Delta Dreaming

(Copyright Lynda Harris)

“Refreshments will be served soon after take-off” joked our pilot as my husband James and I squeezed into the six seater Cessna and taxied out to the runway. Without as much as a “you are clear for takeoff”, we were off on a one hour flight which would take us to our first camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

As I watched the plane’s instruments tell me the turbulence was causing us to drop 4-5 metres with every gust of wind (although my stomach could have told anyone that), I soon forgot all about it as I gazed out over the delta. It looked like a beautiful golf course complete with green grass, palm trees and sand and water traps, but on looking more closely I realised I could also see elephants, hippos and buffalo.

Our small camp lay within the boundaries of the 3,200 square kilometre Moremi Nature Reserve. From the air, it was completely hidden by trees and surrounded by papyrus. The only tell-tale sign that it was there at all was just a small jetty jutting out into the nearby lagoon. Being a water-based camp, all transport in or out was either by runabout boat or mokoro (a native dugout canoe) along any of the many canals and “hippo roads”. Every year, water from Angola flows down to flood the delta before eventually disappearing into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. We were arriving just before the first tongues of the flood would appear and most of the camps would soon be closed. But there was still plenty of water which attracts and sustains an abundant array of wildlife.

There is something very special about watching a fish eagle gliding down for a catch, spying a beautiful Pel’s Fishing Owl (all 68 centimetres of it!) watching you from high up in a tree or seeing the vivid colours of a rainbow bee-eater or a malachite kingfisher for the first time. And then there are the amazing sounds. We were lulled to sleep by the sound of bell frogs and other insects, and woken in the middle of the night by hippos calling to each other outside our tent. One full moon night we could hear the barking of the old baboon who lived alone on his own island nearby. We had been told about old Eric. He was the last remaining member of his troop, the others all drowning in a previous flood. He would sit atop an ancient baobab tree – the perfect vantage point from which to see everything that was happening on the island. Our morning wake-up call was usually the sound of vervet monkeys, squabbling and peeing on our tent from the tree branches above!

A mokoro is definitely the most peaceful way to see this part of the delta as you silently float through the tall papyrus and colourful water lilies. Otters, fish and crocodiles live in the waters, along with the animal that kills the most people in Africa – the hippo.

After a couple of memorable days in this tranquil place, we took another flight by an even smaller Cessna to our next camp. This camp was a land-based one, and I was so excited by the possibility of seeing more large mammals that I hardly noticed the turbulence this time. Apart from a couple of warthog families and some very cheeky squirrels, we were welcomed by our Tswana guide Julius, and told we were lucky enough to be the only two guests in camp!!!

After settling into our tent, we soon headed off for a game drive with Julius. It was late afternoon and this is the time most of the animals wake from their afternoon naps to look for food and water without the heat of the day to contend with. Driving around, the scenery changed constantly. Wide open grasslands with giraffe, impala, zebra, gnu and warthog, wooded areas ravaged by elephants and home to troops of noisy baboons, waterholes filled with waterbirds and lagoons complete with curious resident hippos and large crocodiles. And not forgetting the legions of tsetse flies!

On rounding a bend in the track of a grassland area, Julius heard the “cough” of a male impala – a warning to his harem of females that there were predators close by. Without notice, Julius suddenly swung the truck around and headed off towards some trees to our right. Holding on tight we bumped our way through the bush until finally slowing down as we approached a clearing ahead. There in front of us was a young lion cub – maybe six months old – dozing in the shade. Further ahead we could see the rest of the pride – all nine of them! I could hardly contain my excitement. They were in hunting mode, intent on something hidden from our view, and the black “follow me” markings on the backs of their ears were all we could see in the tall grass.

Slowly and silently, each lion took turns stalking the unknown animal ahead, the whole pride gaining ground every few minutes. All we could make out were small clouds of dust accompanied by the loud squawking of oxpeckers. For half an hour we watched and waited as the pride closed in. Then, in a huge cloud of dust and with the sound of snapping branches, the pride scattered in all directions. One young cub ran towards us, stopping momentarily to look back over his shoulder. A huge bull buffalo stood staring down at the youngster, nostrils flaring and puffing angrily. The cub soon thought better than to stay around. Old male buffaloes are usually banished from a herd to a lonely life of bachelorhood once they are no longer strong enough to fight for females. They are extremely dangerous.

Once the buffalo trotted away, and the pride realised they would have to wait a bit longer for a decent feed, they all settled down in the shade again for another nap and some mutual grooming.

Our days in camp were spent rising before dawn and driving through the bush on the lookout for animals and birds. We learnt to identify the tracks of various animals and I’ve never been so excited to see elephant dung in all my life! The heat of the day we spent sleeping, reading or writing, before going out again in the late afternoon and returning in the dark. Sitting around the fire after dinner, we listened to stories about life in camp and in Botswana.

On our last night, the pride we had seen on our first day were joined by a smaller pride, and a pack of hyenas, to “serenade” us until just before dawn. They roared and roared for hours, the air vibrating with their calls. They were so close to our tent we could hear them moving through the long grass and in the morning we found hyena paw prints everywhere in the dust outside. It had all been a bit too much for the camp’s nightwatchmen though. They decided to spend the night locked in the kitchen!!

Another Cessna arrived to take us to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but I must admit to having a feeling of immense sadness. The prospect of seeing one of the natural wonders of the world did not thrill me at all. It meant leaving this most beautiful part of Africa. I was raised on a steady diet of nature books from an early age and counted “Wild Kingdom” as one of my favourite TV shows as I was growing up. So visiting the delta and being surrounded by such amazing wildlife and natural beauty, even for such a short time, had been an absolute dream come true for me.

A part of my heart now lives in the delta with the lions, and the hippos and the bellfrogs. And I know I will always remember the sounds……..

Delta Dreaming

Lynda Harris

Melbourne, Australia

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Artist's Description

A trip into the Okavango Delta in Botswana became a childhood dream come true for LYNDA HARRIS.

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