The Okavango – the world’s largest Inland Delta

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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.

HEY, MOMBO

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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