On our way to the Okavango our guide confessed that his dream would be to end up reincarnated as an elephant in the delta. About 2 minutes after we arrived all 19 of us on our tour were feeling the same way. This place is beautiful! I mean, seriously stunning. If you visit anywhere in Botswana, this has got to be it. Chobe National Park is fantastic and the Kalahari Desert is breathtaking, but visiting the Okavango Delta was on another level entirely.
Best of all, not only can you explore from ground level, canoeing through the long grass and endless water lilies, it’s affordable and easy to arrange a bush flight to see the full expanse of the Okavango delta from above. From just a few hundred metres in the air you see the way the delta spreads its way across over fifteen thousand square kilometres of swampland, dotted with salt islands, which started life as termite mounds.
During our forty minute flight we spotted an incredible array of animals – elephants, hippos, giraffe, crocodiles, wildebeest, buffalo and zebra to name just a few. River safaris and jeep safaris are without a doubt up there with our favourite things to do while travelling, but safaris by air and on foot in the Okavango delta? Out of this world.
From the air, the great Okavango delta comes alive with colour. Every patch of grassland is clearly identified in stark contrast to the lush blues and greens of the surrounding swamp. Herds of wildebeest and elephants push their way through streams and lakes. Giraffes nibble on the thick lush trees while hippos swim lazily around in circles. If you’ve ever seen the beginning of the film “The Lion King” you’ll understand what I’m describing.
As our miniscule six seater plane turned to make its way back to the airport, we all sat grinning at each other, agreeing that this was the absolute highlight of our Africa trip so far.
Our adventures visiting the Okavango Delta were nowhere near over yet though, and the next day we continued our journey.
Early in the morning we made the bumpy journey from Maun back to the edge of the delta, where we stopped at a tiny village to meet the team who would be looking after us for the next couple of days.
Up until now our trip had been pretty civilised; eating at restaurants in the lodges we stayed at, camping grounds with facilities better than most we saw in the US and Aus, and organised safaris in national parks. Visiting the Okavango though, was a whole other experience.
Botswana has prioritised a ‘high cost low impact’ model for tourism so it’s possible to stay in the delta in one of a handful of luxurious lodges, some of which cost into the £1000s per night. Not us I’m afraid, we’d be travelling by Mokoro – lightweight canoes guided down the delta by ‘Polers’ – two to three hours into the wilderness, before setting up camp for the night in a small clearing surrounded by trees.
No showers, no toilet (apart from a hole in the ground shared by 19 tourists!) and no leaving the campsite without a guide due to the risk of being ambushed by the local residents. Just a couple of hundred metres outside of our camp we spotted elephants, wildebeest and more zebras than you could imagine!
The journey to camp was yet another highlight in a whole series of travel highlights. Basking in the sun, silently gliding through the clearest water we made our way through reeds and tall grass. After the previous day’s flight it was almost impossible to think that what we were seeing from the water was the same landscape as we’d viewed from above.
Our polers deftly and silently pushed us through the long reeds while we relaxed on comfortable seats, fashioned from our very own folded camp-beds. Two to a Mokoro, there were over 9 separate vessels gliding through the crystal-clear waters of the delta. Some of us chose to spend a few hours dozing, others just gazed around and soaked it all in. Every now and again a poler would catch up to another Mokoro and a Mokoro-race would erupt out of nowhere, with the winning poler declaring their Mokoro as being fitted with a turbo.
Taking the flight combined with exploring by Mokoro is I think the only way to get a true sense of perspective on the sheer size of the delta and the amount of ground it covers.
After a few hours of poleing we came across a couple of enormous elephants on the bank of the water. Our guide dropped into a crouch and we glided silently past, approximately 10 meters away from these huge animals. To our surprise, only a few meters further on we were led to a small bank and told this was our campsite for the night – not 100 meters away from the elephants we’d spotted!
The fun didn’t stop there. After we’d set up our tents and got our bearings, our guides poled us out into a shallow area of the delta where we could swim, sunbathe and have a go at navigating the mokoro ourselves. It goes without saying that this was far harder than it looks. Rob, obviously, was a natural as were several of the other guys, although I managed to provide the group with a good twenty minutes of entertainment with my awkward balance!
Just before sunset we made our way out into the delta on foot. With our guides calmly teaching us what to do if we happened across a stray lion or were charged by a temperamental elephant, we’d never felt less like predators and more like we were about to become some lucky animal’s next meal. Creeping through the grass we happened across a dazzle of zebras – yes, a group of zebras is apparently called a dazzle – or a zeal if you prefer!
We also made our way cautiously around a lone elephant, and spotted several wildebeest making their way across the delta. If a plane safari was exhilarating and fast paced, this was the ultimate contrast and a perfect way to experience the Okavango delta from yet another perspective.
That night, we relaxed with a few beers, admired our truly National Geographic quality photos and were treated to an evening of dancing and singing around the campfire. To our delight we discovered that Mr K, a guide who wouldn’t have looked out of place rapping in downtown LA, turned out to be an incredible singer who was fought over by local choirs. Who knew!
All in all, our time spent visiting the Okavango delta was one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had. I know I say this a lot, but this time I promise it’s true!