INVITATION TO EDEN – Okavango Delta
You have to experience the Okavango Delta at least once in your life. Except Botswana is fast moving beyond the ordinary traveller’s pocket. Here’s one trip that makes it a possible dream.
I am lying half-naked swathed in damp hand towels, the journalists’ voices drifting to my tent on a non-existent breeze. ‘Of course there will be a pool/ the burly one had scoffed while we sat sweating outside Maun airport in the 40-degree shade, waiting for our open-topped vehicle. Ha! Trust a travel journalist not to bother with the research. He’s hitting the bottle now, and hard.
Press trips are a far cry from travelling with someone you love. There’s always one you end up hating. Or as I used to say to my daughter before she got old enough to roll her eyes, strongly dislike. The loud, inconsiderate, aggressive, perpetually drunk one. Which could be me at times, so right now I’m keeping to myself, half- nauseous with heat, wondering whether I’m the only one who feels like we’re in some kind of reality TV show; a Surobor for travel journalists, only with no audience to watch us forge allegiances or spectacularly fall out.
Seven journalists – two of them editors – is a fairly large contingency. That’s because no one says no to an invitation to Eden. The 15 000-square-kilometre alluvial fan of water that seeps away into the Kalahari sands is one of the world’s greatest natural phenomena; a wonderland of crystal-clear channels, papyrus-fringed lagoons and lush islands striated with streams on which flowering lilies float like some kitsch jigsaw-puzzle cover.
The landscape is drawcard enough, but the Delta gilds this with an astonishing diversity of species: 1061 plants, 89 fish, 64 reptiles, 482 birds and 130 mammals.
And finally there is the delicate matter of cost: with the Botswana government vigorously pursuing a high-income low-volume tourism policy since the 1990s, the only way to get your bum in the limited beds available is with a wallet stuffed with US dollars. Unless you self-drive and camp (and bookings for public campsites can sell out up to 11 months in advance), a trip to the Delta has slipped beyond middle-class South Africa’s grasp. Which is exactly the gap that Wildside Africa identified.
Having successfully established Bundox Safari Lodge, a fabulous budget camp just outside Hoedspruit, Marinus and Ida Smit expanded their affordable safari concept into Botswana, opening Xobega Island Camp in Moremi Game Reserve and Tuskers Wilderness Camp in a decommissioned hunting concession in April last year.
Tuskers, the only camp in the vast 365 000-hectare NG43 ‘Kwatale’ concession, is our first stop: just six tents in a mind-bogglingly vast and fenceless tract of land between Moremi and Nxai Pan national parks. But with a fairly monotonous mopane-dominated terrain the game viewing – particularly in the November heat – is challenging. Both nights we are periodically woken by lions so close I have to check the zipper on my tent, but we see nothing of them other than the fresh tracks they leave metres from our camp. What we do see plenty of is elephants. Our guide, Pilot Manga, voices the growing conservation concerns around their high numbers: according to the 2016 Great Elephant Census, Botswana is home to 130 451, more than a third of the continent’s elephant. Even without the worst drought in 30 years, an arid country such as Botswana would struggle to sustain such a large population. He stops next to a fine specimen taking a bath in a small pan. The young bull is a natural model – posing mid-motion for the Cruiser-load of travel writers, cameras clicking away like cicadas. We are joking about his modelling fees when we sense movement to our left: a large herd approaching at speed, the smell of water in their trunks. One by one they splash into the pan to drink with intent, low rumbles of contentment drifting towards us over the baked earth.
Prior to Botswana’s 2014 ban on sport and trophy hunting, NG43 was a hunting concession, and Pilot takes us to the site where tuskless elephant corpses were dumped in their hundreds, the large circular tracks in the dust surrounding the forest of bones poignant proof that the living still come to pay their respects to the dead. What kind, what kind…’ our sensitive Sunday Times correspondent mutters, visibly distressed, and there is a bonding of sorts as we wander the killing field, united in our repulsion for humanity’s more macabre pleasures.
Later, we raise our G&Ts to the fact that NG43 will never see another hunter, our faces bathed in the final light of a spectacular sunset. And by the time we reach the giant baobab under which our dinner table is lit with paraffin lanterns, we are well oiled and happy, a small glowing hub in the vast wilderness, laughing under a waning super moon.
It’s a 3.30am wake-up call and the journalist dubbed ‘last-man-standing’ knocks back a double Bacardi and orange juice, then tucks a full bottle of red wine into the pocket traditionally reserved for water. Respect. This is a man to put some welcome perspective on one’s own drinking proclivities. It takes about 90 minutes to reach Moremi Game Reserve, and as the sun rises the landscape becomes increasingly verdant. We stop periodically to gaze across savannah filled with plains game; reed-lined streams plundered by egrets and kingfishers, storks and jacanas, a polyglot of birdsong sweetening the air. We see buffaloes – hunkered together like old disgruntled ladies whose comic book hairstyles are hopelessly out of date, but yet again cats prove elusive. This is when you appreciate being on safari with South Africans, and seasoned travel writers at that – there is no whiff of disappointment to sour the pleasure, no desperate charge to tick off some specialist list.
In fact, there is an audible exhale when we finally reach Mboma Boat Station, and not just because we are reunited with a cooler box full of wine. We are now physically entering the Delta’s otherworldly waterscape: lowered between narrow channels lined with ferns, reeds and papyrus, the tips of each fine hair threaded with seeds that nod like gigantic pompoms, their roots filtering the clear waters we trail our fingers in. As we set off for Xobega Island Camp, two pied kingfishers swoop ahead disturbing a squacco heron who keeps apace with the boat – a most elegant herald.
It is mercifully cool on the water, and tranquil, and when we alight at Xobega, somewhat zoned out, we are serenaded by a crew that are clearly – and quite understandably – happy to be in paradise. We are too. I no longer keep to myself; in fact, I am completely enamoured with my travelling companions, and on our last boat trip I bring the enamel jug from my tent and insist on anointing every member of the tribe with the pure waters of the Delta.
We tool along the waterways, speeding up to avoid hippos that plunge ominously below the surface, disturbing Docks of red-billed queleas that rise like columns of smoke into the sky. And what a sky it is, the kind that artists have for centuries painted in an attempt to capture the presence of God. As we slowly drift into a large lake, it is reflected in the mirror-still waters, and for a perfect moment we find ourselves afloat between two heavens.
Plan your trip
Airlink operates direct daily flights from Joburg to Maun and five flights a week from Cape Town. flyairlink.com For those self-driving from Joburg, Maun is best reached by entering Botswana through the Stockpoort border and then the A14 and A3 northwest through Makgadikgadi Pans. Allow three days – it’s about 1 200km in total. Camps can arrange your transfers from Maun, but if you have a 4×4 and want to drive, exit Maun to the northeast towards Mababe. This will get you into the Delta from the west (the only real way in for self-drivers) and up to Moremi South Gate and NG43 (because NG43 is a private concession, self-drivers will need to inform the camp in advance, when booking).
When to Go
Press trips tend to be arranged at times when no one else wants to go, so ours coincided with the two hottest months of the year: October and November. The winter months (May – August) are best: it’s generally drier so you’ll see larger concentrations of game around water sources and more of the Delta is accessible than in the wetter (and hotter) summer months when many roads become too muddy and water crossings unsafe. Camps may also close around this time for maintenance.
Need to Know
South Africans don’t need a visa but you will need your passport, and if you’re driving, vehicle papers and cash to pay for entry and road tax at the border.
Tuskers Bush Camp, located inside NG43 (also known as Kwatale Concession) to the east of Moremi, comprises six slightly shabby twin-bed Meru-style tents with an en-suite bucket shower and flushing toilet. There is a lounge area, lounge- bar tent and dining tent. Lions and ellies are regular visitors to the area and it makes for a nice precursor to Xobega but is too arid and the terrain too monotonous to be considered Delta proper.
Xobega Island Camp, inside Moremi Game Reserve, comprises 10 new twin-bed Meru- style tents located undertrees, each with an outdoor ‘bush bathroom’ (delightful bucket shower and unpleasant chemical toilet, though the latter is due to be replaced with a flushing toilet in the first half of 2017).
It’s not luxury but very comfortable, with two lovely lounge areas, a dining tent and fire pit area. Camp manager Innocent Modise runs a tight ship, and it’s a relative bargain. Park fees for self-drivers aren’t included.
Camp Moremi is one of my favourites inside Moremi Game Reserve, it has 11 enormous, very private Meru-style en-suite tents, each with a great location overlooking Xakanaxa Lagoon. It has the additional benefit of being able to offer its guests game drives and boat trips, and the small plunge pool is another boon.
Mombo Camp offers an interesting comparison on Delta prices. Admittedly its location on Chief’s island is the best in the Delta, with high concentrations of game, and just nine over- the-top luxury tents. Despite this, it’s perennially popular and you’ll struggle to find space in peak season.