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Botswana… Into the delta

| 07 Sep 2016

Mike and Chris Simm travelled with Cox & Kings on a tailor-made Botswana adventure, to explore the Okavango delta and its wildlife. Here is an account of their experience, as shared with friends and family back home.

flying-over-the-okavango

We arrived in Maun – the gateway to the Okavango delta – in the early afternoon, having left our hotel in Windhoek at 5am that morning. It was a day without direct flights, so we had to route via Johannesburg and pay our second visit to the international transit area. Our onward transport was by light aircraft (and I mean light!). I am not entirely comfortable flying in these small machines, and this particular version with a single fan on the front was designed to reduce me to a gibbering wreck.

Anyway, after a 30-minute flight, we arrived at our destination and transferred by water to the Xugana Island Lodge on Xugana Lagoon. Following a quick orientation trip (and a lesson in making a water lily necklace – it’s used in the process of courtship, so I didn’t need to pay too much attention), we set off for our first real activity, a trip in a mokoro. These were originally canoes made from hollowed out tree trunks, but the tourist version is made of fibre glass – it’s more difficult to get this version to deposit its contents in the water. We were poled gently through narrow waterways and across wider expanses of water full of reed-like growths, and the abiding memory is of a profound stillness, broken only occasionally by the sound of the odd bird and the sight of the vast red orb of the sun sinking slowly towards the horizon. We saw little major wildlife, but were able to inspect small creatures such as dragonflies and miniature frogs at close range. That evening we met our fellow guests – predominantly American, but with added Germans and Swedes – and shared dinner and a convivial post-prandial noggin around a log fire.

mokoro-dugout-canoe

The following morning we were woken at 5.30am for early coffee and cereal before heading out on our morning activity, a walking safari. I have long harboured doubts about the sanity of this sort of thing, but felt I’d better go along with the idea. I did play close attention to the safety briefing – the general idea is to stick close together so that other wildlife thinks you are a fairly large animal and leaves you alone. In the event that this fails, if confronted with an elephant you should leave it to the guide, but if it’s a lion you look it in the eye, raise your forefinger and in a firm voice say: “SIT!” …nope, that can’t be right. Actually, you’re supposed to give it a look that says, ‘Go on my son, try it if you think you’re hard enough’. I’m not entirely convinced that I could muster the necessary air of authority!

In any event, all went smoothly: we saw several varieties of deer, including red lechwe (antelope) for the first time, warthogs, elephants in the distance, and baboons behaving as baboons do. Following brunch and a siesta, we roused ourselves once more for a trip to Hippo Lake, which, perhaps surprisingly, is home to large numbers of hippos. Since they can weigh up to 3.5 tonnes and are bad-tempered to boot, they are another species to which it is prudent to give a wide berth. However – the task is complicated by the fact that they do not resurface where they disappear from view, but suddenly reappear snorting and blowing, sometimes worryingly close to the boat. We did spend some time watching them doing their ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ routine before moving on to Bird Island. We have seen a number of islands bearing this name in the past, many of them being occupied by a few cormorants, egrets and the odd pelican, but this one was teeming with life – at a rough estimate there must have been well over 100 birds there, including yellow-billed storks, egrets, spoonbills, sacred ibis, great white herons, grey herons and snake birds.

egret-and-yellow-billed-storks

On our final morning before moving on, we decided to go for a drive round the waterways and see what we could find. I should perhaps note at this juncture that the waterways and lakes are edged by a papyrus-like plant of some considerable height, possibly like Oscar Hammerstein’s corn, ‘as high as an elephant’s eye’ – which may not be much of a problem in Oklahoma, given the paucity of the species in that area, but it does make spotting them and indeed other large creatures a tad difficult in Africa! Travelling in the relative backwater is further complicated by the variable depth of the water, which goes from about six inches to quite deep, which can give rise to sudden deceleration in the shallow bits and cause delays in getting moving again. In the course of the morning we watched elephants crossing the waters, panic-swerved around a couple of hippos hiding submerged in the deeper bits, saw another hippo leap (okay, lumber) into a narrow waterway, setting off a minor tsunami (fortunately heading away from us), and, having narrowly avoided hitting a ginormous crocodile, we drove beside it for quite a distance as it made its way along the waterway: without exaggeration it must have been some 5-6 metres long (it would certainly have made a good few handbags).

hippo-and-crocodile

After this we had to endure another 30 minutes in a tiddly little aircraft before landing (I use the term loosely, given that we thumped down on very few of the available wheels, which is pretty uncomfortable on a bush airstrip, lacking as it does some of the comfort of the main runway at Heathrow!) at our second destination, the Kwando Reserve. We were collected by our driver and tracker, Paul and Ishmael: the tracker sits on a perch above the front wheel and outside the vehicle (I did initially wonder whether this might be a sort of safety measure in that in the event of attack he would leap off and run around waving his arms as a form of distraction while we made good our escape, but in fact this is only to enable him to inspect animal footprints and other clues – when danger threatens he gets in with the rest of us!).

We soon found ourselves off on our first wildlife drive, although the first contact, with a pod of elephants, was not entirely successful: one of them took exception to our presence and mounted a mock charge (I only know this with hindsight, since he stopped short of ramming us), trumpeting and waving his trunk in a somewhat disgruntled manner. We therefore moved swiftly on, via a hippo parked in some undergrowth – it bore evidence of a recent fight, which might have explained why it was some distance from the river – in pursuit of our main objective for the outing, a pack of African wild dogs. This is a severely endangered species, its numbers having dropped from about half a million to some 5000, caused by disease, inbreeding and the reluctance of farmers and villagers to allow their livestock to be killed for food. Our search was successful: we found a group of 21 (eight adults and 13 young) by a waterhole, and spent most of the time between discovery and sunset pursuing them across the landscape – one of the benefits of travelling in what are basically all-terrain vehicles is that you don’t have to bother sticking to whatever tracks might be around. I suspect Paul was at his happiest once we got off-track and were ploughing across the grasslands, through and around bushes. These dogs have a coat randomly patterned in black, white, gold and brown, and watching the cubs gambolling through the grass and rolling around playing with each other is a seriously ‘Ah, how sweet’ -inducing moment.

wild-dog-pack

This does, however, slightly overlook the fact that the dogs are vicious killers who, once they have caught their prey, have a regrettable tendency to start deconstructing it without the social nicety of ascertaining whether it has in fact popped its clogs. On return to base we gave Paul his orders for the following morning and, having been fed and watered, retired for the night.

The orders in question reflected the fact that while we have seen all of the Big Five in different parts of the world, one of them was missing from the Africa collection, though we had seen it in Sri Lanka. This omission was rectified about half an hour into our drive when Paul and Ishmael located a leopard. We spent some time with it at fairly close quarters as it prowled through the grass (it was a much more rewarding experience than our previous sighting, which featured a leopard lying on a branch and looking completely bored with the whole tourist thing) and only departed when it disappeared up a leafy tree.

leopard

For the rest of the drive, and indeed for the rest of the day, we revisited the wild dogs (who had managed a kill overnight), and then drove along the tracks in search of whatever nature might put in front of us. In addition to the ubiquitous elephant, where we at least got a bit of variety watching them walk across the river and emerging with a fetching two tone grey, we saw the odd giraffe (interesting but fairly useless fact: its tongue is about 40cm long), many varieties of deer (steenbok, springbok, kudu, roan, the exotically named tsessebe, and in the mid-distance, the shy eland), zebra, wildebeest and a group of African buffalo. We also came across a number of birds including a tawny eagle, kori bustards – the largest African flying bird – rollers, hornbills and the more mundane guinea fowl.

kudu-and-two-tone-elephants

And so – we finally came to our last wildlife drive, at the start of a day that would also feature three flights in increasingly larger aeroplanes and our third and final (and longest) visit to international transit in Johannesburg. For this we set off for a previously unvisited part of the reserve, and were rewarded by two entirely new sightings in addition to further views of the by now familiar usual suspects: first we found a family of spotted hyenas with the father lying down in the shade, exhibiting little interest in anything, while mother kept a watchful eye on the two cubs as they played together and examined their environment – again you need to remind yourself that these are not the sweet and cuddlesome creatures they might appear.

The second new sighting – and the icing on the cake – was a pair of young lions who had recently arrived in the area and were still feeling their way in terms of relations with the existing prides. They were, however, clearly tourist-trained since they spent some considerable time posing photogenically on top of a termite mound before strolling off for an early morning ramble.

Young-Lions

Thus our time in the wild came to an end; looking back over other wildlife experiences I think it was probably the best we have had in terms of the variety of species and of environment. It could not match the grandeur and wide open spaces of the Masai Mara, but the waterways have a unique attraction of their own, and the Kwando landscape, while slightly arid in parts, again offers scenic variety rather than a single setting.

All in all, a great experience.

Before their tailor-made holiday to Botswana, Mike and Chris were in Namibia – read about their experience here >

Mike and Chris Simm created their own bespoke holiday to Botswana in conjunction with our Africa experts. For more information, call 020 7873 5000 to speak to an Africa tour consultant, or visit the website to see the full range of holidays to Botswana.

Most images in this article are courtesy of Chris Simm.



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