Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 4: The Okavango Delta

The next bigger stop on our trip was Maun, a little city in the Okavango Delta. It is the capital of the North West District and as it’s biggest city, the starting point for most trips and safaris into the Delta.

The first stop was the local supermarket and money exchange. While we had relatively little human contact after the busy streets of Cape Town and all the way through Namibia, Maun was the first place where a “welcome to Africa” escaped my mouth. It was busy. People everywhere, selling and buying things, going after their daily business and a little bit of chaos in the car parking lot. On one side you were missing the loneliness of the desert, but on the other you were a bit excited that finally the scenery you knew from TV was right in front of you. Of course everybody is more than used to tourists, so don’t think you’re anything special there. You just blend in.

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One of the main activities of the day was the scenic flight over the Okavango Delta. I didn’t book it up front and thought I had plenty of time on a plane in my life already, but changed my mind on the way there and was happy that I did.

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The view was just amazing and it was really great to see all the streams, rivers and lakes across the wide plain. The Okavango River drains the summer (January–February) rainfall from the Angola highlands and the surge flows 1,200 kilometers in approximately one month. The waters then spread over the 250 km by 150 km area of the delta over the next four months (March–June). The high temperature of the delta causes rapid transpiration and evaporation, resulting in a cycle of rising and falling water level that was not fully understood until the early 20th century. Every year, approximately 11 cubic kilometers (11,000,000,000,000 liters) of water flow into the delta. (Source)

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From a pure photography standpoint, you shouldn’t take the normal flights and rather book your private trip and pilot. I’ve seen videos of people who were able to take a door of the plane out and shoot straight down. Unfortunately, that’s not what we did and the pics used in the blog never made the album for a reason. Our plane had scratched plastic windows and it was quite a bumpy ride for most parts, so please excuse the low quality. At some point, and that is probably the best tip I can give for most parts of traveling, I just put the camera back in the bag and enjoyed the flight.

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As you might be able to spot in the last picture, we saw a herd of elephants walking around the little collection of trees. For me, these were the first free living elephants I had seen in my life (many more to follow on the trip) and really a special moment. We saw a few more and also some giraffes and hippos, but I guess this will stay with me forever.

Back in Maun it was time to check into the hotel. The Sedia Riverside Hotel was quite a view. The reception area was luxurious and the staff more than friendly. The same could be said for the rooms and as I was lucky to have no roommate on the second part of the trip, my room was filled with a very very comfortable king size bed, most importantly equipped with a mosquito net big enough to have a peaceful night. The hotel also has a nice pool with a well stocked bar, so life was good and we enjoyed our evening there a lot.

‘Unfortunately’ we were supposed to leave already the next morning, but thunderstorms were rolling in and our night out in the Delta was canceled. We had to switch from the rooms to quite spacious chalets, but were able to stay one more night and I can totally recommend the place if you ever go there.

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Instead of camping in the rain, we opted to go on a day time trip into the delta. After getting picked up right after breakfast by 4×4 vehicles and being woken up by the 45 min ride across bumpy gravel- and sand covered roads, we arrived at the camp of our pole rowers, or ‘Polers’ as they are called in the Delta. We split up in groups of two to man the dugout canoes, commonly knows as mokoro or makoro (plural mekoro), depending in who you ask.

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Back in the day these around 6 meter long canoes were made out of trees, but with growing tourism and the mekoros only lasting so long (wood of course rots), a decision was made to save the trees in the area and not cut all of them down. Nowadays they’re made out of molded fiber-glass. We were randomly assigned to one of the Polers and soon started gliding through the sheer endlessness  of water, plants and water lilies, on our way to a bigger island in the Delta.

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Fortunately enough, we didn’t encounter any hippos, but were also avoiding the bigger channels as much as possible, where these massive creatures usually like to hang out at. The landscape was just amazing. After a lot of chatter in all of our mekoros for the first 30 minutes, it got a lot more quiet after a while and everybody  was just sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the view and peacefulness of the area.

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While it was not easy to get good shots through all the high plants, there was an opening every now and then. We also met a few other boats along the route, mostly fisherman who seemed to be very proud of the big catfish they pulled out of the nets!

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Through our Poler, we were able to speak to one of the guys and he asked to get the pics I took of him. Unfortunately, as these thing seem to be too often, I never got any e-mail address and he probably won’t ever get them. Maybe your G-Adventures guy Jaco could help!

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After arriving at our place to be, we quickly got all of our stuff out and went on a walking safari. It was one thing to sit in a jeep, looking around to find some animals and wildlife, but it certainly a different kind of thrill when walking through the bush. In retrospect, I wonder if there weren’t any predators in the area in general, or if our Polers then turned safari guides just knew how to act. They were definitely not armed.

Being later in the morning and the sun standing high above us, it wasn’t easy to find animals. If you have read my blog post about Namibia, you know that we’ve faced the same problem in Etosha National Park.

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Some Impalas ran by early on, but were way too far away for a shot with the camera. After around 15 minutes of walking and asking myself already if it made any sense, we approached a herd of about 30 zebras.

The beauty of digital photography is definitely being able to take almost as many pics as you want to. And I took a lot of the zebras, but you really never know if you get another chance in wildlife photography. Being about 100 meters away first, most shots where just good for the trash can. We kept gettng closer and closer though, always stopping, waiting, taking a few shots, moving again, until we really got close to the animals. As we got closer, the pictures of course kept getting better and better. I think the difficulty with a herd of zebras is getting the symmetry without making them look boring. The patterns are wonderful though and if you then get a few more details in, like the birds on the third zebra pic, you know it is a keeper!

One thing that no photo can give you is the smell. Such a distinct smell of horses, which was really intensified with every step we took in their direction.The closest we got before really making them anxious was around 40-50 meters I’d say.

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They didn’t seem to mind us too much, until we really got close, but mostly we were watched with interested eyes. The guides told us, that if you’re moving as a group, most animals will take you as one bigger animal. In our case, we probably looked like a big, slow and lazy one.

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As got too close, they took off and galloped about 100 meters away, just to stop and eat grass again.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else to see. We found some elephant bones along the track, which are really really big. You wouldn’t believe it actually.

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We soon returned to camp and were a bit disappointed. Only a few zebras and impalas, but no lions, elephants, rhinos or anything else that would get your heart beat faster. Lunch was ready and well prepared, but suddenly we were assembled again and headed back out in the bush. An elephant sighting, very close to our camp.

Through tall and very sticky grass, your shoes and pants were plastered with it after a few steps, we approached the area. Quiet, careful and always listening, but we almost didn’t find them. Elephants are very silent when walking, which seems to be quite unbelievable, just looking at them. Suddenly, a crack in the bush up ahead and through thick branches and bushes, there was thick grey skin passing by. Way too small and dark to take a photo, but nevertheless a great feeling.

Personally I was still a bit disappointed though, as I would have liked to see one in an open field. They must have read my thoughts, as one suddenly turned and took a few steps outside to take a look at the big, slow and lazy animal walking by (see the group reference further up). It looked at us, was surprised as we are and while people were scrambling to take photos and get into a good position, it got a bit upset and showed us with his ears spread that this is his place to be, not ours.

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I had only one shot. The whole scene happened so quickly and I was one of the people who had to get into position. When the elephant clearly showed a bit of aggression, our guides got a bit nervous and everybody had to stop. The only way out was to retreat respectfully and so we did. And yes, an encounter like this will get your heart beating faster.

After returning to camp, we all had a bit of adrenaline pumping through our body and I believe most members of our little safari group were still excited for days. I was at least and even though this might not be a photo to make anybody’s wall at any time, for me that is one of the best shots of the whole trip. Especially when adding the story to it.

After a quick lunch, the polers still wanted to sing and dance for us, which they usually would have done next to a fire in the evening. Clouds were rolling in already and we knew it was the right decision to not camp there. The dance was quite funny and I enjoyed it a lot.

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It was time to head back, which was a good decision. About 2/3rds of the way back, raindrops fell down to earth and we got a bit wet. The big thunderstorms were rolling in later and as we were sitting at the pool with a beer in our hand, it rained cats and dogs and we could cheer to a dry bed instead of a flooded tent.

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The Delta is a great place to visit. You should not miss it on your trip through Botswana and you should also go in a mokoro out on the water to explore (with a poler guiding you). Good luck on finding some animals and hopefully you’ll also be looking back smiling about the things happening to you!

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