JUST AFTER dawn, I go for a walk. Low on the horizon, the sun is gathering strength for what will soon be another shimmering day. The ground underneath is sandy, with ankle-grabbing holes hidden by long, dry grass and broken up by tall termite mounds. Thorns of all shapes and sizes grab at my clothing from the shrubs and trees that dot the landscape. A giant baobab – the “upside-down tree” – thrusts its stumpy limbs into a cloudless sky. Used to the dull, grey skies of Europe, my spirit soars to see the heavens so open above me.
I am in Botswana, on an island in the Okavango Delta but the waters are invisible in the seemingly flat landscape. A small rise, or a line of trees, can hide a surprising amount. “Look!” whispers the park ranger with me, pointing. “Giraffe!” As always, the spotter’s eyes are seeing something it takes me long moments to also recognize. In the shadows of the trees, I glimpse movement before the outline of a giraffe resolves itself. Then another, and five more. How did I miss them? They gaze warily at us, slowly chewing leaves and even more slowly considering our presence. One suddenly bolts, startled by a rising bird, loping away in the rolling, slow motion gait of these over-legged antelope.
We walk on, stopping to look at the spoor of some African wild dogs. “They came past last night,” says Johnson. “They hunt in the late afternoon or early morning.” The tracks cross those of an elephant and the textured marks left by its large pads suddenly come into focus as my eyes once again see detail in the dry dust underfoot. “See how a wild dog’s paws have only four toes, like a cat, when all other canines have five?” he says. “The front paw is larger than the rear and the back of the pad is straighter than a cat’s – a cheetah and leopard both have ones shaped like a double-U. With a leopard, you also won’t see these claw marks.”
He breaks apart dry elephant droppings to show me it was feeding on its favorite mopani leaves, then points at a small tree. “That’s a mokgalo,” he says. “We believe it is immune from lightning, so a good place to shelter in a storm. Its wood is used for bows. Its leaves are a medicine for chest problems and many other ailments and its roots are like aspirin. The fruit makes a nice beer as well as tasting good. Just stay away from the thorns, or you will find out why it is also called the ‘wait-a-bit’ tree.”
The Okavango Delta is formed where the Okavango River, fed by rain falling more than 1,500km away in the highlands of Angola, empties into the Kalahari Desert of northern Botswana. With the nearest coastline 600km to the east in Mozambique, this is the world’s largest inland delta, a gigantic oasis of plant, fish, bird and animal life, expanding and contracting as the river’s flow varies with the seasons. This miracle of nature is all the greater in a desert country where rain is so important that the word for it – “Pula” – is also the name of the currency as well as a greeting.
I have come to this island in a mokoro, the canoes used by the local baYei people since they fled into this wilderness from Angola to escape slave hunters in the 18th-century. The land is unsuited to farming and tsetse fly made herding impossible, so the refugees learned to hunt and fish from these dugouts, once made from the wood but now mostly fiberglass. They are propelled by a poler who stands at the back, navigating a maze of two-meter-high reed beds with the ease of long familiarity. My camp is in a tree-shaded glade where we draw water from the nearby lagoon for cooking. With very few human inhabitants to contaminate it, and its long journey through sand acting as a gigantic filter, the Delta’s water is safe to drink.
Cool water seems a distant memory as the sun starts to show its force and we turn towards home. As I walk through a thick grove of acacia trees, Johnson holds up a hand and crouches warily. I hear the unmistakable sounds of an elephant tearing at a tree, completely invisible but sounding only a few meters away. We circle wide to the left, only to hear another crashing through the bush. Back to the right, and the trumpeting of third. We turn back and realize we are surrounded.
Johnson looks slightly worried and whispers his concern: “We must not get between a mother and her calf. Very dangerous.” Staying off the game paths, we dodge through the thick bush as quietly as we can to emerge a few hundred meters from camp. I look back to see five or six elephants moving in and out of the tree line as they graze along the water’s edge. “They came around the camp last night,” says Johnson. “Did you not hear them?” Close encounters of the herd kind.
“The wildlife in the Delta is not as good as other places (such as Chobe or Moremi in Botswana),” says Tom Harari of adventure company Exodus, who regularly travels to Botswana. “But you do get to experience wildlife in what can feel like a more natural way. For me, the Delta is about the place, the natural beauty, the remoteness and the experience as a whole. It is quite different from anywhere else I’ve been to in Africa. The sensation of gliding in a mokoro just above water level, passing through reeds, seeing elephants or giraffes on the side of the waterways is idyllic. Spending the night in a wilderness camp in the middle of a vast wetland fills me with a sense of being really away from it all.”
In camp, I have already settled into the routine of spending mornings and afternoons on walks, resting during the worst of the daytime heat and enjoying evening meals cooked on a campfire. The world outside seems very far away. There are countless birds to spot and wonderful sunsets reflected in the calm water. As the dark closes in, bringing a sudden chill of the African night, the logs glow redder and we draw closer to the heat. In the flickering firelight, we talk of family and children, adventures and nonsense. What is Johnson’s favorite animal? “The giraffe,” he says. “You never have to be scared of it because it will never attack you. It always runs away.” He laughs.
Our poler, Letsego Mutapula, tells us it took four weeks for him to first learn the balance needed to keep a mokoro upright. “I learned from my friends when I was about 16, in an old wooden mokoro,” he says. “I know how to swim but we practiced in a shallow place, where you could stand up. I have broken my poles many times because I like a thin one – the weight is easier to work with over long distances.” He has been poling for more than 20 years. Does he still ever lose his balance? “I fell in last week,” he says. “Sometimes your pole gets stuck in the muddy bottom and it drags you back.”
He says the biggest danger is hippos. “They are bottom dwellers and so they can come up by surprise and bite the mokoro. That can be a problem, as a full-grown male is about 2,000kg. They have chased me many times and I have had two close shaves. I ran my mokoro ashore, although usually you just have to speed up and keep your distance as they chase you. Sometimes if you beat your pole on the water, they will stop. But they mostly use the channels at night.” Crocodiles are also fairly common, as are lizards and pythons. “The snakes sleep on top of the reeds and will fall into the mokoro when you pass,” he says. “But they are not poisonous – they have no venom.” His favorite animal is the zebra. “It is a noble animal, strong, very loyal and protective of its young. It is the symbol of our country.”
The next day, I seize the chance to have a go at poling myself during our mid-day break. The shallow, flat-bottomed craft normally carry two passengers, as well as all their camping gear, food and water, so I blame the fact they are empty for my constant battle to stay upright. However, the risk is low as the bottom is clearly visible; much of the delta is less than a meter deep. I keep my feet dry at the loss of my dignity while Mutapula shows his kindness by keeping a reasonably straight face.
Soon enough, it is time to put myself back into his gnarled hands for the journey back to Maun, the jumping off point for most excursions into the Delta. Loaded up, we push off and glide across still waters before plunging into papyrus that towers high above my head, the way ahead lost in a bend of the channel. The chirrup of birds, the buzz of flies, the splash of the pole as we surge and pause, surge and pause, becomes hypnotic. We run aground in narrow channels, then skirt the edges of deep ponds, keeping a wary eye out as a pod of hippos bellow their anger at us. Lilies spread across the water surface, their roots plunging deep into the clear water.
Letsego pauses to palm a drink of water, leaning casually over the side of the mokoro. “This Tswii – blue water lily – is very common and has many medicinal uses,” says Johnson. “It is very good for asthma and infertility problems, as well as the bladder.” He points to a long-legged brown bird with a white throat and orange chest. “That is an African Jacana or lily-trotter – see how it can walk on the lily pads. The female has many partners and leaves the males to look after the eggs, which snakes, otters and water mongooses love to eat.” There are 400 species of birds in the Delta and their calls are an ever-present sound.
Back on land, we load our truck, bid farewell to Mutapula and set off for the five-hour drive to Maun. The Toyota grinds through the bush, following a rutted dirt track that branches and then gathers itself as it passes fords or small settlements. Children run and wave, shouting: “Pula!” Barefoot women raise their heads from pounding maize to rest weary backs and share a neutral gaze. Their lives and mine run on two different paths.
Maun is a quiet town whose two small shopping centers and gas stations barely summon the energy to compete for passing business. The town seems to recognize its only role in life is to act as a supply depot for travelers pushing onwards. Before I too move on, I take a flight over the Delta, flying in a tiny plane up a meandering valley of the Boteti River until water shimmers to the horizon. I spot a young bull elephant crossing between two islands. He raises his trunk as we swoop nearer, no doubt to his mind successfully scaring us off as we fly on. A scatter of impala bounce daintily away, their tails bobbing high, while dozens of lechwe graze in the water or near its edge.
The channels twist and turn beneath us, opening out into lakes and ponds, and then vanishing into seemingly trackless reed beds where I spot a lone mokoro fisherman. Trees stand alone or gather into dark shadows that suddenly disgorge a fast-trotting herd of dusty zebra.
As the evening shadows lengthen, it is time to end this magical experience and return to earth on the still-hot tar of the airfield. Pilot Andre Pelizzon is from Boston but came here at the end of 2011 to further his flying career. He spends his day doing scenic flights and carrying passengers back and forth to the luxury lodges within the Delta. I ask him if he has the best flying job in the world. “If it was, nobody would ever leave and there would never be any advancement for the new generation,” he says. “The pay is low – around $1,000 per month in a country with ten per cent inflation. You live in a small dusty town where everyone knows your name and your private life is minimal.”
But he is enthusiastic about the chance to build flying hours and enjoy a unique experience. “We pilots talk about how we will probably never run into another person in our flying career who has flown out here. I have seen all the clichés of waterbucks, zebra or impala jumping through low water in the morning; elephants bathing in a river with the baby elephants in the middle for safety; downpours in the rainy season where nowhere is dry. I have taken off out of Maun seemingly looking into a dark storm cloud where in fact there was a rainbow straight ahead. Flying through it, the plane behind me said I simply disappeared into the storm. That was kinda cool.
“If you’re having a bad day or week, it’s more than therapeutic to fly low over the Delta and to see The Jungle Book unfold before you: elephants at a watering hole, hippos in the water, giraffes around an acacia thorn tree with zebras in the distance. This is all with the rising sun reflecting off the dust on the ground with that early morning hue.”
The next day, I take a long straight tar road eastward that brings me after a four-hour drive under a blistering sun to the Makgadikgadi Pans. This is the name for a set of salt flats, the evaporated bed of a massive lake that still holds water during heavy rains. Makgadikgadi Lake was filled by the waters of the Okavango River, until tectonic shifts dammed it into the present Delta, and the dry, flat pans, glaring bright white in the sun, are a vision of what might be if it diverts again. The thick sands of Botswana hide that it lies at the extreme south of the Great Rift Valley and averages an earthquake a day.
Where the road ends, we set up camp near where a lone thorn tree stands on a small island of patchy salt grass, its silhouette an iconic image of Africa. I walk over towards it. Tire tracks crack the white crust, leaving obscenely unnatural marks in the pristine surface. They disappear into a hole where the driver and passengers have obviously struggled mightily to free the vehicle from the sticky mud that lurks under the dry crust. Rain here falls rarely, when vast flocks of flamingo suddenly appear to briefly enjoy the spectacle. Today, the only signs of life I can see are a dust devil spiraling in the distance and the worn tracks of the many animals who walk endlessly in search of sparse grazing.
“The beauty of the pan is precisely its emptiness,” says Harari. “The sunsets are incredible and at night the absolute silence combined with the endless stars is a surreal experience. It really makes you feel like the world is a big place and the universe even bigger. It is somewhere that can make you reassess yourself. It is haunting and otherworldly.”
I watch the sun sinking with the suddenness that marks the end of the African day. One final burst of red and orange and it is gone. The moon is a sliver in the fast-growing darkness as the sun is chased away under the horizon and the stars wink on in bursts of light. These constellations of the southern sky are less familiar to me than those of home and I look for the Southern Star to orient myself. I recognize Orion and Leo but the Milky Way eventually dazzles everything else into submission. Lying back on the ground, I gaze at the stars until I feel the earth spinning away beneath me.