Home to the ‘big 5’ Botswana remains one of Africa’s premier safari destinations with its startling diversity of natural habitats and wildlife, from the haunting beauty of the harsh dry deserts of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Makgadikgadi salt pans, to the effervescent Okavango delta.
The Okavango Delta is the greatest of all Botswana’s natural wonders. Over one thousand kilometres away in the mountains of Angola, the Kavango River starts its incredible journey towards Botswana and, owing to the earth’s fault lines, is unable to reach the sea. After flowing down the ‘panhandle’ the river hits the sands of the Kalahari Desert, which transforms into a unique watery oasis and wildlife haven.
We all love a journey but this was to be my journey of a lifetime to the remote north eastern heart of the Okavango delta to get closer to African animals than ever before. I was off on a water safari in search of the elusive Sitatunga – a web-footed, semi-aquatic antelope – and the best way to find him was by traditional Mokoro dug-out canoe! I had driven through Botswana on a previous trip from West to East Africa, and (painfully) straight past the Okavango Delta – and always longed to experience this ‘must-see-in-your-lifetime’ aquatic spectacle for myself.
My safari to Botswana was in full swing! With each leg of the journey the plane decreased in size as my anticipation increased, adrenalin surged as I journeyed closer to Botswana’s soul! From the sky I marvelled at how the vast Kalahari wraps its harsh dry desert protectively around the mysterious wonderland of the Delta. I was entering the great watery wilderness I had always longed to visit.
Pretty soon the Kalahari was left behind as the light aircraft chased its own shadow still deeper into nature’s core, skimming the surface of floodplains, swamps and swollen water ways. The watery scene below was surreal, vast bloats of hippos wallowing in the shallow water channels, parades of elephants feeding on emerald leaves, dazzles of strikingly camouflaged zebra converging on small islands and gangs of buffalo feasting on the grassy floodplains.
Excitement reached fever pitch as the plane touched down on the sandy runway sending a flurry of impala bounding to safety and a pair of giraffes lolloping into a thicket of palm trees. Following the first of many ‘long lost adventurer’ sort of greetings and ice cold drinks, I was ushered aboard a safari jeep where perching high in the comfort of an ‘armchair’ I was treated to a transfer like no other through the bush while keeping my eyes peeled for glimpses of the big five!
Bubbling over with anticipation, this time aboard a motor boat, I was zipping through papyrus swamp and mirrored water channels to the exquisite palm fringed island of the Shinde Private Reserve and the intimate hideaway of the Shinde Enclave. With just three close-to-nature eco-lux tents and a guide, private chef, housekeeper and waiter I was treated like royalty!
Following a sumptuous al fresco candle-lit dinner, hot bath, blissful sleep and breakfast banquet – the search for the Sitatunga commenced. I hopped aboard a traditional Mokoro and found myself being poled along by an African gondolier, gliding silently along crystal-clear winding waterways brimming with a dazzling array of birdlife, frogs and dragonflies.
We slipped through lagoons of water lilies as dozy hippo flicked their ears and snorted and kingfishers darted. Rounding a bend along an old hippo trail hugging the banks of an ebony grove, we disturbed a gigantic bull elephant feasting and with a hearty flap of his sail size ears he sent us, together with a rare Pel’s fishing owl on our way. We didn’t actually sight the Sitatunga but there were many occasions when we thought we caught a glimpse of its thick water-proof hide disappearing amongst the reeds.
There are countless highlights of this very special journey to Botswana. The early morning walking safaris in the Moremi Game Reserve were sublime. The conventional game drives in unspoilt big-game country and close encounters with elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion, giraffe and antelope incredible – pulling up beside a spectacular leopard snoozing on a fallen tree trunk – the following day a pride of lion lounging on ancient sand dunes on the savannah plains! Perhaps the most thrilling was a traditional ‘hunt’ with the Kalahari San bushmen through acacia woodland where we startled a white rhino and her calf – they stood their ground as we gingerly backed off! The memories and sounds of Africa are indelible – peeping frogs, roaring lion and the hyena’s whooping call.