Steve's Off the Beaten Track Safaris:
#3 Okavango Explorations

S. Adams Steve

Our founder, Steve, is counting down his top off the beaten track safaris and his third runner up takes us to the exquisite landscapes of Botswana. Explore the world's biggest inland delta with us - a watery wilderness filled with wonder - in the Okavango Delta.

In this series on African travel, we asked our founder, Steve, to count down the top off the beaten track safaris he's been on and which he recommends to our clients to get a real expedition feeling. Attracting scores of safari-goers each year doesn't preclude Botswana from this list of wild places, with the Okavango Delta being an exciting wilderness area for African travellers.

Master an ancient skill by poling your own dugout canoe through the Delta and come one with gorgeous landscapes on game drives. No matter how you explore, the Okavango promises real escapism. Discover what a safari to the Okavango has to offer and find out what to pack to make the most of your water- and land-based safari to Botswana.

People rowing canoes at sunset on the golden waters of the Okavango Delta in Botswana

Number three on your list of off the beaten track safaris is the Okavango. I just wanted to know what makes that stand out for you?

STEVE: Obviously, as The Safari Store, we do expeditions to product test and for me to escape into the wilderness. I was trying to think about things our clients can do because everyone could do expeditions but the risk is obviously quite high if you don’t know what you’re doing. I tried to think back to safaris that you can book through our partners or travel agents or book directly through lodges that really do give you that sort of expedition feel and one of them was definitely the Okavango, which sells itself.
I think anyone who hears the word “Okavango Delta” can probably come up with about twenty pictures in their head of what it looks like. As a kid, you see pictures of people in dugout canoes, you see pictures of this huge wilderness area – this amazing river that’s been diverted by tectonic plates into the Kalahari Desert essentially, so it’s a river that ends in the desert rather than in an ocean. It’s the world’s largest inland delta. All that stuff – all the videos and movies and things by National Geographic, people like Dereck and Beverly Joubert – make it a really exciting place. When I first went there, I had massive, massive expectations around the place and it exceeded every single one. It is that incredible.
What makes it even more incredible is it’s a World Heritage Site. It’s, again, the world’s biggest inland delta. It’s this river that’s been diverted by literally a two-metre high shift in the plate and that actually is one of the most amazing things about the area – it’s deadpan flat. Apart from the Tsodilo Hills in the north-west, there’s nothing. It’s just flat and so you’d expect an area that flat to be boring, but there’s so much to do.

A smiling man wearing a safari hat sitting on the ground with hands in his pockets
Play me
You’re seeing this incredible wilderness area from the mokoro, from a speedboat, from a plane up in the air.

The trip that I did was through Wilderness Safaris, but there are other operators that offer similar trips; in fact, a lot of operators that are like Wilderness were in the beginning – so small, two or three people with a couple of Land Rovers. It’s a real exploration, overland feel and I think that’s what really grabbed me because, as much as I enjoy going from lodge to lodge – and some of these trips do incorporate lodges – for any expedition for me, you’re with a group of people the whole way through, from start to finish. On that trip, you’re with a group of people from start to finish.
The safari or the exploration has an expedition feel because you’re combining light aircraft with dugout canoes and aluminium Jon boats on the Chobe River with walking and Land Rover safaris.
You get this kind of teamwork, team-building feel even though it’s pretty luxury and I think it’s that element – into an area like the Okavango, Chobe, Linyanti, Savuti - which really just captured my imagination. We also had a brilliant guide, a guy called Tito, who kind of stole the show and again it’s about that interaction with your guide. You really get to know him over eight days or nine days or however long it is. Rather than going lodge to lodge and changing guides, you build a bit of a relationship with him.

So the Okavango really captures the wild feeling?

STEVE: Yeah, it does. Go and watch the movies. It’s pretty amazing. I think the key is that you get, in any of the four off the beaten path destinations I’ve mentioned to you, you get a real sense of discovery.
You feel like you could be the first person seeing a hippo trail through that part of the bush or an elephant on an island and you really do get a sense that there could be no-one else on the planet apart from the eight of you and that things you’re seeing are the things that are being seen in that unique context for the first time.

View from a mokoro of a man poling a canoe in the Okavango Delta in Botswana

Pioneer spirit?

STEVE: Pioneer, exactly. In fact, I think one of the trips is called the pioneer. Again, from watching movies and seeing things like Linyanti and Savuti as a kid, it meant that, when we drove through the Linyanti, you kind of look out going, “This is where all those amazing hyena versus lion movies and things were filmed. You’re almost expecting to see it and so it’s almost like walking into a cinema, into a movie, into a wildlife documentary. That probably describes it the best way.
You’re seeing this incredible wilderness area from the mokoro, from a speedboat, from a plane up in the air. I was like a kid looking out the window trying to spot game and stuff and you obviously fly low when you come in to land. We had to buzz the airstrip twice. The airstrip was flooded, so we were covered in mud. These days, I think people get a little too caught up in the luxury side of things. I’m not sure how luxurious the Wilderness trips are now – I went about two years back – but, again, there are other operators that do offer the sort of dome tent, bucket shower real sort of escape expedition feel and it’s something which makes you feel alive. If you’re driving long distances in a Land Rover, you’re doing a whole day transfer in a Land Rover, even if you zone out a bit, you really get into that experience.
On the shorter game drives, I always find that it’s three hours; you’re in and out and, look, I’m not pooh-poohing those at all – those are brilliant experiences – but, if you ask me what experiences really captured my imagination, that was definitely one of them and the things we saw were incredible. We saw male lions which had killed a baby elephant and we could see around the baby elephant where the breeding herd had gone ballistic trying to save it. It looked like napalm had been dropped in the area. The trees in that area were completely destroyed. Seeing all the elephants in Chobe. Going in a mokoro down a hippo path, you’re excited. You’re like, “Well, if this is a hippo path, surely we shouldn’t be here because hippos are in hippo paths”. Seeing lechwe, seeing Pel’s Fishing Owls, exploring islands on foot – it’s a real escapism.

A lazy looking male lion lying next to a tree in Moremi, Botswana

It sounds like a real place to discover and experience. So, in terms of experience, what activities apart from what you’ve mentioned already would you recommend that people do there to enrich the overall experience?

STEVE: Well, the first one is always top of my list because, when you’re on a mokoro and a dugout canoe, it it’s almost better to be standing. What usually happens is you have a poler and you have the two clients sitting down and it’s an amazing experience as it, but what people don’t realise – and what I’ve realised on expeditions and on that trip – is that, when you’re sitting down, if you happen to go through reeds and things, you just get covered in spiderwebs and the reeds are actually pretty sharp. There’s a great opportunity in learning to pole a mokoro. It’s really fun, so just say to your guide, “Chap, do you mind? Can you teach me how to do it?” because there is a great technique in it.
Poling your own mokoro is something which links you to ancient Botswana, to the ancient Okavango, because people have been poling mokoros for centuries. It’s their mode of transport. It’s how they fish. It’s how they get from A to B, how they get from island to island, how they get to the mainland. So, by learning to pole a mokoro, there is a feeling of connection to the skill that people have had for ages.
Even though it’s very simple, it’s actually quite difficult to get right. It’s one thing to be poling a mokoro with a guide with you sitting in the back; another thing to be poling on your own. You very quickly realise how spinny that thing is even though it’s so heavy.

Two men poling a mokoro on the clear waters of the Okavango Delta in Botswana
Giraffe from a Land Rover are tall. Giraffe on foot are extraordinarily tall.
A small herd of elephants cooling themselves in the murky waters of the Okavango Delta

And a different connection to the landscape, I’d imagine – a connection to the delta.

STEVE: Yeah, and the water is crystal clear which almost brings me to the next thing that I would do – swim in the delta. It’s crystal clear water. The other thing I’d do is drink from the water. It’s been filtered by hundreds of kilometres of papyrus reeds. I’ve got a dodgy stomach and I was fine the whole way through. Obviously just check with your guide. But swim in the delta because the Okavango, even in winter, can get hot. The mornings and evenings would be cold but, towards October and November, it is boiling. October’s known as hell month and there’s nothing better than cooling off in the water.
Because there are crocodiles and hippos, find a safe area which is shallow and jump in and go for a swim. It’s a great feeling of freedom and you are nervous because, even though the guide has checked sixteen times for crocodiles and assured you, you’re still diving in with your eyes open going, ‘What happens if there is a crocodile?’ so it’s an exhilarating swim. If you throw in a beer or two while you’re lying in the water, it’s a really fun swim too.
It’s also great fun to try and look for things when you’re going out in your dugout canoe - small little things like the amazing lily trotters, the Jacana. Their nests and eggs float on the lilies and it’s worth looking out for their nests along the way. Just bird and bird and bird until you’re blue in the face. The almost mega spot, the thing that everyone wants to see and I’ve seen it a few times, is the Pel’s Fishing Owl which is this amazing brown owl which skulks in dense foliage. It’s very difficult to see, but it fishes. It’s like the owl equivalent of a Fish Eagle.
What else? Make a fire. Help the team make camp. You know, it’s one of those trips that, even though you can sit back and do nothing because you don’t have to do anything, the more you do and the more you get involved, the more you get out of it – learning how to pole a mokoro, asking questions, saying, “I want to see a Pel’s Fishing Owl”, help the guys make a fire even if you end up looking like a dunce because they’re very good at it. On our trip, it was one of the more basic trips and everything was cooked on the fire to the point of soufflés and things – it was incredible. Everything we ate was on a fire which, again, is that sort of connection and gives that expedition feeling.

Three men playfully running into the crystal clear waters of the Okavango Delta

And also that safari of olde feeling, I can imagine.

STEVE: Exactly. Companies like Wilderness Safaris were set up by people like Colin Bell who literally had a Land Rover and went and got lost with clients in what Americans call the back country – in the wilderness – and that’s the feeling you want to get. To me, the best holidays are where you escape from your everyday reality. Turn your phone off, don’t be too obsessed by taking photos – photos are great, but try and be in the experience.
The other thing that I think merges quite nicely with the mokoro experience is to walk as much as you can – and I say that about any safari. Walk and walk and walk and walk. You’ll see more from your Land Rover, it’s fun spotting game from the air, and you don’t always see that much from a mokoro but, because you’re on water, you can usually get a little bit closer (although I’m probably going to tell you one of the most important things, which is take a pair of binoculars so you don’t have to get that close) but there’s a connection with the land when you walk. You’re on the same level as elephant and lion and everything that you’re viewing. Giraffe from a Land Rover are tall. Giraffe on foot are extraordinarily tall. Elephants are huge. Your senses are awake.
I’ve never felt more alive on a walk than when we walked on Chief’s Island during an expedition. It was humming with “stuff happens here”. You can just feel it. You can see kills, you can see elephants, and that’s the thing about the Okavango – the bigger islands are just jam-packed with animals and there’s interactions happening all the time between game and, by being on foot, you don’t want to be too much part of it but you get the feeling that you are part of it. Obviously just listen to your guide. One thing that always fascinates me about the Okavango is you have this incredible inland delta which is formed by the Okavango River being pushed into the Kalahari Desert but that isn’t what actually formed the delta that we know today. What formed the delta that we know today are termites. So, long story short, termites make huge mounds. As the water floods, it washes down sediment and vegetation and stuff and that congregates around the termite mounds, so the termite mounds become almost an anchor for what eventually becomes these islands. Then a tree will grow on the sediment so now you’ve got a tree holding things together and, over time, this termite mound grows. So you have these termite mound islands linked by hippo and elephant paths. You’ll be going along in a mokoro and you’re looking and all of a sudden it just opens up on your left and there’s a path going all the way to an island which is made by an elephant and then you’ll be going down through this narrow section of paths and that’s hippo paths. So termites have almost given the structure to the delta. Hippos and elephants almost open it up and you go down those hippo and elephant paths to discover it. So, if we’re talking about what our clients should do, those are the things I would definitely look at doing, apart from all the great safari side. The place is an incredible place to see game. It’s probably on my top two or three list of wildlife destinations.

Two elephants play-fighting in the mud against a pink afternoon sky. Hippos and other animals are grazing in the distance.
If you haven’t been, you need to go

Out of interest, what would you take? What would you recommend people take - his and hers, if you don’t mind?

STEVE: Well, his and hers would probably be the same. As I said, the delta is incredibly hot, especially over summer, and it’s actually quite high above sea level. It’s 1000 metres above sea level which means that the air is thinner, so the one thing which you will do is burn, so I would definitely take a wide-brimmed hat and wear it all the time and obviously sunscreen, ultra-lightweight sun protective clothing and insect repellent and things. Because you should be going with a guide who is sensitive and doesn’t want to try and get elephants to charge you all the time and because it’s just a better experience and because you’re on mokoros and on foot, you should also take a good pair of binoculars.
On that trip, I had Swarovskis, but a good pair of 10x42 binoculars are fundamental because you’re then able to have a more intimate experience without getting too intimate with the stuff around you. You don’t want to get too close to Africa’s wildlife because it’s got teeth and tusks and weight.
If it was two must-take items, I would take a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of binoculars is actually my number one pick for any safari. And then obviously there are a whole lot of other things you can take if you go and look at our site like long-sleeved shirts and all the other stuff which we stock, but a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of binoculars would be my two things.

A man wearing a safari hat sits in a mokoro on the Okavango Delta and looks through a pair of Swarovski binoculars

Just to wrap up, any final thoughts on the Okavango?

STEVE: If you haven’t been, you need to go and, if you want to have a great experience, just going is going to be a great experience but I would suggest getting a little bit more in touch with nature and spending some time driving, walking, and in dugout canoes and look at having a raw exploration experience – an overland trip. The other great thing about it is, if you just do a lodge safari where a lot of people would do three nights here, three nights there, and then Victoria Falls – and I’m not pooh-poohing this at all and would suggest this to a lot of clients – you don’t actually have a sense of where you’ve been. For these exploration trips, there’s usually a map and you’re going from Maun through the delta, Savuti, Linyanti, Chobe, and ending up at the Chobe waterfront so you’ve done an A to B, you’ve done an overland expedition, and you can actually go and look back. Maybe take a Suunto watch or something and record your route and go and look back at the areas you’ve been on Google Earth rather than just popping into two lodges; not really sure where you are. Something which is actually a big positive is then popping over to Victoria Falls and that’s quite a nice thing about Botswana – you get an incredible wildlife experience and the option to go to Vic Falls afterwards or you could fly via Johannesburg to Mozambique if you want to go and chill on the beach.
It’s that real sense of exploration that you can get a map afterwards or make your own map of where you’ve been and you’ve got this trip of a lifetime which you can look back on.

A man in a safari hat stands on tree branch looking out of the Okavango Delta in Botswana

From above the papyrus.
Maps are great. We love them. Here is a map showing northern Botswana which is the area Steve discusses above. This is also the map from his Okavango Expedition and so by clicking on the blue waypoint markers, you will get to view images from that amazing field test.

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A safari scene with an elephant, lechwe antelope and giraffe in a savanna landscape

The Bare Necessities

The four essentials Steve would pack first for the Okavango. A good pair of 10x42 binoculars are fundamental. Being out on the water exposes you to the sun and so be sure to pack a wide-brimmed hat, sun protective clothing in technical fabric, and sunscreen. A fleece is also an essential for early mornings - even in summer.

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A man looking through a pair of binoculars
A man wearing a hat and sunglasses holds a pole he uses for steering a canoe
A man wearing a hat and sunglasses sprays sunscreen onto his arm
A man wearing a hat and fleece stares into the distance from the height of a tree

Lechwe antelope running through water in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a recommended destination by Steve Backshall

Steve's other off the beaten track safaris

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#1 Caeser & the Desert Sky: Flying & driving through the deserts of Namibia
A bottle of Australian-made Bushman Pump Spray insect repellent lying in the grass and leaves on a paddling safari in Africa
#3 The Watery Wilderness: Okavango Exploration Safaris

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