Okavango Delta: Expedition into the Unknown

S. Adams Steve

Five explorers take on the Okavango Delta in two dugout canoes, through a wilderness which may take away more than just your breath. Many before them have disappeared in this immense watery labyrinth of false streams, hippo channels and dense reeds, never to be seen again. Their route was untested. No one had attempted the journey before from the west.

Okavango field test safari clothing, safari luggage, safari hats. Okavango Mokoro.
You do know that, should anything happen to you, you have no way of getting out? Maun has no med-evac helicopters. I know this because I am setting the first one up.

These were the words of Swiss doctor, Misha Kruck, who I met on the flight into Botswana. The words weighed pretty heavily on my shoulders too. I had planned the adventure and invited friends along. All I knew, though, was where we were starting and where we needed to end up. I had also promised to bring the four friends I was taking on this expedition back safely to their wives.

Needless to say Misha's warning did not stop us from our attempt to explore the Okavango Delta in two dugout canoes, called mekoros, through a wilderness which may take away more than just your breath. Many before us had disappeared in this immense watery labyrinth of false streams, hippo channels, and dense reeds - never to be seen again. Our route was untested. No-one had attempted the journey from the west before, but we were full of ambition and excited to be going on the first major expedition for The Safari Store to explore the hidden →

depths of the Delta, camp on islands which had probably not been seen humans before, and to try out the products we were carrying, which included Swarovski, Rufiji™, Barmah, and much more.

Throughout the trip, we poled ourselves across flooded grassland and glided across mirrored waters. We kept to the grasslands to avoid, as far as possible, the deep - the fast-flowing channel which meanders down the middle of the Delta. Deep water in Africa equals hippos and crocodiles - and hippos and crocodiles do not mix well with roughly-hewn dugout canoes in small, confined sections of perfectly clear water. There is usually no place to hide. For the first six days, we battled through thick reed beds, pulled our heavily-laden mekoros over areas too shallow for these traditional craft to float, and camped 'rough' on the small islands which are formed by the architects of the Delta, the termites.

It was on the seventh day that we had to join the main channel to get to the end of the trip or we would have ended up in the middle of nowhere, without a clue as to where to go. The Okavango Delta is vast. To begin with, the going was really good. We caught the annual flood and were swept downstream by these waters which had journeyed all the way from the Angolan highlands. It was pure bliss. You can drink the waters of the Delta and so will never die of thirst - and better tasting water I have not drunk before or since.

There are, of course, other things which could kill you and our state of bliss was quickly shattered. Rounding a bend, the way ahead looked clear, but the reeds to the south of the channel were shaking violently. True to their calling, a pod of hippos emerged and ran straight into the deep water in front of us. To a hippo, deep water is a safe haven - what a castle is to a knight. Once in the water, they carried on behaving as hippo should and in a way which only hippo seem to manage. They made it look as if the current wasn't flowing away from us →

 A group of men stand under a large baobab in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. There are marks on the tree from elephants..

but towards us as they drifted on stubby legs upstream; not downstream - Africa's magicians of the water. Once again - and true to hippo form - one of the hippo then submerged, leaving no clue as to where it had gone. It was only when a trail of bubbles went under our mekoro and Malcolm shouted "HIPPO" - that I realised it was beneath our mekoro. At that very moment, I lost my balance and the mekoro tipped to the side, sending EB, who shared my mekoro with me, into the water. My only thought was, "Okay, this is how this trip ends - in the jaws of a hippo bull." I realised how pathetic our chances were against a hippo bull driven by years of territorial conditioning and probably a spear or two thrown his way by the Bayei Bushmen.

Fortunately for us the hippo, for the first time, did not behave as a hippo should and dived down again never to reappear. EB climbed back into the mekoro and we paddled with our hands, adrenaline beating like a drum in my ears, towards the island where the hippos had been enjoying the winter sun before we arrived on the scene.

A great friend at university once said to me, "All is well that ends well." Never has that been more true. I am only grateful for such an incredible adventure - and that Dr. Kruck's not-yet-in-service helicopter was ever needed.

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Five smiling men holding wooden poles stand next to mokoros on the bank of the Okavango Delta river in Botswana.
Shop for a leather safari hat to protect your face and neck from the sun

Everyone loves the sound of hippo in Africa.
That is until you go on a river trip. Each night we grimaced when we heard the deep bellow and snort of hippo downstream from us. It meant one thing: we were going to meet more of them the next day. At times, it felt as though they were waiting for us, setting an ambush. This hippo certainly had our hearts racing as we hid in the reeds, slowly edging past these sun-shy beasts of the deep. None of us will ever hear hippo again without thinking back to this expedition.

A wooden mokoro pole splashes in the Okavango Delta river on a safari expedition in Botswana

Water so pure you can stoop down and drink it.
The Okavango Delta waters are filtered by hundreds of kilometers of reed beds, leaving it crystal clear and beautiful to drink. We carried no spare water on this trip as a result and used our hats to scoop up water from the Delta.

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Bayei women and children with a puppy in a Botswana village in the Okavango Delta where they fish for a living.

The Bayei bushmen still live in the heart of the Delta.
They survive by catching and drying fish and selling them to the fish traders who periodically visit these small islands. It is an isolated existence and one which cannot escape the wildness of the Delta.

A man wearing a safari hat looks at an elephant running by while on a walking safari on Chief's Island in Botswana.

"Shit happens here. You can feel it," Malcolm whispered while stretching our legs on a walk on Chiefs Island.
We all agreed. This famed island is littered with old lion, leopard, and hyena kills. The island is alive. This young elephant made us feel a little more as though we were completely surrounded by raw Africa.

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Two men wearing safari clothing and hats pole a wooden mokoro in the Okavango Delta river in Botswana.

Beauty is in the eye of the Delta
There are many places which are called wilderness areas, but many are not. Where roads and structures exist, wilderness does not. With all the water in the Delta, permanent structures and roads are impossible to make. It is a place of silence, of wind in the reeds, of water gently drifting by to a sea of sand; not salty water. It is a wilderness which you simply must see.

From above the papyrus
With a simple handheld GPS, we plotted way-points as we poled through the watery wilderness. These are the spots we would daydream about returning to later on - from our respective desks, art studios, and homes in London, Hermanus, and Brisbane. We relied purely on EB for our navigation on this expedition. In a wild version of snakes-and-ladders - with slightly higher stakes - he faultlessly linked lagoons with prominent trees, with oddly shaped termite mounds, with an island settlement, with a deep channel along the entire 200+ km adventure. It was an incredible feat, as he was playing the game blindfolded - he too had never been all the way from his village to Maun. No-one had. What he had done was see various parts of the Delta in isolation. This trip brought what he knew of the Delta together. Without EB, we would have been lost in the flatness of the landscape. Perhaps we will attempt the trip again using just the way-points. It would be both brave and foolhardy to try. That sounds like the perfect blend for the finest adventure.

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Joy and a longing at journey's end
No matter what anyone tells you, on every expedition you have moments when you really wish you were not straining to make slow progress. Hate is a strong word, but at times you do hate what you are doing, despite the numerous moments of nourishment of the physical and environmental aspects of the trial you have set for yourself. However, it is amazing how rapidly those moments of pain are forgotten the very instant you reach the end of the expedition. As if by magic, the feeling disappears and is immediately replaced by a sense of accomplishment and a yearning to still be further back along in the expedition. As a result, for some, dreams of the next trip - maybe it is the endorphins - kicks in straight away too. "Lets have a cold beer and plan 'what next".

Expert Advice™

Top tips for planning your Botswana safari.

1. As an introduction, if Botswana is not yet on your list of places to go on safari, it quite simply must be. Botswana has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa, due in part to the dedication of the Botswana government to wildlife conservation. As a result, it has become a safe haven for wildlife which is able to roam free across the country and into neighbouring countries, allowing for the natural movement of wildlife. Unlike areas of Africa where game tends to exist in private, fenced off reserves where the exact numbers of wildlife is known to the owners of the reserve, in Botswana, the lack of fences (apart from the buffalo fence) means that you may come across species such as nomadic male lions who have been pushed out from their pride to fend for themselves, which your guide has never seen before. Now that is truly exciting!

2. Go remote: While areas such as the Chobe waterfront offer very good game-viewing, they also have higher numbers of tourists than the rest of Botswana. One of the strengths of Botswana is the remoteness of the majority of the camps. In fact, many camps are so remote that the only way for you to get to them is to fly into the camp using one of the scheduled charter services out of Maun. This remoteness is further guaranteed as Botswana is split up into large concessions which are

run by the lodge located on each concession. Exclusivity and intimate game-viewing experiences are therefore guaranteed as no one else is allowed on to that concession.Within a private concession, you will not experience the jostling for position of higher numbers of vehicles at wildlife sightings. It will very often just be you, your travelling companions, your guide, and the animals you have travelled so far to view. This is all as a result of Botswana's low volume, high yield approach: you may pay more for a safari in Botswana, but the experience has a true wilderness feel to it.

3. Botswana is a year-round destination and, as such, you can go on safari throughout the year, but there are still two main seasons to choose between and both have their own highlights. The green season falls over the summer months between November and the end of March when the rains fall. Due to the abundance of water away from the Okavango Delta, wildlife is more spread out and the herds of herbivores such as buffalo tend to be smaller. However, powerful storms create dramatic backdrops to game viewing, with incredible photographic opportunities in the golden light after a storm. The combination of golden light and brooding storm clouds in the background is quite simply beautiful. The drier winter months, as general rule, are more productive for game-viewing. While the surrounding bush in areas such as the Savute, Linyanti, and Chobe is dry and the waterholes are drying up, the Okavango Delta itself is in a very, very sedate flooding state which spreads gently into the surrounding grassland. Large herds of wildlife move into areas where the crystal clear water is readily available. The waters of the Delta also nourish plants and trees which provide food for many species of herbivores which, in turn, attracts predators and scavengers. It is during the winter months that buffalo, elephant, and other species of game tend to be found in larger herds and concentrations - simply due to the reliance on fewer sources of water.

4. Combine a 'dry' camp and a 'wet' camp to maximise the experienceor a camp which is on a concession with both 'wet' and 'dry' activities. A 'wet' camp would be one which is in the middle of the Okavango Delta and is surrounded by water. Activities offered at 'wet' camps include mekoro and boat safaris, while 'dry' camps offer walks and game drives. A handful of camps are able to offer both 'wet' and 'dry' experiences. These are usually very productive areas for wildlife, especially over the dry season as indicated in the point above.

5. The classic Okavango Delta itinerary would include two camps in two different areas and, as above, would combine a wet (or semi-wet) camp and a dry or semi-dry camp. We recommend approximately three nights at each camp to give your guide the time to get to know you, find our your interests, and show you the hidden gems within that concession.

7. To make the most of your safari, pack these bare essentials: a good quality pair of binoculars; comfortable, cool, safari-appropriate clothing; insect repellent that's been tested to really work in Africa; a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen; and a safari fleece or jacket as it does get cold at night and on early morning game drives, especially over the winter months.

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