On the Wild Side
Botswana's wildlife is the basis of its considerable tourism industry. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Khutse Game Reserve and the Mabuasehube Game Reserve are remote reserves in the Kalahari. The National Gemsbok Park, also deep in the Kalahari, is contiguous with the Kalahari Gemsbok Park in South Africa. Most of the active adventures in Botswana, though, are centered on the Okavango Delta or the Makgadikgadi Pans.
The government has made a policy decision to aim for low-density, high-cost tourism, so nothing in Botswana is cheap, but the experience is worth the cost. Botswana is best known for the Okavango Delta and the delta is best known for mokoro safaris. A mokoro (plural mekoro) is a traditional dugout canoe and is the most efficient way of getting around the delta when it is flooded.
The Okavango Delta was formed aeons ago when the Okavango River, which rises in the highlands of Angola, ran across a shallow rift valley, which may be a western extension of the Great African Rift Valley. The valley has, over the ages, filled with windblown and waterborne sediment and is now almost impossible to discern. The river flows slowly into the valley and then backs up against the far fault line, forming an inland delta of about 13,000 km2.
The flood, as it is locally called, usually arrives about June or July when the water spreads out to form countless pools, channels and lagoons. Waterlilies bloom on the surface and countless aquatic creatures, ranging in size from frogs to hippos, frolic in the crystal clear water. The surrounding area is dry, so many species of game congregate in this huge, verdant oasis, spending most of their time on the many islands or the sand tongues, which are long spits of higher land that do not flood.
A leisurely float along the limpid channels between colorful waterlilies, towering palms and bright green banks of papyrus, interspersed with short game-viewing walks on the islands, is an experience of a lifetime. The silence is like nothing else and you could imagine yourself part of the first community on earth as you watch a typically bright orange Delta sunset.
Mokoro trips are operated in the flood season, from about June to September in the seasonally flooded areas and all year in the permanently flooded areas near the top of the delta.
Okavango Mokoro Safaris
There are a number of different companies operating these trips. Other than the Island Safaris trip described below, these will start with a flight from Maun to the delta in a light plane. The flight is a good game-viewing experience in itself as you get a chance to see game from the air, and also to get an impression of the complexity of the channels and lagoons. From the airstrip you will be transferred to camp, usually by vehicle. After being settled in, fed and briefed, you will have a good night's sleep in a comfortable safari tent or reed chalet and then start your mokoro trip the next morning. This may be a multi-day excursion or just a series of short trips from your luxurious camp. It is quite tough deciding which company to travel with; there are many and they all offer excellent service. Walking and vehicle-based safaris are usually a part of the package.
Oddballs stands out from the crowd only in that it concentrates on making the deep delta experience a little more affordable. It is close to Moremi and Chief's Island, which is an excellent area for game. Oddballs is not a full-service, luxury camp. Just for starters, you walk from the airstrip to camp (only about 20 minutes, and you should see some game). You may bring your own tent and camp, or you may rent a tent. Although they have a kitchen and do meals, you can bring your own food if you like. Ablutions consist of hot showers and flush toilets and are communal, except for the treehouse and the two four-bedded chalets, which have their own ablutions. You need to bring your own soap, towels and sleeping bags. Their mokoro trips are excellent and you save money by erecting your own tent and cooking your own food. You can choose not to enter Moremi, in which case you will save the considerable park fees and probably still see good game, but one day in the park might be worth the expense. Because of its price structure, Oddballs tends to attract a younger, more sociable crowd.
Booking is essential and is through Okavango Tours and Safaris.
Okavango Delta Participation Safaris
The first night is spent at Island Safari Lodge, just outside Maun. You are then transferred to the delta, either by four-wheel-drive vehicle, motorboat or a combination of the two. You then spend the next two days doing game walks and being poled about in your mokoro by your guide/polar. You are not waited on hand and foot on this trip. You put up your own tents, help to cook and clean up afterwards and generally look after yourself. Your guide is there to ensure your safety and to point out and interpret various aspects of the environment. You do not enter the Moremi Game Reserve on this trip, as the fees are very high. The reserve is not fenced, though, and the animals are not particularly concerned about such niceties. Your chances of seeing game are therefore pretty good.
This trip is run by Island Safari Lodge and booking is essential. They also run luxury trips, at a somewhat higher price.
This trip is run from Xudum Camp, deep in the delta. You fly in from Maun, are met at the airstrip and are transferred to the rather luxurious, but very rustic, Xudum Camp. You are accommodated in huge safari tents on platforms and your en suite bathroom has a hot shower and a flush toilet.
You are driven to a spot near the elephant camp and are escorted on foot to meet the three trained African elephants: Moremi, Thembe and Jabu. After a short briefing, you wander off into the bush in the company of the elephants while your knowledgeable guides explain what they are doing and why. By the end of the day, you will have a deeper understanding of elephant physiology and behavior. Riding the elephants is a small part of the safari, as you learn more on the ground and if for some reason the guide considers it unsafe to ride, you won't. This is unlikely and will only happen if the elephants, which are very sensitive, intelligent creatures, are feeling a bit off color or have taken a dislike to you. This is a very luxurious, full-service trip. The minimum stay at Xudum is three days and you can spend the others going out in a mokoro, walking or doing game drives.
This trip is run from the beginning of March to the middle of December. Booking is essential and is through the Legendary Adventure Company. Another elephant trip is run by Elephant Back Safaris from Abu Camp.
Walking Safaris from Xudum
After being flown into the delta from Maun, you are met by your ranger and expert river Bushman tracker and are transferred to Xudum. After a briefing and light refreshments you set off for your first overnight camp, or you may choose to spend the first night at Xudum.
You are supplied with a daypack in which you carry water, a few snacks (all supplied) binoculars, camera, bird book and other necessities. The walk is across the islands and floodplains in the dry season and across the islands in the flood season. In the flood season you cross the lagoons by canoe, which you paddle yourself. After a long day's walk during which you are likely to see much game, such as zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe and others, you arrive at your overnight camp. The camps each have their own character but they are all quite rustic and set on islands with a view over the lagoons or, in the dry season, the floodplains. They consist of tents or raised, covered sleeping platforms, each sleeping two people in beds with all bedding and mosquito nets. The ablutions are mostly communal and consist of a pit toilet and bucket shower.
Like any walking safari, the main advantage of this trip, apart from the excellent game-viewing opportunities, is the extent to which you can study the minute aspects of the environment. Your guide and tracker are both very knowledgeable and, if encouraged, can wax lyrical about the plants, animals and physical structures of the delta.
This trip is run from the beginning of March to the middle of December and is subject to a minimum stay of three days. Booking is essential and is through the Legendary Adventure Company.
While in the Area: Another very exciting way to experience the wildlife of the delta is from the back of a horse. While in the Okavango Delta you may fish, although the fishing is better higher upstream in the Panhandle.
Quad Bike Safari
The Makgadikgadi Pans are a vast, game-filled expanse of flat seasonally inundated land. When they fill with water after the rains they host countless migratory birds, most notably huge flocks of flamingoes and other waders. After the water has dried up, the birds leave and the game returns. It takes a while for the surface of the pans to harden sufficiently for them to support motor vehicles. Quad bikes, which are much lighter than conventional safari vehicles and have wide tires, are the ideal vehicle for exploring this unique environment, especially as they do not leave deep tracks like a conventional four-wheel-drive vehicle. The trips are run from the rather luxurious Jack's Camp.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication