African Travelogue: Part 2

To travel is to see

Tswana Proverb

From Jo’burg, I traveled to the Okavango Delta in Botswana via Maun (20oS, 23.5oE), a town that is the gateway between the lush Delta to its north and the arid Kalahari Desert to its south.

As we flew over the Kalahari, I got an appreciation of the vastness of the continent and of the seemingly desolate desert vista. Nearly all of Botswana including the Delta and the Desert, part of western Namibia, and northern part of South Africa are part of the Kalahari Drainage Basin. The sandy Desert which extends west to the Namib Desert occupies over half of Botswana’s landmass making the area quite inhospitable – a geographic blessing for the country for it helped it from being colonized by western Europeans to the same extent as other African countries. From Maun we flew over the Delta in a small 6-seater plane flying at the same altitude as the African Fish-Eagle which I could almost reach out and touch! Soon, the reddish brown desert landscape disappeared and the green Delta came into view and I was mesmerized by the breathtaking sight of the wetlands and streams and the wildlife – a parade of Elephants, a couple of rhinoceroses, and a zeal of zebras congregating by the water!

The Okavango Delta, which has its origins in Angola, a country on the Atlantic coast northwest of Botswana, is an interesting study. The summer rains that fall in Angolan highlands in January are carried more than 1,300 km by the Okavango River over a five month period traversing southern Angola, across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, and into northern Botswana (1). This water flow of ~11 km3 or ~300 billion gal/year (1) ends in an inland delta (an endorheic drainage basin with no outlet to sea) spreading over 15,000 km2 into the Kalahari Desert (2).

The Panhandle of the Okavango Delta which begins just below the Namibian border at Mohembo in northern Botswana, is a ~80 km long narrow and deep channel flanked by permanent wetlands with vast papyrus beds and large stands of Phoenix palms. The alluvial fan-shaped Delta is formed from innumerable seasonal streams, channels, lagoons, ox-bow lakes, grasslands flooded into wetlands, and islands of various shapes and sizes some of which are actually termite mounds (termitaria) built by fungus-growing termites on which plants have grown (2).

Most of the water that flows into the Delta is lost to plant transpiration and evaporation with only a small percent percolating into the aquifer and the remainder flowing into Lake Ngami (1). This seasonal flood which peaks in July, coinciding with Botswana’s dry winter months, causes the small permanent Delta to swell three fold, transforming the desert into a massive green oasis (3). The water and the vegetation of the Delta includes a variety of reeds, Mokolwane palms, Acacia, sycamore fig trees, sausage trees, African mangosteen, and various flowering plants. The vegetation attracts an enormous diversity of wildlife species including mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles (2) which in turn attract humans like me! Game species are drawn to the Okavango Delta in a seasonal migration almost rivalling that of the continent’s “Great Migration” of terrestrial herbivores across Tanzania and Kenya (4, 5).

We landed in the Delta on a tiny airstrip where we were met by a guide and a tracker and taken to our first camp at Kwara, sited next to a channel, just outside the Moremi Game Reserve. The cottages and other structures of the camp are built entirely of wood (with metal mesh screens for doors and windows) and mounted on wooden stilts. Our hosts informed me that the entire camp could be folded up and moved within three months as there are no permanent structures so as not to leave any lasting human fingerprints. All supplies for the camp (of 10-12 double occupancy cabins) including cooking ingredients are transported biweekly on the plane from Maun.

From the large viewing deck of the camp, we could see hippos cooling themselves by the banks along with packs of wild dogs, cackles of hyenas, a baboon mother and child, and the odd elephant all stopping by to get a drink of water at the opposite bank.

During the night we could hear elephants wandering through the campsite occasionally breaking branches and crushing twigs under their feet but otherwise remarkably silent. The Delta is an interesting mix of lush greenery by the water and completely dry, arid, and sandy just a short distance away – a reminder that this is still part of the Kalahari if not for the seasonal water flow. Our exploration of the Delta and its exquisite biodiversity on land and in water included walking safaris, game drives both during the day and night, Mokoro (dugout canoe) rides, and boat trips, always keeping a safe distance from the carnivores and from the bloats of hippos almost submerged in the channels. During one of our night drives we spotted the elusive small wildcat Serval.

There were indelible sights all around me which I continue to relive in memory long after I left this paradise of biodiversity. Here were brilliantly colored rollers and bee-eaters perched atop thorny shrubs, aristocratic cheetahs resting on massive termitaria, content lionesses and their cubs resting under the Acacia trees after a successful hunt, and mobs of mongooses scurrying up the termitaria.

Then there was the regal lion who looked annoyed at being photographed, the solitary lioness an apparent outcast walking slowly on the opposite bank, wild dog packs on the chase to hunt impalas or playing with each other on the grassy banks, zebras grazing on the sunny savannah, and the giraffes walking about elegantly or daintily eating apple-leaf blossoms.

As the sun was setting on the Delta, we saw an elephant herd coaxing a baby to climb up the muddy banks even as it kept sliding back and observed another elephant and her child walking off into the sunset. Words are utterly inadequate to describe the experience that stirs the soul – it cannot be recounted but can only be felt and I was in Heaven!  

In the next Part of this Travelogue, I continue my journey on to the next camp near Chobe National Park close to the Namibian Border and then on to the Greater Kalahari Game Reserve, witnessing the results of some of the most successful biodiversity conservation initiatives in the continent (6).

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