Life on the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta resides in the largest stretch of sand in the world, the Kalahari Desert Basin.  It is a unique ecosystem of waterways lined with papyrus, lagoons laden with water lilies, saturated flood plains, forest glades shielded by shade and an abundance of grasslands.  It is an alluvial fan of sediments and debris so the water of the Okavango actually floats on a saturated sea of sand.  In a country that is 80% dry and arid the Okavango Delta is a remarkable source of life.

I remember the early June morning when the 5-passenger Cessna made the brief, yet visually awakening flight from Maun providing me a bird’s eye view of grazing elephants, zebras and giraffes before landing on the short, dusty runway on the Okavango Delta.  I knew at that moment that this part of my 3-week overland safari in Botswana was sure to be an eye opening experience.

My traveling companions and I transferred from the plane to an overland truck.  We drove along dirt roads, across rickety pole bridges submerged in water and passed wildlife grazing in the tall grass until we finally reached the canoe-style boats called mokoros: the peaceful mode of transportation during our stay in the delta.

The mokoro glided quietly through the tall reeds and alongside the water lilies.  As I was transported into the interior of this naturally beautiful habitat I wondered if hippos were lurking below us.  Our guides said there was no fear of being tipped over as long as we stayed clear of the main channel where the hippos walked beneath the surface.  From my low-lying vantage point nestled deep in the belly of the mokoro I could hear and see some of the smallest delta creatures: tiny frogs that nestled in the bloom of the water lilies, some so tiny I could fit five in a row on my finger.

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Day after day in the delta our guides brought new and interesting things to light.  We watched as giraffes gracefully meandered through the tall grass, always alert to the sounds around them.  We experienced a dung lesson.  Did you know that male giraffe dung is square on the bottom and top, but due to hormones, female dung is square on the bottom and pointy on the top?  We also learned about the toothbrush tree.  Cut a piece off at the base, shave off the bark, chew on the inside until it looks frayed then brush along your teeth.  Your teeth will turn yellow first and then white.  We climbed tree vines and swung like Tarzan, scaled ant hills and swam in the water shared by hippos and crocodiles.

We visited places like Baboon Island where sausage trees grow. These trees are used to make the mokoro boats.  Like most of Botswana the Okavango Delta has plenty of elephants.  On Baobab Island we encountered an elephant who was determined to stand between our boats and us.  We learned first hand the three stages to be aware of when confronted by an elephant: comfort, recognition and danger.  If the ears start flapping (and his did), head for cover!

Camp life was relaxing with its comfortable tents, well-prepared meals, card games by the campfire, brilliant starry nights and wild animals rustling through the nearby bush throughout the night.  I became quite accustomed to the toilet ritual.  A ritual that consisted of a hole in the ground and a metal frame stand with a wooden seat that precariously leaned over the hole. To the side of which a shovel, aptly named Douglas, a candle, a box of matches and toilet paper were placed.  Never a dull moment on the john while birds flew overhead, monkeys jumped from tree to tree and hippos grunted off in the distance. Being interrupted one time by an elephant eating a palm leaf just meters away was just enough toilet thrill for me.

As the sun set with its orange hues silhouetting the reeds it was our signal to return to camp for the night to await what the delta would show us when the sun rose again, but to the night life of the delta it was time to stir from their afternoon slumber and hunt.

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