Much of Botswana lies within the arid Kalahari Desert. But in the north west of the country there is an immense inland delta river system, which spreads over 6,500 square miles (10,460 kilometers), called the Okavango Delta. Summer rains (Dec –Feb) in Angola flow into the delta from March – July, swelling the permanent waters there to three times their normal size.
I just spent a month exploring this region.
The arrival of the water coincides with Botswana’s dry season creating an oasis that attracts vast herds of animals from the dryer areas. From one day to the next the dry brown grasses in the plains behind Mombo Trails Camp turned green. And hundreds of impala and buffalo appeared, up to their knees in water, munching the newly green fodder.
The only transportation to one of the places I stayed, Little Vumburu, was by boat. The driver, aptly named Speedy, raced through narrow passages flushing out malachite kingfishers, egrets, and sacred ibis from the tall bamboo-like reeds that lined both sides of the boat’s channel.
The Okavango Delta is full of islands, formed when vegetation takes root into fertile termite mounds. This camp was on a big island and at night reed frogs filled the air with what sounded like millions of bamboo chimes – tink, tink, tink. Within several feet of my tent hippos grunted about territories and discontent, then chewed and pushed through water on their nightly feeding route.
Safari vehicles here are designed to drive through water as seamlessly as if they are boats. The animals too are adapted to the seasonal floods.
The first time I heard elephants moving through water from one island to the next, I was hooked on the sound. It was laborious. They gently placed each front foot with caution, trying to avoid holes, crocodiles and hippos although those two would also try to evade the elephants. And when the river is deep, there is no sight so special as watching elephants swim. (watch my video of elephants tussling in the Chobe river here.
I’m told even the lions and cheetah swim from island to island this time of the year to find prey and mates.
A mokoro ride provided an intimate water-level view. My poler pushed a long wooden pole against the muddy bottom to propel the two-seater canoe silently through water lilies and over 40 species of dragonflies. Hippos, the most dangerous animal in Africa, with only their eyes and ears above water, watched us, angrily protesting with wide mouth grunts if we came too near. A Pels fishing owl, a rare sighting, flew away from a leaping water antelope, called a red lechwe.
The dry areas are covered in Kalahari desert sand as fine as powered sugar. My shoes were laden with it. Animals use the sandy vehicle roads for ease of movement leaving easily interpreted footprints for the guides. “This is a civet cat who walked this direction this morning. Lions are heading that way now.“
We found this elephant using a termite mound to reach the higher branches of a marula tree.
I’m hooked on the magic of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. I just returned home and I’m already planning my next trip back. Next time I want to see lions and cheetah swim.