Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Okavango Delta

 Earlier in the year, Leighton wrote about the incredible pantanal area of Brazil and surrounding countries – a vast wetland unlike anything else.  This week I want to tell you about an area of Botswana that is also a jewel.  It is my favorite place in southern Africa.

The Okavango Delta lies in the northwest of Botswana bordering Namibia.  It is formed by the Okavango River, which rises in the heart of Angola to the north and west, then flows over 1200 kilometres south, then east away from the Atlantic Ocean through Namibia into Botswana.  There it fans out into a huge delta approximately 15000 sq. kms in size and appears to disappear abruptly into the Kalahari Desert.  It is indeed a remarkable sight to see the waters of the Delta on one side of a road and the desert on the other.
The 15000 sq. kms of the Delta comprise very low islands, few more than a two or three metres high, channels of water, and areas that are covered with water in the flood season (June to August) and are water-free much of the rest of the time.  Consequently, the Delta is a maze of islands and beautiful, crystal-clear water.  Access to the islands is by boat (powered on the main channels), mokoros on the smaller channels, and small plane.  There are a few roads on the larger islands, but access from outside is usually impossible.
Sausage tree
One of the greatest pleasures I have ever experienced is to wander along the waterways on a mokoro, which is a dug-out canoe, often made from a sausage tree (Kigelia africana).  The passengers, two at most, sit almost at water level, while the boat is poled by a poler standing at the back (like a punt).  The shallow draft allows the mokoro to go almost anywhere in the Delta.  It is magical to slide silently between the papyrus watching and listening to the birds and spotting wildlife, some of which – the lechwe and sitatunga - are found only in this type of  habitat.
Flying lechwe
Of course you have to be careful, because the larger channels are home to many a hippo (‘kubu’ in Setswana), which, when disturbed, can turn in a flash from a sleepy, tranquil lump of lard into Africa’s most dangerous mammal.  It gets one attention when nearly 3 tonnes of hippo surfaces next to you, jaws open.  Of course, having a hippo surface next to the mokoro is infinitely better than under the mokoro.  If that happens the impact can be so great that the boat may break.  Even if it doesn’t, the poor occupants will be flung into the water.  This too is not a good place to be because although vegetarian, hippos are not reluctant to bite.  A glance at the accompanying photo of a hippo mouth shows how dangerous a bite can be.

Open wide!
In addition, the Delta is inhabited by thousands of Nile crocodiles.  I believe a cooperative agreement exists between hippos and crocs with respect to knocking people into the water, but I haven’t figured out what’s in it for the hippo. 
Actually, such incidents are few and far between because the polers are experienced and know what to do.  In general, when on a boat in hippo territory, the strategy is to bang the side of the boat periodically.  The noise piques the hippos’ curiosity, and they pop their heads above water to see what the kerfuffle is all about.  All you have to do then is NOT to get between them and deep water, which is their haven.
African Fish Eagle
The Okavango is, of course, a magnet to wildlife, particularly when the water is high.  Not only are there dozens of different species of mammals and reptiles (over 120,000 elephant are thought to be in Botswana alone), but the birdlife is spectacular, with the Delta boasting around 450 species, from the rare (the huge Pels Fishing Owl, for example) to the abundant –the Red-Billed Quelea can form flocks so large (millions and millions) that they black out the sun and destroy crops like locusts. 
Red-billed quelea
Quelea flock
Pell's Fishing owl
Michael and I are avid birders and love being in the Delta.  About fifteen years ago, I flew up to a small town called Shakawe with some friends.  Shakawe is on the Okavango River just as it spreads out to form the Delta.  There, in the only time of our lives, we suffered from bird overload.  There were so many species in such abundance that we were overwhelmed.  A dozen African Fish Eagles in a tree; hundreds of Slaty and other egrets; dozens of different types of kingfishers; lily-trotting Jacanas; cliffs full of Carmine Bee-eaters; and on and on.  We just couldn’t keep up with the recording of what we had seen, let alone the photography.  Astonishing!

Our Detective Kubu is not a bird-watcher and hasn’t visited the Okavango, although he was in prime bird habitat at Jackalberry Camp in the Linyanti.  Unfortunately his situation is true of most Batswana.  Although I agree with the government policy of low-impact, high income – that is few visitors at a high price  - it means that many locals can’t afford to visit the Delta and enjoy what it has to offer.  It is probably up to Michael and me to find a pretext for Kubu to make it to the Delta and enjoy what we have always enjoyed.

But it is so difficult to conceive of a murder in the Delta’s tranquility!
Malachite Kingfisher
African Jacana
But I’m sure Michael will find a way.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Lovely photos!

  2. Extraordinary place Stan, and from what I see I'm certain Detective Kubu can find some murder most fowl to solve.


  3. Beautiful pictures of a really beautiful place. I hope to go back some day, and I hope to read about Detective Kubu in the area :)