The most expensive swamp on Earth.
Botswana is regarded by many as the jewel in Africa’s crown, at least in terms of game viewing. It is a flat, wild and largely barren country, of salt pans, desert and swampland. In African terms it is, apparently, viewed as something of an economic and political success story, with a stable democracy, relatively good infrastructure and a functioning (in Western terms) economy. As many will know, it is also home to a shrewd, charming and fictional female private detective
The Botswana-Zambian border is a singularity: that is a single point on the Zambezi river, crossed by ferry. This point is shared by the borders of Zimbabwe, and the bizarrely stretched section of Nambia called the Caprivi strip. To the North, Angola is also very near.
After landing in Botswana we almost immediately came upon the border of Chobe game-park. It is ranked 9th best game park in Africa by Getaway magazine, just after the Serengeti/Masai-Mara region in eighth place.
Sitting in the bar at the rather swanky game-lodge we overlooked the Chobe river. In the distance was what I took to be a field full of cows. On closer inspection the scene started to resemble some pre-Ice Age pastureland with huge mammoths nonchalantly grazing, or the grassy wonderland from The Amber Spyglass. Our campsite was a fair distance away from the delights of the main bar and considerably less celubrious. Great care was needed not to lose food or valuables to the incessantly marauding troop of Vervet monkeys. However the great plus was the location of the campsite bar, also on the riverfront and considerably nearer to the grazing elephants. Directly below the bar a hippo lurked, surfacing regularly for a snort before descending for another session of whatever hippos do in their watery domain.
We chose to pay extra to do a morning game drive. To say the least it was a little disappointing, not helped by the fact that at the beginning the driver/guide pointed out that in the wet season all the animals migrate to the salt pans in the Southern extremities of the park. In terms of game we saw almost nothing, except a number of hippos grazing out of the water, something which until now had been a rare sight. This is very much a case of buyer beware and something the glossy adverts don’t tell you. It is understood that in the wet season the grass is high, the trees have leaves and the visibility is low. Additionally there are many water holes still full, so the wildlife does not need to concentrate itself near the lodges. However operating an expensive game lodge in a season when it is known that all the game has migrated away could be regarded as rather sharp practice. A group of western aid workers based in Gabarone and Johannesburg for whom this was their one chance to view game before returning home certainly thought so.
However, Chobe had a trick up its sleeve – the boat cruise at dusk. This was included in the payment for the trip, so everybody came. Chobe is home to 60,000 elephants, which to me seems rather a lot. Many environmentalists also think so, as elephants can’t really help causing rather a lot of damage wherever they go. During the morning the plains had been empty of elephants, but sure enough around lunchtime they started to slowly amble over, as if on cue.
One of our most well-traveled ( in a nice way ) passengers later described this evening cruise as one of the most memorable moments in her life, and I think that is a fair and just description. We started by going closer to a group of hippos than I would have thought possible, and the boat sat motionless no more than a couple of metres away as a group of hippos played, snorted, yawned and stared in that curious and disconcerting way that only hippos can. I got a wonderful shot of two hippos re-enacting the poster shot from the “Wild Things” movie, where Neve Cambell and Denise Richards stare provocatively from a satisfyingly wet swimming pool. Maybe I have been in Africa too long but it seems better with Hippos.
But the hippos were only the warm up. We slowly chugged over to a mud-hole where three young bull elephants were busy freeing themselves from the cares of existence. We sat and watched as they walked towards us, into the water and swam together across the river to the far bank. We tracked them all the way. And then there were elephants everywhere, alone, in pairs, and in big groups of twenty or more, all performing their nightly ablutions, reveling in the cool of the water and the dissipating heat of the end of the day, merrily imbibing, spraying and socializing, oblivious to us as we sat metres away. In many ways this was Africa at its most spectacular.
The next day we headed for west Botswana and the legendary Okavango delta, heading through Chobe park, west along Namibia’s Caprivi strip, and then south back into Botswana parallel to the Okavango river.
The Okavango river sources in the mountains of Angola and then flows through Namibia into Botswana, where it comes upon the sands of the Kalahari and is promptly halted. Here it forms a huge inland delta covering thousands of square kilometres (I would have to consult the guidebook for an exact reference). The centre of the delta contains Moremi game reserve, which is ranked by Getaway magazine as the number one game destination in Africa, and hence presumably the world. Getaway didn’t choose to reveal it’s criteria for this ranking at any length, and a reader of the magazine would certainly note the number of Okavango lodges that advertise in the magazine. However whether Moremi is really the greatest game destination is perhaps a moot point – by reputation it most certainly is and few outside the cognoscenti would argue with Getaway’s verdict.
All this led to a certain measure of disappointment when we realized we were going to a completely different bit of the delta, almost devoid of game and full of mosquitoes. This is one of those difficult bits of expectation setting that makes a long overland trip like this so difficult to market and manage. For me Okavango, along with mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, the Ngorongoro crater and Zanzibar, was one of the must-sees that made me want to book the trip – so it is perhaps fair to say there was a certain level of irritation before we set off. To be fair to Exodus and all other overland companies, your average game lodge in the main part of the delta charges US $900 per room per night. The cost of a five night package for two would take three overlanders with Exodus all the way from Nairobi to Cape Town with a side jaunt to Uganda and Rwanda thrown in. Truly the most expensive swamp on the planet.
The general mood of irritation was compounded by the fact that, as well as out personal possessions, we needed to pack tents, food, water, cooking and eating gear for fourteen people for two nights. Communal cooking in this circumstance is a lot more troublesome than simply packing a stove and fuel for two. Additionally our plan was to take a speedboat across the Okavango river, then a truck to the delta, then Mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) to our wild campsite … this only for the first night – for the second we were to pack everything up and move again.
As seems common on this trip we got lucky, and for most of us the delta was positive and memorable experience. This was helped greatly by the general competence of our fellow passengers which made the logistics of cooking and feeding a positive pleasure. Sadly Nicky, our co-driver, came down with malaria whilst we were out in the delta, and had to be taken back at first light on our first morning. In the end, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, it took her nearly five days from the onset of symptoms before getting the necessary level of treatment, by which time the less common life-threatening version of malaria had well and truly taken hold. Malaria is of course an occupational hazard for overland drivers from all companies and as such I think there may be a tendency not to give what is potentially a very serious disease the respect it deserves. Thankfully Nicky is now back with us, visibly thinner and taking it easy, but definitely part of the trip once again. It is good to have her back.
After arriving at the Mokoros, we boarded, two in a boat, and our guides poled us through the delta for an hour and a half, in the burning midday sun. We passed through reeds and lily-ponds, past elephants and hippos, arriving at a beautiful shaded wild-campsite beneath a couple of old trees. Relatively quickly we decided to stay for two nights, rather than returning to a “civilized” campsite after one. This also helped avoid an extra night of packing/unpacking, plus another unnecessary burning mid-day Mokoro trip.
Life in the delta was idyllic, in a Mark Twain kind of way. We had eight or nine polers with us, and these guys added greatly to the local colour, constantly arguing or laughing amongst themselves, in whatever language delta-folk speak. We were kept busy by game walks, poling to a swimming area (an area of shallow fast-flowing clear water free of crocs and hippos) and sunset trips in the Mokoros. On land we didn’t see much game, but were taken to visit the rather staggering skeleton of an elephant that had passed away near to the campsite. On the longer morning game walk we split into two, and whilst our group only saw a giraffe and wildebeest from some distance, the other group stumbled across a lone elephant busy grabbing large berries from a nearby tree. These particular fruits have the effect of making you drunk, and so the group sat and watched from a safe distance as the elephant slowly got itself sloshed.
On the second evening our guides took us out in the boats to watch sunset, which involved negotiating the pool of seventeen hippos about one hundred metres from our camp. Just to keep us on our toes the polers took us around the hippos and then actually into the pool so we were only about ten metres from the animals. Initially this was really quite frightening but as we sat quietly the hippos also watched quietly and a peaceful standoff was reached. We lived with these hippos for two days and they largely seemed to be comfortable with our presence, generally choosing not to leave the sanctuary of their pool.
So in the end our budget trip into the Okavango panhandle was very enjoyable, although not quite what was expected. One day I hope I will return to explore the delta proper, but I may need to start buying lottery tickets when I get back.