LARA SAGE and family got to enjoy three camps run by African ecotourism operator Wilderness Safaris. The Okavango Delta in Botswana showed them its best through wildlife, scenery and hospitality.
The unassuming airport of Maun in Botswana is your point of arrival when travelling to the Okavango Delta. When I asked a porter, “How far from Maun to the Delta?” his colloquial response of “Way far close!” amused me. It was a vague yet accurate synopsis of what is a lengthy distance by road, but a short hop by air.
Flying between camps in small planes offers the marvel of seeing this wonder from the air. We’d come in December, a secret season. There’s more availability in camps, fewer people and better rates. But the Delta waters have receded – even if, ironically, the summer rains have begun.
To understand this natural phenomenon, it’s important to know that the water level of the Okavango Delta is determined by rainfall in Angola (a thousand kilometres away), which falls from October to April and flows down two major tributaries into Botswana. By June, this water percolates through the delta system, inundating seasonal floodplains until it gradually subsides. By August, you can see the water levels drop by measurable amounts overnight.
As we attempted to set off in our light aircraft from Maun, torrential rain flooded the runway. Our wheels were submerged, leaving us to wait out the exhilarating storm. When airborne, our pilot deftly manoeuvred between cumulus clouds and literally flew around pockets of rainfall. This cleared the way for us to enjoy the remainder of the flight looking down on a paradise of waterways and wildlife, until we landed on a dirt runway near our camp.
#1 Little Vumbura
At this camp, you’re assured of water activities all year round. Little Vumbura’s six tented suites offer an authentic safari atmosphere on an inland island, reachable only by boat. This is no deterrent for herds of antelope as they come and go. Elephants wade by, too, ambling into camp to strip the bark off trees and eat the foliage.
An African wildlife adventure is intensely personal and intimate. Each safari is unique in what you see, how you feel, and the camps you visit. For many, it goes beyond the dramatic encounters. In the Okavango Delta, you’ll experience a mixture of boating, canoeing (on a traditional mokoro, or dug-out canoe) and open vehicles traversing the dried-up floodplains.
Our game drives included moving through the type of low water that’s synonymous with images of running herds of red lechwe antelope. On the plains, we saw a coalition of black-maned lions up close. Another sighting involved cheetah cubs balanced on a tall termite mound, making high-pitched vocalisations and contented purrs – all to the background metallic chirp of a blacksmith plover. We also saw countless herons and storks on their stilted legs, and eagles catching thermals with their wide wingspans splayed. You can’t miss the aptly-named sausage tree, too, with its corndog-like hanging fruit, and the bright red fireball lily.
We were often entertained by seeing blubbery-bodied hippos out of water. Sensing they were vulnerable, they would make an ungainly watery dash back to the sanctity of their pools to resume their occasional submerged snorts and flicks of the ear. Don’t be fooled; if one of these mighty beasts opens its gigantic jaws, it could crush you. And therein lies the adrenalin rush of a safari – along with seeing a hyena amble up to sniff at our open vehicle in the moonlight, and hearing lions roar outside our room at night! Happily, all this is in the expert hands of your ranger, so you always feel safe.
Traditional boat ride
To “take or not to take” a mokoro ride on this trip proved to be one of the bigger decisions of my life. I didn’t want to encounter anything too wild while in this traditional boat, even with a standing guide pushing us along with a pole.
My anxiety was unfounded; this tranquil journey through reeds and watery reflections was utterly serene. Among other things, we admired the fingernail-sized snowflake waterlily that opens in the morning and closes in the afternoon – very different to the night lily with its serrated pad. Our guide showed us how they snap the lily stalks to use as straws for drinking water without alerting crocodiles. It’s remarkable how crystal clear the water is, too – you can see to the very bottom. We drifted past aquatic ferns that local villagers use as insect repellent, spotting minuscule reed frogs at eye level. This quiet gliding also allowed us to get close to nesting pygmy geese, kingfishers and an African jacana. With his long-toed feet (adapted for walking on floating mud and lily pads), he seemingly ran on water, flapping excessively to take flight to land just a little further out of reach.
#2 Savuti Camp
There are plenty of Wilderness Safaris camps on offer, either water- or land-based, or a combination of both. Bear in mind that the appeal of each will vary according to the season. As we know, to every season there is a purpose, and we are just onlookers to these cycles.
The two other spots we visited on our Okavango Delta trip included the elevated Savuti Camp. There, our spacious canvas family suite overlooked a verdant green waterway, the Savute Channel. As a result of a subtle shift in underlying tectonic plates, the waters of this channel can intermittently appear or disappear into the ground. Between 1980 and 2008, the Savute stopped flowing entirely, but a ribbon of grassland remained, attracting bountiful wildlife.
It’s once again flowing. In the dry season, animals congregate in abundance at this rich water source, and along its banks, heavy with vegetation. It’s notorious for huge herds of elephants in the dry season; when the rains come, the animals disperse into the thicket. Until you’ve seen it for yourself, you can’t fathom how such enormous creatures can move so silently and seemingly vanish.
The green season brings a great sense of relief as trees and shrubs burst into leaf and young are born. Nursery herds of impala were a delight to watch as they frolicked, jumping joyfully and suckling with their strong tails wagging. And seldom were we without the iconic call of fish eagles.
Our final destination, Qorokwe, offers modern, stilted units, overlooking a water hole. The main camp is slick with sun loungers and an inviting pool to wallow in during the midday heat. The family suite has the added indulgence of its own plunge pool on a raised deck – it felt like a chic apartment with stylish ethnic finishes in the wilderness, and was the ideal place for us to end our adventures.
As we left, after six days spent in three different camps, the staff waved us off warmly. They had entertained us with traditional singing, dancing and a demonstration in basket weaving; and, from bug jars for youngsters to joking banter with teens, they had artfully engaged and enlightened all ages.
One portion of every bed night spent with Wilderness Safaris goes to conservation; another goes to community upliftment programmes. So, while a journey with the group will change your life, it will also change that of those less fortunate than you. It will give your African journey more purpose, and make a positive impact on educating young people and helping them appreciate and protect their magnificent natural heritage.
Not only that, but a family safari is a superb way to spend quality time together – to reconnect and to disconnect.
You can fly to Maun in Botswana via Cape Town or Johannesburg. The Delta can also be accessed via Livingstone in Zambia, or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, if you’d like to include a stop at another natural wonder of the world.
Find out more at wilderness-safaris.com, or ask your Singapore-based travel agent for info on Wilderness camps, in particular. Note: There is a peak season to visit for a guaranteed water-based Delta experience, so be sure to enquire accordingly.
To see more of our family experience and get a taste of our mokoro ride through waterlilies (while avoiding hippos!), go to expatliving.sg/travel.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!