For years just a reference to the Okavango Delta made me long to witness Botswana’s magnificent and massive wildlife habitat. This legendary phenomenon is the largest inland delta the world, over three million lush acres when the surrounding areas have become dry. Called the “Jewel of the Kalahari,” this delta teems with more than 530 species of birds, and 200 species of mammals.
When I booked the birding tour to Botswana and Namibia I did not know much about Namibia. I would soon learn that both countries have unforgettable wildlife in breathtaking settings.
I first learned of the Okavango Delta through documentaries that captured the herds of elephants sloshing through knee-high water, thousands of grunting wildebeests pounding across dried grasses, and waves of pronking antelopes, vigorously leaping with legs straight and backs arched. Filmmakers always document the Delta during the migration between March and August for the greatest dramatic impact. Millions of animals return to the braiding waterways and some 150,000 islands created when the Okavango River floods the expansive savannah. As the dry season in Southern Africa reaches its peak, thirsty wildlife of all kinds plod across desiccated deserts to the life-sustaining waters that glitter between islets of grass and trees in the Delta.
At the first documentary, a tour of Botswana became a priority. In May 2009 I joined a birding group through Field Guides Birding Tours. Terry Stevenson had guided my previous trip to East Africa, and I was impressed with him as a skilled birder and delightful storyteller. When he mentioned that his next trip would include two weeks in Namibia, followed by one week in Botswana I knew I had to go. Terry explained that we only needed one week in Botswana to view birds and wildlife because they are so densely populated in the Okavango Delta. What a hook!
Before the trip, I discovered an exquisite photo in one of my calendars of an enormous pink sand dune at dawn. The knife-sharp ridge line curved like a snake, slicing the restless sand into bright sun and deep shadow. Those startling dunes were located in Namibia, a country that I would soon learn about firsthand.
Geographically, Namibia abuts the Atlantic Ocean directly north of South Africa and lies west of land-locked Botswana. The two countries share many attributes: dry climate, low population, sparse and unreliable rainfall and an abundance of astonishing wildlife.
The First Peoples
As a teenager, I read The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post. Post’s account of an expedition up the Zambezi River to the Kalahari Desert of Bechuanaland, now Botswana, in search of the last tribes of the Bushmen was published in 1958. The chronicle of this dangerous journey into unfamiliar territory under harsh conditions filled me with the wonder of survival in harsh places.
The Kalahari Desert covers a large part of both Namibia and Botswana. For at least twenty-six thousand years the indigenous peoples roamed widely throughout southern Africa. Those people are called the San, or Bushmen, and include several hunter-gatherer groups. Rock art paintings marked their presence and their passages in the Kalahari. Individuals are easily recognized by their small stature and usually lighter skin than the dark Bantus. Family groups moved from one source of water and food to the next in an easy and respectful rotation.
Archaeologists have agreed for years that modern humans evolved in Africa. In May of 2009, Dr. Sarah Tishkoff and her research team published their ten-year study in the journal Science. They concluded that the San have the oldest genetic lineage on earth, that they are the descendants of the ancestors for all modern humans. All other modern races are descended from the San’s ancestors.
By the fourteenth century, Bantu tribes had begun to move into northern Namibia from Angola. By the seventeenth century, the Herero people had migrated from the East African Lakes to settle there as well. As the agrarian population grew, the Bantu pushed the hunter-gatherer San further into the challenging Kalahari Desert.
By the time of Post’s trip, the population of the Bushmen had been diminished dramatically. Their survival depended on the challenges of the Kalahari Desert, the only safe place left for them after the encroachment of later arrivals. Then, the survivors were told to leave in favor of game reserves and tourist income.
The Great Boer Trek (Namibia)
The first European merchants established a trading post in Cape Colony, South Africa in 1652 to support trade with Asia. Over time, some retired employees moved away from the trading post to farm the rich land nearby, condoned by the merchants as long as they agreed to sell all their produce back to the company. Their descendants identify as Afrikaners, the Dutch word for African. They included Dutch, German, and French settlers who had developed their own language and culture, influenced by their interactions with Africans and Asians.
Tensions grew between the Dutch East India Company that supported the Cape Town colony as a profit center and the employees who wanted to live outside the rules of the company. As a result, in 1835 waves of the pioneers who called themselves “Voortrekkers” began a northeastern migration in wagon trains from South Africa that would be called the Great Boer Trek. By 1849 some Voortrekkers arrived and settled in Namibia where Windhoek, Namibia’s capitol, is now located. Indigenous people, the Namaqua tribe to the south and the Herero to the north, destroyed the town twice, but after fifty years of bloodshed the Afrikaners, the settled Voortrekkers, won out and in the late 1800s the settlement began to thrive.
This was all happening inland from the sea. Ships came and went from the protected bays of the coast, but no permanent settlements emerged.
The German Incursion
In 1884, Germans seized Angra Pequeña, one of the first incidents in the European “Scramble for Africa,” eventually resulting in the colony known as South West Africa and later, Namibia. The Germans committed unspeakable atrocities on the indigenous peoples, including the banishment of some 8000 Herero tribesmen and their families to perish in the Kalahari Desert.
After World War I, the League of Nations placed South West Africa under a British mandate, with the administration of the territory entrusted to the government of the Union of South Africa. The economy grew, tightening the bonds between the two, while most of the wealth accrued to the whites. In 1948 South Africa implemented its apartheid laws in South West Africa, the laws that institutionalized racial discrimination against black Africans. Over the next several bloody years, the tribes fought for independence against the South African desire to annex the mineral rich territory. In 1988, the effort collapsed, and the United Nations supervised the creation of the nation of Namibia.
Another Path to Independence (Botswana)
In 1872, Chief Khama III united several of the warring Tswana tribes to fight the encroaching Afrikaners who settled on the best grazing land. The white settlers’ cattle displaced antelopes, zebras and other grazers important to the Tswana and the San. Overwhelmed by the numbers, Chief Khama III approached the British to protect them. After a British military expedition surveyed the land, Britain agreed to the creation of the Protectorate of Bechuanaland in 1885, and agreed to share leadership equally with the local chiefs.
In the 1890s, when British mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes, then President of South Africa, tried to take control of the region that promised diamonds and gold, three of the chiefs sailed to England to convince the British government to not support Rhodes. He vehemently believed that the white race was “the first race in the world” and black Africans were a “subject race.” In time, history would judge Rhodes and his ruthless imperialism as an “architect of apartheid.”
During that period, clashes between the San and the Bantus increased as well. While the San were not pastoralists, the animals they relied on for food needed good grazing land—the same land the Bantus wanted to claim as theirs. Eventually, in the face of the more powerful forces, the peaceful San retreated to the Okavango Delta where the millions of tsetse flies bred in the wide swaths of the delta’s waterways gave them a measure of safety. The tsetse flies spread diseases fatal to the Bantus and their cattle. However, the nomadic San had lived in the area for thousands of years and were more adaptable to the environment’s challenges.
As the interlopers spread across southern Africa, Namibia and Botswana developed as two countries with their separate histories. I learned this after our birding tour in 2010. The wildlife drew me to Namibia and Botswana, and history enriched my understanding of the land I had visited.