The wonder of the delta

2013-10-24 00:00

THE Okavango Delta in Botswana remains an extraordinary wildlife destination but it is also one of the most exclusive and inaccessible.

This area of exceptional natural beauty covers a massive 16 000 square kilometres (and 22 000 square kilometres when it is really wet) and is one of the world’s largest inland deltas.

The plant and animal life in this vast and fragile ecosystem depend on the Okavango River’s annual flooding from the heavy summer rains in the mountains in Angola. The timing is impeccable, with the flood waters arriving during Botswana’s dry winter months (May to August). And, because it is a lush oasis in the most remote and arid of areas, it attracts spectacular and diverse wildlife.

The Okavango has a prolific bird life and 122 species of mammals, including massive herds of elephant and buffalo, zebra and wildebeest, along with lechwe, hippo, lion, leopard and cheetah, and packs of the endangered and extraordinary wild dog.

But it is the backdrop to the game viewing that makes the Okavango unique. The delta stretches out like a hand, with the narrow wrist at the top and the fingers spreading out and reaching down to Maun and the Kalahari. The height variation across the swamps is less than two metres, resulting in a vast, meandering waterway with papyrus swamps, palm-lined lagoons, islands, channels and flood plains all linked to form a pristine, unspoilt wilderness.

Botswana is politically stable, the crime rate is low and even the folk at customs are friendly. The problem, of course, is getting to this serene wildlife haven — and remaining solvent.

Maun, the dusty, bustling Kalahari town on the doorstep to the delta, is a trip of 18 to 20 hours by car, while a return flight from Johannesburg is over R5 000.

By way of an aside, but one which highlights the value of wild game, we outspanned at an old friend’s farm in the Limpopo on our long trek to Maun. He was a former varsity digs mate and, at the time, we were convinced he would go nowhere with his life. Wrong again. He now moonlights — well, it is more of a hobby — as a farmer of rare breeds of game and was at an auction at a nearby farm on the day we arrived. (Names and places have been withheld to protect endangered species from the nasties.)

He had taken some money out of petty cash — R9 million — to nip out and buy a prize, disease-free buffalo bull, and was really miffed to be upstaged by billionaire Johan Rupert, who bid a world-record R40 million for the animal. Our friend did bring home a black impala, but it only lasted a day on the farm before the resident caracal chose him from hundreds for his supper.

Meanwhile, back in the delta …

Botswana jealously protects the Kalahari jewel, and the emphasis in the Okavango is on high-yield, low-impact tourism.

The high rollers are spoilt for choice in the delta and only guests staying at up-market lodges in the private concessions (at over R10 000 a day) are allowed on game drives.

At the other end of the market are the self-drives in the public parks where camping is allowed. There are a number of game-viewing options with expert operators available to take you on mobile camping safari, or by foot, horseback or elephant. Those wishing to take to the water can travel in the traditional mokoro or by motorboat.

But all come at a price.

We reckon that the best way to see the delta is to know someone in or near Maun. Nurture the relationship. Swallow your pride. Send gifts. Drop hints. Beg. Grovel. We did. And, when the invitation came, we dropped everything and headed north.

It was more than worth the effort.

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