Sunday, December 30, 2018

Return to Africa - Part 5: The Okavango Delta

May 16 - 18, 2018

Okavango Delta, Botswana

The Okavango Delta, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently named one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Africa,” was unexpected.  I had seen lots of nature documentaries showing the delta following the rainy season, and these tended to focus on the slow spread of water through the flat plains of the Okavango, so I had imagined miles and miles of watery landscape filled with hippos and crocodiles.  Instead, we discovered a vast land of varied landscapes:  almost desert-like scrub brush and thorny acacias, open grasslands, thickly forested areas, tropical landscapes of palm trees, and yes, a region of that watery landscape of my Okavango image.  The Okavango River that spreads through the region does not flow into a lake or ocean.  Instead the water is gradually absorbed back into the sands of the Kalahari Desert.   

Thorny acacia in a dry landscape


Thick forests

Palm trees in the distance

The spreading Okavango River

The most prominent features of the landscape, and by far the tallest, were the fantastically shaped termite mounds that poke up all throughout the region.

We left Chobe National Park in the dark of the early morning and had a couple of wonderful animal sightings, a pair of huge Ground Hornbills and two beautiful spotted hyenas, right next to the highway as we traveled to the Kasane Airport for our flight to the Okavango.  Our three small planes flew us over the plains low enough to see animal trails through the brush – and an occasional sighting of the animals themselves. 
Ground Hornbill - thank to fellow traveler Joan Axilbund for the photo

Our transport to Okavango Delta

Botswana from the plane

Animal trails through the bush below

The Okavango Airstrip
Our new drivers met us at the tiny airstrip and we set out on a very long, but amazing, game drive toward Tamog Tent Camp.  After a brief rest stop, our driver got word over his radio that rhinos had been spotted near our area – a rare treat! The Okavango is not a national park, but communally owned tribal land and managed by a variety of organizations.  For us, this meant that our vehicles were not restricted to the bumpy dirt roads but could actually go off-road.  And, wow, off-road we did go, bouncing directly over logs and right through large bushes!  Our Land Rover veered this way and that as the driver got more guidance over the radio and after a lengthy search, we spotted them – three rhinos grazing in the dry bush.  There were already several vehicles watching them, but we all kept a respectful distance, and the rhinos seemed unconcerned with our presence as we slowly followed their path until they plopped into the sand for a rest.  It was a thrill to see them, but it also made me sad.  The rhinos had had their horns sawed off in an attempt to make them less vulnerable to the poachers who have driven them near extinction – and all for a totally worthless product of powdered rhino horn, which is made of keratin, the same substance as your hair or fingernails.  The loss of the threatening horn made them look more like huge pigs than the magnificent creatures they were supposed to be.

Off-Road in the bush

Searching for the elusive rhinos...

...and finally finding them.

That first game drive included other treats, including our first sighting of zebras, which were numerous here, but had been missing in our previous stops.  We finally arrived at Tamog Camp quite late in the day and were escorted to our tents by the friendly staff.  Rob and I got a special welcome from a huge colony of some sort of beetle that had taken shelter in the concave base under our room’s big fan.  When we moved the fan, dozens of them skittered all over the floor, causing much excitement as we ran around with the bug spray that was provided in our tent.  Unlike our other camps, these tents were directly on the ground instead of raised platforms, but they were large and cozy.  As always, we were warned not to come out at night, as the animals roam right through the camp.  Sure enough, I clearly heard the sound of a lion huffing in the distance that night, so I had no problem following the camp rules!

Zebras are the national animal of Botswana.  The national soccer team is called The Zebras.

Baby zebras playing peek-a-boo

Camp at last - a welcome sight!


Our tent is waiting
Rob (after our great beetle chase)
The pattern of our days here followed that of our previous camps:  an early breakfast and chilly morning game drive that usually lasted until the mid-afternoon, lunch and a long rest in the camp, and an evening drive for “sundowners” and more game-spotting.  So rather than do a chronological account of the stay, I’m going to focus on a few of the highlights of our Okavango experience. 

The Elephants of the Okavango Delta

Botswana is the home of one sixth of the world’s elephants, and many of them are drawn to the Okavango Delta because of the abundant water here.  We saw them everywhere throughout the park – sometimes in huge herds of mothers and adorable babies and sometimes lone bulls who shook their big ears at us as they crossed our path.  One especially memorable encounter was a parade of elephants lumbering through the bush next to our vehicle.  I tried counting them as they went by, but finally stopped when I reached forty.  I would guess there were about 70 elephants in the herd.  In another location, a herd was enjoying a large pond, standing in the water and taking deep drinks.

The Elephant Parade went on....

...and on...

...and on....

and on...

and on!!!

This is not an entirely happy story.  While we were delighted by these grey giants, and by their ridiculously adorable babies, the elephants here are terribly overpopulated and it is affecting the landscape.  When we weren’t seeing the elephants themselves, we could still see evidence of them.  Many trees had been toppled – pulled down by the mothers to allow the babies to reach the leaves on the higher branches.  All throughout the delta, we saw the mud wallows the elephants had dug into the wet soil.  And the elephants compete for the grasses with the other animals that rely on the grasslands for food.

Toppled trees

Elephant damage all around

"Mud, mud, glorious mud.  Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.
So come with me, follow, down to the hollow, and there we will wallow in glorious mud!"

Lots of the wallows were already dried out.

This fellow was having a lovely wallow in a still damp pond.

It is not an easy problem to solve.  Imagine the logistics of transporting hundreds of elephants to a different location.  Even worse, imagine separating families of a very social and intelligent animal.  The elephants know each other and grieve when one of them is lost.  There is hope, however.  I did some online research and found this article about a group that is tackling this issue, and their findings were very encouraging.  I am attaching the link for those of you who wish to read more about it.  Research on the Elephants of Botswana

A Ride in a Mokoro

I had been looking forward to this for days!  The mokoro is traditionally a dugout canoe used by the peoples of the Okavango region to navigate the shallow waters that flow through the region after the rains come.  The mokoros used for tourists are made of fiberglass instead of the trunks of the ebony tree or kigelia tree, but they mimic the same narrow shape.  We were greeted at the water’s edge by the four smiling boatmen who would pole our little boats through the waterways.
Our boatmen await our arrival

As we waited to board, a large hippo strolled across the field and lowered himself into the water. My heart pounded a little at the sight, as these territorial animals have been known to tip the boats over.  Rob and I got into our boat, and I mused that it might not take a hippo to do the job.  The boat was tippy all by itself, and I hadn’t forgotten about the crocodiles that also shared the water.  But our pilot was experienced and confident, and the ride was lovely and peaceful.  We slid past tall grasses and water lilies under blue skies.  Shore birds waddled along the river banks.  My favorite sight was a tiny black and white Painted Reed Frog clinging to a tall reed. 

Waiting to launch

Angolan Painted Reed Frog

Angolan Painted Reed Frog

Our ride was cut short by another hippo wiggling his ears at us up ahead.  Reluctantly, but wisely, we turned around and returned to our Land Rover and continued on to more adventures.

Hunting the Leopard

Our second day on the Okavango Delta brought another exciting off-road adventure with the announcement that a leopard had been spotted.  Once again, our driver took off like a shot, and we hung on for dear life as we bounced through the thick brush.  After circling around for quite some time, (and how in the world do these drivers know where they are in this enormous landscape?!), we spotted the gorgeous cat stretched out on a high tree limb.  We were the first vehicle to reach the spot.  Our driver turned off the motor and we sat a long time, speaking in hushed tones as we admired the creature who gazed calmly at us through its golden eyes.  Finally, it rose, yawned and stretched, and walked down the slanted tree trunk.  We followed it slowly as it disappeared into the grass. 

With the sightings of the rhinos on the first day here and the leopard on the second, we had finally completed our “collection” of The Big Five:  lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo.  Our group stopped for a ceremonial photo of the moment.

The three adventures above were some of the highlights of our stay on the Okavango Delta, but there were many other memorable moments.  Here are just a few of them.

Other Animals:

I'll start with some of the lesser beasts of the delta.  This fine fellow was waiting for us in the lounge.

And so was this huge locust.

We spotted a lot of impalas in the forest

Cape Buffalo

Impalas enjoying the afternoon

A rare sighting of a steenbok, one of the smallest of the antelopes

Isn't that the sweetest face?

There were a good number of giraffes grazing through the trees.
We learned that the plants have a natural defense against overgrazing.  As the giraffes eat,
the leaves put out more tannin, making them bitter, so the giraffes move on

Larger herd of impalas


Black-backed jackal

They look so cute and puppy-like...

...and then they show their teeth!


We saw only a few Wildebeests on this trip

But lots of zebras here in the Okavango Delta


Topis are nicknamed "Blue Jean Antelope"

Warthog - Just look at that face!

The red lechwe loved to use the termite mounds as lookout posts

More kudus

A quick - and rare! - sighting of two honey badgers.  They are nocturnal, so this was very lucky!

Another lone wildebeest

Rest Stops and Sundowners:

Our first sunset over the Okavango Delta

One of the hazards of off-roading.  We had something caught under the Land Rover

Is it fixed?

I was bundled up for the early morning drive

I guess Rob is tougher than I am!

The evening Sundowners gathering

Charles' shirt had a clever map of our itinerary for this trip.

We had quite an unusual occurrence on this tour.  There were 22 of us, but there were lots of duplicate names!  Here are some of them, but we also had a Susan and a Suzanne not pictured below.

Joan and Joan - and we were the two bird enthusiasts of the group

Karen and Karen

Dennis and Dennis

My favorite termite mound looked like a big sandcastle

Lunch time

Lunch with the elephants...

...and the zebras across the lake.

Rob and Charles watch the animals.

And, of course, the Birds:
I was so lucky to get this rare shot of a Crimson-Breasted Shrike

African Go-Away Birds

Kori Bustard - the largest flighted African bird

Red-billed Hornbills were "common as dirt"

The Yellow-Billed Hornbills were not quite as common, but we spotted several of them.

And my favorite - the Lilac Breasted Roller.  Also very common, but still so beautiful.


Unidentified bird of prey

Secretary Bird

Juvenile Saddle-Billed Stork and Egyptian Goose

African Jacana Bird


Pied Kingfisher

I'm pretty sure this is a Double-Banded Sand Grouse

And on our last evening drive back to camp, we finally saw an Ostrich!

Our final night was also memorable.  As in all of our camps, the staff performed their wonderful music for us and we returned the favor, but tonight, we had all made a special effort to do it right.  Karen and I had both prepared songs for them - hers to the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus" and mine to the tune of "This Land is Your Land."  Lou had graciously printed out copies for all of us, and our little concert was fully appreciated by the staff.  A fun last evening here in Botswana!

"And as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid a fond farewell to the beautiful Okavango Delta.."


Annis Cassells said...

Easy to see why you love Africa. Great shots, Joan. And the part about not separating the Elephant families. Our government should be listening! Thanks so much for sharing. xoA

Joan Lindsay Kerr said...

Thanks, Annis! I always appreciate your comments and observations.

Mickey said...

These photos are so beautiful! I was lucky enough to go on a safari trip (South africa ) and you brought it all back for me , and more! I am excited for your return! XXX

Laura Fiddler said...

Fabulous pictures. Have another wonderful time. Africa does steal your ❤️-