4. Center of the Okavango Delta


Chapter 4

The Center of the Okavango Delta


We boarded our charter flight at Shakawe, a village a short distance from ¡Xaro Lodge. The ten-passenger bush plane flew us over the expansive Okavango Delta brimming with water from rainfall in the Angola Highlands four months earlier. Our plane was high enough above the Delta to not disturb the wildlife, and we could see animals that looked like toys and the expanse of breathtaking landscape that people often referred to as Eden. Verdant marshland with sparkling water glinted in the morning light and small rises of land covered in grasses, shrubs, clumps of mopane trees, and isolated acacias accentuated the dynamic delta environment.  Herds of antelopes, a tower of giraffes, and a few elephants grazed in open grassy areas. I gasped in awe at the whole scene.

We landed with a bounce on a grassy airstrip on one of the few dry spots in the Delta. The name ¡Xigera, carved on a piece of weathered wood, greeted us as we climbed off the plane. All I could think as I set foot on the ground was that after dreaming about this place for years was Wow, I really am here.

Alongside the airstrip a modified four-wheeldrive truck waited. The driver walked briskly to Terry and greeted his old friend. Then he turned to us and said, “Welcome to ¡Xijera. My name is Simon. I will be your driver, boatman, and guide while you are here.” Simon popped his tongue as he said !Xijera. The unusual sound intrigued me and I wanted to know more about his language. He shook hands all around, then led us to his truck. “The camp is surrounded by water right now,” Simon explained, “so the road is impassable near the camp. We will use a boat for the last part of our short trip. Please, climb aboard.”

Built for viewing wildlife in the watery delta, the vehicle seated nine people on three wide seats strategically placed so that everyone had a good view. First aboard, I climbed up into the back. My head almost touched the underside of the canvass top. With Simon and Terry in the front, we negotiated the primitive track, the phrase Terry used for unimproved grooves in the grass. The truck bucked us sideways back and forth as we crept along the bumpy terrain.

We veered around deep mud onto another track, one of many choices in those soggy spots and stopped for a minute to sudy an African Openbill Stork. This large, black stork has an unusually thick bill with a gap near the tip. This gives it the ability to hold and crack the shells of freshwater snails and the maneuverability to find and open mussels, its favorite foods.

The truck sloshed and wobbled another ten minutes until we pulled into a shady spot next to moving water.  A flat-bottomed boat with ten seats and a good-sized outboard motor waited to take us on the last watery leg of the trip to ¡Xigera.


Speaking ¡Xosa

Shouting over the rumbling outboard, I asked Simon how to pronounce the name of the lodge. He grinned and assured us that if we hadn’t grown up speaking the ¡Xosa language, it would be hopeless for us to wrap our tongues around the word ¡Xigera. After rather feeble attempts, I had to agree with him. The “¡X” is a sound used in his tribal language involving a click formed by popping the tongue from the roof of the mouth. As a kid I used to be able to do that, but never in the context of a conversation or with the strength Simon gave it.

I first heard ¡Xosa years ago when South African singer Miriam Makeba popularized The Click Song, which she sang in ¡Xosa at concerts in the United States. She laughed when she introduced the song, explaining that European colonialists called it The Click Song because they were unable to pronounce the ¡Xosa name, and then proceeded to sing her lively song with amazing agility.

Since the English language has no such sound, we have no way to write it, so the inverted exclamation point, used in Spanish in another context, serves that purpose. The word “Keejera” is used by non-speakers, which is not at all accurate.


Arriving at Our Camp

Within five minutes, the boat reached the camp and slowed to approach a wooden walkway that spanned the thirty-foot gap between the lodge and the adjacent island where the now-flooded track for vehicles terminated. Two white men and four Tswana women awaited our arrival, standing on the dock. When they spotted us, they broke into animated singing. The women wore colorful wraps that looked stunning against their dark skin. I was reminded how I envied the women in Tanzania who wore similarly bright kangas. When I tried a kanga, it just didn’t look good against my pale skin. The two European men at the dock, dressed in white, short-sleeved camp shirts and wide-legged khaki shorts, sang along with the women. I could tell by their hand clapping and swaying that they all were singing, and when the motor died, I enjoyed the spritely songs that popped out.

Each greeter shook our hands as we disembarked and one of the men motioned us up a short ramp to a large veranda with a bar, cushioned couches, and coffee tables. A long dining table of sturdy wood planks and set for lunch stood at the far end. The women who greeted us piled our bags to the side and left.

Our host motioned for us to sit in the closest conversation area of four settees. Immediately, a server appeared with a tray of yellow iced drinks. “You are probably hungry after your flight. Your lunch is being prepared in the kitchen right now,” he explained. “The rest of the guests are out on their various activities and some of them will return shortly to join you for the mid-day meal. In the meanwhile, our lodge host will give you a brief orientation to ¡Xjera. He will be here shortly”

We all took a deep breath, glad to finally have arrived at this coveted destination. The sweet rum-laced “welcome drink.” tasted fruity and fresh. A few birders eagerly pulled out their binoculars for a look around.

There we were, quietly sitting in the Okavango Delta, enjoying the perfect weather. We were all excited to begin birding the 500 species of birds living in the Delta amongst glistening waterways and waving reeds we had viewed from above. In that moment of respite, all felt right in the world, so we just soaked it in.  


Protecting the Delta

A tall European approached with a big smile. “”Welcome to ¡Xijera Lodge. My name is Michael Farnsworth. I am the camp manager for ¡Xijera.”

After another round of handshaking, Michael added, “Welcome again. I’d like to give you a little information about this lodge.” He took a deep breath and began. “We operate this lodge in equal cooperation with the local tribes. Most of the staff here live nearby and the tribes receive a portion of the profits.”

Michael then explained a bit of history about the Moremi Game Reserve in the northwestern part of the Okavango Delta. Years ago, the only visitors to the area were a few adventurous game hunters. East Africa was more welcoming to them where safaris were better organized and luxurious than in Botswana but in the 1960s, the Mau Mau in Kenya rebelled against colonialism and made life difficult for guides and their customers on hunting safaris, so the guides moved their businesses to Botswana.

“Historically, the BaTwana, an ethnic group indigenous to Southern Africa, claimed much of the Delta. When the number of hunting safaris grew and there were increased threats from cattle grazing on their land, the BaTwana, along with help from the San/BaSarwa, decided to take action to protect their land. The Batwana chief, Mohumagadi Pulane Moremi, the wife of deceased Chief Moremi II and the BaTawana’s Queen Regent, initiated the movement to protect the Delta’s wildlife in honor of her revered husband.

“The Botswana government set aside this area named the Moremi Game Reserve in 1963. In the 1970s, that game reserve was added to the Okavango Delta Game Reserve, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was one of the first such preservation activities initiated by indigenous people and today it protects 20% of the heart of the Okavango Delta. In addition, this area is one of the few safe sanctuaries of the rare white rhino.

“In the 1990s, when visitors came to photograph the wildlife rather than shoot them, the Botswana government shifted the priorities for these vast expanses to non-destructive activities like conservation and ecotourism.” I later learned that hunting of all kinds in the Delta was only banned after 2014.



Nathaniel found us as we finished our hot meal.  After introductions he said, “Please follow me.” My bag had disappeared, but I trusted it would find me somewhere. We followed him onto an elevated wooden walkway, another accommodation for wildlife like the raised tents at ¡Xosa. As we passed some bark-stripped trees, Nathaniel said, “Elephants like variety in their diet and when they want something, they take it. If leaves look tasty but are beyond their grasp, the elephants just push the tree over.” Sure enough, we soon passed two trees on the ground, their roots drying in the air.

Nathaniel warned, “Please do not leave your tents at night without an escort. The animals, especially the baboons and snakes, like to use these walkways and you might bump into something regrettable.” For emphasis, he added, “The other night, a guest did just that, and found himself eye to eye with an elephant standing right next to the walkway.”

As he spoke, I wondered if that was just meant to spice up our visit.  I soon learned he wasn’t exaggerating.

In my tent, my bag had been placed at the end of a king-sized bed in the center of the well-appointed room. The acronym POSH came to mind. My English housemate in Tanzania had explained that POSH stands for Port Out, Starboard Home, used by British passengers travelling to and from colonial India. On the way out the port side (left) was in the shade, and on the way home, starboard was the cooler one. When I walked into my accommodation at ¡Xigera Camp, I suddenly understood the concept: over-the-top luxurious. ¡Xigera was posh.

Expensive lodgings on a birding trip, when we get up early and are away most of the day, seemed like a waste of money to me. But there I was in my posh room, so I decided to enjoy it while I could.

Although the camp describes its accommodations as “tents,” that seemed like a misnomer. The lower half of these tents had a wood floor and a knee-high wall. A light canvass fabric completed the wall and roof. Above all that, a waterproof tarp protected the occupant against the rare precipitation and perhaps uninvited intrusions from curious wildlife. Several screened windows let in the daytime air and flaps rolled down for night time privacy. From my veranda, I had an excellent view of any wildlife that might pass by at the edge of the water and I was not disappointed.


Another Rare Pel’s Fishing Owl

The target bird for the afternoon was another Pel’s Fishing Owl, considered one of birding’s holy grails. Some avid birders miss this owl even if they come to the Delta several times. It is so rarely seen that birders often refer to it as the “phantom.” There are only about one hundred pairs of Pel’s fishing owls in the whole Delta region. The fishing owls are territorial and live near calm water but since the area of the Delta can expand to about five-and-a-half million acres during the wet season, they still are not easy to find, unless you live there.

Although we did see a fishing owl briefly near ¡Xaro Lodge, I had hoped for another— one that would stay longer so I could study it better. Plus, I have to admit I thought, What a thing to brag about to other birders, that we saw two Pel’s!

Simon drove us for about twenty minutes to where one particular fishing owl often, but not always, he stressed, spent the day at rest after a night of hunting. We followed Simon along a well-worn path into a clump of tall trees perched above the floodwater. He stopped and scanned the tree tops with his binoculars. We all followed his lead and craned our necks to look high into the crowns of the mopane trees. Finally, Simon whispered, “There he is, next to the trunk, about twenty feet down from the top.”

The large, ginger-colored owl, in spite of his size, was well camouflaged against the bark of the tree. He calmly turned a lazy eye in our direction. The owl was aware of us, but secure enough on his lofty perch to stay put. The full-grown owl looked enormous, even from a distance. An adult Pel’s can reach over two feet in height and weigh up to five pounds. Pel’s fishing-owls are one of the largest owls worldwide. When one of these birds is alarmed, it fluffs its head to appear even bigger, but our presence did not alarm him. We had plenty of time to study this rare and magnificent bird.

On our way back to the lodge, I kept thinking, Two Pel’s in two days. How lucky is that?


Evening at ¡Xijera Lodge


Simon joined us at dinner, cheerful and available for any questions.  I did have one. “Simon, you must have another name you use in your village. It seems all the staff here use British names. Why is that?”

“Oh, yes, of course we do have ¡Xosa names, but you would not be able to pronounce them as you discovered this morning in the boat,” Simon chuckled. “Remember that the British have been in Botswana for years, so most of us comfortably use a name that you will find easier to pronounce.” 

Thank heavens for that, I thought.

After a tasty meal with two kinds of game meat and vegetables from South Africa, we headed for our tents, led by a staff guide, of course. I pointed out a small hippo resting under the walkway, all by himself. Our safety guide said, “Oh, yes. This small hippo is a teenager. He is afraid of the herd bull that would kill him if he could. When the mothers have another baby, they cannot protect their older offspring, so he hides out here where the bulls don’t come.”

What an interesting twist on building in a wilderness area, I thought. Wilderness Safaris specifically constructs their buildings so they can be removed with minimal environmental impact as needed. While in place, however, these structures offer safety to vulnerable animals.

In my tent, beyond the luxurious dressing area that had two dressing stations and lots of little packets of bathroom items for guests, a curved privacy wall enclosed a toilet and indoor shower. A door at the rear lead to a private “moonlight” shower outside of the elegant bathroom. How I was to see the moon remained a mystery to me since the whole compound was in a heavily forested area, so I decided to try the shower.

I was enjoying the lovely cascade of warm water when a baboon roar rent the night. Quickly, I studied the thin sticks between the trees and me. They seemed rather flimsy as a deterrent for anything but prying eyes. It certainly was not going to stop an adult baboon that could climb right over if he pleased. With that, I decided, OK. I’m done! dashed inside and closed the door firmly behind me.

A staff person had prepared my bed with the walk-in mosquito net. He had pulled the netting down from atop the fabric over the bed. The netting was weighted at the bottom by cotton fabric that reached the floor leaving space around the bed. I’d used smaller mosquito tents before, but they had to be tucked in under the mattress to ensure protection, an awkward maneuver that made getting in and out difficult.

All too often, mosquito nets are necessary in hot tropical places. The heat and humidity make any bed cover unnecessary. However, I learned to not sleep with any part of my body touching the net. Mosquitoes won’t even notice the net when they reach through the fine netting and insert their proboscis for a sip of blood. They inject a bit of saliva that might contain a number of different diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Zika or even worse, chikungunya, a viral disease that won’t kill you, but it’s so painful you may wish you were dead!

Terry said that at his home in Kenya, he and his wife even had a television inside their net to minimize any chance of a mosquito bite. I must admit, I quickly grew to love my cozy netted bedroom.

We were going to have a good week in the Delta.