Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Okavango Delt

I am reposting a blog I wrote a few years ago, in celebration of the acceptance of my favourite place on the planet - the Okavango Delta in Botswana - as the 1000th World Heritage site.

Steve Boyes of the Wild Bird Trust had this to say when interviewed by National Geographic:

"The abundance of life is mind boggling: more than 530 bird species, thousands of plant species,160 different mammals,155 reptiles, scores of frogs, countless insects. Everywhere you look you find life. We surveyed bats and we found 17 species in three days. We started looking for praying mantises and found 90 different species. This is the ark of the Kalahari and this part of Africa."

For an outstanding article he wrote - with great photos - read: "Africa's Okavango Delta for Future Generations."

Stan - Thursday


The Okavango Delta lies in the northwest of Botswana bordering Namibia.  It is formed by the Kavango 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.

The Okavango is, of course, a magnet to wildlife, particularly when the water is high.  Not only are there well over a hundred species of mammals and a big variety of reptiles (over 120,000 elephant are thought to be in Botswana alone), but the birdlife is spectacular, with the Delta boasting around 500 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.

Pell's Fishing owl (50 - 60 cms in length)
Red-billed quelea
Quelea flock
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!

African Fish Eagle

Black heron
African Jacana (the lily trotter)
Malachite Kingfisher
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!

But I’m sure Michael will find a way.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, thank you for bringing me back to Okavango, along with the Ngorongoro Crater, my favorite places on earth! The pictures of the birds are splendid. Are you coming to NYC for the Edgars. I will be there, cheering for you and Michael and Kubu.

  2. Yes Annamaria, I will be in NYC for the Edgars. We should have a drink or whatever.

  3. What an amazing place! Thank you for bringing a small slice of it to us. Great pictures and great words, as always.

  4. As we both know, Stan, timing is everything and my watch seems to be off. So much for my planned "blame the plane" post for his week. :) And forget about that article on "The Birds of Mykonos" I planned on doing. No way they can compete with the southern African varieties; at least not in the Aves class.

  5. I really liked this post. One of the pleasures of the Kubu books is the landscape, and how beautifully you draw the reader into that. I felt the same way with this post, and the pictures are lovely. Have fun at the Edgars! And good luck.

  6. Hi Stan - go win that prize. We will drink to your and Michael's success at Bouchercon.

  7. A beautiful place! For U.S. readers, its size is a little larger than the entire state of Connecticut, larger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, about 3/4 the size of New Jersey (although I'm not sure the Delta would be happy with the comparison...) About 17 Deltas would fit within my native state of Oregon, which means you only have to cut Oregon into fourths vertically and horizontally, and each of those resulting areas would be about the size of the Delta. That's a LOT of area to pack with all kinds of wonderful wild-life!

  8. On my first visit there, I was homesick for it the minute I left for the airstrip to leave. I have been back once again to try to cure my longing for it, but that only made my second departure more difficult. It is my favorite place I have ever visited. The stars, Stan. Tell them about the stars.

  9. Yes, Annamaria, the stars take ones breath away. Far from city lights, far from urban smog, the sight of the Milky Way in what are really desert conditions is remarkable. If you are not used to seeing a pristine night sky, the gazillions of stars that you didn't know were there suddenly overwhelm you. And each one is a Bushman ancestor gazing down on his or her progeny to make sure they are behaving! Not only starts, but lying on one's back for a few minutes will reveal satellites more than you can imagine. As Annamaria infers, the trip to the Okavango is worth it for the starts alone.

  10. Once again, this post mesmerized me. I just have to make it there within the next 13 months.

  11. Wow. I could go no further than the terrifying hippo's mouth. Thought of the dental bills for those critters, those in captivity. But what if a hippo living in a protected area has an infected tooth? A nightmare for veterinary dentists. Must need specialists for hippos.