5. Exploring the Delta


Chapter 5

Exploring the Watery Environs


The next morning, we were up at sunrise for our first full day of birding in the Okavango Delta proper. The lodge had arranged for a “wake up call,” which was a polite staffer standing outside my tent holding a tray of tea and biscuits.  He quietly placed it on the desk, reminiscent of the same greeting and tea I got from our cook, Sulimani, while in Tanzania. Very British, I thought. The tea was followed by a quick breakfast of our usual scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and coffee in the lodge.


A Crash of Hippos

Waterproof blankets lay on the seats of our flat-bottomed boat, ready for the day’s tour. As soon as we got up to speed, I pulled my blanket up to my nose against the cool morning wind. We zoomed through clear channels in the sea of grasses to get to our study area. Suddenly, the channel widened as it flowed into a river. We continued at high speed, the boat’s nose in the air. Suddenly, Simon cut the motor and the hull returned to level. I followed Simon’s gaze. Directly in front of us the nostrils, ears, and protruding eyes of several adult hippos poked above the surface of the water. One ear twitched, then another. And then, after brief sips of air, every one of the hippos gently submerged, leaving only ripples. 

Hippo or hippopotamus means “river horse” and hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in the Delta. During the day, they spend most of their time in the water, and at night they graze on shore, eating up to 150 pounds of grass in a night. Hippos breed easily and increasing numbers can devastate a large area if fences or cleared ground limit their movement. Sadly, hippos are killed for their ivory canines and incisors that can grow to twenty inches.

 That day, I learned hippos are not to be underestimated, especially when they are in possession of their favorite lounging place, as these hippos were. Bulls are extremely territorial, fiercely defending their personal stretch of the river and their females. Our boat was only a bit longer than an adult hippo and our combined weight would be child’s play for a surfacing “river horse” to overturn. This is what Simon was measuring. How do we get past them safely? “Hang on!” he called, and then gunned the motor to a speed never again attained during our visit. I couldn’t help but wonder if that acceleration was just more drama, or did our boatman already have enough experience with territorial hippo bulls to know they demanded respect?  Given the look on Simon’s face, I’d say it was the latter.


A Birder’s Paradise

Once past the hippos, we followed narrower channels that wandered through acres of reeds. Birding was excellent. Several times, on Terry’s signal, Simon turned off the motor so we could listen for bird songs. We spotted several hard-to-find marsh species that morning: three White-backed Ducks, mottled brown with a large head, as well as a Long-toed Lapwing in stark black and white with a grey back. We had nice looks at a Western Banded Snake-eagle flying overhead, marked with several striking black and white bands under his wings.

Of course, as we passed higher land in the Delta we could see remarkable wildlife such as common giraffes, greater kudus with intriguing twisted horns, and several topis, large shiny-brown antelopes with narrow noses and a small hump at the base of the neck.

Just after we spotted a stately Goliath Heron standing tall on solid land, Terry pointed to something else in the grass. Simon turned off the motor and nosed the boat into a soft bank where a large monitor lizard was sunning itself. We pulled up so close to the lizard I could have touched his white-speckled gray skin, though I was not tempted to try. He was about five feet from nose to tail. He rolled his eyes and then closed them, maybe in the hopes that we would go away. The birders on the far side of the boat carefully leaned across to get good photos. After a few minutes of tolerating our attentions, the monitor opened his eyes again and grunted. Then he lifted his heavy body and slowly marched away on his short legs, his body and tail whipping back and forth. He slid into the water with one final glance in our direction.


A Picnic Reinterpreted

Later that morning as I was thinking a snack might be in order, our boat turned toward a larger island that had tufts of trees growing on its high points. I wondered how Simon knew his location but realized that the unique silhouettes of the islands and their vegetation were familiar references for the boatmen, all of whom grew up in the area.

We approached Chief’s Island, 42 miles long and the largest island in the Wildlife Reserve and the Okavango Delta. A geological fault formed this island and it has become a refuge for wildlife isolated when the waters rise seasonally. For years, it was the hunting ground for Chief Moremi and eventually became part of the Moremi Game Reserve that the Batwana helped to set up.

We stepped ashore, grateful to stretch and walk after a long and satisfying morning in the boat. Two lodge staffers greeted us and led us around some shrubs to a long table near the water. Delicacies spread across the flapping white tablecloth awaited us. This was clearly a posh lunch stop.

They had also prepared another essential—especially welcomed by the women. After three hours in the boat, I was looking for a good privacy bush when one of the staff called out, “Ladies, follow me please.” The other two women and I followed the staffer along a winding trail through tall clumps of head-high grasses. In a small clearing away from the shore, a wooden box with a toilet seat on top had been planted over a freshly dug hole. What a luxury!

This spot was probably a popular picnic location for lodge guests. It needed bathroom facilities, since some visitors would not know bush protocol, or might be unable to squat. It could have been gotten ugly. The staffer called it a “long drop” toilet. I guess what we did behind the bushes was the short drop variety. I especially appreciated the bottle of hand sanitizer placed discretely beside the box and the toilet paper perched on the end of a forked stick ground into the sand.

While enjoying our meal, we watched the mammals on an island about 300 feet in front of us. A large elephant and a few younger ones splashed along the shore while a family of giraffes browsed the acacias, the flat-topped trees we saw throughout Africa. However, we did not see any big cats. When the water is high in the Delta, the predators follow their prey to their distant grazing sites.


Birding Highlights

Numerous sightings filled our first day birding near the Delta including the following: a Slaty Egret, only a few are seen outside the Okavango Delta, an Allen’s Gallenule, which is a small version of the more common Purple Gallenule, a Green Wood-hoopoe, a dark metallic green with a purple back and down-curved red bill, and a Southern Red-billed Hornbill, which also has a decurved bill, but is much larger than the Wood-hoopoe.

I can say with confidence that I did see all these birds. Terry made sure we all saw each bird, not too difficult with only five birders in our group. Many of those were first sightings for the trip, and first sightings for me as well.

 Some birders make their “life list” of “birds seen” the focus of their birding tours. As my list grew longer, I have to admit that it was fun to discover how many birds we saw in a single day or the total for a trip. In the Delta, my life list was getting quite long.


Game Drive

On our second morning, Simon met us at the dock for the short boat ride to the touring vehicle for another “game drive,” apparently more of a focus of mammals. We motored through drivable land areas in the Delta to find the game, not necessarily to a specific place, but rather randomly with hopes of finding wildlife to observe. The roads were still squishy and we made many detours. As we approached large puddles, I braced myself, hoping the puddle would not swallow us. After several safe crossings, I realized that, of course, the drivers had passed through the puddles daily and we were safe.

Simon was prepared. At one point, the vehicle lurched to a stop. The wheels spun without moving us. Rocking back and forth did not help. Nothing Simon did got us going again, so he told us all to sit still. He jumped out and unclamped a huge jack that was taller than him from the side of the vehicle. He stood calf deep in the mud, set up the jack slipped the handle in place. He pumped the vehicle up enough so the tires on that side were not touching the muddy water. I leaned out the back, fascinated that he could raise the truck with us inside.  The jack’s wide base prevented it from sinking into the muck. Simon threw bundles of sticks under the tires and within minutes, we were back on the road. Or should I say, we were back in the ruts, but moving forward.

The effort was worth it.  We ended up having a good day observing the larger wildlife: African elephants, Burchell’s zebras, hippos, common giraffes, a greater kudu, a black-faced impala and African antelope called reedbuck, among others. Special sightings included about 200 lechwe, wetlands antelopes, and ten rare topis, a subspecies of highly social and especially fast antelopes.

Birding on the game drive was rich, too. My birding list kept growing. That day, new additions included Rufous-Naped Lark, Gray-rumped Swallow, Black-crowned Tchagra, our only Chin-spot Batis, and a Dickinson’s Kestrel.

Another common bird we saw that day and on other days in the Delta was the Red-Billed Quelea. Non-breeders are drab except for their red bills, however, breeding males have a striking black on white mask surrounded by red. The tiny, four-inch birds reminded me of the western North American Bushtits in size and activity level, cute and fun to watch, chattering at each other and in constant motion. The red-billed queleas are found throughout Africa in large flocks, so large they can devastate a farmer’s crops in a short time making them reviled in areas where they proliferate. They wander widely, never staying long in one place. If I had to live near them, they would probably become annoying, but in small doses, I found them delightful.


A Ride in a Mokoro

After lunch we had a short break and I considered a vigorous walk around the walkways, the only safe exercise allowed. Before I could get my shoes tied, I heard deep angry growls and high squeals. Not far away, some youngster was being taught a lesson. I paused and reconsidered. Hmm, maybe I’ll wait for that walk.

When I heard scampering behind my tent, I peeked around the side. A young baboon, her tail raised high, ran down the main concourse. Several smaller ones followed in what looked like a panicky flight. They were not pursued. Their departure from the combat zone seemed to settle the dispute and the afternoon quiet resumed.

That hot afternoon we had an opportunity to take a ride in a mokoro, a narrow dugout similar to a canoe that the local Tswana use. Two of us per boat sat on legless beach chairs provided for our comfort. Three of the Botswana, two men and a woman, propelled our boats, chatting among themselves as we glided through the calming shushes of reeds. The polers stood in the back and used a long pole to push off from the sandy channel and move the boats forward in the shallow water. It looked easy, but I did not feel secure sitting in the bottom of the wobbly boat. I could not imagine standing up and pushing that pole.

After a short while, we understood the principle of mokoro travel. The birds were wisely resting in the hottest part of the day and soon the scorching sun sent us back to the shade of the lodge and a cold lemonade.


One Final Big Visitor

On our last night at ¡Xigera, I returned to my tent sated with another delicious meal. As I went about my evening activities, I suddenly heard loud thrashing near Terry’s tent, two away from mine.  Thrash, thrash, crack, crash. It sounded like an enormous determined animal working on a tree or large bush, beating the leaves back and forth. Maybe an elephant? I thought. It didn’t sound like something the lodge could have arranged.

I turned out the lights and peered into the darkness. The thrashing continued though I could not see any movement on that moonless night. I returned to my evening routine and as I brushed my teeth, the sound became more like sploosh, sploosh, a slow and watery sloshing. Dousing the lights again, I pulled the patio door open and crept cautiously to the rail. To my left, one of my friends was on his veranda, shining his tiny flashlight toward the edge of the water in front of his tent. I could just make out a curved, white tusk bobbing in time with the sloshing like a boat on stormy seas. My eyes adjusted and the starlight illuminated the silhouette of a huge elephant, knee-deep in the water, kicking up waves as he walked.

Swish, plonk. Swish, plonk. He stepped out of the water to browse, grabbing leaves and twigs with his trunk and stuffing them into his mouth. He paused for a few minutes at the more delectable bushes, the elephant ambled on to the next. Taking only a little from each bush will allow the plant to live, I thought. I figured it was better than knocking the trees over, probably what he had been doing when I heard the first commotion.

In and out of the water for his progressive dinner, the elephant came abreast of my tent. I dared to turn on my flashlight and could see that this elephant was huge, even for an elephant. I reminded myself that Simon had said it was unlikely any animal would notice our tents or even be worried about the light I held, surrounded by others on the walkways. To them, the tent was just an uninteresting lump because it did not look like food. Still, I eyed the veranda rail. It would not offer much resistance to anything. Behind me, even the sliding glass door of the tent would not stop this elephant if trees fell in my direction.

The elephant moved to some tasty-looking shrubbery closer to me. His enormous tusks gleamed in the night. I didn’t want to push the invisibility theory too far, so I turned off my light and watched his shadow at work. After having a fine munch on bushes near my tent, the elephant splashed his way toward the next tent, leaving me to imagine what could have happened had he veered in my direction. I couldn’t put numbers on how close he was to my tent, but it seemed as if I could reach out and touch him.

The next day, Terry said that the night-visiting elephant was one of the biggest he had seen in years of living in Africa. Always with an eye for a good narrative, I thought Fine, but if the elephant had even looked me in the eye and flapped his ears a few times, it would have made my story more exciting. I’m glad he didn’t

Five nights at ¡Xigera and ¡Xaro in the Delta offered all the bird sightings and animal watching we could expect. The experience felt incredibly intense in terms of the numbers and the varieties of birds and wildlife we saw in such a short time. The Delta is legendary in every conservation community, and considered a sacred destination for any birder. My first-hand experience left me elated to have toured such a magic place.


Looking Back

The combination of Namibia and Botswana made for a fabulous trip. The sand dunes, the deserts, and the game parks in Namibia, along with the single focus on the Okavango Delta in Botswana, provided daily outings filled with a myriad of birds of many species, exciting mammal sightings, and exposure to deserts alive with rugged wildlife and plants able to survive in harsh conditions. The Okavango Delta is one of those places for which the power of the experience didn’t hit me until I let it sink in, and now, a decade later, it does seem like a perfect dream.