Okavango Delta and Moremi
In his Travels and Researches in South Africa, David Livingstone recounts what he was told by the local people near Lake Ngami in 1849 about the origin of a river there:
While ascending in this way the beautifully-wooded river, we came to a large stream flowing into it.
This was the Tamunak’le. I enquired whence it came. ‘Oh, from a country full of rivers – so many no one can tell their number – and full of large trees.’
However, within 100 years of Europeans finding this ‘country full of rivers’, its environment and wildlife were under threat. In an exceedingly far-sighted move, the Batawana people proclaimed Moremi as a game reserve in 1962, in order to combat the rapid depletion of the area’s game and the problems of cattle encroachment.
Initially Moremi consisted mainly of the Mopane Tongue area; then in the 1970s the royal hunting grounds of Chief Moremi, known as Chief’s Island, were added. In 1992 the reserve was augmented by the addition of a strip of land in the northwest corner of the reserve, between the Jao and Nqoga rivers. This was done to make sure that it represented all the major Okavango habitats, including the northern Delta’s papyrus swamps and permanent wetlands which had not previously been covered.
As an aside, this is often cited as the first reserve in Africa that was created by native Africans. This is true, and recognises that the native inhabitants were the prime movers here, rather than the colonial authorities. However, beware of ignoring the fact that Africa’s original inhabitants seemed to co-exist with the wildlife all over the continent without needing any ‘reserves’, until Europeans started arriving.
Moremi Game Reserve protects the central and eastern areas of the Okavango Delta. It forms a protected nucleus for the many wildlife reserves/concessions in the region. Physically Moremi is very flat, encompassing extensive floodplains, some seasonal, others permanent, numerous waterways and two main land masses: the Mopane Tongue and Chief’s Island.
Its area is defined in some places by rivers, although their names and actual courses are anything but easy to follow on the ground. Its northern boundary roughly follows the Nqoga ̶ Khwai River System, whilst its southern boundary is defined in sequence by the Jao, Boro and Gomoti rivers. It’s worth noting that since the middle of the last century it seems that the western side of the Delta (specifically the Thaoge River System) has gradually been drying up. As this has happened, an increasing amount of water is entering the Moanachira ̶ Khwai River System, on the eastern side of Chief’s Island – helping to raise water levels around the Khwai River area, and increase the incidence of flooding on the roads there.
Flora and fauna
The ecosystems of Moremi Reserve are amongst the richest and most diverse in Africa. Thanks to generally effective protection over the years, they have also been relatively undisturbed by man. Now with wildlife tourism thriving around the park as well as in the private concessions, we can be really optimistic about its future. The regime of conservation supported by money from benign tourism is gaining ground. One such success story is the reintroduction of rhino into Moremi: the first to be sent back into the wild areas of northern Botswana since poaching wiped them out.
There are over 1 000 species of plants recognised in Moremi, yet large tracts of the reserve are dominated by just one: mopane (Colophospermum mopane). This covers the aptly named Mopane Tongue and parts of Chief’s Island. Because the park has had effective protection for years, and the soils are relatively rich but badly drained, much of this forest is beautiful, tall ‘cathedral’ mopane – so called for the gracefully arching branches which resemble the high arches of a Gothic cathedral. You’ll often find large areas here where there are virtually no other species of trees represented.
Beside the many waterways you’ll find extensive floodplains, and some lovely stretches of classic riparian forest with its characteristically wide range of tree and bush species.
Laced through the areas of mopane you’ll also find open areas dotted with camelthorn trees (Acacia erioloba), and sandveld communities following the sandy beds of ancient watercourses, dominated by silver terminalia (Terminalia sericea), wild seringa (Burkea africana) and Kalahari appleleaf (Lonchocarpus nelsii). You’ll find much, much more detail on this vegetation in Veronica Roodt’s essential Trees and Shrubs of the Okavango Delta.
Moremi protects as dense and diverse a population of animals and birds as you’d expect to find in one of Africa’s best wildlife reserves. With the reintroduction of rhino, you can see all the big five, and a lot more besides.
Elephant and buffalo occur here year-round in large numbers, and you’re likely to see blue wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra, impala, kudu, tsessebe, red lechwe, waterbuck, reedbuck, giraffe, common duiker, bushbuck, steenbok, warthog, baboon and vervet monkey throughout the park. Eland, sable and roan antelope also range across the park but are less common, as they are elsewhere in Africa. Sitatunga live deep in the swamps.
Lion, leopard, cheetah and spotted hyena all have thriving populations here. Moremi is central to wild dog, which range widely across most of northern Botswana.
Both side-striped and black-backed jackal occur, though the latter are more common. Brown hyena probably occur, but relatively rarely and only in the drier areas with lower densities of the other large predators. Similarly, bat-eared fox are found, though not so commonly as in Botswana’s drier areas. There is a wide variety of mongooses to be found, including the banded, dwarf, slender, large grey, water and Selous’ mongoose. Meanwhile in the water, Cape, clawless and spotted-necked otters are often glimpsed though seldom seen clearly.
Serval, caracal, aardwolf and aardvark are found all over the park, though are only occasionally seen due to their largely nocturnal habits. Pangolin are also found here, and seem to be slightly less rare than in other areas of their range.
Although night drives aren’t allowed within the reserve itself, some of the camps near North Gate will finish their afternoon drives outside the park, and hence do short night drives back to camp. Then you have a chance to see scrub hares, spring hares, lesser bushbabies, porcupines, genets (small-spotted and large-spotted), civets, African wildcats and honey badgers. Black-and-white striped polecats are also nocturnal, though very seldom seen.
Until 2001 rhino had been absent due to poaching, though in November of that year the first white rhino were reintroduced into the Mombo Concession, in northeast Moremi, with black rhino following a couple of years later. Although they’re now free to roam, several have remained on Chief’s Island.
Moremi boasts over 400 bird species, a great variety, which are often patchily distributed in association with particular habitats; though visiting any area, the sheer number of different species represented will strike you as amazing.
Although there are no birds that are truly endemic to Botswana, the Okavango is a hugely important wetland for many species, amongst which are a number of rarities worth noting. Top of the Okavango’s list of ‘specialities’ is the slaty egret. Expect to find this in shallow, reedy backwaters and pans. Besides the Okavango, this rare egret is only resident in the quieter corners of the Chobe and Linyanti rivers, and the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia. To identify it look for its overall slate-grey colouring, except for its lower legs and feet which are yellow, as are its eyes and some of its face, while the front of its neck is a rufous red. (The less uncommon black egret lacks the yellow on the legs and face, or the rufous neck.)
Much easier to spot are magnificent wattled cranes which can be seen in the Delta fairly readily, usually in pairs or small groups wandering about wet grasslands or shallow floodplains in search of fish and small amphibians and reptiles.
For keen birdwatchers, other specials here include brown firefinch, lesser jacana, coppery-tailed coucal, Bradfield’s hornbill, pink-throated longclaw and the inconspicuous chirping cisticola.
– Source: Botswana: Okavango Delta, Chobe, Northern Kalahari (Bradt Travel Guides)
Finally we got to go to one of my favourite places on earth, the Okavango Delta. If you read the rather lengthy introduction, you will agree with me that this is truly heaven on earth.
Martin and Karen drove to Maun with us, where we met Pieter and Natasha at Audi Camp. They left us a day earlier to go to the salt pans and Lekhubu Island. Kubu is an “island” of ancient baobab trees in the Sowa Pans. When we met them, they were sick of mud, sand and water. And being stuck. Everything was wet. When we packed up our camp at Khama, our tents were still wet. We had so much fun, I forgot to mention that it rained all the time. ALL THE TIME. So when we got to Maun, we heard that it had rained 250 mm in the Maun area two days before. A man we met in Audi Camp said if we went to the Delta a few days earlier, we would have been stuck in the mud, but fortunately for us, the water levels had started to drop.
After an early breakfast in Audi Camp’s restaurant, we set off for Moremi. Pieter was trying to show off with his new Landcruiser bakkie, so he volunteered to tow our trailer. It was odd driving behind the trailer after towing it for 10 500 km. We were very excited about the little “puddles” of water in the road, and took photos and videos of each other as we drove through. When I look at it now, I laugh somewhat hysterically. We had no idea what was coming. Which is a good thing, otherwise at least one vehicle would have turned around.
The distance from Maun to Xakanaka, our campsite, isn’t much in kilometres, only 140, but it took us almost three and a half hours. Our campsite was beneath two gigantic marula trees, near the ablution blocks. As we were now in Untamed Africa, we decided to form a laager (pitch our tents close together and facing each other). With all our tents, trailers and vehicles close together and all openings blocked, we pretended to feel a bit safer.
On a previous visit here, we had lions, hippos, elephants, hyenas, jackal and more visiting us. This time, the water levels were still very high, so we were hoping they would go elsewhere, as there is no need to come here to drink.
Obviously, the moment the car doors opened when we stopped, the children took off in all directions. I called them back and we read them the riot act:
• No running outside a demarcated (by me) area.
• No walking or crawling either, unless accompanied by an adult (walking, to the bathroom, unless intoxicated…).
• No running whenever you see a wild animal. And especially when it is close by or looking at you, DON’T RUN. STAND STILL. Whatever you do, don’t run.
(There’s actually a book by a guide with this title: Whatever you do, don’t run. Ever. For or from any animal. Face your fears and the lion and s.l.o.w.l.y. retreat. Thank Everything that is Holy that we never had to test this. Although … once while the children were playing swingball, an elephant passed by on its evening stroll and the children just kept on playing as if it happens every day. And the elephant pretended to ignore us. He was actually kind of a permanent visitor; whenever you left the bathroom, you had to do it very cautiously unless you wanted to meet the elephant face-on.)
As the ablutions were near, but not close enough to walk to in the dark, Hugo set up our shower tent within our circle-of-pretend-safety and put our port-a-potty inside. He was the hero of all the females in the camp.
That first night while we sat at the fire, we heard the scariest, hair-raising sounds, like something from a Steven Spielberg movie. My brother, who had been a trail guide in his younger days, said it was elephants. Hells bells, it was not exactly a comforting sound. In the distance we could hear lions roar, but it was too far to satisfy me as loud enough to “tick” off my list. I love to hear lions roar, the closer the better. Unless it is very close, like touching distance. Then I only love it when there is a strong, mean electric fence between us.
When we woke up on the second day, I found out we were visited by hippos, elephants and hyenas during the night. I slept right through it. Good thing the children also did, otherwise they would have ended up in our bed for the rest of the time there.
We heard that there were lions at Dead Tree Island, so we went looking for them. We drove to Xakanaka on an okay-ish road, but this time we were off the beaten track. Into the water. They are called roads on Tracks4Africa (GPS software especially for … you guessed it … Africa) but you needed a boat for this expedition. We decided Pieter would lead at the first deep crossing.
Setting the scene: to say that he wasn’t too keen after being in the salt pans, is putting it mildly. In the vehicle’s cab, he had Natasha, Martin, Karen and two-year old Amelie. In the back, he had six children, including a terrified Sophia.
So, in he went. And stayed. It was deep. Up to the windows deep. They say Sophia was like a buttered eel through the little window between the cab and the canopy. One moment she wasn’t there, and then she was. Gustav thought it was funny (like men do ̶ Ed.). He hung out his window, pretending to shout for help. Natasha’s children ignored everything and I suspect the other two were a tiny bit worried.
As Hugo and I were getting the recovery equipment ready, Pieter kept trying to get himself out of the predicament. We were hoping he would succeed, as none of us were too keen to take the winch cable to him, seeing that the water was probably infested with hippos and crocs. Hey, remember Robbie Wessels’s song Speedos and crocs? “Hippos and crocs, Dorette wil nie swem nie …”
Fortunately, no one had to swim; he managed to reverse out. They had to open their doors to let the water out! And guess what? This highly intelligent person did it again! And got stuck again. And reversed out again. Men!
The short and the long of the story is that we never found the lions, nor the picnic spot that was the second option. It was just water everywhere.
(A little deviation: right now I’m sitting on the Namibian side of the Delta at Livingstone’s Camp, writing at the fire, sipping a whiskey, listening to the night sounds. And the sound of the hippo grazing right by us. When the children saw him, they skedaddled right into the tent!)
That afternoon we went on an uneventful boat ride on the Delta. The view from the top deck was spectacular. On the islands, herds of lechwe were grazing, making the grass look like putting greens. And we had the most beautiful sunset. A few days ago, Hugo asked me how many sunsets am I going to photograph. My answer? Every single one. I don’t think anywhere else in the world do they have sunsets exactly like these. I wish I can bottle the smell, the taste of dust, the beautiful scenery and the sunsets of my Africa.
(Shit, I think the hippo is coming this way, and I’m the only one outside now.)
As all of us forgot to get alcohol when we were in Maun, we ran out. Our neighbours kindly sold Hugo and Pieter a bottle of Chivas at an exorbitant price. The lodge nearby also supplied them with two bottles of something I-can’t-remember-what at a better price. So the crisis was averted in the short term.
One of the friendly ladies from the area also volunteered to do our laundry, at the best price we’ve paid so far.
Okay, so we’ve arrived on Tuesday and set up camp, had four-legged visitors in the night, Wednesday we played with water, had visitors again (I keep missing them), Thursday we went for a short drive, had the usual visitors (this time Karen, Martin and I waited for the hyena, but he only arrived after we went to bed) and on Friday we played with water again…
(Seriously, this is getting scary. I can hear it close by, but can’t see it. I’m going to bed. Cheers.)
Our plan was to drive with all three vehicles (so far we’ve been using ours and my brothers’, for company and because Karen and Martin’s rental vehicle wasn’t equipped well enough) to Third Bridge for a picnic brunch. With the “dry” route. From there, the De Villiers clan was supposed to go to Maun to charge the fridge battery and to stock up on urgent medicinal supplies, aka booze.
We got to Third Bridge more or less in one piece, apart from a few pieces that came off the rental when Martin tried to get on a wooden bridge missing some essential wooden parts. Luckily it was only the mudflaps. Later we picked up the other one, which we didn’t see the first time around. I have to mention that a short distance earlier, we met a Jeep missing a front bumper. We also found that in the water at the bridge! Apart from this, the dry road was basically dryish.
After a lovely meal, we all went our separate ways; Martin, Karen and their three monkeys to Maun, with Hugo’s cellphone to let us know once they reach the gate safely. We would keep the Satphone ready. The rest of us decided to find an alternative route back to Xakanaka. Both plans were a colossal mistake. At least it made for two good stories.
A tale of water crossings
On Tracks4Africa, there were several ways to get back to camp, so we chose one that looked less flooded. Ha! FAIL. The first water crossing was okay, although we deliberated for quite a while whether we should attempt it, no one was going to walk through willingly. We are all a bit scared of hippos and crocs … We made it safely to the other safe and regained a bit of our confidence and lost some apprehension.
Second crossing, as above. We just sat there, watching it, wishing it would disappear. Again, we made it through with no problems. For the last time.
We checked the third crossing from afar, from the left and the right, and from close up, trying to gauge the current and depth. We thought it couldn’t be too bad and Hugo and I were nominated to go first. The first 30 metres or so went fine, but then we struck a hole and a wave splashed through the open window onto my lap. I was a little surprised and almost let go of the GoPro which I was holding in my hand. We managed to get through, but my brother was still on the other side and kind of refusing to join us. Having drowned his vehicle a few days before and with two deep-water crossings behind us, he wanted to fly back to camp. Because that clearly wasn’t an option, ONE of us would have to cross if we wanted to stay together. According to the map, there was just one more crossing on the way to the camp. The choice was easy: we go forward. I have excellent video footage of them in the water. It was almost up to their windows ̶ that is DEEP! Again, he had water in the cab, same as us.
The fourth bit of water was very wide, and we could see that it got dark towards the other side, as well as a bit swirly. That meant deep. It looked like the deepest one yet. Shit. Shit. Shit. The reasoning stayed the same, either go forward through the last crossing or go back on our tracks trough the previous three. We had to go first. Surprise…
We got smarter as we went, so we remembered to close the windows. How fortunate. As we kind of got stuck at the deepest point. Gustav just shouted: “Water! It’s flooding! Everything is getting wet! Help!” The floor was littered with cameras, iPads, phones. I didn’t see much of the rest of the ride, as Gustav and I were busy saving our electronics. Apparently we stopped because we were floating… And when we took in enough water, we sank and the wheels could grip on the bottom. Who knew three and a half tons could float?! Afterwards Pieter told us thinks he saw a crocodile…
We made all made it through. But not without casualties. Petronella was making worrying noises. When she went to the mechanics in Serowe, they missed a broken air inlet pipe. We had indeed wondered why all of a sudden we had better (still not good, though) fuel consumption on the way from Khama to Maun. Hugo and Pieter did a quick fix, and after a while the funny noises got better. When Pieter took his Cruiser in for a checkup once he got back home, it had water in the diff. We still have water marks on the carpets in the car. They accurately show the flood level and never fail to amaze people.
The second story goes like this…
We never got a call from Martin and we couldn’t reach them with the SatPhone. We estimated that they should be back from Maun at around 5:30 pm at the earliest, so we were very surprised when they turned up just after four. They never made it to Maun; they barely made it to the gate. Their GPS took them on a joyride that cost them a bent rim and a tyre. So when they finally reached the gate at 3 pm, they hightailed it back to camp with the “good” road. Sans the very essential booze and ice…
When we finished breakfast the next morning, it started to drizzle. It was a sign for some of us that we should head back to Maun. Apparently the lack of alcohol had nothing to with it. Note: it wasn’t me, Hugo, Karen, Martin or Natasha who saw the signs…
We didn’t see many animals on this trip, but I loved our camp under the huge marula trees. I loved spending time with our loved ones, and I’m sure we will fondly look back fondly on this week.
From Botswana, we went back to South Africa. More specifically, to my parents on the farm. We spent a few days with them and then took Petronella to the mechanics in Pretoria to make sure there’s no hidden water damage. The mechanics kept us in Pretoria for two weeks, waiting for a part (the air inlet pipe), which Hugo finally fixed himself. He found one with two phone calls and fixed it in under thirty minutes. We were not happy.
At least we could finally leave, three weeks after we entered South Africa.
From Pretoria, we went to White River to visit the famous brother, and then we went to the Kruger National Park. We always told people that the Kruger would not be one of the stops on this trip, as it is where it all started, plus we have been there many times. We stayed two weeks.
Tip of the day: Whenever you plan a similar trip, buy everything that has to be washed in either brown or a dark khaki. Clothes, towels, bed linen. It seems there’s a lot to be said for the expensive safari-type, touristy clothing. It is light, easy to wash, and it dries quickly. And because it doesn’t show dirt, you can wear it three times or more. Just remember to change your underwear! (Really. We met someone in the course of our travels who took only two sets of clothes with her and wore one set for four or five days. She only washes it when it starts to smell. I said, well that’s kind of fine, as long as you wear clean underwear. She actually SHOWED me she wasn’t wearing any. I still get nauseous when I think about it.)