The Okavango Delta is a one of a kind, must-see phenomenon for anyone traveling to Botswana. Being the largest inland river delta also means it has one of Africa’s highest concentrations of wildlife! It’s enough to make any safari lover’s heart beat faster. Ours included, to be sure!
Alone the bird’s eye view of the Okavango Delta (much of it only accessible by small plane) is an impressive experience! Spread over some 20,000 km², the swamps, rivers, channels, water meadows and lagoons of this wetlands form a vast oasis surrounded by mostly barren desert. We couldn’t agree more that such a place richly deserves its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Wildlife watching in the Okavango Delta
Even during the dry season, the delta’s pools and channels remain filled with water, which naturally attracts all manner of wildlife in large numbers and so it can boast of one of the highest year-round concentrations of wildlife anywhere on the planet. And with more than 400 kinds of birds in all sizes making themselves heard here, it’s also a “birder’s” paradise!
We quickly learn to recognize birders by their giant telescope lenses. They use them to zoom the often small birds to considerable size — in total contrast to yours truly: I make do with a comparatively modest 200x mini-telescope. But then I’m after bigger game…
Kambango, our guide from Tubu Tree Camp (click here to open our review in a new window) driving us from the airstrip to the camp soon realizes that in our case he is not dealing with “serious birders,” because when he points out a (small) owl to us, it takes me several minutes even with the jeep halted before I finally catch sight of the feathered creature in a treetop.
This would never happen with a “serious birder” (Kambango’s affectionate term for bird lovers)… but because there is so much plumage to marveled at here, it can take him a good hour to ferry them the short distance to camp!
In this way, Kambango establishes quickly that our preference is for the larger quadrupeds as opposed to wildlife on the wing. Still, the Marabou stork, which is classed among the Ugly Five, does somehow fascinate me. This homely fellow looks like some parts were left out during final assembly :-)
Rare leopard sightings…
We were not on our first safari here in the Okavango Delta: we got our safari chops a few years back in Kenya and South Africa where we observed wildlife without end. And we had arrived here directly from Chobe National Park (click here to open our video reportage in a new window), which is reputed to have the absolute highest wildlife density of them all.
But never up to this point in our safari career had we encountered a leopard.
So, when Kambango asked what we would like to see, I said only half-jokingly “a leopard would be great…” — since we already had checked off plenty of elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, lions and other game.
He treated it as a joke, too, noting with a loud laugh that leopards indeed are very secretive and masterfully camouflaged, hence rarely seen.
We know, we know. No problem. Just kidding, man!
But the next thing we know, Kambango gets on the radio with his colleagues in a remote part of the bush talking east and south in a wild English-local dialect mix and then puts the gas pedal to the metal. Just so we all are on the same page: nowhere are there any guideposts in sight here, much less road signs, just a few faint tracks in the dirt. But somehow he seems to know exactly in which direction we need to tear along in such determined fashion. All we can do is hold on to our hats and cameras and let ourselves be shaken and stirred every which way in our seats.
When Kambango comes to a skidding stop after a short but hair-raising road race through the rough terrain and the dust settles, there it is: A LEOPARD OUT IN THE OPEN!
We should have known from Kambango’s mischievous smile that conjuring up a leopard would not be much of a challenge for him — although he didn’t let on. In hindsight, we also know why: he closely monitors their tracks in the dust every morning and evening so that he knows which animals have gone where and when.
We got pretty good at it ourselves after a few days of “sign reading” practice. Well, sort of. At least it was not long before we could definitely tell elephants footprints from tire tread marks.
But at times Kambango was even able to tell us how fresh the tracks were and that the big cats must be nearby, to which we could only lamely smile. That isn’t really possible – or is it? Katja and I looked at each other knowingly, both of us thinking “talk is cheap — prove it!”
To our total astonishment, our tracker takes only a few minutes each time to find leopards, lions, or even cheetahs, which aren’t even supposed to frequent the area! This is how he put it each time:
“Look, here are fresh tracks. They must have come this way a short while ago…Oh, there they are!”
And then he would point unerringly to a spot in the grass, or a bush, or tree. Or some place or other where there was nothing to be seen.
Each time, we pull terribly interested faces. But he realizes quickly from our screwed-up eyes and disoriented camera pointing that he has to drive even closer. And then we reach a point where even we are able to distinguish the amazingly camouflaged big cats from the tall grass!
Here are some more easily identifiable leopards…
Besides the rare(?) leopards, they tally countless other animals here, such as wildebeest, Cape hunting dogs, lions, giraffes, elephants, baboons, etc.
But then they have plenty of water here besides…
On the water in a mokoro dugout
Another high point is to ride the Okavango Delta in a mokoro dugout, basically a four-meter long flat bottomed canoe. These watercraft used for fishing were formerly hewn out of the trunks of kigelia trees (aka sausage trees). Today they are made of fiberglass to keep the big trees from being cut down.
In the flat Okavango Delta, the dugouts can be slowly poled across the water; the motion is reminiscent of a gondola ride in Venice. Well, they actually poke along more than they row, but in any event we glide silently and gently through the channels lined with reeds and water lilies… marvelous!
As long as we don’t run into some ill-tempered hippo…
Many thanks to…
…our guide Kambango, who took us up close to the beauty and uniqueness of the Okavango Delta and gave us three first-rate safari days!