FIRST LIGHT, DEEP IN the Okavango Delta. Mist on the water and the cry of a fish eagle echoing over these endless African Everglades.
Around 6.30am, as soon as the sun is up and the hippos have retreated into the reeds, I’m afloat in a mokoro, the traditional Delta dugout canoe.
It’s a flimsy craft, its low-slung gunwales rising only a few inches above the waterline. One sideways lurch, you feel, and you could end up in the drink—fortunately, I’m in the expert hands of a local boatman. Now, pole in hand, he stands in the stern, an African gondolier steering us through the lily pads on a slow boat to paradise.
What an extraordinary river system the Okavango is. Although it rises in the Angolan mountains less than 200 miles from the Atlantic, it strikes out in the opposite direction, heading for the Indian Ocean on the other side of the continent. For nearly 1,000 miles it flows strongly until it meets the unrelenting fatness of northern Botswana. There, its seasonal floodwaters falter as they fan out, trying to find a way through the papyrus swamps, only to melt away into the sands of the Kalahari. But, before it disappears, this river of no return spreads out to create one of the hallowed places of the natural world.
THE OKAVANGO DELTA
The Okavango Delta is Africa’s biggest oasis: 10,000 square miles of limpid lagoons and grassy floodplains veined by clear, amber-coloured channels. Only when you fly in from Maun, the small, dusty desert town on the Delta’s outermost edges does the sheer size of the Okavango sink in.
Below, as the terrain beneath your wings turns from brown to green, and you touch down at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, you see your first animals.
Elegant giraffe standing out like markers on the emerald plains; elephants resting under a palm grove and a herd of red lechwe—graceful antelopes with curving horns—plunging through the food waters in a welter of spray. Marooned in this vast wilderness of reed beds and water lilies are a million islands. Some are little more than termite mounds. Others are twice the size of New York, and together with the green-gold food plains they provide a refuge for a cavalcade of wildlife that is staggering both in its diversity and its sheer weight of numbers.
The floods arrive just when they are needed most, in the dry season months of July and August. Don’t think of them as the sort of life-threatening inundations that hit the headlines elsewhere in the world. The Okavango flood waters are far more benign because the land is so fat. Filtered through the papyrus swamps, they emerge crystal-clear, creeping down old hippo trails, replenishing the lagoons and lapping around the grassy flood plains.
Although big game is the main attraction, the Delta is also a bird-watcher’s dream, filled with the colour and movement of kingfishers, herons, bee-eaters and fish eagles as well as rarities such as Pel’s fishing owl.
And if you’re an angler, then maybe you’ve heard of the barbel run. It is one of nature’s great events and it happens every year from August to October when shoals of barbel race through the water with voracious tiger fish, making the Okavango a world-class fishing hotspot. Already renowned as the largest Ramsar (International Convention on Wetlands) site on earth, the Okavango Delta received an even greater accolade last year when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Leopards, cheetahs and packs of wild dogs all have their home here and prides of lions, long since adapted to a semi-aquatic lifestyle, run through the shallows in pursuit of buffalo. No wonder that most of the research carried out by the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust takes place within the Delta’s confines. Founded in 1989 and led by husband and wife team Tico McNutt and Lesley Boggs, the Trust has become one of the longest-running research projects on large predators in Africa.
The presence of these iconic species and their wellbeing is vital for the continuing success of Botswana’s thriving tourist trade that, ironically, had its roots in the trophy hunting industry. When Kenya banned big-game hunting in the 1970s a number of professional hunters moved south to the Okavango. Among them was Harry Selby, who saw which way the wind was blowing. In 1970, having found a perfect location in the Moremi, the game reserve set up eight years earlier at the behest of Chief Moremi III’s widow, he built what is now Belmond Khwai River Lodge. Set in the very heart of the Delta, the Moremi was created to protect its heaviest concentrations of game and the lodge became a model for others to follow.
Now, under the leadership of Ian Khama, Botswana’s conservation-minded President, the country has also turned its back on trophy hunting in favour of ecotourism, adding to its unrivalled reputation for conserving its wildlife and wild places by marketing itself as a high-end destination. This has been achieved by dividing protected areas such as the Okavango into exclusive concessions, creating the beautiful feeling of staying in an Africa that is yours and yours alone, with some of the best guides in the business to drive you around.
Safari companies lease these areas, but the government retains control, preventing over-exploitation, allowing wildlife to flourish and promising the visitor a safari experience second to none.
THE LAND OF THE ELEPHANT
Above all, Botswana is the land of the elephant. Only here, in a country almost the size of Texas with no more than two million people, can the herds find the space and freedom they need to complete their immense seasonal migrations.
That is why northern Botswana is home to a third of all Africa’s elephants, with Chobe National Park alone supporting upwards of 50,000 in the dry season. As Belmond Safaris’ Regional Environmental Manager, Onx Manga, notes: “Botswana is one of the largest countries in Southern Africa, with 17% of its land designated as reserves and national parks and 22% as wildlife management areas, making a total of 39% dedicated to conservation.”
Chobe has everything elephants need, including plenty of trees and 7,000 square miles of emptiness in which to roam at will, and if you come to Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge between May and October, you’ll find the breeding herds all around.
Often, flying in over the park’s scorching woodlands you can spot a circle of elephants under every shady camelthorn canopy. What brings them here is the gift of water—the mysterious once-dry Savute Channel—known locally as the “Ghost Channel” for its fleeting appearances.
A few years ago it suddenly started flowing again and is now the only water source for hundreds of miles. The animals and birds that populate this arid region flock to this lush, green artery to slake their thirst, making for exceptional game viewing, with large populations of lion, leopard and wild dog and rare species of antelope such as roan, sable and gemsbok.
The channel runs right in front of the lodge, and all day long while guests cool of in the elephant-proof swimming pool, the resident bulls come hurrying down to their own water source below.
ECOTOURISM AND THE BIG FIVE
To live among Chobe’s wandering elephants, albeit for only a week or two, is to breathe the air of a vanishing freedom, and even though the park could support many more visitors, Botswana has turned its back on mass tourism. Instead there are only a handful of camps and lodges, all miles apart.
Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge sits in one of the quieter areas where the only other vehicles you may meet on a game drive are most likely to be those of the tough and determined Botswana Defence Force whose regular patrols keep the poachers at bay.
The Okavango has always prided itself on being one of the best places in Africa to see the Big Five: elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard—so it was a bad day for Botswana when, in the early 1980s, the Delta’s last wild rhinos were taken into captivity to protect them from the poachers. Since then, the situation has improved dramatically.
Tough new anti-poaching measures have been put in place and in 2003 the first rhinos to be seen in the Delta for nearly two decades were released on Mombo Island at the northern tip of the Moremi Game Reserve. Their numbers continue to increase and now threatened rhinos from South Africa are being resettled here, protected by the latest technology and full force of the Botswana military.
Africa’s ultimate water-focused safari
Animal magic meets old-world indulgence
A captivating colonial retreat