Island Hopping in Okavango

Remoteness, conservation and wilderness are 3 elements that defines Okavango Delta visit. It is extremely remote, lodges are severely conservation conscious and experiences are unfathomably wild; filled with encounters that you will never get anywhere in any organized African Safari. There is a difference between staying “By Okavango Delta” vs “In Okavango Delta” and I wanted to be In Okavango Delta.

After 4 modes of transportation (Air, 4×4, a short hike and 90 mins speed boat ride) and 12 hours, we reached our lodge (campsite) in middle of Okavango Delta from northern board adjoining Zambia and Namibia. Every aspect of our stay was recycled, repacked, reused or refurbished, hardly anything was refused. The wilderness is incomparable! Hippos passing by and rubbing the fence of our tent in the middle of the night, snorting; fresh elephant dung still steaming around the property in the early morning African sun rays; and sunbirds, in 100s buzzing just outside our tent on just 1 Sausage tree (Kigelia africana).

Almost all safari lodges in heart of Okavango Delta are on tiny islands in between lagoons, wildlife sighting is done on motor boats and canoes (called Makoro). The only way to reach these lodges is by boat. It is very uncommon to see big cat predators in the middle of the Delta, first because of the grasslands (tall reeds from Papyrus cyperus) and secondly because of water bodies between islands which prevents a chased hunt. Although, during extreme dry season, there are more open savannah plains in the new fringes of the Delta as water recedes; causing migration and, predator-to-prey encounters become high. We were in the shoulder season, July. Our objective was to be in the middle of wilderness, not big cats. Big cats can be easily seen in Moremi or Chobe national parks but rarely in the heart of Okavango delta lagoons.

Our Delta life began as soon as we were picked up from Xakanaxa airstrip after a 70 mins ride in a 4 seater plane and then floated to the island in a speed boat. The speed of the boat was an issue at first, too fast, I was getting agitated at our guide, I was missing out on all the flora and fauna, I only had 3 days in the Delta I was thinking. Then, there was a Pied Kingfisher, maintaining relative speed of 0 with our boat, in front of us, as if leading and guiding our boat through the channels, welcoming me and taking me to our lodge, assuring me to be patient, as if he knew it was me and was being a happy and an overjoyed pilot! The rhythm of the boat kept the silence of the Delta sacred; splattering of mosquitoes and slashing of cold water on the face created mosquito carcass face-mask as a natural sunscreen. Everyone was quiet and glued to a 90mins water ride to the lodge in Xhobega lagoon. The water was dark, weeded and still, the sun was at the best, yet keeping the sky lagoon blue, the reeds were tall yellow and the entire journey was devoid of any tourists or groups that you see in other parts of African Safari. In my 3 days in the Delta, we hardly saw any tourists except the few who were staying at the same camp as us.

The arrival event at any and all African lodges, not matter where, is like jubilation and reunion of a long lost family dog. Songs were sung in Tswana, flowers and sweet smiles were thrown, most were Hambukushu and Xanekwe (Bantu & river bushman) people, residents of the Delta or nearby inland villages. Employed by hotel management based in Cape Town or Europe as a requirement.

The days on the Delta are idyllic, typical and scheduled – morning and evening safaris by boat, rest in the cool tent in the afternoon and bonfire (Boma as they call it) in the night after dinner. Safaris in Okavango Delta are a bit different than other African safaris, rather than 4×4, we were cruised in a 1×4 boat, paddled by 1 with 4 passengers, hopping between islands, following elephant tracks. The reeds and waters are filled with hippos, floating or standing, in herds. Elephants cross the channels from one island to another. The ideal days include exploring islands, hiking from one end to the another, having picnic lunches under the shade of palm or morula tree (Mango family), learning about the droughts and floods in Okavango from the guide.

The other part of Okavango Delta are the birds, each endemic bird has a special survival characteristics and it is mesmerizing to find, learn and observe, even for non birders. Each bird has a story behind their plumage, in their size and color of their feet, their importance in the Bantu culture. It became very evident after our 1st day that our guide was a better birder than a boatsman. Our boat hydro-lifted when he didn’t see a hippo swimming underwater, we were going at a 25KM/hr speed and the propeller hit the hippo’s butt hard, and the handrail of the boat hit my butt harder when we slam landed. In between the thud before the liftoff and the splash of the slam, I bet I heard poor Hippo’s honk!

My afternoons were spent finding a fruit tree in our resident island, while the rest were resting in the cool tents and checkmark birds from the Botswana Bird list, just by standing at one spot. Fruit trees anywhere are like “invite only” restaurants, with an objective of maximizing diversity. And then, often perched on the tallest reed, across the channel, I would find a Malachite kingfisher and a Bee-eater in the next straw; while Jacanas cleaning their nests in the dark6 water just next to our tents.

Finally the sun sets, and none can defeat the African sunset, especially in the latitudes around 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Shades of orange so different that they are not seen anywhere else in nature. The lower the sun goes, more fluorescent orange the landscape becomes, bigger it becomes. On second day we just sat in the boat for an hour to witness the Okavango sunset in a lake, which was part of the delta, reflecting the colors twice while the silence was screaming. Compared to all Sundowners I have experienced in different continents of the world including different regions of Africa, this has been the most memorable. There is something about Okavango sunset.

3 days and 2 nights are enough in Okavango Delta, the rest should be spent in the surrounding national parks, like Moremi, where land encounters with predators are subsequently higher. My objective was to stay In the Delta, rather than By the Delta and the difference is easily realized after spending time in the Delta, the seclusion and rawness of the landscape.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s