Over landing Africa is an amazing, and often challenging way to travel. Spending the time to drive the arduous route from Nairobi through Tanzania, following the lake in Malawi before veering SW into Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Continuing through arid Namibia and finally reaching South Africa you will travel thousands of miles on a trip that takes several months to do properly and, even then, you feel as though you missed a lot.
One of our favorite places along the route was the time we spent camping in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. One of the least populated countries on earth, it is also extremely flat with over 70% of the land taken up by the Kalahari Desert. Rather ironic, then, that in this same country also exists the amazing wetlands of the Okavango Delta.
The Delta is an enormous, inland delta, where the Okavango River reaches the lower basin of the Kalahari. Each year approximately 11,000 cubic kilometers of water cover the 6000-15,000 square kilometer area, the variance in size changing with the season.
We began our journey into the Delta with some wildlife viewing in Maun, the largest town in the North of the country, before heading by mokoro, the rustic hand dug boats most often used in the Delta. Our guides lazily poled us through the reeds for almost two hours in what proved to be just an extraordinary moment in time. The sun beat down on us gently, while the water was so clear we could make out the water flowers and reeds several feet below. We reclined against our backpacks, taking in the scene around us but rarely speaking. We had been on the road long enough to truly appreciate the serenity of that moment. The silence throughout much of the trip created an oasis of calmness, punctuated occasionally by the polers chatting amongst themselves.
We had free camped in other areas on our overland, but this would be a bit more dangerous with no Masai to guard our camp at night and a large hippo population that was extremely territorial. We were to spend two nights camping on an “island”, basically an area high enough to not be covered by the waters. Tents were set up in very close proximity to our fellow travelers to protect against whatever forms of wildlife might consider coming a bit too close for comfort.
Mornings were spent on walking safaris with a local guide, searching out zebra, wildebeests and the occasional big cat. Dozens of varieties of exotic birds trilled out their various tunes as we walked, enjoying the relative solitude of only being surrounded by a dozen other travelers. With our polers watching guard we braved a chilly swim in the water right off shore of camp, ever vigilant in our look out for angry hippos.
Each evening at sunset we boarded our mokoros and headed to the main hippo pool to get as close to these massive beasts as safely possible. I have been fascinated by hippos since our first trip to Africa, curious how such enormous, unwieldy creatures on land could move so gracefully through the water.
We were advised each evening to all take our bathroom breaks at around the same time and then remain safely within the circle of tents. Hippos come on shore each evening to feed and getting between a hippo and the water is almost always a fatal mistake for the unfortunate human. Of course, true to form, I ended up urgently needing to use the bathroom hole in the middle of the night. Jim, not a stupid man, merely gave me the advice of watching out for wild animals, and watched me step out of the tent. My heart was in my throat with each step I inched forward, peering into the darkness and wincing at every sound surrounding me. As the sound of branches being bent became obvious, I have never done my business so quickly before scurrying back to my tent, letting out an enormous breath of relief at not dying in the delta!
We awoke in the morning to pack up and head back to Maun to discover the enormous prints of hippos all around the side of the camp where I had been the night before. My heart beat faster once again, realizing how close I might have come to having my tiny tanks, as Jim likes to say, be the end of me!
A final mokoro trip back to town was bittersweet. As wonderful as our time removed from the bustle of Africa, we were also ready to get back on the road and find our next adventure.