The Best Experience in the Okavango Delta
Sometimes life gets the better of us and all we seem to do is wake up, go to work, eat, sleep and repeat, day after day. We never stop to take a moment to realize the patterns we are creating for ourselves, it all just becomes part of the routine and the norm of how things must happen. This is of course, until you are given the opportunity to travel, or should I rather say, an opportunity to embark on a journey; a journey which means more than just the stamp in your passport and a tick off the bucket list.
I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to travel to the Okavango Delta, Botswana in May this year, for what at the time, appeared to be a bit of a whirlwind 4 day trip. Marked as the 1000th UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, the Okavango Delta delivered on more than just 4 days of travel, it was a journey of discovery both professionally and personally.
Our journey began in Durban where we had attended the Tourism Indaba, and after a short one hour flight to Johannesburg, I found myself at the Air Botswana check-in counter. I met up with seven of Nomad’s travel agents and operators who had come along to get a better understanding of Nomad’s new Okavango Delta experience.
We huddled excitedly at the check-in counter, boarding passes and carrots in hand. (The story of the most well travelled 2kgs of carrots is a story for another time, but rest assured, carrots are allowed as hand luggage on a Johannesburg to Maun flight and are not regarded as “dangerous” items). The two hour flight to Maun passed quickly and it was only once we touched down that the reality of the experience unfurled.
I was last in Maun eight years ago on my maiden Nomad tour and since then, time has stood still for this tourist gateway airport. The passport control zone is no bigger than your average size home garage and while we queued, I could not help but have a giggle at the sight of the airport crew personally carrying our luggage inside, off the tarmac and promptly placing the bags on the floor behind the passport control zone, no need for a conveyor belt or cargo containers in Maun. Within minutes of passing through into Botswana, we were greeted by the staff of Major Blue, the local charter airline who would fly us safely into the heart of the Okavango Delta.
Our flight path took us directly over the length of the Delta, heading north out of Maun. The pilot made mention of the fact that he was flying at an altitude of around 600ft, to afford us the best “game-viewing” opportunity from the air and we were not disappointed! Giraffe, elephant and even a lone rhino were all spotted during our 40 minute flight. Upon landing at the Xarakai airstrip, we were greeted by our Fallen Baobab staff, our bags were packed into the open topped 4×4 safari vehicle and we set off on a game drive to our first camp.
During our 2.5 hour game drive, we encountered numerous bird species; I am rather embarrassed to admit that the only bird I can identify is the African Fish Eagle. We saw big birds, medium birds, brown birds, red beaked birds, as well as a range of successfully identified birds that my esteemed travel companions and our guides were able to point out. Various antelope posed beautifully for us just before we had our first encounter with a herd of elephants. It is difficult to describe the moment, the combination of the sweet aromas of the terrain, the noises of the wildlife in the bush, the soft warm breeze on my face, and if I close my eyes and picture it, I am transported right back to this special place.
As we pulled up at our camp, Fallen Baobab, the sound of beautiful African voices filled the air with “We welcome you”, a unique song created especially for us. Not only were we greeted with the soulful welcome song, but refreshing hand towels and a welcome drink were also generously offered. Our group was chirpy as we settled into camp with exclamations of “wow”, “man that’s gorgeous”, “jeez, look at that view” and a few other descriptive statements which although very positive, are not appropriate content for this blog,
Once we had settled into our Meru style tents (built on mobile platforms, and all en-suite), we gathered around the fire, drinks in hand and relived our adventures of the day. As the sun disappeared below the horizon and the sky turned all shades of pink, red and orange, we gazed on at the sheer beauty of the magic that was being created around us. The grunts of nearby hippos, trumpeting of elephants and the deep roar of the lion filled the air, interrupted only by the night time chatter of birds and crickets. This was the point where the work trip had become my soul journey.
Dinner was followed by an entertaining display of carefully “self-scripted” stories from the camp staff, which had us all entranced with their personal and passionate songs and dance, before encouraging us to join in on the festivities and share a song of our own. As the night became darker, the intensity of the wildlife and the sounds around us grew – lions seemed closer and the hippos, louder. Our first day in the bush had ended on a high and after being escorted to our tents by our guides, we snuggled up and fell asleep to the sounds the wild.
My phone alarm woke me early, but it would have been a crime to have hit the snooze button. As I opened my eyes to glance at the time, my eye caught the red glow of the morning sky. In one swift move I got up, dressed and went to stand on my deck and marvel at the sunrise.
We all gathered for a quick bite to eat and a mug or two of coffee, before being briefed by our head poler and guide (KBCee) about our first mokoro excursion. Like the animals going into Noah’s ark, we scrambled into our mokoros two-by-two. Our expert polers guided us as we set off, following the sunrise down the waterways of the Okavango.
This is a good time to mention that I am terrified of elephants. I respect the wild and realize that we are in their territory and they are much bigger than me and my mokoro. Nevertheless, there we were, cruising the waterways, admiring the various frogs clinging to the reeds, the water lilies in bloom and the sound of a waterfall in the surrounding bushes. What? The sound of a waterfall? Mmm… that’s not possible, the Delta is flat, it’s flat all around us! I turned to my poler and whispered “what’s that noise?”… “ELEPHANTS” he whispers back, “of course it’s elephants” I mumble to my nervous self. The waterfall sound got louder and soon the herd of elephants emerged from behind the tall reeds. They were en-route to the water for their morning bath, which happened to be the very spot we had just poled from, approximately 100m from us now. There they were, frolicking, splashing and playing in the water. Within seconds they picked up our scent and with fierce trumpeting and hysteria, the herd scrambled out of the water and within a flash had disappeared into the bushes – without a trace or any further sound. Did that really just happen? It was all far too surreal, yet oh so very real!
The relaxing mokoro trip lasted approximately three hours and on arrival back at Fallen Baobab, a delicious lunch was prepared and gobbled down. It was during this lunch that we realised we had been in the Okavango Delta for less than 24 hours, however the magnitude of what we had experienced, the sights we had seen and the emotions we all felt, were those of a lifetime. As we were on our “secret agent” visit (site inspection), we departed from Fallen Baobab and headed out to our second camp, Kana Kara. The beauty of the way the camps are laid out, is that no time is wasted on transfers between the properties, as each journey is an experience in itself. We into our open topped 4×4 game vehicle and headed off into the bush on our second game drive. Again, we were spoilt with sightings of antelope, elephants and birds.
Kana Kara is situated on an island and to get there we took a five minute mokoro ride to the camp entrance. As our mokoros glided through the still clear waters, the sounds of “We welcome you” echoed in the distance. In true Delta spirit, there were the beautiful faces and voices of the Kana Kara staff, singing and dancing and welcoming us to their camp with warm face towels and a welcome drink. Kana Kara is regarded as the most “wild” of the camps, and I am not referring to the facilities, it’s the fact that there are two resident prides of lions in the area, a den of wild dogs and recent sightings of leopard and cheetah have been recorded. Elephants and hippos also casually stroll around in front of the tents on a regular basis.
The briefing from our camp manager Jonathan was simple but effective and highlighted the importance of us not wandering off on our own, and being vigilant about our surroundings. We spent the afternoon chilling out in our mokoro before heading off for sundowners on a nearby island. The sunset on this particular day is a sunset that will forever be embedded in my memory – the colours, smells, sounds and of course the company surrounding me has been deposited in my memory bank – a fixed deposit is how I see it! New and firm friendships were formed as we bonded and were swept away by the beauty of the evening.
Arriving back at camp, the sounds of the wildlife continued to fill the air, almost as if it was a continuation from the previous night. Our accommodation was once again in beautifully decorated en-suite meru tents. If it was not for our canvas walls and our “door” that had a zipper sounding noise when being opened (yes yes, it was a zip, it’s a tent after all!), I would have thought that I was in a room in any upmarket hotel – but what made this so special was that I wasn’t in some big city, and the sounds surrounding us were not from cars and trucks hooting at pedestrians jay-walking, no, my room was filled with those magnificent sounds of lions, elephants, hippo’s and birds.
And with that, night two came to an end, only just over 24 hours of being in the Delta and it already felt that I had been there for days on end. Not once did I have the urge to check my Facebook or Whatsapp, the only reason I kept my phone charged was to take pictures and set an alarm (although I did have a separate camera and the camp staff did come around and wake us up).
Rise and shine on day three was early, with delicious filter coffee, simple fire toasted bread and a selection of cereals for breakfast, we headed off towards camp number three, Jumbo Junction. Although we were not staying there, it was important to go and view the facilities and experience the vibe of the camp used for our “camping” travellers. The journey to Jumbo Junction consisted of a 1.5 hour game drive and a 30 minute speed boat trip. On arrival at Jumbo Junction, “We welcome you” again echoed through the warm inviting Delta air, fresh hand towels were offered to wipe away the dust from our adventures and a welcome to the boma bar for an ice-cold refreshing beer.
Jumbo Junction is best described as the first option for the budget conscious traveller who wants to experience the Delta, but is doing so on a shoestring. The facilities are top class, with a huge open sided thatched roofed dining and entertainment area, fully stocked bar, pre-erected dome tents (including camp beds and mattresses). Ablutions are newly erected and offer hot water, flushing toilets and pretty much everything to keep you comfortable without having to rough it in the middle of nowhere. As we were only at Jumbo Junction for a limited time, we had enough time for a quick mokoro ride to hippo pools – and while we had heard numerous hippos the previous two nights, we were yet to actually see these magnificent creatures. We were not disappointed and were treated to a “peep” show with two mating hippos; that was definitely a first for me!
After a refreshing beer back at camp, we boarded our speedboat and headed back to Kana Kara, where we would be spending our final night, but not before our 4×4 game drive ‘transfer” for us to reach Kana Kara. Back at camp, the group prepared for a nature walk where they would learn all about the bush, from identifying spoor to how to look out for poacher’s traps. I chose to stay behind at the camp, my fear of elephants got the better of me and I thought it best to let my fellow travellers enjoy the experience without a nervous ball of panic besides them.
As the camps (both Fallen Baobab and Kana Kara) are not fenced, the animals are free to roam pretty much where they want and rightfully so, it’s their home. It was something unreal and uniquely special in the evenings to hear your guide tell you that five minutes earlier an elephant (of course) was standing 20m from your tent, while walking you to your tent. While listening to this story, you could hear the lions roar on the next island, coming closer and closer as night falls.
Our final day and it just didn’t seem right to be going home, but at the same time felt like we had been away from reality for weeks. I could sense a bit of PDD “Post Delta Depression” settling in and the moans and groans of not wanting to go home, why did it have to end? Our game drive back to the airstrip took us four hours as we chose to rise super early and head out just before sunrise in search of the lions that we had been hearing the previous three nights. We wanted to make the most of our last day and with our final safari, we were not disappointed. We were treated to a huge variety of animals, buck, little birds, warthog, zebra, giraffe, red-beaked birds, sable, big birds, elephants, brown birds and a few creepy crawlies.
As we approached the airstrip, we waved to a herd of elephants that had come to say goodbye to us, we boarded our plane and told the Delta we’d be back. A most special place which now holds a piece of my heart.
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