Posted by: Tommy | January 27, 2011

Okavango Delta

More than any other single thing in Africa, an Okavango Delta safari was the thing I most wanted to do.  Toby, the guy from Massachusetts that we met in St. Petersburg who had lived in South Africa and Botswana, had first told us about the Okavango Delta.  He described it – accurately – as beautiful, remote, wild…and horribly expensive.

Botswana’s economists made a unique decision years ago with regard to the tourism in their country.  Tourists were flocking to Africa, and to Botswana in particular, to see the animals found in the national parks.  Lots of tourists cause lots of damage – not good if you’re talking about an area being visited for it’s wild beauty.  The Botswana government realized they needed something to change.  Their solution – jack up the prices on everything, making tourism much more expensive than in the rest of Africa.  The result – fewer tourists.  However, rather than losing money because there are fewer people, the tourists dollars have stayed the same, since now each tourist pays significantly more than they used to.  This sucks for us, as tourists, but it’s working for Botswana, as it is definitely the most developed African country we’ve visited, outside of South Africa. And it’s also working for the parks in Botswana.  Chobe, Kalahari, and Okavango Delta are 3 of the most renowned game-viewing areas in Southern Africa and all are located in Botswana.

We had some idea of what to expect – the lodging in Kasane, the town near Chobe, had no budget options other than a shoddy campsite – and that was still more expensive than dorm beds in Israel or hotel rooms in Egypt.  In Maun, we found The Bridge and it’s fairly reasonable – $30/night for a tiny room with 1 twin bed and space for the air mattress on the floor.  But we had no idea that trips into the Delta were so expensive.

At the airport, we found that a 30 minute scenic flight in a small plane over the delta would run 1900 pula ($300).  In town, we inquired at a number of different safari bookers.  We were under the impression that it would work like Galapagos (on our honeymoon, we found out that if we’d waited until arriving in Ecuador, our trip could have cost a quarter of what we paid to book it in the States).  We’d arrive in Maun with some flexibility, ask around and find a company leading a medium-sized group out in a day or two that still had 2 spots, then buy those two spots for a fraction of the published price.

Umm, not quite.  The safari companies have fixed camps with full time staff established deep in the heart of the Delta.  They book these camps like a hotel – same price whether you book ahead or just walk in.  There are no “groups” that go out at certain times and need to be filled.  For a luxury camp in the Delta, we could pay the $300 to fly out to the camp, then pay $600/night – each.  For that, all our meals would be included, plus we could go on any of the game drives, game walks, game boat rides, fishing or mokoro rides we wanted.  But it would be $1500 for 1 night and $1200 for each additional night.  We asked at several other places but everything was similarly priced.  No way were we going to spend our budget for more than 2 weeks on 1 day of activity, no matter how much I wanted to see Okavango.

But then there was the Bridge.  They also organize Delta trips and these were more in our price range – for $400 each, we could go for 3 nights into the Delta.  The catch – you bring your own food, your own tent, set up your own camp and make your own fire – in the middle of the African wilderness. They provide the transportation and a guide to keep you from doing something stupid, like getting killed by a hippo.

We were debating the merits of this when James, the manager of The Bridge, told us they were running a special that already had 2 interested people.  It was 3 days/2 nights and the price went down for every person who signed up.  For 4 people, it would be about $375 each. The best part – fully catered, with a guide, a boat driver and a chef.  They would provide the food, the tents, sleeping bags, everything.  This was a major factor for us, as our tent is uncomfortable and we only sleep in it under duress.  We decided to do it – and later in the day another couple signed up, bringing us to the max of 6 and lowering the cost to $325 each.

We got up Saturday morning and loaded the boat around 10.  5 of us were staying at the Bridge and we picked up one other guy at a lodge downriver.  The guy staying downriver was a 20 year old German, Robert, who works in South Africa teaching computer science at a high school.  The other 3 members of our group were all Dutch, 1 couple, Ilsa and Kjell, and 1 single guy, Rob. Ilsa and Kjell are just starting out on their yearlong trip around the world — they started in Cape Town 3 weeks ago.  Rob left the same day we did, October 6, though he’s traveling much faster than we have been.  He doesn’t like to fly, so he is moving rapidly overland all the way south through Europe into Africa and down to Cape Town, at the Southern tip of Africa.

The six of us, plus Martin (our boat driver, a white native of Botswana who grew up on the Okavango River and is amazing behind the wheel of the boat) and Muhemi (the black native of Botswana who served as chef/camp setter-upper/ bocce assassin/ personal butler to Martin) set out in a fully-loaded powerboat for the 5 hour trek upriver to our camp on Chief’s Island.  Along the way we picked up the final member of our party – Shadrick, our native guide who led the game walks and helped out Muhemi at camp.

The 5 hour ride was thrilling – The river delta is a wide swath of water filled with tall reeds and grasses. It looks almost like a cornfield in Iowa, with plants so tall and thick that you’d have no idea that it all stands on water – if not for the narrow, boat-wide channel cut and continuously cleared by the boats that ferry people and supplies to and from Maun.  It was in these channels that Martin’s skills were on display – he cut corners sharply while maintaining full throttle of the engines, weaved in and out of the shallow sandbars and once or twice had to power the boat over a low-water crossing at full speed.

Speeding through the Okavango Delta

At camp, we unloaded the boat and got to know each other while Muhemi and Shadrick set up the tents, the kitchen and the bathroom.  Martin, content to let the others do all the work, spent the time talking to Anna and I, telling us about spending a week in London at Buckingham Palace as a personal guest of Prince Harry.  Prince Harry loves Okavango and Martin runs his safaris every year.  Martin told us about the time the Queen asked him if he’d like some tea and he told her, “No, but do you’ve got any whiskey?”.  This was our first glimpse of the now-obvious fact – Martin is a liar and an alcoholic.

After establishing camp, Shadrick led us on our first game walk.  A walk is both more thrilling and less interesting than a game drive.  You cover hardly any ground on a walk – so you don’t see nearly as many animals and the ones you do see you can’t get as close to.  But there’s something about being on foot, watching an elephant, knowing that you’re sharing the same space rather than looking from the safety of a car, that makes the walk more exciting. We saw a herd of zebra, about 25 animals total, and spent most of our time trying (and failing) to get pretty close to them.

We returned to camp, where Muhemi was working on preparing dinner. When we arrived, the table was all set with a tablecloth, wine glasses, and wine. We had a delicious dinner and drinks under the stars and the full moon, then went to bed early to get up for our mokoro trip the next day.

At 5 am, Martin woke us up to eat a quick breakfast, then our mokoro guides arrived.  A mokoro is a shallow dugout canoe that is poled, rather than paddled, through the shallow channels of the Okavango by the tribes that live in the delta.  We had 3 guides with 2 passengers in each mokoro.  Anna and I were in the lead mokoro, poled by Isaiah.  The other tribesmen serving as mokoro guides introduced themselves as Culture and Information.  We loaded into the mokoro, Anna in first, sitting in the middle of the canoe in a plastic seat with no legs. We had brought these from the Bridge – tribesman don’t use seats in their mokoros.  A chair seat was placed in front of Anna and I climbed aboard.  Isaiah then walked across another mokoro and hopped in the back, poling us out into the Delta.

Anna, Isaiah and the Mokoro

Mokoro polers stand in the back of the vessel, much like Venetian gondoliers.  However, unlike the larger boats in Venice, the mokoro has a water clearance of about 4 inches.  If the balance of the poler is off by a little bit, the mokoro will fill with water or the poler will be dumped into the river (with the hippos and crocs).  Isaiah, Culture and Information poled the three mokoros for a little over an hour; the mokoro makes almost no noise as it slips through the water, giving you the feeling of gliding over the water.  Our mokoro destination was another island where Information would lead us on a game walk.

It had rained the night before, so the ground on the other island was pretty muddy.  We hadn’t been walking 5 minutes when we came upon a large, muddy footprint on the path.  Lion! We murmured excitedly to each other – seeing a lion on a game walk would pretty much be the pinnacle of safari sightings.  Information changed our route; we were going to stalk the lion instead of walk the path he had chosen initially.  We followed the lion tracks – still fresh, with some water pooled in the bottoms of the toe marks not yet having seeped into the ground – for about half an hour.  We had seen another herd of zebra, but no sign of anything else being on the island.  Information explained that when the lion arrives on an island, all the other animals pack up and move.  We probably wouldn’t see any other animals on this island – even as he explained this to us, the zebra herd was making its way toward the water to move downstream.

Stalking the lion

Information intended to mokoro to a new island where we might see other game – until we unanimously decided that we wanted to stay and continue tracking the lion.  Anna and I have seen plenty of giraffe, impala and zebra.  We definitely wanted to risk more herbivore sightings to try and see a cat.  We tracked it for another 30 minutes before losing the footprints as we walked into a grassy area.  But we could see some Bataleur eagles ahead, circling and diving down.  Information explained that this could signal a kill up ahead that the eagles were watching – we were short on time, but we could go check it out before heading back to camp.  As we crossed the treeline that was blocking our view of the possible kill site, everyone was quiet and alert.  We crept toward the clearing where we’d see the lion we’d been hunting and as we cleared the trees and looked out into the field…nothing.  No eagles, no lion, just grass and trees and a long, hot walk back to the boat.

As Isaiah poled us back to camp, he announced, with a chuckle, that he could hear Martin playing music at camp.  We couldn’t hear anything but the sounds of the river.  It was another 30 minutes before the soft strains of hard rock music reached our ears.  As we got closer and closer, the music increased in volume until finally it was so loud that we couldn’t even talk to each other.  He turned it off just as we arrived at camp.

I had asked, and received permission from Isaiah, to try my hand at poling the mokoro.  I stripped down to my shorts and carefully stepped aboard.  And it wasn’t as hard to balance as I thought it would be.  The craft is surprisingly stable, though extremely difficult to maneuver.  As I went out, the other boats were coming in and soon the other two boats had tourist pilots.  We poled ourselves around the small lagoon near our camp, crashing into each other occasionally and getting stuck in the reeds more often than not.  Anna had a turn as well, looking less graceful than she usually does, but managed to stay dry the whole time.

Master of the Mokoro

Isaiah, Information and Culture headed out with their mokoros, leaving us at camp to eat a larger breakfast that had been prepared while we were out.  That wasn’t the only thing that had happened at camp while the guests were away – the bottle of vodka that Anna and I had brought to drink while camping was sitting out, mostly empty.  And Martin was completely hammered, tottering around camp, yelling at Muhemi and Shadrick.  We went to our tent to change for a boat ride and came out – only to find Martin pouring the last of our vodka into his glass.  Incensed, Anna yelled at him, but he was too drunk to care.

We left on our boat ride unprepared.  We had been so caught up in the fact that our $20 bottle of vodka was gone that we forgot our bag back at camp.  We left behind our sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.  Martin let Shadrick drive the boat – instructing him to plug in the iPod and crank up the volume.  He then got on the front of the boat and began dancing, stopping his crazy jerking around occasionally to pretend to shoot an African skimmer (a bird) that was flying too close to the boat.  Shockingly, we didn’t see a single animal while our boat played the Rolling Stones at 300 decibels.  Even the crocs we saw in the water submerged themselves well ahead of the approaching ruckus.

Martin finally caught on to the fact that no one else was enjoying his show and asked if we wanted the music on or off – emphatically, unanimously the answer was off.  We didn’t travel to the Okavango delta to listen to loud music – we wanted the sounds of nature.  For his next trick, Martin decided that he would like to do some fishing.  No one else had a license to fish, and we only had 1 pole, so we got to sit around for an hour and a half and watch him cast continuously into the river and reel it back in.  We were all baking – no one had brought sunscreen and the cover on the boat provided only a tiny square of shade.  Every single one of us was sunburned and bored – we told Martin we wanted to go back and get in a swim before dark – only to be ignored.  Even Shadrick told Martin to pack it in, that all the guests want to swim.  He was ignored as well.

Finally, we all were pleading with Martin to take us back and he gave in, stopping only 3 or 4 more times to cast a few in the river.  Finally, he caught a fish – a medium-sized bream – and was satisfied.  We sped back to camp, arriving at the swimming spot just as the sun was hitting the horizon.  There was no time to go back to camp for swimwear (but hey, we got 1 fish that couldn’t possibly feed 9 people! so it was worth it) so we all jumped in with the clothes we were wearing.  Anna was wearing a skirt, so I gave her my shorts and swam in my boxers.  She was making a real effort to not get her top wet – she only has 1 bra – but wanted to rinse her arms and face in the river (it was very shallow here).  Everything was going fine – until Martin struck again.  As he was rushing us out of the water to get back before darkness (we’d swum for maybe 5 minutes) he noticed that Anna wasn’t very wet – so he decided to splash her repeatedly, then shove her under the water.  I was getting ready to slug him in the face when he stopped and hopped up into the boat, urging us to hurry up.

As soon as we got to camp, the sky opened up.  It poured non-stop for the next 10 hours, finally letting up in the early morning hours.  Muhemi and Shadrick had to sit over the tiny fire all evening, carefully tending the dinner that we would eventually eat in our tents.  The only time we ventured out of the tent was to grab the plate of food, and then to return it when we were done.  As we were returning the plates, Kjell, Ilsa and Robert were also turning in their dinner dishes.  Robert came over to Anna, unbidden, and offered her a hug.  He said he’s been wanting to tell her how sorry he felt for her all day having to deal with Martin.  Kjell and Ilsa were upset with Martin as well, so the 5 of us hung out in the rain for a few minutes, venting our anger and frustration.

Martin spent his time on the boat, under the awning – playing Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan at an obnoxious volume and yelling “Who drank all the f—ing vodka?” between songs.  In the morning, I watched Muhemi clean out the boat – 12 beer cans, 2 bottles of wine and 1 can of tonic (also ours) – not sure what he drank that with.

The next morning, we played bocce while Muhemi and Shadrick packed up camp and loaded the boat, ready for a leisurely ride downriver and back to camp.  We stopped twice along the way – once to eat lunch and once to check out an elephant that was browsing along the bank.  We saw another elephant crossing the river just in front of our boat – the best wildlife sighting of the Delta trip and one of the most interesting, closest elephant encounters we’ve had in Africa.

Elephant crossing

Despite Martin’s best efforts to ruin our trip, our experience in the Okavango Delta was wonderful.  You get what you pay for, most of the time.  And we found a great deal on a trip to a hard-to-reach, amazing location.  Yeah, we had to put up with one drunken idiot in exchange, but it was well worth it.  I’d love to come back and do another Okavango trip, this time in the winter (June or July) – there is more wildlife because the river is up higher during those months.  But next time, I’ll make sure Martin isn’t our guide.

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  1. OMGosh!!!! A “boat” with only 4 inches of clearance in hippo & crock infested waters; and what in the world were you going to do if you caught up with that lion?I always like these blog posts AFTER the fact…so I KNOW that you are safe & sound. In truth,I find your experience thrilling and so impressed with the wonderful photography. xoxox, Kita

  2. I agree with Kita — what in the world were you thinking? I’m sorry your vodka was drank by another . . . when you come home I’ll buy you a bottle! The way you write is so amazing . . . I “feel” like I am right there next to you, quietly stalking the lion. Again, thank you both for sharing your experience!


  3. I am not sure what is scarier — the lion tracking, the dugout or the guide. But what a story and adventure!!

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