One of the most captivating destination on our tour of Southern Africa (overview here) was the Okavango Delta. It is one of those places that captures your imagination, awes you with the experience and leaves you clinging on till the last minute, not wanting to leave. Yet it is hard to describe what really makes this place so special and gives it this special aura. I will try…
One of the things that makes the Okavango Delta so unique and one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Africa” is that it is an inland delta. The Okavango is a massive river that never reaches a lake or ocean. Every year, 11 million cubic kilometers (or 11,000,000,000,000 liters) of water flow from the Angolan highlands, flood an area six times the size of Luxembourg – and vanish in the desert! We visited in the winter months when the flood is at its peak and our first view of the delta was from a plane. I highly recommend to take this flight – it’s an amazing way to experience this natural wonder: You see the river splitting into smaller and smaller streams, flooding the plains and then… just disappearing into the desert. You’ll also get a chance to spot the abundant wildlife with herds of elephants, buffaloes, giraffes and antelopes. Spotting hippos or rhinos is a lot tougher from the air, but also possible. We had picked a flight at sunset and the incredible lighting at the end of the day certainly added to this experience!
This flight over the delta raised our expectations for the overnight trip into the delta closer to the ground, by dugout canoes, called Mokoro. Having seen roads disappear into the flooded plains from the plane, it became clear why the Mokoro is the best way to truly experience the Okavango delta. Traditionally, the 6 meter (20 feet) long canoes were carved from tree trunks by hand. These days, they are made from molded fiberglass, a more sustainable approach than cutting down more trees for tourists! They carry 2 passengers and a boat-(wo)man who pushes the mokoro forward with a long pole. The local “polers” are very skilled and can move the canoe quickly and maneuver it deftly, making it all local very easy. Some of us tried it, usually ending up drifting in circles around the delta or falling in – so I was quite happy to trust our poler! Gliding through the reeds, barely above the water level, after having seen the size of the delta from the air, really brings the point home how small and vulnerable we are in this environment! Our polers were very careful to avoid any spots that crocodiles are known to hang out in – I sure was grateful for their experience and knowledge of the local waters!
We pitched our tents for the night on a small island, surrounded by water and more than 200,000 large animals. There are no fences around the campsite, so this is about as real an experience of the African wilderness as you can find – certainly more so than a tented luxury campsite, also available in the Okavango Delta! Our guides were determined to show us some of the wildlife and off we went in our Mokoros. They had spotted some elephants on our way to the campsite and took us to that island. We set off on foot, and our guide pointed out the tracks and marks of the elephants and other animals as we hiked into the bush. We were quite excited about the chance to see elephants in the wild, up close and personal so to say…and that excitement became mixed with anxiety when we did see a large male stomping through the bush in front of us. While our guides were eager to show us the elephants, they were also wise enough to keep us in a safe distance – a charging elephant is a lot faster than you can run and not somebody to mess with! It was a majestic sight and a much more real experience than seeing the elephants from the safety of your safari jeep! We had plenty of adrenalin going through our system to make the hike back to our canoes. If you are on safari and have the opportunity for a bushwalk, I recommend you take it! While you might not see as much as from a jeep, the sightings you do have are an experience all its own!
Having stretched the bushwalk to the maximum, we made it back to camp in the last sunlight, witnessing another sunset in the delta. We settled down around the campfire for our dinner and somehow, our camp became the “happening place” in the area. Polers from a few other sites came to our camp for a night of singing and dancing, adding yet another layer to this dream trip: Experiencing the pure joy and exuberance of the locals, sharing a meal, singing traditional songs and dancing to it, made this experience extra special. Our attempts at contributing to the sing and dance were much appreciated and probably added to the amusement!
I’m more used to sleeping in a comfy bed than in a tent and was up early the next morning. Just in time for the most stunning sunrise of my lifetime. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’m a fan of sunsets. African sunrises are something equally captivating and it is a peaceful experience that you have to make for yourself. Seeing the sun rise over the delta, pouring vivid colors over the landscape, with only the sounds of the bush and river around you, made it very hard to tear myself away and pack up for an early departure.
From the birdseye view on the plane to the frog view in the Mokoro and the bushwalk to see elephants up close and personal, the Okavango Delta is truly a dream destination I’d recommend for everybody to experience. Imagine the perfect backdrop of colorful sunrises and sunsets, and you will have plenty of Kodak moments. Yet for me, what made this experience a lifetime memory, were the people who made this trip happen. Spending day and night with the local polers, experiencing the fun of song and dance, and seeing the delta with the benefit of their lifelong knowledge, made this trip complete in a way that a luxury tent camp with butlers could not. Even if your budget allows for a more luxurious trip, I’d suggest to add an overnight Mokoro trip to your itinerary, I’m sure it will become a memory of a lifetime for you as well!