Mekoro on the Okavango Delta
We departed Namibia February 9th for a week exploring Botswana, the Okavango Delta, and Chobe National Park. Thankfully the Namibia to Botswana border crossing went smoothly. As we crossed into Botswana our African guides reminded us of two local rules:
Carmine Bee Eater
We spent the night in Ghanzi – a small town in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Called the “capital of the Kalahari” Ghanzi is known for its cattle farms and a “conglomeration of ethnic groups”. The San and Bakgalagadi were Ghanzi’s original inhabitants. In the late 1800s the Herero, Batawana, and others settled in the area.
Ghanzi villagers maintain an abundance of cattle, donkeys, and sheep, all affected by serious drought in the area over the past several years. Their animals graze along the roadside and at times on the roads! Driving in the area is tricky with the government imposing a severe punishment for injuring animals.
Botswana is socially conscious and invests in the education and healthcare of its people. The country doesn’t have the racial issues of many other African countries. The Botswana government uses a form of ecotourism – “high income and low impact tourism”. They charge more than adjacent African countries prohibiting some travelers from visiting Botswana, and thereby reducing the number of tourists entering the country. Luxury safari camps are common but more basic accommodations are comfortable as well.
Botswana won independence from Britain in 1966. Today it’s a politically stable country with the greatest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana’s diamond mines are the richest and most abundant in the world.
Botswana’s highest producing diamond mines exist on volcanic kimberlite pipes composed of a rare type of rock formed millions of years ago. During volcanic eruptions plumes of magma pushed up tearing off chunks of diamond-containing rocks depositing them near the surface of the earth.
During our first evening in Botswana, we enjoyed a special treat – traditional tribal dancing performed by the local San community. Previously known as “Bushmen”, the mellow San are indigenous to Southern Africa. They have resided in the area for over 30,000 years and survive in the harsh desert environment by living peacefully in harmony with nature.
Okavango Safari Lodges
“The word ‘San’ was believed to mean ‘wild people who cannot farm’. Historically the San did not have a word for themselves. Today they call themselves ‘Ncoakhoe’ meaning ‘red people’. The San were hunter gatherers roaming to find food and water. There are about 55,000 San left in the world and sixty percent of them live in Botswana. The others live in Namibia and northern South Africa where their interesting cave paintings are abundant.”
After arriving in Ghanzi, San Bushmen took us hiking in the Kalahari. They shared ancient survival methods and secrets of how insects, animals, and humans live in the desert. Later that night they danced for us by campfire in the moonlight.
Glowing Delta Tree
The Okavango Delta
The next morning we headed for Maun – the third largest city in Botswana. Maun is known as the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The name comes from the San word “maung”, which translates “the place of short reeds”. After an overnight in Maun we boarded small airplanes that flew low over the Delta to a safari camp – our home for the next two days.
To comply with luggage safety restrictions in the small airplanes we packed lightly leaving most of our electronics and valuables locked inside the safari truck. Our guides stayed behind and waited for us in Maun.
Delta from Airplane
Okavango Delta from Airplane
Delta from Airplane
“Eons ago, the Okavango River flowed into a massive lake named Lake Makgadikgadi and now known as the Makgadikgadi Pans. Tectonic activity disturbed the river’s currents causing a backup that created the Okavango Delta. The Delta forms a complex network of over 5,000 sq. miles of waterways that sustain a large variety of flora and fauna.”
In the Delta
The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s best locations for game viewing. Massive numbers of large mammals live in and around the Delta where prey and predators are forced together in the floodplains. Lion, elephant, hyena, buffalo, hippo, and crocodile gather with antelope and smaller animals such as warthog, mongoose, baboon, and bush baby.
The Delta is also home to the endangered African Wild Dog with one of the richest pack densities in Africa. Many animals pass through the Delta during their summer migration. When the countryside dries up in winter, they cross the Delta again on the way home.
Okavango Delta Pond
After lunch at our camp – Fallen Baobab – we enjoyed a game drive and nature walk with a local expert. Hundreds of bird species live in the Okavango Delta. Brilliantly colored Carmine Bee Eaters welcomed us by following the safari vehicle. Much to our delight, they flew low and close to the jeep “buzzing” us on both sides!
Under a Baobab
That afternoon guides took us on a boat trip in traditional dug-out canoes called Mekoros. Skillful African polers navigated through narrow fragrant waterways strewn with waterlilies. We lavished in the magnificent environment while taking photos and sharing the scenery with birds and hippos sunning in reed-covered water. It was an idyllic day. After dinner, we retired early and fell asleep to the sound of African night birds, elephants, and lions.
Early the next morning we departed on a long game drive viewing more of the Delta’s vegetation and plentiful populations of cheetah, elephant, warthog, buffalo, and wildebeest. We spotted a Silver-Backed Jackal and many beautiful large antelope including Reedbuck, Red Lechwe, Tsessebe, Sable, and my favorite – Greater Kudu.
Our guides educated us about flora / fauna, insects, and giraffe and pointed out some interesting details. Graceful giraffes have long tongues for reaching vegetation, thick saliva to help with digestion, 7 collar bones and large hearts to pump blood up their long necks.
Plants indigenous to the Delta include pungent turpentine grass and exotic trees like Baobab, Camel Thorn, Jackal Berry, Leadwood, and the funny-looking Sausage Tree. Dung Beetles are one of Africa’s most interesting insects. They play an important role in stabilizing the environment and fighting climate change.
That evening at camp we enjoyed a beautiful open-air candlelight dinner under bight stars and a full moon! Despite our best efforts, we finally succumbed to the nagging insects, moved away from the dining table, and spent the rest of the evening dancing and singing close to an insect-repelling campfire.
Fallen Baobab Camp Dinner
The next morning it was sad saying goodbye to our gracious hosts, and I wished we had more time to spend there. During a leisurely drive to the airstrip we bid farewell to the Delta and then boarded small airplanes for the flight back to Maun.
Fallen Baobab Accommodation
Burglary and Fire
After landing in Maun we made our way through the airport to where our guides were waiting. Long faces alerted us that something was wrong. We listened carefully as they told us that vandals had burglarized the safari truck.
In the middle of the night burglars threw a metal garbage can through a truck window, cut locks off storage lockers, and made away with our stuff! While the burglary occurred, our guides were fast asleep in nearby lodges. The burglars stole laptop and tablet computers, cell phones, camera equipment, cash, clothes, food, drinks, and anything left in the truck.
My possessions were in a locker without a padlock. The lock I brought from the US was too big to fit the lockers, so I stored my belongings without locking them up. Shocked and bummed by the burglary, we left the airport and drove back to the lodge to prepare handwritten inventories of everything stored in the lockers.
The guides contacted the Maun Police soon after they discovered the burglary. The police advised them not to enter the truck, touch, or tamper with potential evidence until they arrived to investigate and take fingerprints. Six hours later, the police still had not appeared!
San Cave Painting
Disregarding their orders, we got into the truck, checked our lockers, and drove to the Maun Police Station. Many safari members lost everything including clothing and gear. Surprisingly the burglars did not bother unlocked compartments and my duffel bag and its contents were intact and unharmed.
When we got to the police station the guides accompanied those with loses inside to file reports. After about an hour they came out with a policeman who dusted the lockers for fingerprints. The Maun Police’s casual attitude, incompetence, and lack of concern over the burglary were disturbing.
We thought the theft was an “inside job” with employees at the campground / lodge tipping off the burglars of our absence. It would have been difficult for outsiders to invade the guarded, fenced grounds with a security guard posted at the entrance.
Those who sustained losses spoke with safari company representatives in Cape Town. Some losses included hard-to-replace items like photo memory cards, jewelry, and gear. Surprisingly they were not going to receive compensation from the company’s insurance. Even more surprising, the truck was not equipped with an alarm!
A few hours later the police returned to us bringing some stolen and then discarded items they found in the bush near the perimeter of the lodge. Of course the electronics and cash were never recovered. It was a sour note after such a relaxing experience in the Okavango Delta.
The guides managed to get the broken window repaired and we continued to Botswana’s Nata Bird Sanctuary and Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, stopping along the way so people could replace essential items like toiletries and clothing. We would soon discover that our Botswana woes had not ended with the Maun burglary!
Riverboat Chobe River
We spent the night at a lodge in an isolated area near Botswana’s salt pans. In the middle of the night a fire broke out in one of the buildings and we were rousted from our beds and evacuated to a safe area nearby. The grass thatched roof over the kitchen had burst into flames – a vivid, wild, unforgettable site against the black African sky!
Lone Delta Tree
As the flames grew higher the lodge owner feared the fire might spread to other buildings – all with thatched roofs. Fortunately it did not. The fire department arrived after the building had burned completely to the ground!
The cause of the fire was not determined but it seemed suspicious. One possibility was a thunderstorm with lightning that occurred earlier in the night. I heard someone in the crowd say the kitchen was known to have electrical problems….
Chobe National Park
Shaken but unscathed, the next morning we pulled together and made our way to the town of Kasane and Chobe National Park for a much-needed day relaxing on the Chobe River. The day began very hot but as evening approached it grew cool and moist on the river. Chobe riverbanks are abundant with game, and the region is known for enormous buffalo and elephant herds.
Chobe National Park is the second largest park in Botswana covering over 4,000 square miles. The Park forms part of a medley of lakes, islands, and floodplains created from the Kwando, Linyanti, and Chobe Rivers
During dry season Chobe elephants migrate and travel hundreds of miles from the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers in the north to the salt pans in the southeast. Kalahari elephants are known to have frail ivory and short tusks, possibly due to the lack of calcium in the desert soil.
“During 1932 over 9,000 square miles in the Chobe region were declared a non-hunting zone. Throughout the years the boundaries of the Park have been modified and settlers in the region relocated. In 1975 Chobe National Park was completely rid of human occupation. In 1980 and 1986 the boundaries were once again altered, growing the Park to its current size.”
Like migrating animals, the next morning we left Chobe headed for Zimbabwe, carrying memories of Botswana with us!!