The Okavango is the world’s largest inland delta — 15,000km of waterways, islands and wild animals. Pieter Hugo set out in a mokoro on a 300 km odyssey from Seronga to Maun, dodging hippos, elephants and a hungry lioness. As we approach the end of the channel, a 4m-long crocodile passes beneath Steve’s mokoro. Then, out of nowhere, an elephant bull storms out of the bushes into the shallow water with ears ﬂapping. In his haste to turn around, our guide Tom turns too quickly and water starts streaming into his mokoro. My heart sinks as the side of his boat goes under. I frantically scan the water for any sign of that huge croc. We’ve been travelling for 1 0 days and we’re somewhere deep in the Okavango Delta on a self -reliant birding expedition. Here in the wilderness, something as simple as losing the lid of a water container or leaving your shoes outside during the night can have dire consequences. Carelessly throwing a log on the fire can result in a scorpion sting that will paralyse your muscles and cause respiratory failure within 1 O minutes. And although we have a satellite phone, there is no flying over the Delta at night. Fortunately, Tom manages to right the mokoro without taking too much water onboard, and we pole out of there faster than a pygmy goose on steroids.
WHO AND WHY:
The mission is simple: Count as many wetland birds as possible. We will start at Seronga on the eastern side of the Okavango Panhandle, work our way down to the village of Jedibe, then on to Madinari Island, Mombo Camp, through Moremi and on to Maun.
THE PAPYRUS WARS: The first few days are tough going. We spend a lot of time following narrow, winding channels and pushing the mokoros around tight corners and through shallow water. The terrain consists mostly of thick clumps of floating papyrus and narrow channels. On the first day we briefly cross the Okavango River, but for the most part we are trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the papyrus jungle. This is the permanent Delta — you’ll find water here year-round — and, as a result, there are very few islands. Where they do occur, they’re mostly small and damp. Darkness approaches and we are forced to settle for a small, steep-sided island close to a herd of elephants, spending an uncomfortable night, enlivened by a visit from a solitary elephant. Next day, we arrive in the tiny village of Jedibe, in search of a specialist guide. We are directed to an old man named Comet. He arranges to meet us at 9 am the following day on an island just down- stream from the village. Comet arrives an hour-and-a-half late, with his companion Judge, a huge man with a huge smile and a T-shirt that sports the words: “Africa is not for sissies”. Half an hour later, we finally set off for Madinari Island. The Delta starts to open up and, for the first time, we see large, open sections of water, flocks of great white pelicans and several fish eagle nests — some inhabited. GB tells us about the time he was knocked out of his mokoro by a croc. “A crocodile only looks up,” he says. “Swim to the bottom and hold on as long as you can.” Good advice we hope we’ll never have to use! As the day progresses it becomes clear that we won’t get to Madinari before dark, so we’ll need to find another island for the night. For dinner we eat smoked bream boiled with salt. GB also cooks up some water-lily bulbs that he collected earlier. I fall asleep to the call of a Pel’s fishing-owl. We head south in the morning, then north-east, poling upstream for the first time as we head away from the main channels. Later we enter the dense papyrus that surrounds the Jao River. After finding ourselves in a number of dead-end channels we resort to an over- land portage. We cross the clear, fast water of the Jao, then follow a hippo track to Madinari Island. Even here, on an isolated island, we find signs of human presence: footprints and, more disturbingly, a wire snare. We set up camp, make a fire, and spend the night dreaming of Mombo, where we’ll have a chance to do some walking in the Okavango’s premier game viewing area
OPEN UP OKAVANGO!
The morning starts out badly. The water dropped overnight and we countless blocked channels, across flooded grassland and fight leeches After SIX hours, we break a thick stretch of reeds and the quickens into a deep, fast-flowing Mombo is not far now! Our arrival at the concession is heralded by an almighty ruckus as about 30 startled hippos out of the reeds and into the water in front of us We pool, get out and push through water along the edge, while the hippos snort about 15m away encounter a breeding herd of more hippos, lechwe and a croc that slips into the water The bird life is unbelievable. Up until now we have recorded an average of 120 sightings a day. Here, we notch up 75 in less than an hour herons of many species; pied and malachite kingfishers; hundreds of white-faced ducks; pygmy, Egyptian and spur-winged geese; wattled crane; African skimmer and a host of other species. An hour later we find a large, beautiful island, occupied by a herd of elephants. Comet immediately sets fire to a ball of elephant dung to signal our presence, and the herd peacefully moves away. Later, Giles and I are sitting around the fire when a young elephant cow comes out of the darkness about 10m away, calmly chewing on a palm leaf. She looks at us. We look at her. Time stops. Then she turns around and wanders back into the trees, obviously having decided that we’re no threat to her or her family. Near midnight, as I lie in my tent thinking about the day, the bush comes alive with sounds: hippos grunt and snort and a lion roars, followed by the manic laughter of a pack of hyenas. The lion must have made a kill, which the hyenas are trying to steal. Sure enough, more lions join in, growling and hissing, and the hyenas go quiet.
In the late afternoon of the seventh day, we find a suitable island to use as a base for three days while we explore the Delta on foot. We say farewell to Comet and Judge, who are heading back to Jedibe. On our first bush walk, Chris and Steve spot a small leopard flitting away through the low palms, and when we get back to camp we find a white rhino midden, complete with the track of a rhino calf and the imprint of its rump still etched into the sand. Rhinos are rare in the Delta and we are thrilled to ﬁnd evidence of them, especially of a calf. With nightfall approaching, we light a ﬁre and soon we hear a lion’s throaty call. Another lion answers, and another, until we can hear three distinct prides calling all around us. We all move a little closer to the ﬁre. The following night it’s the same story the lion calls get closer and closer to camp. When the sun rises on our third day we decide to investigate what they’re up to. We hop from island to island, following the calls of a female. On a distant tree, we see hooded vultures and realise that they are with the pride. Eventually, from the top of an elevated termite mound, we catch a glimpse of a lioness stalking through the grass ahead. We move forward, pausing often, until we ﬁnally see the whole pride relaxing in the shade: a dominant female and ﬁve young males. We move around to the left of a floodplain, hugging the tree line, while the pride keeps a wary eye on us. They are about 100m away and I can’t help thinking how quickly that big lioness could cover the distance. Her attention is focused on us, but only once we decide to turn around does her posture become threatening. She comes up into a crouch and snarls, baring her teeth. We take the hint and ﬂee. “You guys realise that we’re leaving a lovely scent trail right back to camp,” Chris points out. The prides start calling again at dusk. We get increasingly nervous as it gets darker and build the fire higher and higher, scanning the bush with torches, looking for glowing eyes. The moon emerges as an eerie blood-red ball. I zip my tent up tightly and hope that my scent is the least juicy of them all!
MOVING ALONG TO MAUN
We enter a large channel and spend the day paddling upstream towards Xigera Camp, where we set up our tents for the night. An elephant approaches in the night, only to be chased off by Giles with inimitable British understatement. He claps his hands politely and says, “Come, come, old chap. Time to move along.” The elephant respects his good manners and disappears into the darkness. It’s our 1 1th day in the Delta and our time in this wilderness is running out. For the next few days we push hard and cover big distances, made easier by the fact that we’re following wider, faster channels. Downstream, it’s disturbing to see a ﬁne slick of oil on the surface of the water, the ﬁrst signs of human contamination that We’ve seen since leaving Seronga. The increase in air and boat trafﬁc means we’re getting closer to civilisation. We pass a heronry with more than 200 great white egrets and other birds busily courting and building nests, a great ﬁnd for the Wetland Bird Survey. We record the GPS position and wonder where they’ll be next year. The Okavango Delta is a miraculous place, an aquatic wonderland that provides a refuge for millions of birds, animals and plants. The seasonal ﬂood is the lifeblood of the entire region. The sheer scale of the Okavango makes you think about the place we humans should ﬁll in the natural world. After two weeks and 300km on the water, we arrive in Maun — sunburnt, bearded and with a slightly wild look in our eyes. We’ve mapped a new route through the Delta and recorded over 2,500 bird sightings. Our day jobs are waiting, but all I want to do is get back into my mokoro.
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