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Explore: The Okavango Delta Water Safari

Take your best safari experience and add lush green channels of sparkling water – that’s the pure magic of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. But these holidays come at a price. Is it worth it?

The matriarch elephant was moving off – and then thought better of it. With her ears flared, she spun around in a whirl of dust, tossing her head as she started thundering back towards us. “She’s okay, she’s okay…” said our guide quietly. In the game viewer, we were most definitely not.

This was near Savuti Camp in Botswana’s Linyanti area in the north, where the clear water of the Savute Channel is dotted with white water lilies, and tall green sausage trees soar into a blue sky piled with impossible stacks of white clouds. We’d just spent almost an hour falling deeply in love with elephants of all sizes as they splashed and cavorted in the channel just metres from us.

A heard of elephants makes the most of the water

A heard of elephants makes the most of the water

Youngsters crashed into the water at speed, then started a game of dunking each other; the more stately adults sprayed great plumes of water over their backs. Others plunged in completely, disappearing except for a trunk sticking up like a submarine telescope. They’d emerge, their dusty grey turned to shiny black, and saunter off as the next group came down to play.

But now, as we flattened ourselves against the seats as if that would make a difference to the impact of a four-ton juggernaut, playtime was over. Timmy Taele, our guide, remained unflinching. The elephant continued “being okay” right up until a metre from our bumper, as he knew she would. She stopped with a deafening trumpeting, then turned and sped off, still swearing and scolding.

A Magical Edge

It’s the abundant water that gives the Okavango Delta the magical edge over normal game safaris. You can swap a bouncing, noisy game viewer for a graceful mokoro canoe, gliding peacefully through the reeds, eye-to-eye with reed frogs and water lilies. A small motorboat takes you to bigger channels to see game up close while you sip a G&T, or watch crocodiles slide into the water in menacing silence.

Always, there are hippos. Their weird <huh-huh-huh> grunts, echoing from almost every pool or channel, are most definitely the soundtrack to a visit to the Delta. (Along with the call of the fish eagle, and the woodland kingfisher’s tumbling trill.) They’re not always peaceful, though. One afternoon near Chitabe Camp in the southeast we came across a lone hippo in a pool.

The Okavango Delta is a maze of meandering channels and overgrown islands

The Okavango Delta is a maze of meandering channels and overgrown islands

Our guide, OB Morafhe, pointed out the large gash on his shoulder – probably a male who’d been ousted in a fight by a younger, stronger heir. He was angry. I focused my binoculars on the wound, just as he charged. A binocular-magnified hippo, crashing full-frame through the water towards you with mouth wide and massive teeth bared…

Guides like Timmy and OB are another reason why the Okavango experience can be richer than most self-drives – even though Botswana lodges are pricey, especially on South African rands. These men and women read the bush like visitors will never be able to, born of years of study and often after decades observing animals on the ground.

OB’s secret weapon was birds. “There’s a crimson-breasted shrike!” he’d announce, stopping the vehicle. (If you’re a birder, you’d care.) We’d all peer around, seeing nothing … then the boldly coloured shrike would pop out from low in a bush. OB’s trick? He’d hear and identify the calls, <then> find the bird.

The Thrill of The Chase

Timmy, our Savuti Camp guide, had a slightly different skill: he had a tracker’s heart. His passion was the thrill of the chase. On one late-afternoon game drive, Timmy found a pack of wild dogs, a rare sight. Teenagers rough-and-tumbled like puppies as the adults snoozed. At some unknown signal, one adult rose and trotted off with intent. Instantly, the playfulness turned into deadly focus as they fell into formation – they were on the hunt.

So was Timmy. “I know where they’re going!” he said, excited, and set off in a completely different direction. A few minutes later we came to a clearing and waterhole, deserted except for a proud male impala. “Just wait, they’re coming,” he whispered. The impala was on high alert, but completely unaware of the cunning, sharp-fanged pack of danger that was about to end his life.

If you're lucky a mokoro canoe will bring you eye-to-eye with hippos

If you’re lucky a mokoro canoe will bring you eye-to-eye with hippos

Such a handsome being, and his life seconds were running out. Mentally I was shouting, “Run, run!” I deeply resented the dogs and the natural order of life. Suddenly he knew, and sprang away, sprinting and leaping at high speed. The dogs burst into the clearing and then raced out – but they’d lost that intense, hunting focus. Ears back, tails down and looking alarmed, suddenly <they> were on the run.

Timmy was now on a different hunt altogether. What had spooked the dogs? We were off again – in another random direction, away from all the action. He was scanning the trees as we drove, looking to the birds for signs. At a cluster of surprised giraffe he took a sharp turn off-road – they had told him what he needed. “There!”

The Ultimate Safari Prize

Striding haughtily out from between the bushes, without a glance at the insignificance of us, was a magnificent male leopard. In the middle of nowhere, Timmy had tracked down one of the ultimate safari prizes.

We spent a remarkable 10 minutes with that beautiful leopard, following behind as he stalked through the scrub. (That’s another advantage of the lodge experience – because the concessions are private, there are very few vehicles, so going off-road occasionally for good reason doesn’t overly damage the terrain.)

Notoriously shy, wild dogs on the hunt are a rare sight

Notoriously shy, wild dogs on the hunt are a rare sight

The leopard finally came to a waterhole and we watched quietly and in awe as he had a long drink. He wasn’t actually hunting the dogs, although he’d certainly frightened them. For now at least, impala, dog and leopard were all at peace.

In the stillness, we could his tongue lapping the water, before he sauntered past the vehicle, so close I could have run my hand down his back. But as inconsequential outsiders in his space, he didn’t so much as look at us – and that’s just as it should be.

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The Essentials

When To Go: The best time to go is from about May/June to September/October, when the floodwaters from the Angolan highlands have filled the Delta. It’s also winter, so temperatures are marginally cooler.

What to Pack: If you’re flying in to lodges, the planes are small and can’t accommodate rigid suitcases – so take a soft duffel bag. And avoid blue and black clothing – in the bush, the tsetse flies love those colours, and they pack a painful bite.

Safety: The Delta is a malaria area, so ask your doctor about malaria pills. Don’t loiter under sausage trees: their seedpods can be 40 to 50cm long and weigh up to seven kilos!

Try A Mokoro: At least once, try a traditional dugout canoe (now mostly fibreglass to save the trees). But don’t expect to see much game at water and reed level. However, you will see the most beautiful lilies, abundant bird life and, if you’re lucky, tiny, intricately patterned reed frogs.

Chitabe Camp is located on an island

Chitabe Camp is located on an island

The Camp life

Chitabe Camp: Set on an island in the southeast of the Okavango Delta, this camp has a faintly steampunk feel, thanks to a major revamp towards the end of 2018. Contemporary decor is matched with iron balustrades, wood-and-iron stools to game-watch from the deck, and cladding – repurposed from the old walkways – that almost looks studded.

While the main camp area has modern straight lines, the new raised paths to the spacious tents weave through a mini forest, packed with birdlife. If a safari feels too lazy and relaxed, there’s also a lap pool and gym, both overlooking the water. Chitabe can be reached by crossing two bridges when the Delta is flooded.

Savuti Camp: This camp is elegant and airy, with eight stylish tents under thatch, each with huge windows and decks overlooking the water. An early morning spent bird-watching (or hippo- and elephant-watching) from your private deck is a real treat.

The main area opens onto the same water channel, with a deliciously chilly pool deck and open, contemporary dining and lounge areas where you can eat under the stars. Savuti is in the private Linyanti concession area just south of the Caprivi Strip, along the Savute Channel.

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The open decks at Chitabe are perfect for animal spotting

The open decks at Chitabe are perfect for animal spotting

Getting There 

Fly: SAA flies daily to Livingstone and Victoria Falls from Johannesburg, while SAA code-share partner SA Airlink flies daily to Maun. From those centres, you can book a small charter plane – or you can explore the Delta on your own, hiring a camper van and using the national park campsites.

Fully kitted camper vehicles are available for hire in all three centres. From Maun, drive into Moremi Game Reserve in the heart of the Okavango Delta. From Victoria Falls and Livingstone, you can drive into the Chobe National Park. From there you can cross into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip to visit Mamili (Nkasa Lupala) National Park.

Words by Adélle Horler

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