The extraordinary Okavango Delta!

Posted: 13/09/2011 in Africa

Sunset over the Delta

My visit to the Okavango Delta is somewhere on the top of my list of favourite places in Africa so far. This huge inland waterway is the largest delta in the world ranging from 15,000 to 22,000km2 depending on the floods. What’s surprising is that it is in the middle of a thirsty desert land. It’s fed by the Okavango river from flood waters that travel 1300km across the kalahari sands. My delta experience was in the panhandle, a narrow arm that eventually stretches out into a fan. We left our truck at a local village and 4X4ed our way to the campsite where spent our first night. We had to sign an indemnity form regarding the risk of staying there becaus.e of wildlife (you know, the usual elephants walking through the campsite, crocodiles in the river etc…), high malaria risk and dangers in the delta. Never had to do that before! Imagine having indemnity forms in Australia:

“There is a high risk of stepping on kangaroo poo, you might get a cold due to varying temperatures and fly’s will really annoy you, please sign here”.

I met a group of 10 Aussies and it was so nice to be able hear voices from my homeland. This whole trip I’ve only met 3 Aussies until now, such a difference to Europe where Aussies have pretty much taken over. It’s actually not a bad thing. James is constantly poking fun at Aussies but I think he’s just jealous. One of the guys we met was wearing what I considered to be a totally reasonable straw hat, albeit a little ragged and ripped, however James commented that only an Aussie would wear a hat like that and get away with it. I’ve also learnt that simple words or phrases have the guys really confused. Early in the trip my thongs were coming apart and I commented on the fact that my thong was broken. The boys had a chuckle at this! Ok fine I’ll call them flip flops. Another phrase was “not happy Jan” which Chris can’t wait to try out.

Anyway digressing. So we head out the next morning after packing some of the kitchen, our tents and overnight gear onto a speedboat for an island where we are greeted by our enthusiastic polers. We are about to spend 24 hours in the delta, camping on an isolated island that we will have to ourselves and getting about in mokoro’s. Polers are the experienced guides that manoeuvre the mokoros, know the wildlife and keep us from getting lost in the delta. The mokoro experience is something else. They are long dugout canoes that sit very low in the water. It takes a little, ok a lot of getting use to. As soon as the poler first pushes off I was convinced we were going to tip. And we all had our camera gear, maybe not a wise decision but it’s the delta, you’d be crazy to not take a good camera! Our poler had told us to be a sack of potatoes in the mokoro and not try to balance it and not to move around too much. Easy for Ebron sitting behind me, he’s done this a million times before and is sitting back calmly listening to his music but its a first for me and I’m sitting bolt upright holding my breath and fearing the slightest movement. Seriously you are almost level with the water in what may as well be a dugout toothpick and it’s not just the camera I’m worried about but the hippos and crocs! So there I am whispering to myself “be a sack of potatoes, be a sack of potatoes, you look like a sack of potatoes so just be a sack of potatoes dam it” and as I got used to the rhythm of the mokoro and poler I relaxed…a little. We spent 40 minutes winding through thick reeds and water lilies in the quietest place on earth. The only sound is that of the long pole gently pushing through the water (and my occasional sucked in breath when I think we’re about to tip).

We had our small island to ourselves and we got the usual talk about it being a wild area with wild animals that will likely wander through the campsite and not to wandering off on our own. Our guides find a suitable spot for a bush dunny and dig a hole; there’s no loo, no electricity, no shower but no matter, we’re told we can swim in the delta. Huh?! With hippos and crocs, are you freakin kidding me?! No, they were not kidding! We went out for a late evening mokoro…what would you call it…ride, paddle, sail…anyway, we went out and the polers pull over at an island (clump of shallow water reeds in the middle of the delta) and proceed to jump in. The water is clear as glass and the bottom completely sandy. It’s easy to see there is nothing there but I’m sure that doesn’t stop something from swimming in. However….it’s hot, I’m dusty, there’s no showers, most of my clothes are back on the truck half of which are dirty so maybe I should just jump in. Hurrah I got brave and in I went! It was so refreshing and cooling and a little nerve wracking but fun fun fun. I’ve swum in the delta, yay! And didn’t get eaten by a hippo or croc, bigger yay! And hopefully won’t get bilhazia, biggest yay! I was assured by numerous guides and the polers that bilhazia is not found in the delta, I just hope that’s not the same as politicians promise.

That evening as we’re settling down for the night I can hear the laughter of hippos. Its very close AND my tent is next to the water, NEXT TO THE WATER! Not my fault, that was one of few spots in the bushy little island. Hippos in the water, endear our island…now is not the time I want to play hungry hungry hippo nor do i appreciate them laughing at me. NOT yay! I escaped being chomped in the delta only to find out that I might get chomped in my sleep. Its like an African version of nightmare on elm street except my freddy is big and fat with a pink belly and sharp, long pointy teeth. I can hear the girls at work laughing now because they heard all about my hippo phobia before I left! Suffice to say I’m obviously alive.

Before leaving the next day we took a mokoro to another island where we undertook a walking safari. To get there we had to pass through about 200m of deep water where hippos are usually found. I can tell you now I was having more than a few palpitations waiting for one to pop it’s head up right next to our mokoro. At the start of the safari we are told by our guides to keep quiet, not wander off on our own and stay in single file as it’s less threatening to wild life (coz I seriously look like a threat to an African elephant…as threatening as a bug, squish!!!). But of course it’s more to prevent them from charging. And then we’re told if they do charge to scream loudly and clap our hands. Hey enormous elephant with huge feet are you scared by little me clapping my hands and yelling? Bahahahahahahaha, I’ll be running mate! Ok, so again it’s not about me being threatening but more to do with the fact that while elephants have an excellent sense of smell, their eyesight is poor and if they hear a lot of noise they may be persuaded not to attack when they don’t know the size of the “animal in front”, not that I’m calling myself an animal. Sadly we saw no animals but we did see a few uncommon birds. Then it was back to the mainland through the beautiful, gorgeous, surprising Okavango Delta.

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