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Discovering the Okavango Delta

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Sitting still and stepping back in time in Botswana

About the Author

About the Author

I have travelled around Tanzania a lot and love the wilderness of the safari areas. The animals roam freely across huge swathes of land.

AFRICA SPECIALIST

Georgie

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Boredom belongs to the past, its decline coincides somewhat with the rise of emojis. There is an emoji for fast, but not for slow, for tired, but not for energised, for astonishment, anxiety, and fury, but the closest thing to ‘calm’ is the sunglasses face.  There is also ‘neutral face’, though it doesn’t even feature on the top 100 for usage on Instagram. Calmness and even boredom is today’s ultimate luxury. We are over stimulated, over exposed, and hungover! The Okavango Delta, on the other hand, nourishes you with beauty and serenity that promotes an inner peace like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

The only way for tourists to enter the delta is by air, a journey which highlights the Delta’s unique existence: a wetland located in a desert, a delta that does not flow into the sea, a curious splash of life-nurturing channels and lagoons and seasonal ponds. Flying from Kasane airport to Kanana took a rather bumpy 80 minutes but the scenery below made up for the intense 40-degree heat and Malarone acclimation! At first, the land is completely barren, grey sand dotted with tree stumps, and the occasional darker muddy patch – a hub to the spider’s web of routes marking the elephant highways from one to another. The Okavango sees the highest density of Elephants in the world during the dry season, so about 30 minutes into the flight as telephone signal disappears elephant spotting begins in earnest. Even at 500 feet, they are rewardingly easy to spot, being much fatter than any tree trunk! The landscape also starts to change, the colours become more palatable greens & blues, and I noticed circular thatched hutches scattered about… rather cluelessly I thought these must be some sort of shelter but I couldn’t work out why they were never huddled together…

It turns out these are termite mounds, which are a major reason for the delta’s incredible wildlife and why its waters remain fresh and not saline even with a strong sub-tropical sun. Most islands in the delta are thought to originate from tree saplings growing on termite mounds. As the trees grow, water and solutes are drawn up from the ground into plants and released through transpiration. This causes the water table to drop over time, which draws in water from the surrounding floodplains to replace it, and so keeps the area replenished with fresh water. Salts concentrate under the islands creating zones of hyper-saline soils in which few organisms can survive, but as the concentrations of salts under the islands increases, the salts become sufficiently dense and heavy that they sink to the bottom, effectively ensuring a layer of fresh water above.

These nutrient-poor waters result in low fish yields, so the area has seen little damage from human activity, yet the nutrient-rich grasslands and floodplains have given rise to the world’s largest population of elephants, hippos, and many threatened species such as the wild dog, black and white rhinos, cheetahs, and 450 species of globally threatened birds.

The result is perfection, it’s wild and authentic and yet lush and unthreatening and it’s camps have an ethos and style that is in perfect harmony with the Delta. The first two camps I stayed at were both part of the Ker Downey family, where they make the utmost effort to keep the footprint of the camp light and natural, the walkways are paved with elephant dung, they use solar panels for all electricity and there is no bottled water or wifi!!  And so rather abruptly I was confronted with several extra hours a day previously unwittingly allocated to faffing about on the www, as well as a regime of twice daily game drives.  Game drives were not really my idea of fun, I have always hated sitting still and I also don’t have a swanky camera which adds some sense of achievement to 3 hours on your bum. As luck would have it within minutes of my first outing I spotted Botswana’s national bird, the lilac-breasted roller, it has bright a plumage of pinky purple, turquoise, olives and blue, and rolls around the sky like the Red Arrows as they try to attract a mate. It certainly worked on me – I decided right then to take up birding. Botswana is a birders DREAM, so this decision enhanced my trip, and subsequently my life, in the days that followed my eyes and mind grew more observant. I became accustomed to simply sitting in stillness, waiting and watching, engulfed in the sights, sounds and smells of nature.

For the first time in years I felt CALM, and to some degree, that feeling has stayed with me even a month after leaving and I defy anyone who visits Botswana not to feel the same.

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