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March 26th, 2004 -> Two Days in the Delta: Botswana

On the first morning, we drive in an ancient Land Rover along a sealed road thronged with obdurate donkeys (jokingly known as Botswana Speed Bumps). After twenty kilometers or so, we turn off onto a dirt track half-submerged by rainfall. The closer we get to the delta, the more time we spend crashing through meter-deep mud puddles. Along the way we spot a big bull elephant, wattled storks, bright bee-eaters (that's a bird) and one of our African favorites, the lilac-breasted roller (another bird). Just before we reach the grandly named “mokoro station,” we stop at a small village to pick up “Wax,” our guide and poler for the next two days.

The station is nothing but a dozen waterlogged mokoros (dugout canoes) at the edge of a small pool. Supposedly, the owners ‘sink' the mokoros when they are not being used in order to keep the wood from cracking, but I am quite sure that the real reason is that none of the mokoros are truly watertight. Once we tip all the water out of our mokoro, Wax gathers up dry reeds and makes fresh ‘seats' for us. These not only make us more comfortable, but also keep us away from the water that slowly fills the boat.

Poling in the Okavango Delta is peaceful but never silent. Birdsong fills the air. Hippos grunt nearby. Startled ducks take to the air with indignant honks. Baboons cackle from distant trees. To this natural orchestra we add only the slap of the pole piercing the water and the whisper of reeds brushing the side of our mokoro (dugout canoe). Neither of us wants to speak, fearful of spoiling the ambiance.

Wax seems to recognize our need for silence. He stands quietly at the back of the mokoro, plants the pole in the riverbed and pushes us forward. He is an expert at negotiating tight bends. The pole must be placed in just the right position, the force applied at just the right angle. I ask him if he has been doing this since he was a child. He finds the question amusing. “You can be a good poler in a few weeks,” he says. After my struggle with the dugout on Lake Malawi, I seriously doubt it. But later, he lets me have a try, and I successfully pole the mokoro back and forth across a small pool.

We slip through narrow channels overarched by tall reeds. We glide into tranquil pools filled with beautiful white lotus flowers. We pass corridors that hippos have bashed through the reeds on their way from land to the waterways. The water is incredibly clear and fresh: the bottom is almost always visible, and small fish can be seen darting about beneath the mokoro. We had been worried that two days would not be long enough to experience the beauty of the delta. We were wrong. It was wonderful.

The Okavango River flows out of Angola and crosses a narrow finger of Namibia before entering Botswana. There, the river unravels into a thousand channels, creating a triangle of wetlands so massive that is visible from space. The triangular shape is why it is called a delta – like the Greek letter. It is one world's few inland deltas, the next largest being the Niger/Bani river delta system in southwestern Mali (West Africa). The Okavango never reaches the sea; its mouth finds only the sands of the Kalahari to kiss; most of its floodwaters eventually evaporate.

Birds love the delta, and many animals thrive on the larger islands. But some visitors are liable to be disappointed by their game-viewing experience. It is not easy to see big game when surrounded by high reeds, and you really don't want to get close to a hippo. We took a long walk on the island that we camped on and saw only baboons and a lone tsesebe (a local antelope similar to a hartebeest), though we saw the tracks of elephants and lions. An Aussie/Brit couple that we met in the delta (Andy and Clare) had better luck. They saw giraffes, elephants and a python. For animal-packed ‘safari experience' in Botswana it would be better to visit either the Moremi Game Reserve which abuts the delta, or Chobe National Park in the northeast.

There are two main ways to visit the Okavango Delta: fly-in or drive-in. Fly-in safaris tend to be very expensive, with charter flights taking guests to luxurious lodges in the heart of the delta. Most budget travelers choose drive-in options, which visit the southern or eastern fringes of the delta. We chose a reasonably cheap (US$300) two-day trip operated by Audi Camp.