The Okavango Delta is an aberration of Nature — a river delta which never reaches the sea. Instead, the waters of the Okavango drain into the arid plains of the Kalahari Desert in northwestern Botswana — creating a lush and fertile haven for all manner of flora and fauna. We arrived at Maun, the access point for exploring and camping in the Okavango Delta, after our time in Chobe National Park and Elephant Sands and checked into Delta Rain’s Sitatunga campsite.
The Okavango Delta is an astonishing sight: the great Okavango River, rather than flow towards the sea, flows inland, into the sands of the Kalahari.Alexander McCall Smith
The next day would begin with our Acacia Africa tour group packed into the back of a safari transport and jostling down a village road towards the launch point for our Okavango expedition. The landscape morphed before our eyes, the muted browns of the desert giving way to the lush greens of marshland.
The boat launch seemed to be the focal point of the village, with an assortment of local guides, tourists, and onlookers milling about waiting for the next wave of mokoro canoes to launch. We didn’t have to wait long. Polers approached our group, picking their passengers by the pair and ushering us to their crafts.
Mokoros are dugout canoes used by locals to ferry themselves and their supplies from place to place in the delta. With shallow drafts and excellent maneuverability (though none of us could really get the hang of it!), the crafts are ideal for navigating the shallow, reed-clogged channels of the delta.
We did our best to remain still as we swiveled our heads about looking for wildlife, not wanting to *pauses for effect* rock the boat.
Even if the slightest bobble was enough to unnerve us, the guides were at ease aboard their mokoro and would even stoop to scoop water from the river when they felt thirsty.
Our guide, Pili Pili, had warned us of this, however. “This is their home, they are used to it,” he told us. “Please, please, do not drink the water.”
We let it be.
As we slid through the channels among the reeds, we spotted wildlife both along the shore and far off in open water. A pod of hippos made an appearance, grunting and humphing at each other as we passed, as did a solitary elephant feeding on the river’s bank.
The camp was in a small clearing on the shore, a missable gap in the undergrowth. It didn’t look like much, but after beaching our mokoro and stepping ashore, we found a cozy little compound of (already assembled!) tents with ensuite pit toilets and camp showers, a sheltered eating area, and a fire pit.
Lunch, when it came, was a treat — for me more than anyone else. Decades ago, when I was a kid, my mom would issue my siblings and I cooking challenges. We would choose a country and prepare a multi-course meal inspired by its cuisine. I chose places like Ethiopia, Mongolia, and the southern part of Africa. One of those southern African dishes was bobotie — a casserole-style dish with meat, eggs, curry, nuts, and fruit. It’s one of my favorite meals in the world, and I nearly fell out of my chair with glee when the camp cooks brought out a huge pan of the stuff for us to devour.
It was a hot day, and most of the wildlife had taken shelter from the sweltering sun. We did the same, staying in the cool shade of the common area and playing games to pass the time until our bush walk later that evening.
When it was time to set out, we split up into groups in order to minimize the noise we’d make bumbling around the bush. The safety briefing was succinct, with our guide telling us what to do in case of an animal encounter, “It is very important that you do not panic. Unless you see me panic. Then you can panic.”
We walked slowly, quietly through the grass, our guide pointing out spoor from creatures who’d come that way before or motioning for us to be still and look at wildlife in the distance. Once, we came upon a herd of reedbucks, frozen in place as they watched us warily. An ear flicked, the water was stirred by an agitated kick of a hoof, and the reedbucks bounded off through the marsh. In the distance, wildebeest and zebra regarded the scene impassively.
Sunset came all too quickly, and we had to hurry to be back in camp before nightfall. Dusk is when the predators of the African wilderness prowl and hunt, and humans shouldn’t wander far from camp in darkness. There are still places on Earth where Nature reigns supreme.
Dinner was a hearty affair, and we gathered about the fire-pit afterward for an exhibition of local song and dance. One number required the participation of most of the guys in our group and had something to do with frogs. Perhaps it was their idea of a joke. Whatever the case, everyone shared a good belly laugh and my knees will never be the same.
I slept soundly for the first night of the entire trip, heedless of the creatures most likely prowling through the camp. We’d been warned before sleeping not to leave the safety of our tents for any reason during the night. Even if we heard something large snuffling at the flaps of our tent…
Needless to say, no one was eaten or trampled during the night, and we boarded our mokoro to glide back along the channels winding their way through the reeds.
By the time we made it back to Sitatunga, we were drained and looking forward to a relaxing afternoon. Some opted for an optional flight over the delta, while others opted for hours of card games and cider at the campground’s bar. Can you guess which one I chose?
We would leave the next day for Ghanzi, a dusty little town in the Kalahari desert and one of the places where tribes of Bushmen still live according to their traditions. The Okavango Delta and its cool waters would feel like a dream there, amidst the arid sands and under the arch of the Milky Way.