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Okavango delta

Text Kim Grové Photographs Patrick Toselli There’s nothing quite like a run-in with a pair of warthog on an airstrip to remind you that you’re in remote Africa. Their surprise appearance on the white sand is enough for the pilot to decelerate, turn the plane around and give the take-off a second attempt. This close-up encounter with the wild, I realise, is all in a day’s work for our charter flight crew from Wilderness Air Botswana, who routinely scan the rudimentary runway before every take-off and landing for any unexpected amblers. The zebra are another species that like to spend lazy afternoons basking in the rays that stretch across the open chunks of gravel. Animals are the extent of the traffic in the Okavango Delta, the vast and fascinating expanse of land that fills up with water every year when the rains gush down from Angola, between November and March, flooding the Okavango River. This is the annual rainy season which leaves the vegetation vibrantly green and heralds the migration of beautiful birdlife to the delta. We’re visiting in March, perfect timing to miss the downpours but also to catch many of the animals as they come out of hiding. A 30-minute flight north from Maun International Airport to our first camp allows us plenty of time to take in the sights. From above, the delta comprises rows of islands dotted with palm trees and lush bush, surrounded by long reeds and tinted gold by the baking sun. This natural wonder that lies in the centre of the semi-arid Kalahari Desert is home to a thriving eco-system and several opposing terrains that, despite the changing water levels, merge together seamlessly. VUMBURA PLAINS CAMP After swapping our little plane for a sturdy 4x4, we check into Vumbura Plains, a modern, luxury tented camp with 14 rooms concealed by a bushy canopy of indigenous trees. It is located in the extreme north of the delta, in a private concession alongside the Moremi Game Reserve, with majestic views of the floodplains. The main communal living areas of the camp offer ideal spots to watch the sun rise over the savanna or to survey the landscape through a pair of binoculars. But it’s in the back of the Land Rover where your one-on-one with nature really begins. The fragrant scent of wild basil and sage pervades your airways instantly as you enter the bush and, as we drive, we catch glimpses of inquisitive eyes peeking through the green foliage, an indication that the herbivores are bringing their young to feed on the new shoots brought about by the recent rains. Over the next two days, we encounter giraffe, several herds of antelope, zebra and tsessebe, and even experience the rare sight of a pack of wild dogs, their coats still painted red from a hunt – a stark reminder of nature’s cruelty. One morning we’re treated to our own private viewing of an elephant snacking on some vegetation just metres from the lodge, seemingly unperturbed by our ogling and whispers. We couldn’t be closer to nature if we tried. XIGERA CAMP From the thickets of the north we travel south by plane to our next destination, a shrouded island lodge surrounded by the rising waters of the Okavango. In fact, upon landing, you can only reach the water-based Xigera (pronounced ‘kijera’) camp by boat. While some thirstier parts of the delta have already absorbed much of the rainwater, others remain submerged all year round. At Xigera, long grasses, ferns and water lilies are the dominant flora, accommodating the ‘waterbabies’ of nature – hippos, crocodiles, large water birds, tiny amphibians and, surprisingly, elephants. The camp itself is built off the ground, on wooden decks and walkways that link the rooms and thatched dining areas. Each of the 10 khaki-green tented rooms is comfortably furnished to reflect a rustic, safari look, and has a private balcony from which to savour the mesmerising, panoramic views. In keeping with the open feel of the lodge, you also have the option of an energising alfresco shower outside your tent. At night the chefs prepare delicious African fare to enjoy beside the roaring fire, and for those who wish to stay up, there is a star deck that promises hours of crystal-clear stargazing. Sadly, I’m met with a cloudy sky when I investigate and instead listen to the enthralling sounds of different creatures calling out into the night. The enveloping channels and flowing waters that encircle us make Xigera a perfect place to test the local mode of transport, the traditional dugout canoe, or mokoro. As we glide through the reeds at dusk, the stillness amplifies every murmur. These wetlands are a playground for many birds, such as the elusive Pel’s fishing owl, African fish eagle, lilac-breasted roller, blacksmith plover, marabou stork and several kingfishers, bee-eaters and raptors. The poler carefully negotiates the maze ahead as he points to a flawless display of day-blooming water lilies, their stems sprouting up from the clear waters. We stop to observe the culprit that was making much of the noise the evening before, a nearly translucent lime-green, miniscule long reed frog, which ironically falls silent as we edge closer. We’re told that, because of the rising waters in this area and the more tropical vegetation covering the island, the animal sightings are less abundant here than at Vumbura, further north. However, on a daytime motor-boat cruise, we find exciting surprises around each corner: elephants feasting on foliage on the bank, red lechwe grazing nearby, a mother hippo adamantly protecting her calf, a few buffalo partly disguised by the swaying grasslands, and the silhouettes of giraffe at sunset. We count ourselves lucky… ABU CAMP Situated in a private reserve in the heart of the delta, Abu is home to Africa’s original elephant-back safari and a thriving elephant sanctuary. The camp is named after the legendary elephant, Abu, who belonged to conservationist Randall Jay Moore and starred in the films White Hunter Black Heart and The Power of One. Moore had a special knack for teaching elephants that were raised in circuses, zoos and the like how to survive in their natural habitats. After successfully training Abu, he brought other elephants to the camp, rehabilitating them and shaping their relationships with humans for the better. Meeting these mammoth beauties up close for the first time is equally terrifying and humbling. I hold out my hand to the eldest in the group – the matriarch, Cathy, who is in her forties and weighs more than our vehicle, parked beside her. She flaps her ears to cool down and, on encouragement from the guides, casually picks up a small stick in front of her with her trunk and hands it to me. This is the rangers’ way of introducing human newcomers to the herd and allowing the elephants to become acquainted with your scent. The trained Abu rangers share a few important guidelines: ‘Never walk directly behind an elephant’, ‘Only approach one when a guard is with you’, ‘Don’t move too quickly as you will startle them’, and - probably the most important – ‘Keep an eye out for the baby elephant at all times’. The two-month-old Warona (meaning ‘for us’ in Setswana) is a bundle of energy, but at over 200kg, you don’t want her tumbling straight into your knees at the speed that she runs. In essence, the camp is built around interaction with the elephants and learning more about their remarkable social structure. This intrinsic connection to nature can be traced indoors in the six opulently decorated luxury tents, where you’ll find objects that are a constant reminder of the outdoors. The organically designed Abu lodge combines bleached wood and khaki canvas, while the main lounge and dining areas surround an impressive ant hill that is said to be around 150 years old. The camp’s activities, however, are what really get my heart racing;  this is the only place in the delta where you can ride or walk with the elephants, an opportunity I simply can’t resist. One afternoon my fellow traveller, Patrick, and I ride the elephants back to the camp where they have their own leafy boma. With a little help from my guide, Frank, I’m hoisted onto Cathy, nicknamed the ‘limousine’ of the herd, and secure myself by putting one leg on either side of her and holding tightly onto the makeshift seat. Frank seats himself in front of me and nonchalantly chats to Cathy as we move. The ride is bumpier than expected, yet towering over most of the trees and watching Cathy’s eating rituals from above is completely surreal. As she grabs onto the acacias with her trunk and the other five elephants plod along in single file, the baby Warona weaves in between their legs, clumsily imitating their every move. Then, just as I wonder how these beings communicate, I’m startled by a vigorous vibration under my seat. Cathy utters a deep rumble as Frank looks at me with a grin. Each of the Wilderness Safaris camps offers its own distinct appeal; Vumbura Plains has its assortment of wildlife and adventure-filled game drives, Xigera its tranquil waters and solitude, and Abu its sacred elephants and the personal journey of interaction. Ultimately, the delta becomes my new ‘happy place’. Ending each day with a choir of frogs and insects as your soundtrack is too good not to relish.

Camps & packages

Wilderness Safaris camps are categorized into four levels: Premier, Classic, Adventure and Collection camps. Each group is distinguished by its accommodation, feel, and the different activities on offer. If you aren’t sure where to start, there are several excellent packages available that will show you the best that Africa has to offer. Packaged safaris are unique in that they don’t rely on scheduled departures, and having a few different guides during your trip makes the experience that much richer.

Further reading

Randall Jay Moore, Christopher Munnion and Horst Klemm’s book, Elephants for Africa (2000, Abu Publications), is a beautiful account of Moore’s journey with the special herd of elephants at Abu camp in the delta.

Getting there

House and Leisure flew courtesy of Air Botswana from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Maun International Airport in Botswana, approximately an hour-and-ahalf’s flight. airbotswana.co.bw Once in Maun, a short Wilderness Air Botswana charter flight gets you to whichever camp you are visiting in the Okavango Delta. sefofane.com/botswana.html Wilderness Safaris operates tours throughout Botswana, Congo, Kenya, Namibia, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Seychelles, offering travellers insightful trips through its unique ecotourism approach. Conservation is at the top of its list, along with various anti-poaching, wildlife research funding, sustainability and community development efforts. Wilderness Safaris is also committed to reducing its carbon footprint by using alternative energy sources such as solar power, and is spreading the word by educating its guests and staff about the effects of global warming. Visit wilderness-safaris.com. This article was originally featured in the August 2012 issue of House and Leisure.