Have you ever wanted to camp in the bush and photograph African wildlife in a vast green and lush landscape of water teaming with all kinds of animals? Then take a canoe safari in the Okavango Delta. Recently, a small group of us went on a canoeing safari to photograph wildlife in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, where some of the greatest variety of wildlife and best-protected delta environments in Africa are located. Often described as “the river which never finds the sea,” the 1300 km long Okavango River forms a massive delta, in northwest Botswana, in Southern Africa. The river eventually disappears into a labyrinth of shallow channels, lagoons and islands, forming lush, swampy wetlands that would cover an area the size of Massachusetts. Having spent the previous two weeks camping in the deserts of Namibia, my partners and I felt that we had found an oasis when we first saw the dazzling green vegetation and the brilliant clear waters of the delta.
On the evening we arrived at our Okavango base camp, we were greeted by a South African named Victor. He was a mirror of this wild world, with a gentle easiness in his movements that seemed to reflect the pace of life around us and red-clay skin that told of much time spent under the African sun. Part of his job was to alert all visitors going out on the Mokoro Trail of the dangerous perils we could encounter.
“There are any number of potentially fatal situations you might find yourself in,” he said, his speech thick with an Afrikaans accent. “You must be vigilant at all times. If elephants come into the camp tonight, which they will, don’t startle them. Leopards too –we just saw one here last night. If you meet one on the trail, just stand still they will get confused and go away. Never, ever run — from any cat. If you run, consider it your last run!”
We listened attentively as he continued with the whole list, which included black mambas, puff adders, hyenas, crocodiles and hippos, the most dangerous animal in all of Africa.
“There is so much life here. Don’t be afraid. Enjoy everything that this place has to offer — there is so much to see and appreciate here. One woman came here and everyday she’d go out looking for lion and everyday she came back disappointed when she didn’t see any. She noticed nothing else. ” He shook his head. “And she left here never seeing a lion — never seeing anything.”
“The way of life here is slow, but it has a very soothing rhythm — something that western societies seem to have lost. Try to fall into this rhythm, to become for a short while totally in tune with nature and its daily ebbs and flows.”
The next day we head out with our guides in the mokoros, which are hand hewn wooden canoes and we drift slowly through the clear delta waters. These wetlands are filled with reed, papyrus and water lilies as well as acacia, leadwood and sausage trees, which are used to carve out the mokoros. The shallow dugout canoes appear precarious, but are amazingly stable and ideally suited to being propelled by a pole through the shallow waters.
Wildebeest and red leechwe keep their eye on our slow progress through the marsh grasses and an Africa fish eagle swoops down from its lofty perch to scan the waters for a meal. A few white egrets and a great blue heron prowl the reeds along the shore as I dip my cup into the fast flowing channel for a sip of the cool clear waters. Victor assured us that the bilharzia-free waters were safe to drink. The waters have been naturally filtered through miles of grasses and reeds and tested many times for bacteria content. He hadn’t heard of anyone ever getting ill from drinking the water.
As the sun grows hot, our guides edge the mokoros onto the grassy bank.
“You swim now,” Gobolya announces.
“Right here?” We ask.
“Yes, here. It’s OK.”
My sweaty companions and I survey the water, each of us wondering who would be the first one in. Though it looked tempting, I recalled the guidebook warnings we had read back at base camp: “Swim only where your guide recommends. Be the last one in and the first one out. If a croc gets you, go for the eyes with your thumbs. And never go anywhere near a hippo. Good luck.” African humor at its best. With no crocs in sight, we took our chances and jumped in. After not having had a shower for two days, the water had a wonderful cleansing effect on us. And the thrill of swimming where danger lurked gave us another tale for fireside reminiscences.
This is a magical place, full of wonderful images of the enchanted waters of glistening blues and shimmering greens and mystical sounds of life drifting through the marsh grasses and the scent of moist earth, wild animals and distant rain.
Go explore the Okavango with all of your senses and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime, as well as innumerable photos as your prize.