“That’s a runway?” I asked in disbelieving tones as the pilot set our Cessna 206 into a very steep dive towards what can only be described as an overgrown menagerie.
Elephants turned momentarily from chewing on trees to brandish their angry tusks at us whilst a small herd of zebra bolted for cover, kicking up spray as they went.
“Yes, I do believe it is” she replied calmly, one eye on the impending ground, the other on a map of Botswana’s Okavango Delta which was blue tacked to the window.
“But it doesn’t look as if they’ve cut the grass in a while”
The flight up to the Selinda private concession just north of the world’s biggest inland delta, had been a visual treat bar none, what with all of the wet and wondrous scenery on display. The flooded fields, swamps, lakes and channels of the Okavango are particularly stunning when viewed from above, especially when one adds to it the spectacle of hundreds of elephants ploughing through the shallows like barges.
“Ok, one more 360” said the pilot, cool as a cucumber “And as long as that chap down there has shooed away the wildlife, we’ll be good and safe to land”
I craned me neck and peered down at the landing strip where a khaki clad gentlemen was running around waving his hands above his head scattering hornbills and guineafowl at his feet.
Later that afternoon, after a brief rest in my tent on the banks of the Selinda Spillway (a 70km long offshoot of the delta) I bumped into Matt Copham, a large and burley lad who was busying himself with a pile of canvas bags, ice boxes and canoes.
On an overhanging bough above his head, a pair of African fish eagles bickered tunefully over a dead bream, whilst upstream no more than a hundred meters away, a single file cavalcade of elephants crossed the water with stately grace.
“I trust you are ready for our canoe adventure?” asked Matt with a wry, and knowing smile.
“We’re the first group to attempt the spillway this year and who knows what we’ll find out there”
I looked at the elephants, who were splashing around and having a lark, and I looked at the eagles who had commenced to eating their fish.
A lion roared somewhere close by, a hyena giggled in response; a hippo snorted and the elephants played a mariachi tune.
Yes, indeed I was ready.
Where the wild things are
The Selinda spillway, up which we would be traveling, is quite the phenomena in this neck of the woods. For more than thirty years it has been as dry as bone, but just last year the heavens opened up and the Okavango River (the source of the floodplains) flowed like it has never flowed before.
“For the first time in 32 years it is possible to canoe the entire length of the Selinda Spillway” said Matt
Later, as we gently paddled over glassy waters, so still they reflected the sky in perfect symmetry, Matt filled me in on the dos and don’ts of surviving the trail.
“There will be no crocodiles and very few hippos along our route” he told me “But if we do have an encounter, the protocol is to stay as close to the margins as possible. Should he display and act aggressively, we should leave, and should he attack and topple us, then we must calmly swim to the bank and depart post haste”
‘Sh*t!’ I thought quietly to myself.
Hippos, although benign and comical in appearance, are rather thug like in their attitude towards humans, and consequently they send more people to their graves than crocodiles, lions, and leopards combined.:- A stat that was most certainly foremost in my mind when we chanced upon one of the great lumbering beasts in a deep and sultry pool.
“Remember to stay close to the margins” Matt advised, as the hippo’s dark and menacing head vanished beneath the murk.
A row of little bubbles appeared at the surface, charting the animals sub-aquatic trajectory towards us.
“Easy, easy” cautioned Matt “Wait for it wait for it. NOW, a little more vigor with the paddles if you would” and with that we rounded the corner just as the giant beast exploded from the water, tusks scything at the air.
“What did I tell you” said a chuckling Matt as I nibbled my nails “They’re cheeky little buggers”
Later that day I learned from Matt, that we were not in any real danger whatsoever, and that territorial bull hippos will usually display in this manner.
Fortunately the majority of the stretches over which we traveled were uneventful and mercifully shallow (far too shallow for a hippo at least) and at times it was possible to escape the tropical heat by taking a dip in the delta’s beautifully clear waters.
I snorkeled for a bit, and watched on amazed by the fish and frogs I found swimming around the branches of submerged bushes and shrubs; locations where only weeks previous, birds would have likely been nesting.
“Nobody knows how long the Spillway will stay open” Matt told me as we navigated a particularly stunning section of river. It was late afternoon and the setting sun had cast a pink and orange glow over the underside of the clouds; a scene which was mirrored in perfection upon the waters surface.
“It may dry up by the end of the year or it may stay open. We just don’t know. But what I can tell you, is that this trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something very few people have done or will be able to do again”
He then went on to explain that, even if the spillway continues to flow, it will soon become clogged with papyrus, lilies; and hippos, none of which are conducive of an agreeable canoe trip.
“But for now, and for a while at least” said Matt as our oars dipped into the clouds “Its open and its pleasant”
And I couldn’t have agreed more, in spite of the occasional hippo scare, sun burn and mosquito bite.
Each evening we hauled out to a ready made fly camp (usually on an island) where the Selinda Reserve staff had set up tents around a crackling fire; and each morning we arose to a glorious sunrise and a mug of hot steaming coffee.
The camp chef (who accompanied us in his own canoe) was a culinary master who could rustle up a variety of five star servings hot from the fire coals.
Roughing it, this was not, but regardless of the fine wines and comfortable mattresses, sleep did not come easily.
A little night music
The delta symphony typically begins with the song of a thousand million frogs, all of them shouting for sex and all of them doing it so very, very loudly. Toads then join the orchestra as do a variety of nocturnal birds such as owls and nightjars.
The midnight tenors are most frequently taken care of by a variety of bats, crickets and mosquitoes whilst the baritones are the work of territorial hippos and arrogant leopards.
All in all, its an amazing sonata; one that often peaks with a lion’s roar, the cracking of bones and the pushing over of a tree by an elephant.
Nature is not peaceful in the delta:- Its noisy and rambunctious and behaves a bit like a teenager. Tranquil it is not, but charming and exhilarating it most certainly is.
And so that’s how it was for the next couple of days; a slow drift over a flooded world where the ever present chance of encountering an elephant, buffalo and hippo keeps one from drifting off themselves. And by night? The warmth of a fire and the sound of Africa’s untamed denizens shagging and eating each other.
A farewell to hippos
Our last night on the trail was possibly one of the most nerve-racking , yet paradoxically fantastic evenings of my life, for the camp had been erected on a wooded island criss-crossed by numerous well used hippo trails.
The evening had been so full of hippopotamus belly laughs and the sound of lumbering beasts passing within meters of my tent that I hardly slept a wink. It was fun though.
Come morning however, I and our little group of intrepid canoeists had had their fill of untamed Africa and her outspoken ways, and when Matt announced over breakfast that we only had but a few kilometers to go (and that those few kilometers would be plagued by deep channels infested with hippos) we all opted to opt out.
The sunrise brought with it a magnificent scene of still water full of hippos spouting steam like overworked pressure cookers. Elephants browsed on the far bank and birds of all descriptions waded on the water’s edges.
It was Africa in its best and purest form, and as we drove away from the water in the back of a safari vehicle, I looked over my shoulder at the Selinda Spillway and could almost see the reeds moving in and closing it up, just like the curtains on a stage show’s final act.
Perhaps I will be the last person to canoe this trail. Perhaps the spillway will remain open for decades. But nobody knows this for sure. Not even the hippos
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