Kevin McIndoe recommends the Okavango Delta in Botswana,
Just like life really. One minute you’re lying back smelling the roses or more accurately, the bulrushes, when out of nowhere comes trouble.
And it’s pretty big trouble at that – there’s a hippo up ahead. For two hours, Kiesethle, the poker of my makoro (canoe) has diligently navigated up a river leaving me to lie back and not think of Scotland. But now he’s got his work cut out.
Stretching across northern Botswana, the Okavango Delta is 16,000 sq km of lagoons and rivers in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. It’s basically a swamp that evolved from the Okavango River, which flows into Botswana (via Nambia) from its source in Angola. This eclectic ecosystem became the 1,000th to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage site (in 2014), and taking a makoro ride to witness it simply has to be done.
My favourite place- It’s the mesmerising maze of inland waterways and lagoons. They just unfold in front of me as, in my makoro, I feel like I’m floating on my back. I’m as close to the water as I can get without sitting in it, as bulrushes, reeds and bamboo canes massage my shoulders. It’s like entering a tunnel, with the grasses gently brushing my face as I’m driven down river, with reed beds and pristine water lilies aplenty to observe. Frogs, dragonfly and kingfishers all jockey for position on the way. I have to lean right back into the makoro to avoid rocking but this ride is the most relaxing I’ve ever had. The only drawback is that the Delta’s waterways can be shallow so I have to hop out occasionally and help push the makoro out of the silt.
Suddenly, Shadrac, the flotilla leader in the makoro up front shouts: “Everybody out” with more menace than anything any union leader could muster. I and my fellow passengers are jolted out of our languor, and literally tip ourselves out.
Shadrac has clocked a hippo up ahead, by spotting the bubbles in the river fomenting in an anti-clockwise fashion (a tell-tale sign). The tiny tips of two pointed ears reveal a hungry hippo perfectly poised for a makoro munch, for his lunch if he’s lucky.
We wrest the five or six mekoro out of the water with a speed worthy of the Cambridge and Oxford boat race crews, and, barefoot, we are out of the river and into the reeds on the bank as if our lives depend on it, which they probably do. Some of us have turned a colour not unlike that of the bush and we squelch through the tingling long grasses with the mekoro on our shoulders like giant sticks of Wrigley’s gum. Our polers’ palpable sangfroid is reassuring though. Bit of a lucky escape, I’d say.
Highlights- The Eastern Delta bush is a lush and verdant haven for birds and wildlife. Here, I and my fellow travellers follow elephant tracks, and observe elegant impala at play as the howl of hyenas and the smell of wild sage (an excellent mozzie repellent) attack the senses. Our trail path is peppered with rare plants radiating musky scents and flowers being nestled on by an array of unfamiliar insects. Spiders, rare birds, hippos (safely distant) and a herd of buffalo at a watering hole are all on view here.
Lowlights- I spend a sleepless night cowering in a sopping sleeping bag in my tent at camp. A sizeable animal is padding around outside, and he’s a heavy breather. Embalming myself in my sleeping bag, the zip of which has spiralled around my spine for the umpteenth time, I hear the roar of a lion although it might be that of a baboon or a jackal. A nocturnal visit to the lavatory, i.e. a bush where a toilet roll hangs from one of the branches, seems like a bad idea. Maybe the novelty has worn off but in the morning, it’s pouring with rain and I get that sinking feeling (quite literally). In my makoro journey back to the basin, from where I will take the bus back to Maun (the nearest large town), water filters around my ankles and I am soaked.
Souvenirs- It’s not hard to find souvenir sellers here but some of the wooden handicrafts are quite well-made. There are also some quaint and quirky shops in Maun where you can find authentic and intricate African art, jewellery and pottery.
Getting there- From Muscat, you can catch a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, or Windhoek, in Namibia, and then take a connecting flight to Maun, which is 65km from the edge of the Okavango Delta. If you haven’t pre-booked your trip, there are plenty of operators to choose from.
Where to stay- To get the best out of your experience, it’s best to camp. Some of the camps here can mean staying in luxury lodges. Check them out on Expedia or TripAdvisor.
1. Ride in a makoro along one of the many waterways.
2. Take a unique nature ramble through the bush.
3. Book a helicopter flight for a magnificent Delta view.
4. Go on a game drive at Duba Plains or Vumbura.
5. Wander around Maun’s Motsana for food and shopping.