The river that lost its way

The river that lost its way

It’s the hippo you can’t see that you need to be worried about. 

On a boat in the Okavango Delta, our engine idling gently, we were spending a few quiet minutes at the end of an afternoon’s speedboat safari, watching a pod of half-a-dozen hippo laze on the surface. They were doing what hippos do during the day, which is a lot of not much at all. Snort, bare teeth, check for unwanted guests and then sink beneath the water… a hippo’s day is by and large a lazy one spent waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and grazing time to begin.

But then the male disappeared. 

The grumpy male. 

The dominant bull that had lost an ear in a fight for territory, and that didn’t take kindly to tourists cruising across his patch of water. 

Our skipper Grant – one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle – scanned the surface for telltale bubbles of the patriarch running underwater. 

There was no time for bubbles. Metres from the boat, a wave broke the surface of the still lagoon between the reed beds. Waves in the Okavango, I hear you ask? Well, only when a ton-and-a-half of unhappy hippo charges your boat. Before the hippo got close Grant, quick as a flash, gunned the engine and we left the hippo in our wake. Nervous smiles all round as we headed for home. 

Home, in this case, was Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp; perhaps my favourite of the four Okavango lodges run by respected safari operator &Beyond on private concessions surrounding the world-famous Moremi Wildlife Reserve. I’ve stayed at safari lodges from Namibia to Kenya and – given the chance to return to just one spot – I’d book a flight back to Xaranna any day of the week. 

Set on a permanent channel of the Okavango Delta, Xaranna’s nine en-suite safari tents are decorated in a chic modern style that’s a far-fry from the hackneyed ‘Out of Africa’ theme so common to safari lodges. Carved wooden hippos smile broadly at their watery brethren from the main deck, while hand-woven baobabs echo the real deal out across the channel.

This is a camp that’s classic, but playful, with Jackalberry trees and canvas roofs sheltering safari suites where a jar of freshly made marshmallow nougat sits happily alongside the makings of a traditional gin and tonic. In each suite, out on the deck beyond the outdoor shower, a private plunge pool overlooks the channels where Red Lechwe leap between the reeds and African Fish Eagles scan the eddies for the telltale circles of fish rising. 

There is no shortage of luxury here, but few people fly across the world to stay in a great hotel room. Rather, the real magic of the Okavango is to be found out there… if you can imagine me gesturing an arm towards 25 000 hectares of pristine Delta wilderness. 

Twenty-five thousand hectares: that’s the size of the private concession Xaranna enjoys; shared by just 18 guests at any one time. Any safari-goer who’s endured the 4x4 queues of Kenya’s Maasai Mara, or the busy gravel tracks of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, will appreciate how unique that level of privacy is. 

And unique is a word that can be applied easily to the magnificent eco-system that is the Okavango. 

For starters it’s the world’s largest inland delta, formed not by heavy seasonal rains as most suspect, but rather by a river that lost its way. From its source 1600-kilometres away in the highlands of Angola, the Kavango River meanders eastwards, searching for the Limpopo River that will lead it to the Indian Ocean. However, that escape was cut off millions of years ago, and today the floodwaters that arrive in Botswana from May to August trickle away beneath the sands of the Kalahari Desert. 

From September the floodwaters begin receding and the land dries out. By now it’s been months since the summer rains, and wildlife flocks to the permanent channels in search of grazing and fresh water. Game viewing is perhaps at its best then, although the desiccated landscape is crying out for rain. 

Those seasonal rains arrive with a clap of thunder and jagged lightning from October and – in good, wet years – soaks the plains with regular afternoon thunderstorms until April. As the rains peter out, the floods begin their inexorable march southwards again as the cycle repeats itself. 

It’s a land constantly in flux, which means there are really no bad times to visit the Delta. The Okavango is a capricious place – shifting, restless and fidgety – but regardless of when you travel you’ll be amazed at the diversity of wildlife and adventure on offer. 

Like exploring the channels in traditional mekoro, for example.  

It was at Xaranna’s sister-camp – the equally impressive Xudum Okavango Delta Lodge, 30 minutes away by speed boat – that I first set foot in one of these flat-bottomed traditional canoes poled along by one of the lodge’s expert guides. 

Traditionally mekoro were carved from tree trunks, although today the modern fibreglass versions provide a more stable ride for the daily excursions through the reed beds, slipping along as silently as the African Jacanas padding daintily across the lilies. As we pole, Squacco Herons splash noisily out of our way, while towards the fringes of the channels a technicolour Saddle-billed Stork hunts patiently for frogs. 

We’re also hunting amphibians, and keep a keen eye out for the Painted Reed Frogs that hang like iridescent jewels on the tips of waving papyrus. It’s all a welcome distraction from a rather sobering fact: hippos barrelling between their daytime lagoons and nocturnal grazing grounds have carved the crystal-clear channels we’re exploring in our fragile dugouts.

Guides jokingly call them the ‘Hippo Highways’, but are quick to reassure me that there is a gentleman’s agreement in place: the hippo use them at night, and guides and guests explore them by day. As we pole back to shore I find myself hoping they are ungulates of their word. 

While Xudum and Xaranna both embrace the watery wonderland of the Delta, my first stop in the Delta was some distance to the east. 

&Beyond’s Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge may be an easy 20-minute flight away, but has an entirely different energy. Here you feel the bush, not the delta, and although a permanent channel runs through a thick bed of papyrus not far from the understated safari-suites, the superb game drives outshine the water activities here. 

It’s an ideal combination: while Xaranna and Xudum are remarkable for their bird-watching, mekoro rides and speedboat safaris, the game viewing may leave first-timers hoping to tick off the Big Five disappointed. At Sandibe, however, even seasoned safari travellers will be impressed. 

Dawn and dusk game drives allow for plenty of time exploring the 8000-hectare concession, and even my few short days threw up some memorable safari-firsts: a pride of lions with young cubs, hyena hunted by the pride’s two males, and an African Wild Cat stalking carefully at dusk. The birding was excellent too: in the waterlogged roads at the end of the rainy season we spotted both Lesser Jacana and Wattled Crane, sightings rare enough to get any twitcher excited.

As we trundled back into camp the fires had already been lit in the boma, and the skillets were sizzling with dinner. This might be the bush, but there’s no shortage of civilised home comforts with three-course meals, and fine wines brought up from South Africa. 

In the darkness, we could just make out the sound of a lion calling. Probably a male looking for his pride, someone mused, as we watched the Epauletted Fruit Bats leave their roost for the night and flap noiselessly into the gloaming.  

At night, the Okavango was alive with the sounds of the bush, as frogs, birds and wildlife kept up their evensong. A Coppery-tailed Coucal trilled in the nearby channel, and I wondered what the Delta would deliver for us the following day. This may be the river that lost its way, but sitting next to that crackling fire of Knobthorn Acacia, I was certainly glad I’d found my way to Sandibe. 

Need to know

  • How to get there: From Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport both Air Botswana and Airlink offer direct flights to Maun; the main hopping-off point for the Delta. From Maun it's a 15-20 minute flight by light aircraft to most lodges, and then a short 4x4/boat ride, depending on water levels.
  • Health: The Okavango Delta is a malaria area. Consult your travel clinic for advice on prophylactics at least three weeks before travelling. 
  • Visas: Passport-holders of the United Kingdom, USA, South Africa and most European Union countries do not require a visa to visit Botswana. For more information visit www.botswanaembassy.org
  • Bookings: For more information and reservations, visit www.andbeyond.com or call +27 11 809 4300.
First Published: 2013-07-01 Destinations of the World

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.