“A nice place for Ducks and catfish,” I thought to myself as my pilot, clenched of jaw and sweating of brow, shook our little Cessna in and out of a swirling maelstrom of cloud.
Thick curtains of precipitation blocked out the horizon, lightning jabbed at us, and raindrops hissed against the cockpit like angry wasps.
Below, Botswana’s Okavango Delta glistened like a mirror, reflecting and fusing the turbulent sky above with a flooded landscape of emerald hues and silvery blues, all of which were criss-crossed by myriad game trails.
There were olive coloured islets down there, pea green water channels, shallow lakes, submerged trees, snaking streams and grassy swamps.
There were also elephants, pushing their way through waist deep water like a flotilla of barges.
It was stunning. But it was also very wet!
“Now, take my advice Dale” I have been told “Don’t go to Botswana in the rainy season (November to April) The vegetation will be overgrown and you won’t see any animals, You’ll get wet and you’ll also get eaten alive by mosquitoes”
And this from ‘experts’ who go there every year.
But talk to any well-informed travel agent and you’ll get a completely different yarn
“The Emerald season is perhaps the best time to go” they will tell you “The prices are much, much lower and the animals are at their healthiest. There are more birds to see and there are cubs and fawns and kittens galore. The skies are also very striking at this time of year.”
I glanced once more out of the cockpit.
Yes, it was striking; striking lightning at our vulnerable little plane.
An hour or so later of white knuckle flying, my pilot commenced with his descent towards Chief’s Island, a relatively drier part of the region due to its slight elevation over the rest of the Delta.
Zebra, giraffe, and various antelope milled around on the muddy airstrip, as did warthog, elephants and a whole host of other four-legged critters.
“Look down there” I shouted over the two way to my pilot. There was a man running up the airstrip waving an umbrella frantically over his head.
“Has there been an accident?” I asked: “Is it safe to land?”
“He’s just clearing the runway of game” came the reply “Wouldn’t want to plow into a hippo now would we?”
A rhetorical question, of course….
I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth, and prayed a little silent prayer to Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of pilots.Then, all of a sudden, above the din of propellers and rain, a deep and powerful voice spoke to me from the darkness
“Good morning, Dale” it said “Welcome to paradise. You can open your eyes now.”
And so I did, half expecting to find myself standing on a cloud in front of a glowing old white bloke with a ZZ Top beard, but instead, it was the shiny round black face of Ali, a khaki-clad safari guide from Chief’s Camp’s.
We had landed.
The air outside was alive with the smell of tropical humidity; water was everywhere and indeed, as I had first surmised, this was most certainly a nice place for ducks. They were all over the place: – waddling up the runway, floating in puddles, and eyeing the airplane with quizzical looks.
“Quack,” they said. “Welcome to the Delta,” or something like that.
The mother of all swamps
On the Safari drive between the airstrip and the camp, Ali filled me in on all that is wonderful about the Delta
“Its paradise for birders during the emerald season,” he told me. “Nesting migrants flock from all over the world to take advantage of the season’s grand flush of food.”
“Insects?” I asked
“Insects!” he replied, and then changed the subject.
“Look there, It’s a common-breasted titty shrike. Very Rare! Ooh, and over there, that’s a nesting pair of thick kneed chestnut-rumped starlets” and “OMG look up LOOK UP! A crested testicular hawk. I’ve only seen four in the twenty years I’ve been guiding here.”
I tried to take it all in, but I am no birder, and the names just rolled off his tongue, into one ear and straight out of the other.
It was too wet to make notes
More thrilling to me were the elephants, dark and glistening in the wet. The Lion who shook a few liters of droplets from his mane like a dog. The zebras, the impala, the giraffes and the little cute babies.
“All this green season plant growth is perfect for lactating mothers and newborns,” said Ali. “See what I mean?”
He had stopped the open-sided safari vehicle in a grassy clearing which was brimming with juvenile baboons, spindly-legged baby impala and cute and dumpy zebra fowls who gamboled and splashed around in puddles.
Ducks swam this way and that, each pair with a cavalcade of fluffy ducklings in tow.
“All together now,” I thought to myself. “Awww!”
We moved on then, forging several streams and swamps, so deep that water, laced with tadpoles and catfish, swirled in through the open doorways.
Crocodiles scurried and splashed from our wake.
The Okavango River, the mother of all of this flooding, begins life in the Angolan highlands hundreds of miles away, but unlike nearly every other watercourse on earth, it does not eventually empty out into the sea. Instead, every year it dumps an average of eleven cubic kilometers of water into a fan shaped inland estuary measuring nearly 6000 square miles in size; an oases of incalculable lushness in the middle of the parched Kalahari.
And where does all that moisture go if not to the ocean? Well, most of it evaporates or else sinks, almost magically, down into the desert sands. But not before a billion different plants and animals have sucked up their share.
Paradoxically, when local weather is at its driest (June-August) the delta’s flood levels will be at their absolute highest; a phenomena caused by a six month time lag between Angola’s monsoons and the length of time it takes for this water to reach Botswana.
“Believe it or not,” said Ali as we pulled into Chief’s camp. “Things are really dry right now.”
I looked at the skies. The rains had stopped but there were still a few grumblings.
I looked around the camp. There were flooded fields, streams and ponds.
Yes, the Okavango Delta waters do rise and fall, but its never truly dry there.
“Quack” said some ducks.
Wet VS Dry
After a bit of overindulgence with the camp’s refreshing’ towels (you always get these at a five star lodge) and a few plates of delectable high tea nibbles, Ali and I went out by vehicle, once again into the untamed menagerie that is the Okavango Delta.
There are fewer options to go explore flooded areas by traditional canoe during the low water season, but this is offset by increased access to some seriously nice wildlife intense areas.
In some regions, you can get out on foot and walk among buffalo, eles and Lions so long as your guide is trained and licensed to carry a fire arm.
From the vehicle, we encountered elephants and leopards and rhino galore, and we had an amazing encounter with a very tame family of painted dogs who urinated over our tires. What a privilege!
‘Scarcity of wildlife’ my arse I thought to myself, thinking back to what my ‘expert’ friends had told me.
There were animals everywhere- plagues of them in fact!
“Yes, it is true that you will encounter larger quantities of game in the dry (high water) season” said Ali as we trundled off road through grassland littered with mom and baby antelope “The rising floods push many animals onto islands where they are easier to encounter. But as you have seen, that doesn’t mean the game viewing in the wet (low water) season is not amazing”
And it was!
Throughout my week long Safari in the delta, it rained. It rained quite a bit in fact, but mostly for short, intense periods in the mid afternoon. And yes, those skies were striking.
The mosquitoes weren’t that bad (considering this is a swamp) but the best thing was that my Camp, perhaps the whole of the delta, was more or less void of tourists.
I felt as if I had all those wonderfully attentive five star staff, the chef, and all of the amazing Okavango animals all to my selfish little self.
It was lovely.
On my final game drive, Ali parked us off at the scene of a killing.
Two male lions were busy nibbling on a wildebeest whilst cubs frolicked playfully among flowers or else chased dragonflies. Silky furred jackals darted in and out, grasping at mouthfuls of meet when the big cats weren’t looking.
All animals (except the unfortunate wildebeest) werein fantastic spirits and optimal health; coats all of a luster and eyes sparkling with vigor.
And that’s how it goes in the delta’s wet season. Every living thing will be vibrant and healthy and full of life. Baby animals gambol, birds nest and elephants rumble contentedly. It’s the delta’s time of plenty.
“The so much more alive here in the green season ” said Ali “That’s why its my favorite time of year”
So as I returned to the airstrip and once more took off into cloudy skies, I thought to myself yet again “Indeed, its nice for ducks and catfish at this time of year… but it’s also very nice for tourists too”
There are some 30 camps and lodges within the Okavango Delta, but sadly few, if any, can be considered budget.
The majority are five star with a five star price tag, yet prices can be almost half price if you go in the low season.
Chiefs island only has three very upmarket camps, all of which are the very epitome of luxury.
Chiefs Camp, Little Mombo, and Mombo Camp offer five star once in a lifetime experiences. Rates include all meals, game drives and other activities.
Visit www.sanctuaryretreats.com for more info and seasonal rates
Visit http://www.expertafrica.com/botswana/okavango-delta-safari-reserves/google-map for an interactive map of the various lodging options throughout the delta.