The Last Eden of Africa: A Journey through the Okavango Delta, Botswana
16 August, 2018
It's only when viewed from above that the full magnitude of Botswana's Okavango Delta becomes apparent. The world's largest inland delta, each year between March and June, the Okavango River meanders over a thousand kilometres south from the rain-soaked highlands of Angola and - instead of draining into the sea - spills onto over 15,000 square kilometres of Botswana's Kalahari sands.
As we glide along in a tiny propeller plane towards DumaTau - a luxury tented camp at the northern edge of the country - the vast grasslands below, fractured by a network of water channels, are dotted with palm groves, thick mopane forests and clusters of grazing giraffes, zebras and elephants; vivid proof of the Delta's comparison to the last Eden of Africa.
Back on solid ground, we are ushered into an opened-topped Toyota Land Cruiser by Topps, our cheerful guide who expertly navigates the vehicle through narrow tracks flanked by dense bush and tall grass. He chats animatedly about our forthcoming safari experience and occasionally stops to point out various birds. "Just this morning, a lioness came to visit us in the camp," he reveals as we approach DumaTau.
Fittingly meaning "roar of the lion", DumaTau can be found within the private Linyanti Wildlife Reserve. Its precise location, on an elephant corridor along the banks of the peaceful lily-swathed Osprey Lagoon, means it's a birdwatcher's paradise, while creatures of all sorts (including lions) can be found roaming right through the camp. By now, the early evening sun has started to paint the sky a deep orangey pink, so we take Topps' advice and hop onto a waiting boat for a slow meander along the lagoon and sip gin and tonics while listening to the grunting hippos nearby.
Early the next morning, we emerge bleary-eyed from our tent into the chill of the pre-dawn air. "I have heard there is a pack of wild dogs in the region," says Topps rubbing his hands together enthusiastically. So, coffee downed, we hop into the back of the jeep in search of these endangered and elusive creatures.
As we bump along the sandy road, dewy spider webs glint in the early morning light and the air is heavy with the restorative scent of the wild sage so abundant in this region. I inhale deeply and savour being back in the bush; one of the pleasures (along with the dramatic thunderstorms) that I miss from my childhood in South Africa. The vegetation in this part of the Delta is dense: compact woodlands make way for grass so tall, that spotting a giraffe could very well be a challenge. So it is by pure chance, as we round a bend, that we come face-to-face with the curious eyes of a wild dog, a mere second before it scampers off into its grassy sanctuary. Here, off-roading is not possible, so motivated by this fleeting teaser, we move on.
The rest of the morning passes pleasantly, stopping every so often to gaze at giraffes munching on thorny twigs or to observe a herd of elephants, their fan-like ears flapping, as they trample ploddingly through the grass to their destination. With the late morning sun beating down on us, we head back to DumaTau and spend the rest of the afternoon mooching around the camp, alternately snoozing, eating and taking in the sights and sounds of the lagoon's wildlife from the luxury of our own private deck.
The next day, after a short 15-minute plane ride, we arrive at Moremi Game Reserve. Located south of the Linyanti Concession, it covers much of the eastern edge of the Delta, rolling out over 5,000 square kilometres of sprawling grassland, mopane woodlands, acacia forests, floodplains and lagoons. We are headed to Little Mombo, a luxury camp on the northern tip of Chief's Island. Also known as the "place of plenty", this soon becomes apparent when, on arrival, we are greeted to a sweeping, endless vista of wide open grassland, speckled with peaceful clusters of grazing zebra, impala, wildebeest and hippos.
The smaller, more intimate version of its sister camp, Mombo, Little Mombo is tucked away on the other end of a raised boardwalk, beneath which animals regularly wander. Built under the shady canopy of jackalberry and sausage trees, the camp's three tents all overlook the floodplains. So, belly full after lunch, we retreat to our private deck and enjoy the scenery from our cooling plunge pool.
Later that day, the bright afternoon sun hot against our skin, we find ourselves in the thick of the overgrown grass. Acting on a tip-off, we had swerved off-road to witness what we thought was an innocent pride of three lionesses and their cubs, frolicking under the shade of a tree at the top of an abandoned termite mound. Unexpectedly though, we had stumbled upon a turf war of sorts: the lionesses - in staking their territory - had callously separated a cheetah cub from its family, as they scattered for safety. So, perched anxiously on the edge of our seats, we hoped for the best, as the young cub figured out how to cross the lions and reunite himself with his worried relatives. Two hours later, after culminating in a face-off and a high-speed chase that ended with the cheetah outrunning the lioness to relative safety, we slowly make our way back to the camp, the full moon rising silently on the pink-tinged horizon.
On our last evening, as we sit with an after-dinner cocktail under a blanket of glittering stars, I reflect on the last four days. With its extraordinary landscape, diverse ecosystems and abundance of wildlife, it's easy to see why the Okavango Delta is considered one of the best safari experiences in Africa. An impressive 38% of Botswana's land is officially protected, and the country is shaping the future of sustainable tourism, thanks to strong government dedication to preserving habitat, and the passion of operators like Wilderness Safaris. A few of the company's pioneering initiatives include running some of their lodges solely on solar power; creating temporary camps with a zero footprint; setting up community run recycling projects; and successfully reintroducing black and white rhinos back into the wild. A conservation success story, the Okavango Delta no doubt deserves its title as the jewel in southern Africa's crown.