The Okavango Delta is home to the African Bush Elephant. Margie Tomenko
Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one of the richest wildlife viewing places in Africa, very flat with only 2 meters/6.5 feet variation in elevation across its range of 15,000 square kilometers or 5,792 square miles. It is a rare inland delta formed several thousand years ago when a tectonic event shifted the landscape, trapping water that previously had flowed freely into the Indian Ocean. The Delta is dependent on the rains flowing southeast from Angola to swell the rivers and send water into this giant basin. And that is where it ends.
Some of the waters seep into the ground and some evaporate, creating a lush seasonal habitat for many species of mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians and insects. Okavango Delta is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, along with Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Sahara Desert, and bears the honor of being named the 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage Site on June 22, 2014.
Our author, Elaine Mays, spent ten days exploring the Okavango Delta on a small-group Sierra Club Outings tour, doing Land Cruiser game drives for eight to ten hours most days. However, here she recounts the tale of a shorter walking safari which pushed the adventure boundaries in some very unpredictable directions.
Photo: Elaine Mays
Our group of 13 Sierra Club members flew on a Botswana Airlines’ Fokker prop-jet from Johannesburg, South Africa to Maun, Botswana to begin a 10-day nature focused safari in Botswana. Our guides, Pat and Dishu, met us at the small airport, introduced themselves, and pointed us to the Toyota Land Cruisers where we would spend a lot of time. They urged us to wrap our faces with bandanas as protection from the wind and sand.
Safari guides, Dishu and Pat. Elaine Mays
The paved highway quickly degraded to a dusty gravel road for many miles (kilometers in Botswana) and eventually turned into a one-lane gravel road and sometimes into a deep sand bush trail. Once checked in with the park ranger of the Moremi Game Preserve, we then travel another grueling 40 km to our camp.
But it was worth it. Every day brought new adventures going on game drives and seeing a multitude of wildlife. After three days we picked up camp – our crew did to be exact – and moved further north to the Kwai River area, a cooperative owned by the village of Kwai. And after a day of seeing everything from lions and leopards to elephants, giraffes and exquisite birds from the Land Cruiser, we were invited to try something different: a walking safari through the bush.
Game drives in our Land Cruiser were a daily safari highlight. Elaine Mays
Early the next morning we joined Dishu who drove us a mile or two from camp, always watching for any animals that might be in the area. He drove off the trail and parked the Land Cruiser under some large bushes. We scrambled out of the truck and Dishu casually reached for a .458 rifle behind his seat. A couple of days earlier, I had asked if our guides or crew carried guns or other weapons on safari and Dishu had told me no.
“There is no need,” he said. “Our men can handle without guns any unruly animals that come into camp.”
Apparently not today which made some of us a little nervous.
As Dishu loaded the gun with very large bullets, he told us the rules of the walk … he leads and everyone else follows close behind in single file with another crew member bringing up the rear to make sure no-one lags behind (or becomes a casualty of the walk, I’m thinking). It is still early, only eight o’clock, as we begin our walk following an elephant trail through this largely desert landscape. The temperature is already 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).
We obediently walked single file. Elaine Mays
Well into a morning of exploration, we have not encountered any large animals. We gather around Dishu as he picks up a large wad of elephant dung. His people soak the dung in water, he says, and use it to wash their newborn babies to ward off evil spirits and disease. He discards the elephant dung and picks up two handfuls of small round dung pellets of various sizes and explains the difference between zebra dung and antelope dung, zebra dung being the larger. As we absorb these details, Dishu pops a zebra dung pellet into his mouth and eats it. Seeing how startled we were, he reassures us dung bacteria are not dangerous.
Now let’s compare zebra and antelope dung! Elaine Mays
Having observed our dismay, he playfully places the antelope dung between his lips and blows out, propelling the dung out onto the sand. Everyone laughs, except me. I am still not over the shock of him eating dung like it was a delicious chocolate.
“We’re going to have a dung spitting contest to see who can spit dung the furthest,” he announces, looking first at me. I shake my head, no. But then eight others step forward, apparently up for the game. They all stand in a line, putting the dung between their lips, and blow it out as far as they can. Now I’m laughing but I restrict my activities to taking pictures of the contest!
Dishu leads off the dung spitting contest with enthusiasm. Elaine Mays
We walk further into the bush where the landscape looks like a war zone. It is very dry and vegetation is sparse with many dead trees. Dishu explains that during the wet season, which is coming soon, the waters flood the land and kill many trees. Some trees survive only to be toppled by herds of elephants that come through the area periodically. Branches of the dead trees are lying on the ground and Dishu says these logs provide homes for insects and small animals. Other dead trees have been taken over by termites and as we look across the landscape we see the large mounds and spires of the homes they have built.
But there are a few trees that have escaped torrents of water and ravaging by the elephants and we stop at one of them. It is a lead tree, a dense wood used for fuel by the indigenous people. In this harsh landscape, the tree is very much alive with small purple blossoms sprouting on its branches. Further along, Dishu snaps a twig from a nearby blue bush and starts rubbing it against his teeth. “This is our natural toothbrush,” he says, offering a dazzling white smile to prove the point.
Zebras, like these Okavango Delta natives, have basic black skin with white stripes in a genetic modification known as selective pigmentation. Margie Tomenko
As the sun sizzles toward mid-day, Dishu declares that it is time to return to camp. We fall into line like soldiers returning from battle and soon we are back at the Land Cruiser. We talk about what we’ve seen and lament that we saw no large animals on our walk, but then we reflect that that was probably a good thing as Dishu was never at risk of having to use his gun. When you are riding high in the vehicle, you only register the big things, but with your feet on the ground, it is the little things you notice about your surroundings.
Dishu puts away his gun as we climb into the Cruiser, heading back to camp for lunch and a well-earned siesta. I don’t even want to know the temperature by now!
The author’s tent camp at sunrise. Elaine Mays
Follow Up Facts
The tour described above is not part of the SCO offerings at present. However, there is another 13-day SCO nature camping safari in Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Elaine Mays has written a day-by-day account of her Botswana photo safari, available for purchase through Amazon, US$3.98, 54 pages, downloadable onto a Kindle device. There is a daily, hourly description of the birds and animals encountered in addition to telling about what it is like to tent camp for ten days in the African bush. There is also infomation about the Delta region, how it was formed and how it has attracted many species of animals by providing a safe habitat for them.
Reinforcing the Sierra Club’s commitment to “explore, enjoy, and protect the planet,” the Sierra Club Outings program, www.sierraclub.org/national-outings, was launched in 1901. It has been going strong ever since. Offering more than 300 trips a year in North America and abroad, SCO’s programs include itineraries for grandparents and grandkids and trips for women only. About 78% of trip members are over 50.
Information about travel in Botswana, www.botswanatourism.co.bw. For more about the Okavango Delta, its wildlife and its people, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okavango_Delta.
Grey Crowned Crane. Margie Tomenko
Travel writer and novelist Elaine Mays has been traveling all her life but chronicling her adventures has been a more recent pleasure. Her three books under the pen name Hannah Stevens include The President’s Wife, Madam POTUS and a recently published e-book She Sleeps with Dogs. Elaine lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her two dogs. Her author website is www.hannahstevensauthor.com.
Click here to read Elaine’s entertaining, insightful tips on traveling solo, a valuable addition to our web magazine’s Travel Article Library.