the powers that be. And, as we pull up, we spot two fully grown male lions basking in the sun. ‘Probably brothers,’ says our guide. ‘Quiet now, let’s not startle them.’

After our long commute, we finally arrive at a dry, desert-like camp that is in complete contrast to the green, lush vegetation of Xobega Island Camp. The camp manager, Innocent, briefs us on safety before the staff usher us to our tents: ‘Don’t leave your tent at night.’ ‘Be vigilant walking around the camp.’ I’m smack-bang in the middle of the bush. Tuskers is completely unfenced, meaning wild animals roam around freely. This is animal territory and I am merely a tolerated guest here.

Tuskers is completely unfenced, meaning wild animals roam around freely. This is animal territory and I am merely a tolerated guest here.

We all meet up for lunch in the dining tent where we witness two elephant bulls lock tusks in a fight for dominance, just a few metres away at the watering hole. After its defeat, the younger bull waits patiently for his chance to drink some water. ‘These young bulls know what’s what,’ a guide tells us. ‘He knows he’s lost the fight and has to wait until the older male is finished drinking.’

After lunch, it’s time for a quick bucket shower and siesta. I lay on my bed, looking out towards the bush and count myself blessed to be able to experience nature in all its unfiltered glory. 

Our last day at Tuskers is filled with surprises. As I enjoy my morning coffee, some hippos play hide-and-seek in the water but they are interrupted by a majestic sight: A herd of elephants. I sit in awe.

Back at camp, one of our guides cautions us to dress warmly as we get ready to embark on our afternoon game drive. ‘We have a surprise for you later.’

After our afternoon game drive, we head back to camp. It’s getting darker and it seems like we have missed a turn. ‘Why are the vehicle’s lights turned off?’ someone asks. 

Before our guide can answer, we see lanterns marking out a path. Set under a large baobab tree is our last meal. Like an ode to home, we feast on braai beneath the stars, flames illuminating our faces. I look around at the broad smiles of my fellow travellers and grin happily at the magical memories of the Okavango Delta that will follow me home.

This article originally appeared in Intrepid Explorer.

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