The Okavango Delta, Botswana
After rendezvousing in Johannesburg with my friends from Australia, we spent a night in a hotel that was distinctly reminiscent of Las Vegas in the 70’s. Funnily enough it was attached to the casino as well. The next morning dawned and everybody was in a high state of excitement – we are going on safari! Next stop Maun, Botswana.
The Maun International Airport is a small, makeshift building that contains Customs and Immigration and Departures and Arrivals as all airports do. However in this instance, it is difficult to tell who is coming and who is going, who the officials are, and who the passengers are. A mass of humanity from all corners of the globe huddle in this small overcrowded room. The place is teeming with people of all colours and ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin – with one united purpose – to find a plane. Somehow out of this chaos we find our onward connection.
We transit through the next security checkpoint and as usual, my metal knees (due to knee replacements) set off the metal detector. When I look up, the three male security guards look back at me in bewilderment and then at the machine and each other in surprise. I can read the looks on their faces and imagine what is going through their minds… “what the hell are we to do now? Pat down this woman? Ignore the metal detector? or, Call a supervisor?” They choose the path of least resistance, all looking at me with big smiles and say quietly under their breath…“ Please just move on”. I look into their eyes and I can see they mean … “please just go away and we will pretend that this never happened”. Gladly I move on and they turn their attention to the mass of people pressing to get through the gate.
At last, we make our way across the sweltering tarmac to our plane – a single-engined 12 seater. As the engine revs up, the body of the plane starts to shake, the engines whine, people grip onto their seat belts and we are off. The excitement mounts knowing we are off into the Okavango Delta and the African bush where wonderful and exciting adventures await us.
The 40-minute flight passes quickly as we fly over vast plains and lightly wooded ridges. Everywhere looks deserted. The vegetation is sparse and many trees are devoid of leaf and the ground is bare of grass. Occasionally there is a glimmering pool of water or a swamp with tracks leading to it from all directions. The shout goes up as we spot our first animals – elephants, giraffes and hippos dot the landscape. This is a foretaste of the amazing and exotic wildlife that we will see in the ensuing days.
The plane slowly descends from 10,000 feet and the bush airstrip below is a ribbon of bleached white earth studded with huge clods of elephant dung. The pilot buzzes the strip a couple of times to make sure that there is no game that can wander onto the strip when he is touching down. Flying into elephant poo is one thing, but a whole elephant in the propellers would certainly cause a mess on the windscreen.
We are met by our guide for the next three days – Gee. His big smile greets us and we are warmly welcomed in a truly hospitable African way. The hour long trip to camp takes us through dry savannah grassland which is punctuated by Camel Thorn, which is the stereotypical African tree. It has that signature umbrella shape with thick green foliage where the animals seek the cool shade in the heat of the day. It is a welcome variation against a dry, golden landscape of parched grass.
Occasionally we cross swamps and streams where the water from the last rainy season. The Okavango Delta has two faces: dry and wet. The “dry” winter officially runs from May to October; and the “wet” summer from November to April. These oases of cool water are a respite from the ever increasing heat of the day. Many animals inhabit these pools permanently, whilst others make their way to them twice a day to quench their thirst. These pools and swamps are the lifeblood and beating heart of the Delta.
The thirstiest of animals is the elephant. When really thirsty, they drink up to 120 litres a day. Apart from drinking water, they love the pools to bath in and to create mud baths where they spray themselves with a muddy slurry which acts as protection from biting insects and the sun. The elephants are majestic and amazing creatures and we are delighted to see so many of them and to study their habits and family life at such close quarters.
Did you know:-
• elephants are right or left handed? They use the tusk of their preferred side as a tool for digging, foraging and investigating potential sources of food
• the cows and calves form a cohesive group and spend their days and nights together. When bull calves reach their teenage years and become a nuisance in the group, they are chased out and join a bachelor group
• the soles of the elephant’s feet are padded and allow for silent movement
• they eat 150 kgs a day of vegetation; mostly grass and only 40’% of this is assimilated, hence the enormous piles of elephant poo everywhere. They excrete up to 100 kgs of dung per day
• the cows gestate for 22 months – the calves are 120 kg when born and are weaned at 3 – 8 years. Just before the next calf is born
• they live to 60 years
• they feed up to 18 hours a day and when sleeping they stand or lie down. The bulls with large heads and heavy tusks will often lie down beside a termite mound and use it as a pillow
• their trunk is like an arm with fingers and it is so dextrous that it can pick up a single seed and it is strong enough to uproot trees
• as their chewing teeth wear away, they are replaced from behind by a series of six in each jaw.