3. Into Botswana and the Okavango


Chapter 3

Venturing Into Botswana & the Delta


Most of Botswana is around three thousand feet above sea level, the terrain flat and arid. The country is a bit smaller than Texas, its environment lush where seasonal growth flourishes when there is water. The 970,000 square mile Kalahari Basin stretches across almost all of Botswana and into Namibia and South Africa. The Kalahari Sand Dunes stretch as far as the Atlantic Ocean and is the largest expanse of sand on earth. One-third of the basin is the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta is located in that desert, however, it is not strictly a desert, receiving 5 to 10 inches of rain annually.

It is the world’s largest inland delta, a permanent swamp with no outlet except for the rare heavy rainy seasons. The Delta is enormously important to the wildlife in southern Africa, especially during the dry season when water recedes from the larger Kalahari Basin. The Okavango Delta is home to some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammals, including black and white rhinoceros, cheetahs, and the African wild dog. The marshy Okavango Delta is important to thousands of animals that migrate from all over southern Africa to this one remaining water source. 


Okavango National Park

Only a raised yellow bar and flimsy fence marked the international border between Namibia and Botswana from the north when we were there in 2009. On the side of a small bungalow, just past the border gate, a small sign indicated this was a customs and immigration office for Botswana. A few other small buildings completed the station.

We stretched our legs in the shade of some delicate Mopane trees while Terry and our driver took our passports inside. A man in khaki clothing and an arm patch with “Customs” on it, lingered on the porch of the station. I approached and asked him, “Are we in the Okavango Delta?”

The landscape hadn’t changed much, but following the Okavango River had given me hope.

“Well,” he said. “yes and no.”

Not yet? I wondered.

“You see, the Delta is miles south of here, but this river,” he pointed east toward the slow flowing water we had been following, “is a part of the Okavango National Park. A strip of the National Park on either side of the river continues south to the Delta itself.”

Good enough for me!


My Backstory on Africa

My interest in Africa dates back to my college years when I first visited in 1964. In a few instances, I happened to be living in Africa when new nations were being created. Without going into excruciating detail that I find interesting, at the turn of the 19th century, countries now named Botswana, Tanzania, and Malawi were part of a chain of British colonies and protectorates that stretched across Africa from South Africa to Kenya. By the 1960s, Britain had begun to groom her dependencies to govern themselves. My interest in the evolution of Botswana as an independent nation dates back to that period, when I spent time in two others of the new nations, Malawi and Tanzania.

During the summer of 1964, I joined a college program, Operation Crossroads Africa. My diverse group of fourteen college students was to build a brick dormitory in Nyasaland, in central Africa, under the guidance of professional masons. It would become part of a training center for the Young Pioneers, the national service organization.

A week after our arrival, we sat in a stadium filled with cheering people. On that first Independence Day, July 7, 1963, the colony of Nyasaland became the nation of Malawi. Dr. Hastings “Kamuzu” Banda, educated by missionaries and sent to Britain for higher education, became the new president of Malawi. Kamuzu, which meant “Savior” in Chinyanja, was imbedded in several of the songs we learned from the Young Pioneers.

A few days after the independence ceremony, we ate dinner with the new cabinet ministers and were favorably impressed with their sincerity and enthusiasm. Sadly, within months after we left, half of those men were either dead or had left the country. Kamuzu Banda proved to be yet another greedy autocrat who ruled for too many years, driving the people of his country into misery and poverty. 

In contrast, after independence from Great Britain, the nations of Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined to become the country of Tanzania for mutual benefit. The new nation got off to a good start with the democratic election of President “Mwalimu” (teacher) Julius Nyerere, a teacher turned national activist. I felt his gentle leadership when I taught in Tanzania in 1966 and 1967. His Arusha Declaration in 1967 gained international notoriety in promoting a new African socialism in which everyone works to build community first. In spite of the hints of corruption before I left, the first several years of change in Tanzania were promising. Unfortunately, the weak productive structure of Tanzania’s socialist economy suffered from global economic pressures, while a series of droughts plunged the country into poverty and dissatisfaction.

In contrast, in 1885 the Bechuanaland (“the country of the Tswana”) Protectorate was formed when the Tswana chiefs asked Britain to protect them from the migration of Boers from South Africa. At the formation of the Protectorate, the Tswana rulers did not allow Britain to negotiate away their autonomy and retained their collective power. In 1966, the year I arrived in Tanzania, Botswana became independent by mutual consent with Britain. Because of the strong presence of the Tswana chiefs, the resulting government of Botswana is one of the least corrupt and most stable democratic governments in Africa today.

So, finally to be visiting Botswana was a journey I had wanted to take to see how the country’s democracy was faring, in addition to enjoying the rich opportunities for birding and wildlife watching.


Our First Birds in Botswana

A short drive from the Namibian border we pulled over next to a boat launch on the Okavango River where a flat-bottomed motorboat waited to take us to ¡Xaro Lodge. Twenty minutes down river we approached a series of cabins that jutted over the riverbank where it sloped easily into the water. On the shore, tropical plants and flowers softened the landscape and medium sized trees offered welcomed shade. The lodge was undergoing renovations, but it felt fine to me.  Our accommodations were tent cabins, each built on a wooden platform raised six feet off the ground in case the night-wandering hippos visited. They could walk under the platforms without inconvenience and our tent cabins would stay intact. However we were warned to check for these resident hippos before leaving our lodgings at night. Of course, I expected that there would be a hippo in sight when I peeked out my window that evening, but alas, the hippo had visited another tent.

The following morning as we climbed into the boat, I asked our boat driver, Simon, for confirmation that we were in the Okavango Delta, Simon affirmed, “Yes you are, indeed. We call this part the panhandle of the Delta.” I was thrilled. At last we were exploring the famous Delta that I had imagined for years.

The boat nosed through reeds and drifted down open channels while Terry pointed out birds for us. I loved seeing the small birds at home among the reeds as they clutched the tops of stems and waved gently in the breeze. We spotted our first Wattled Crane, poised at the water’s edge, a breathtaking site. This is the largest crane in Africa, measuring up to five feet and nine inches. The white-feathered wattles were so large and wobbly dripping off the head, it looked to me as if the cheeks were melting.

Five, long-legged Lesser Jacanas, rare for this region, are also called lily-trotters or lotus birds because these small birds easily saunter across patches of large lily pads like their larger relatives. We watched several of them poke here and there along the water’s edge, sometimes flipping the leaves over, on the hunt for small snails and other treats. Lesser jacanas look like tiny herons with a pale brown, six-inch body and a white belly, breast, and throat. Their extremely long toes spread their weight so that each step hardly makes an impression on the floating leaves.

Our boat nosed into a narrower channel, and the driver cut the motor. We drifted toward a steep mud bank where a colony of White-fronted Bee-eaters lived. These small, powder blue birds with long bills flew in and out of two-inch holes that stippled the bank. They did not seem bothered by our approach. One of them sat on an exposed root jutting out from the bank and allowed us a good look at his black and white markings. Terry told us that the “white-front’ in the name referred to the white forehead, not the russet breast. A brilliant red stripe above the russet part of the breast framed the bird’s white throat. One bird landed, stuck its head in a hole and disappeared for a while, probably feeding chicks inside. Then it popped out, looked around quickly and flew off. The interior must have been quite large to be able to turn around with such a long bill. I could have watched for hours, but we had more birds to see.


So Many Birds!

That night at the lodge was uneventful with no hippo visitors. The next morning, we birded around the lodge in hopes of finding a Pel’s Fishing-owl, a shy and coveted bird to see for any birder. While on the hunt, we found a Water Thick-knee, a brownish bird with eyes too big for its head and long legs, walking along the edge of the river. I wondered about the name, as its knees were no larger than several other birds with long legs. Several Collared Sunbirds worked the flowers around the lodge, a delightful African family of birds that fill the ecological niche of North American hummingbirds. They are of similar size and often sport the same glorious colors. The collared sunbird has a bright yellow breast with metallic blue or green head, neck, and back. The colors change depending on how the sun hits the feathers.  The down-curved bills of sunbirds are thicker than North American hummingbirds, and vary in length appropriate for the specific flowers they prefer to visit.

The lodge manager knew where some of the night feeding birds liked to roost during the day, so our chances were good for finding the Pel’s Fishing Owl. These are a large species of owl found in Africa that feeds nocturnally on fish and frogs. The manager knew a few of the places the resident Pel’s like to use for a day roost and soon, we found him, partially obscured, thirty feet up in a medium sized tree. However long we had to study the bird, it was not enough for me but without much hesitation, he launched himself into flight. In a few strong wing-flaps, he glided silently, close above our heads and then, off into the trees. I hoped for a better view, but then I always want that when we spot a dramatic bird.  

Other birds in the owl family living at ¡Xaro included two rare African Barred Owlets, small and brown with a barred head. The barring refers to thin stripes that circled around the eyes and down the back of the neck. We also studied two rather tame African Wood Owls who let us get an excellent view, medium-sized owls with large, dark eyes and heavily barred bellies.

A Giant Kingfisher sat on a wire over the water next to the lodge, unperturbed by our presence, obviously acclimated to people. It is the largest kingfisher in the region, has a long heavy bill and a black back covered with white spots. We also got a good look at a Bennet’s Woodpecker, the only woodpecker near the lodge, with an all-red forehead, crown and mustache stripes. Four Retz’s Helmetshrikes, the size of a robin, shrieked at us as they hopped around in a stand of mopane trees, identifiable by their jet-black bodies and a red eye-ring.

The next morning, boating toward the van, we had time to watch a small Black Crake tiptoeing across floating debris and lily pads. It is another bird well adapted to water-walking like those of the lesser jacana. A pair of Spot-necked Otters played near the bank. Their heads bobbed in and out of the water, curious about us but perhaps wary of the boat. These otters were a small species, but we could not make a firm i.d., unable to see the creamy spots on their necks and throat. It was a delightful interlude before we met our charter flight in Shakawe airstrip for our flight to the interior of the Delta.