A Journey by Air, Water and Road in the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta has been described as ‘Africa’s Last Eden’ – the world’s largest inland delta where desert meets swamp.

Note: This journey took place several months before the global COVID-19 outbreak and no travel was undertaken during lockdown periods in any country. 

“It won’t start, it is too hot,” grins the pilot unapologetically, turning the engine key of the tiny light aircraft. He looks about 15 and is unaware of me behind him – claustrophobic and sweaty – wiping palms on legs that stick clammily to the seat. This relaxed young man advises us to open the tiny windows as he attempts to start the plane again. It is blisteringly hot in the confined space. He has a few more goes with the ignition key; the engine starts and the plane finally takes off, juddering and bumping over the air pockets. He is part of a new generation of pilots in Botswana, a move on the country’s part to train local pilots and create jobs. It is a reaction to the many foreign pilots who come to the country to notch up their flying hours.

Plane view of the Okavango delta waterways.

Before long, the plane is flying high over the vast and marshy wetlands, the hot wind blowing in our faces through the windows of the aircraft. I am soaring over the Okavango Delta, glittering in the heart of the Kalahari. It’s been described as ‘Africa’s Last Eden’ – the world’s largest inland delta where desert meets swamp. Lines of elephants cross the winding waterways. Herds of zebras and impalas graze on the land. A few giraffes break into a lazy trot as I watch from high above. There are excited shouts every time something is spotted. This soon stops, because there is too much to look at. It is an hour of pure magic, flying over this oasis teeming with a vast complexity of life.

It’s been a complicated journey getting to this part of the world. Many years of travel have led me to a personal realisation though. No place that has taken my breath away has ever been easy, cheap or quick to get to. I have arrived tired from England via South Africa, where the pilot warns us of the importance of staying safe in Johannesburg.

The journey carries on to Zimbabwe, and I wake at 4 am to catch the sun rise over the grandeur of the Victoria Falls. Seeing the orange globe come up over the thundering waterfall – deserted and misty in the in the cool morning air – has been a deeply spiritual encounter. We make it back to the hotel in time for the bus, which will take a group of us on the long drive into Botswana. We are glad to be back, unnerved by encounters with the creepy and aggressive gangs of baboons that swarm the car parks and trinket shops near the Falls.

Sunrise over the Victoria falls.

Several hours after we set out, we leave Zimbabwe to cross into Botswana. The roads are pristine, if dusty. China has played a major role in recent years to help Botswana develop its major roads. We are made to get off the bus as boots must be cleaned in chemical tubs to avoid carrying in disease. The guide teaches us to greet the immigration officials respectfully – Dumela Mma or Dumela Rra (Hello Ma’am or Hello Sir). Enthusiasts of the vastly popular Number One Ladies Detective Agency stories set in Botswana will be familiar with the greeting. Passports are stamped and we enter Botswana.

Sunset at Chobe national park.

That evening, we go on a sunset boat ride in Chobe national park. Cans of beer and bottles of wine are opened as the sun sets, and the cool evening breeze rolls in. This is a very mellow way to watch the wildlife of Botswana go by. Elephants amble down to the water, as we watch from an open boat. Lanky giraffes stroll away into the scrub as dusk falls. As we move on, we see a dead elephant by the water, decomposing slowly in the humid air. A crocodile lurks silently by its side – primal and immobile. It is waiting for the elephant to putrefy, so it can tear through the thick skin and feed. The park guides tell us that have seen this elephant a few days previously, staggering and shaking by the water. They have reason to believe it has succumbed to anthrax, a deadly infectious bacterial disease, which has been carried down in the delta waters from Angola. It is a violent image that stays with me.

Boat ride up close to elephants.

Crocodile waiting near decomposing elephant.

We see herds of impalas, elegant antelopes with distinctive twisted horns. They are everywhere. The guide tells us that they can delay giving birth if the rains are late arriving. This is a fascinating bit of information but when I look into it further, isn’t really supported by the science. In fact, researchers believe that the lambs may actually be aborted or abandoned in dry weather by the mothers, and are therefore never seen. On the other hand, female impalas may give birth early with plentiful rain, simply because the foetuses are better developed with the food more abundant. This could have led to the widespread belief that female impalas are smart enough to change their birth patterns in response to the rains.

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Impalas with distinctive horns.

The boat ride into the delta is fun and sociable, certainly a must for wildlife buffs. It is a somewhat tame experience for the adventurous traveller. By far the most exciting way to see Okavango up close is to travel into the delta in a shallow dugout canoe – called a mokoro by the locals. These traditional wooden canoes, now generally made of fibreglass, were used for transport and hunting by the people of Botswana. Members of the local communities row you into the delta on a mokoro journey, expertly using only a narrow pole to navigate the waters. We will be camping overnight so tents and provisions must be carried in with us. It takes a long time to load up the canoes while we wait.

Our mokoro polers have extraordinary names. Big Dog is leading the team and his name is proudly painted on the side of his mokoro. The guide has encouraged us to be friendly, to ask the polers about their families and the origin of their names. Wanting to bond, I ask our poler – Boyes – what his name means. “I don’t know,” he replies truthfully, terminating that conversation.

Mokoro ride into the Okavango delta.

The makoro sets off silently through the tangled reeds and secluded waterways. I am happy and completely at peace, taking in the delta fanning out on either side. There is only the rhythmic sound of the pole and the water streaming past, as I lie on my back looking at the cloudless sky, only a few inches above the water.

Half an hour in, the polers suddenly slow down as we start to hear loud grunts. They seem edgy and speak rapidly among each other. They have been saying what sounds like eepologoon, eepologoon for a few minutes now. I don’t know what it means but don’t bother to ask, dazed in the soporific heat. As we round a bend in the water, I sit up with a surge of adrenaline, heart sinking when I realise they mean Hippo Lagoon. And indeed there is a whole row of hippos ahead of us, only their large, bulbous eyes visible above the water surface. There must be at least six of them, and for the first time on the trip, I become very nervous.

Row of hippos in the delta.

I know full well that none of the myths about hippos being sluggish herbivores – gentle and somewhat comical giants – are true. In fact, they are very dangerous – aggressive and highly agile. Research shows that hippos will kill and eat other animals. They aren’t above cannibalising each other either. Many consider the hippo to be the continent’s most dangerous animal. Although the exact numbers aren’t known, some believe they kill more people every year than lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos all put together. Get too close and a hippo can overturn a boat, drag you into the water, gore you, then bite your head off, drawing your African adventure to a close.

These fun facts on my laptop now take on worrying significance, confronted with a line of hippos in the water 25 metres away. I have rarely felt so vulnerable, wobbling in the shaky tub that is a mokoro. That big, gaping yawn isn’t sleepiness – it is a territorial gesture, a sign the hippo feels under threat. Slowly, the polers begin to back away as the hippos grunt violently. Discretion is very much the better part of valour as we back off to take another route, my heart still thudding unpleasantly as the sounds recede from us.

A camp is set up for the night and it is snug in the tents that have a little window to look out of. Toilet pits are dug behind the camp for bodily functions. I have a crack at rowing the mokoro and one of the polers instructs me. It is surprisingly difficult and my respect for our navigators soars further. Poling is reminiscent of my lazy graduate student summer days punting on the Isis in Oxford. Only harder and in much greater heat and humidity; and with many more things around that can kill you. Balancing upright on the mokoro, without falling into the muddy water, is the first major challenge. I am triumphant when I have moved a mere 10 metres at the end of 30 minutes, and give up exhausted. Apparently, it can take up to five years to become a proficient poler. At night there is a campfire and songs are sung after dinner, under the starlight. I need to keep reminding myself we are in the middle of nowhere in this vast delta.

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Elephant charge at the camp.

The next morning, we eat breakfast and make preparations to leave. Talk starts to spread that a wild elephant has been seen approaching our camp. The guide walks out to investigate. As we wait to see what happens, somewhat tense, a huge elephant wanders onto the camp site. It sees us and stops, its ears fanning out, a warning sign that it is about to charge. It lowers its head and runs a few steps toward us. My own instinct is to turn and run away as fast as I can in the opposite direction. The guide shouts at us, “Don’t run, Whatever you do now, don’t run. Stand. Stand.” He has told us that an elephant’s eyesight is not very good, that they can only see about 20 metres. That we look like a dark blur to them, indistinguishable from a bush really. This is very little consolation when I know that their other senses are excellent.

We stand motionless, as instructed, staring at the elephant; it stares back at us. After a few minutes, it starts to walk away as the guide says relieved, “That’s it – that was a mock charge.” Five minutes later, a terrified Big Dog can be seen running towards us at high speed. He has been taking a nap in his tent, and has awakened to find the elephant looming near the tent door. Big Dog has abandoned his composure, his manly pride, and simply legged it. We are concerned for his welfare but the guide is hugely entertained by Big Dog’s misfortune, and laughs for a long time. He returns to the story quite a few times on the rest of the trip.

We spend one memorable night in Elephant Sands, a unique bush lodge and campsite in Maun. The tents and lodges are dotted all around a natural watering hole for elephants. A bar and pool directly overlook the watering hole. There aren’t many bars in this world where you can have a bar-side swim, a stone’s throw from wild elephants as they shake their trunks and crowd around the muddy water. An overpowering smell of elephant dung pervades the hot air which is less alluring. Scores of elephants lumber to and from the site all day. Our accommodation is a sort of sophisticated tent on stilts. A balcony offers some relief from the overwhelming heat, and there is a small trickle of water to shower in the bath area. All night long there are rustles and loud trumpeting as the elephants walk past the tents and lodges to the water. I lie awake for a long time listening to their movements.

Pool bar near elephant watering hole.

We continue our journey westwards across the Kalahari desert. Shortly before we cross into Namibia, we are offered a one of its kind chance to meet the San people, known more popularly as the ‘Kalahari Bushmen’ (from the Dutch Bosjesman). The term ‘Bushman’ is widely regarded as offensive; it’s a controversial area. News stories over the years have shone a bleak spotlight on the piteous conditions in which many indigenous tribes now live, trying unsuccessfully to integrate their ancient ways of life into a rapidly changing world. Similar stories of a desperate struggle for survival repeat across the world.

San community member.

Against this backdrop, the San people stand out for the sheer tragedy and violence of their history. The original hunter gatherers of Southern Africa, the San are some of the oldest peoples on earth. Some researchers suggest that they have inhabited the region for over 40,000 years. A nomadic lifestyle has meant they historically moved from place to place, following the availability of game and water, with a deep and profound bond to the lands they wandered.

As far back as the 1600s, these tribes were hunted almost to extinction by European settlers, sometimes for sport. Over and over, 19th and early 20th century writers and travellers to the region wrote of them in words laden with the language of dehumanisation. Described as “puny” and having an “animal-like’ physiognomy”, they lacked the much admired stature of African tribes such as the Zulus. They were typified as “brutish, lazy and stupid.” The missionary David Livingstone wrote in 1850 that “the Bushmen of the desert are perhaps the most degraded specimens of the human family.” These views had the backing of 19th century scientific notions of racial supremacy.

Many were sold into slavery or displayed alive at fairs. Their exhibits were a popular attraction in museums. As recently as 2000, the government of Spain returned the remains of the body of a stuffed male from Southern Africa to Botswana. He had been displayed half naked for most of the 20th century, incorrectly labelled ‘Bushman of the Kalahari’ – a grotesque curiosity to be gawped and laughed at by curious onlookers.

The passage of time didn’t make for a tale with a happier ending. From the 1980s, the San people have been threatened and forced off their land in the Kalahari, in mass clearances by the government. These large scale evictions were likely fuelled by the discovery of diamonds in the Kalahari, ripe for large diamond companies to move onto the land, as its people were moved off. Today, many of the San people live dispossessed in settlement camps, a precarious existence dependent on government handouts and tourism. Hardly anything remains of their original way of life, their ancient survival skills of little value in our fast paced world. Unable to cope, many of their communities are racked by alcoholism, mental illness and AIDS.

Making a fire with friction.

Traditional dance around the fire at night.

We meet a group of them, men and women, near our lodge. They are small built and dignified and seem very happy to meet us. When they speak, it is with distinctive and implosive clicking sounds. We walk into the bush with them. They point out plants that may protect against malaria, another to promote fertility. There are leaves that are ground up into a paste and inserted into a cut on the back – a treatment for back pain, they explain. The cure seems far worse than the ailment. They show us how to make a friction fire – tough to execute and a much coveted skill on TV survival programmes. They give us a seed to eat which explodes unnervingly in the mouth, and show us an enormous ostrich eggshell to carry water.

At night, they reappear at the lodge and perform several dances for us around the fire, inviting us to join in. It is a tired and much rehearsed performance for tourists, a means to scrape together a living. Sick at heart watching this forced display, I long for it to be over. It is hard to imagine a time when these gentle people were free to wander the Kalahari, unafraid. It is our last day in Botswana and ends on a heartbreaking note.

Next day we pack and move on to Namibia, a journey of a few hours to the capital city of Windhoek (pronounced Wind-hook). It is a featureless and rather uninspiring city, and not considered particularly safe. The food is outstanding though, and I am treated to some of the best steak I have eaten so far. It is time to leave, via Windhoek and Johannesburg to return to the UK. Others in the group will be carrying on through the Nabib desert, to see the lions and the violent desert storms. Work commitments and deadlines mean I have to leave it all unseen for the moment and depart miserable. It will now have to wait for the end of coronavirus and another day.

All images by Sanjeev Ramesar, a nuclear engineer in Canada with a passion for photography and adventure travel.

Divya Maitreyi Chari is a neuroscientist and professor of neural tissue engineering at the Keele Medical School in the UK. She has previously published articles on a jungle survival course in British Guyana, travels in Patagonia and the Galapagos islands and along the Bhutan-Tibet border.