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Quiet Solitude, Botswana: In the Okavango Delta

Lara Sage explores Botswana and the unique waterscapes and state-of-the-art safari lodges, and is touched even more deeply by the Okavango Delta than she expected.

 

Part 1: Xaranna Camp

From the little airport of Maun in northern Botswana, a tiny plane flew us over the Okavango Delta to a boat that took us to andBeyond Xaranna Camp. Such was my excitement on arriving, that I rushed to capture a video of our first motorboat ride to the water-locked camp. My amateur footage shows us speeding through the waterways, birds lifting out of the reeds, a fish eagle in flight, and a startled buck looking up at our intrusion before bounding away through knee-deep water.

Despite the Delta having been on my wish-list for years, I discovered that this aquatic paradise isn’t “on tap” all year round. The Kalahari is the second-biggest desert in the world, blanketing most of Botswana. Rainfall in the highlands of Angola (north of Botswana) in January causes a surge of water to race 1,200km, fanning out in the north-eastern corner of Botswana and creating the world’s largest inland delta.

After transforming this semi-arid landscape into a verdant oasis, 95 percent of the water is gradually sucked into the sands of the desert and lost to evaporation, making this a place of both flood and drought. We visited just in time to catch the last of the floodwaters in September. In a matter of days we felt this tapestry of waterways changing as we watched the watermark receding daily on the jetty.

Here I took my first mokoro ride, propelled through shallow waters by a guide standing in the stern and pushing with a pole, in the same manner as punting. A mokoro is a canoe made traditionally by digging out the trunk of a tall, straight tree. (Today, they’re increasingly made of fibreglass, which helps preserve the endangered trees.)

lake (1)

 

While we sat in the mokoro (they usually carry one or two passengers), our well-practised guide manoeuvred the vessel through the clear water channels, following the pathways carved by hippos walking through. With only the faint swoosh of the mokoro pole in the water and the sound of frogs, the tiniest creature could be watched without disturbing it.

This is the place to admire intriguing aquatic plants and bright-bodied birds, the latter including an assortment of kingfishers in action; you’ll also see jacanas darting across the lilies, tall and regal storks, and the African fish eagle with its expansive wingspan and distinctive cry. And elephants everywhere!

Part 2: Sandibe Safari Lodge

After two idyllic days at Xaranna, we left via light aircraft, flying over the Delta again to another andBeyond Lodge, Sandibe. It was amazing to look down on lime-green islands, dark lagoons, clear channels, animal sand tracks and and dusty landscapes between the life-giving stretches of water.

We saw countless elephants and herds of antelope; even two hippos grazing, out of the water, their cumbersome bodies exposed to the African sun.

Sandibe in September was a spectacle of sand-coloured textures, the spaces between pathways to the property’s elevated suites covered in scattered leaves, grasses, elephant dung, fallen branches and palm fronds. The 12 suites echo the look of weaverbird nests commonly found along the banks of the channel. But there’s nothing common about these elegant suites that peer out of the tree canopy and overlook the papyrus-filled riverside that gleams golden in the sunlight.

Sandibe Safari Lodge
Sandibe Safari Lodge is both organic and futuristic

Large sliding doors open to a verandah, each with a deep, round plunge pool to combat the heat of summer, and wood-burners inside for cosy winter evenings. A conical termite mound-shaped shower with skylight allows you to view the blue African sky by day and starry splendour at night. Or if you want the real deal, there’s an outdoor shower too. Design-wise, the taupe and creamy-white tones with bronze accents are calm and understated, bringing the innovative architecture into focus. Indoor and outdoor day beds and discreet butler hatches all add to the ambiance and to the exclusivity of the experience.

Sandibe_room11

Sandibe was drier than Xaranna; no mekoro rides here. The focus instead was on game drives, but there are still many rivers and waterways to ford, making the snorkel on the vehicle a noteworthy addition. The landscape varied in the large area we traversed, with scenery including massive old baobab trees, flowering sausage trees, and tall termite mounds, some as old as 800 years.

I loved the sandy hues of Sandibe, the gnarled wood of its ancient trees, the grasses rustling in the passing breeze. I loved the nesting birds, the fowls scratching in the sand, the shy antelope tiptoeing past us, the elephants who moved remarkably quietly below our room and through the camp. Lifting off in the tiny plane, my face pressed against the glass for one last look at the Okavango Delta below, I unexpectedly felt tears running down my cheeks. Could a place touch a person so much in just four days? Apparently still waters run deep.

Sandibe Safari Lodge, saving rhinos
Conservation manager Les Carlisle explains the Rhinos Without Borders project, a partnership between andBeyond and Great Plains Conservation that moves rhinos from South Africa, where poaching is rife, to Botswana

Protecting the Rhino

Understanding that we’re losing three or more rhinos every day in South Africa was the motivation for Rhinos Without Borders. One of the reasons why Botswana is a rhino haven is its political resolve; the country has banned all commercial hunting and puts anti-poaching in the hands of the Botswana Defence Force.

South Africa currently has 80 percent of the world’s rhinos, but recent stats estimate a rhino is killed there every 7.5 hours. South Africa has a different constitution to Botswana; human rights are given absolute priority. The country is using its resources as best it can to protect rhinos, but the areas are vast and the numbers of impoverished people are huge, so it’s a very difficult task.

In neighbouring Mozambique (one of the poorest countries in Africa), there’s a massive pool of potential poachers, as there is little alternative employment. About 70 percent of the poachers in South Africa are from Mozambique. One of the roles of Rhinos Without Borders is to generate benefits to the surrounding local communities in order to protect rhinos, and in turn tourism.

The rhino is an iconic species, but also acts as an indicator of the health of the whole system. If we lose our rhinos, what’s next? If we can’t protect them, we won’t protect the other species. We have to do more of everything to save the rhinos; we’ve chosen translocation as our current focus, but other people, who are focusing on other activities, must continue.

We also have to keep trying to devalue the horn on the markets. As one option, South Africa is looking at legalising the trade of rhino horns. The reason for this is that it’s the only wildlife product that is completely renewable because it grows back; you can’t do it with elephant ivory or tiger bones, or any other international wildlife products.

We have to keep trying to educate people in Asia about the impact that their illegal demand for this product is having on Africa. We have to improve rhino security, and for Rhinos Without Borders this means moving rhinos to more secure areas, namely Botswana. The first and best way to support rhino conservation is to travel to Africa to see the animals in the wild. That way, you make them valuable.

traveling to South Africa
One of the best ways to enjoy your trip is to see the animals wild

Botswana Travel Tips

  • The best way to visit Botswana is via Cape Town or Johannesburg. SQ flights are convenient and well-timed.
  • Try to travel between April and September. (This is the dry season for Botswana, but the waters from Angola are still in the Delta.)
  • We stayed two nights at each camp, proving that a quick visit is a viable option when pressed for time or money.

For more information about andBeyond’s camps and lodges, visit andBeyond.com

This is an extract of an article that first appeared in the March 2016 edition of Expat Living. For the full article, you can purchase this issue.
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