Unlike almost every other river on Earth, the Okavango river does not encounter any sea or ocean on its 1430 kilometre journey from its source in the hills of central Angola to where it spills into a vast wetlands even further inland in northern Botswana. Around 97% of the Okavango waters evaporate in the delta and are replenished by annual rainfalls in the Angolan uplands and further south in Botswana. The Delta’s wetlands swell to around 28,000 square kilometres – all this in the heart of the bone-dry Kalahari Desert. The floods, which handily occur during the dry season, attract migrating wildlife from far afield, including elephants and zebra from Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
(One researcher tells me that elephants in Zambia are evolving shorter, stumpier tusks because those with bigger tusks have been poached, leaving shorter tusked animals to continue the gene line. He is carrying out genetic research on Zambian elephants to prove his theory. But, a wildlife expert I spoke to in Botswana, tells me this is nonsense. He says that the length of an elephant’s tusks depends on the mineral content of the soils it eats. Poor soils mean shorter tusks. I’m inclined to go with this latter theory, even though the first guy has a phd in elephant genetics!)
The delta is beautiful and lush, in part because of the plentiful rains that are also watering our tent. Yes, the cheap tent we bought in Jo’burg has proved to be leaky and all three poles have now broken beyond even Nick’s gaffa tape efforts. Finding a replacement is a tedious task, involving driving around the delta’s biggest town, Maun. It’s an odd place that’s sprung up from a trading post to service the tourist dollar. While Nick attempts to find a midway between a $50 piece of flimsy polyester and a $500 luxury canvas heavyweight, I get chatting to some of the local tribeswomen. I meet Suzanne, a 45-year-old Herero woman, whose family emigrated here from Namibia following German persecution earlier in the 20th century. She wears the typical triangular headscarf of her tribe, which is flat at the front, pirate style, around a rolled-up newspaper. Suzanne makes 5 scarves in one sitting, which will last her a few days – and then she can always have something to read on the loo, I guess. Her sleeved dress, with a bustle and puffed sleeves, is also typical for her tribe – it’s fashioned on the 19th century Victorian dresses that were all the rage when white women first appeared on Namibia’s shores, and looks strange in northern Botswana in the 21st century, but strangely stylish also.
We make do with the scrap of polyester – there’s no in between apparently – and head for our camp on the riverbank. The night begins with the usual frog chorus – more of a rowdy chanting crowd, actually – and our sleep is interrupted with hippo grunts and water splashing on us from the new leaky tent.
In the morning, we head far into the delta on first a speed boat and then a mokoro – a traditional dugout made from the trunk of a sausage tree, or, more commonly nowadays, fibreglass, as the government tries to protect the vanishing trees from destruction. Nick gets stuck into cutting logs and preparing a fire (using elephant dung as a great tinder), while I tease the baboons. Then, our guide, Setsani, takes us bush walking on Chief’s Island. If you want to know how an impala or dikdik feels when walking across open savannah with lions all around, I recommend a bush walk in the Okavango. Luckily, we weren’t dinner and all we saw was a tortoise and a few antelope. We heard plenty of lions though.
Setsani is a fantastic guide – he answers all our wildlife questions with ease, points out the footprints and deduces direction of travel of every animal and can recognise and mimic all their calls. All this and yet he can’t read or write in any of the seven languages he speaks.
Setsani’s uncle was killed by one last year, when he went to fix a problem with the generator at a luxury lodge here. A lion sprung at him. His cousin was killed by a hippo a few months later, when his mekolo accidentally bumped into one in the grasslands.
I gulp at this information during the next day’s mekolo ride. We encounter an elephant taking his bath, who looks lovely, until he begins to charge at us. “Quick, make the boat go faster,” I shout at our poor poler. He tells me, it’s only a teenage elephant showing off – he’s only about 45-years-old, don’t worry, I’m told. Elephants are less dangerous than hippos or crocs, because they give you a warning first, we’re told. The first charge is a scare tactic, the second is a proper warning, and the third – well, you’d best get running. And if an elephant does charge, climbing a tree won’t save you, the elephant will just pull it down. The only way out, we’re told, is to throw your hat down and flee while he/she is engrossed in the hat. I make a mental note to always travel elephant territory with a hat on.
We survive our stay in the beautiful delta – although whether the delta will survive is another question. Climate change is shrinking this vital desert watering hole yearly, with evaporation rates increasing and precipitation decreasing. Countless species of animals depend on this water source – there are 162 arachnid species alone.
We spend one more night on the banks of the river, during which time our campsite is hit by a gang of thieves. Everybody’s tent bar ours is slashed and laptops, money, passports and other valuables stolen. Angolans are blamed, although I don’t know on what basis. We escaped perhaps because I went to bed early and the thieves saw me in there, or because our tent looked too crap, or because they were disturbed. Who knows. Our friends lost their camera with all their holiday snaps, money and their credit cards. We feel lucky.