Deep in the Okavango Delta

Trip Start Jul 24, 2006
Trip End Oct 28, 2006

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Monday, September 18, 2006

A short busride from Kasane and we landed in Maun. We had heard lots about Maun from Chrissy and Josh, who couldn't stop raving about the place. We used it as our put in point for our trip to the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO classified world heritage site made up thousands of acres of swamp. But we aren't talking about a muddy swampland, but a swamp where the water is so pure and clear that you can drink it directly out of the river as you canoe.

We had gotten a good reference from our fellow rafters in Vic Falls about an excellent company - good guides for cheap! So we gave Drifters a call, and five minutes later we had set up our flight for the next morning out to the Inner Delta where we spend three days in a tented camp.

The next morning, we took our small aircraft captained by a British pilot, who had simply decided one day to quit his job and come fly in Botswana, to Baobab Island. We were the only two passengers on the plane and were the only two staying at the camp for all four days. It was a bit scary as the plane took off on the bumpy airstrip, but once we were up in the air, we had a fantastic view - we could watch herds of elephants bathing in the pools and giraffes running across the plains, like any opening in a good movie about Africa.

We were met by our guide, Lesh, who is probably the most knowledgeable guide in the business. The man could identify a blue crane hiding in the grass reeds 400 meters away, while we were struggling to see it in our binoculars. He could talk your ear off about baobab trees just as long as he could talk about the breeding habits of caracal cats and could faithfully imitate the different calls (mating, hunger, anger, etc) of mammals as well as those of bird. Our first encounter with the Okavango wildlife took place about 2 km from the isolated airstrip (nothing more than a narrow dirt road) where we touched down, when Lesh suddenly stopped the jeep short. Lions, he said. We looked around blankly. Then he pointed to a spot not 5 meters away from the truck. A full grown male lion was lying tranquilly in the grass. Behind him, 4 females and a young male were also lazing about in the shade. Lesh warned us that we shouldn't stand up or talk loudly or jump out of the vehicle to get on top of the lion's back, as Philippe had asked hopefully. But at that point, we were so impressed by the lions' size and silent assurance that following the instructions was quite easy.

Lesh took us about 10 km in the jeep before we hopped into our first mokoro, or dug-out canoe, though these days because they have so much tourism in the area, the government has forbidden tour companies to use real wooden trunks for the canoes in order to limit the damage done to the okavango tree population, so our canoe was the same shape but made out of plastic. Lesh then poled us the rest of the way to the Baobab Island, through narrow passages within the papyrus reeds, and across large open swamp areas where a huge population of marabou had settled down for mating season. He explained that Baobab Island is in the middle of several deep river passages, which reduces the number of wild animals that can come to visit - while lions may try to take the plunge, leopards and smaller cats generally do not. Elephants, giraffes, kudus, and other larger species however can swim through the passages so those were the animals we could expect to give us a visit. And of course, this was home to many hippos and crocodiles, though thankfully hippos confine themselves to small pools hidden in the middle of papyrus groves during the day and only come out at night. Otherwise, the risk posed to mokoros would be too great - you did not want to surprise a hippo in one of these narrow passages, apparently, we would have no chance against those big mouths. However, they will let you know that they are there by letting out a loud laugh when you pole by.

We made it to our island with no hippo encounter, and settled into our tent which enjoyed the shade of a huge sausage tree. It was mid-day, too hot for animals, so we were to have a rest until 4 in the afternoon when we would go on our first game walk. But just as we were finishing up lunch, we heard the sounds of huge feet splashing in the water. A few minutes later, Lesh pointed a finger into the trees and said, "he's coming." All of a sudden, a huge bull elephant came into view. Lesh positioned us in the camping ground and told us to wait as the elephant would pass just in front of us. And then, there he was. Pulling up small palm trees with his trunk to eat the roots, sucking up palm nuts that were lying on the ground, minding his business as though nobody else were standing just meters away. Needless to say, its a real thrill to be so close to such a huge beast.

The next day, we had a similar experience, only Lesh had gone to the other side of the camp. So Philippe and i were alone in the camp when two mama elephants and two babies decided to come through and say hello. We were acting calm and harldy moving as we had learned the day before, and were just watching as one of the mamas coming closer and closer. We couldn't believe how close we were, and I told Philippe how no one would believe it when we wrote in the travelog that we were alone in the camp with an elephant just 10 meters away. He said, not 10 meters, 20. I said no, 10. He insisted on 20. Since we were both intransigent on the issue, he decided to pace out 10 meters across the camp (in the opposite way of the elephant) in order to compare. However, in our dispute, we had forgotten the golden rule of animal viewing - don't move too much. As Philippe paced, the elephant took notice, and got uncomfortable. And just when he came back to where I was standing, she looked at us, flapped her ears, and made a mock charge. Philippe kept cool, not moving and slowly moving to sit down, while I started frantically looking around for Lesh. As usual, he had spotted the elephant from the other side of the island, so he was there by the time she mock charged. After the mock charge, she settled back into browsing, and soon after left to join the rest of the group with the babies.

The rest of the days consisted of fantastic game walks, swimming in the hippo-free pools, poling lessons, animal tracking, and one evening when we poled out to a hippo pool to wake them up from their daytime naps. It was a fabulous experience, and weren't ready to leave when the airplane came back to pick us up!
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