PLAIN SAILING - JSE MAGAZINE

PLAIN SAILING

Botswana, Africa’s best-run wildlife country, has a surprise up its sleeve – a secret season in the Okavango Delta

PLAIN SAILING

It’s like a race, a particularly long and arduous one. In the highlands of Angola and northern Zambia an entire web of river systems catch the tropical rains of February, March and April. Slowly, inexorably, the water (some 12 km3 worth) heads south in a giant arc, destined ultimately for the Okavango Delta in June and July. What happens next is legend.

An area the size of Swaziland floods with fresh water, creating one of the largest inland deltas on Earth, a haven for animals of every size and shape. The nifty trick is that the water arrives after the rains have finished in Botswana, meaning safaris are generally rain-free and the rain-starved game have arrived to take advantage of the bounty.

There is another bounty. During the northern rains in February and March, the delta, located further south, is relatively dry and less marshy. Visitors therefore get the choice of two types of safaris – on land or by water (fibreglass canoes called mekoros are the traditional chariot for water-based safaris). This is important, because Land Rovers can cover larger areas and, frankly, are more comfortable than mekoros.

Getting into the delta is always an adventure as it’s in the middle of nothing, even in the dry season. Flights depart from Maun, the gateway of the wildlife universe. Planes are generally small and intimate, and hop from one dirt landing strip to the next. From the air the delta reveals its vastness – miles and miles of bloody Africa, as they say. Up there the distinct veined architecture of the coming floods is evident, long watercourse tendrils, snaking spider-like across the landscape.

In a few months it will be swollen beyond recognition, water overflowing into marshes and swamps. But right now there’s plenty of land visible. Chief’s Island is the main landmass in the delta, with Ngamiland to the left and Vumbura Plains above. Jacana is in the north on the Jao River, the main watercourse feeder into the delta from the region.

The plane banks and buzzes the runway, Egyptian geese take flight and the two Americans in the back of the little Cessna take fright. But it’s all in a day’s work for the pilot – no biggie – as he circles once again and executes a perfect touch down.

Jacana is not far from the strip, but the sand and marsh turn it into a circumlocutious route. Wilderness Safaris use Land Rovers in the delta, great as sand machines and as comfortable as they are able to negotiate (nearly) every stream. The first time the beast heads for a river crossing there is a palpable sense of ‘oh my’ in the back. This is not just some tyre-deep crossing; the Landie is up to its middle in crystal-clear water and back seaters can pluck day lilies from the passing stream.

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When the lodge finally comes into sight it’s the view that initially draws attention, rather than the buildings. A wide bay stretches away in a blend of water, reeds, flatlands, islands and hippos.

‘That’s Dirty Harry over there, our resident male. He’s mostly harmless. Lovely character. Welcome to Jacana.’ Well, mostly. Managers Laura and Travis are decent types, but there is no such thing as a mostly harmless hippo. ‘He used to be called Harold, but that didn’t seem right for a big ol’ hairy herbivore, so we “Eastwooded” him,’ they say. As is entirely right and proper.

Behind the couple the public area of the lodge is a simple, almost pared down construction, with a bar and lounge downstairs and a dining room upstairs, all the better to catch the view. To the left is a pool and to the right the ubiquitous loo with a view, seemingly a delta speciality. Certainly it is a throne with a remarkable outlook, especially if Harry is in harbour.

The suites, luxury tents on permanent platforms with verandahs out front, are strung out away from the main building at decent intervals, ensuring peace and quiet. There is no air conditioning, but it’s not needed as the rooms are well designed.

Time steals anxiety and soon the abiding sense is one of absolute relaxation and wonder

The afternoon is passing and the delta calls. Jacana, like most delta camps, has three methods of game viewing – mekoros, motorised aluminium tenders and game drive vehicles. We head out on a tender and take in the first theatre of delta magic.

Harry is on hand to perform, harrumphing as the boat slides past. The boat follows one of his hippo highways through the reeds and swards of both day and night lilies. Lilies are everywhere in the delta, as astonishingly beautiful at the end of a visit as the beginning. They lend the inlets and causeways an air of Kashmir, blue, yellow, white and green in a profusion of excess.

Evident too is a concealment of crocs, tiddlers mostly, no more than a bark and a splash as we pass. Suddenly, round a sharp bend, a square-jawed granddaddy stops the tender in its wake.

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Few things on Earth are as prehistoric as a large crocodile and, immobile, they are as menacing as Mephistopheles. Five minutes of click-click-snap and the archaic carving blinks of a hooded yellow eye before sliding silently backwards into the clear water. At the bottom of the cove, clearly visible, he is yet more disturbing, fixed eyes aimed at the boat above, ambush his 200 million-year-old intent.

The next day we use the mekoros, also known as the delta taxi, though it’s more arrow than craft. Back in the days of hardwood abundance they were fashioned from jackal-berry, but today social conscience dictates that they are made from fibreglass. Virtually prostrate, a punter is your expert guide.

Initially it is nerve-wracking – as much for the tilt and sway of the punter behind as for the proximity to things that want to eat you.

But time steals anxiety and soon the abiding sense is one of absolute relaxation and wonder. Being so near to the water means all that floats is yours to examine at close quarters – fish, flora and the odd reed frog, often no bigger than a fingernail. It is game viewing of an entirely different kind, but no less intriguing.

However, the reason for the trip is ultimately to gauge the land-based viewing, and for that Vumbura Plains Camp beckoned. Across the water to the east of Jacana, Vumbura is an African plain of the East African kind – expansive, populated by the grunt and tackle of oppositional species out to run, eat, ambush and astonish.

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The lodge itself is also entirely different. As contemporary as Jacana is traditional, Vumbura is Frank Lloyd Wright meets Gray Purcell – cubist, expansive and, somewhat surprisingly, warm to boot. The vast suites are open-plan, platform beds, sunken lounges and shower atriums linked by double-volume floor-to-ceiling windows to outside areas where plunge pools and summerhouses can be found.

The public areas combine open plan relaxation spaces with the dining room and bar. Vumbura Plains south camp is linked to its northern one by a long, elevated walkway with delightful ‘dips’ to allow for large animal crossings. It is remarkable, a place that drops the jaws of first-timers and draws return aficionados every year.

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The overland game drives are as remarkable. It covers a diverse and interesting area, ebony forests giving way to savannah and dense woodland. Each environment holds a surprise including Africa’s most elusive cat, the leopard, padding through the grass then taking to a high jackal-berry. They say Sabi Sands is the place to see leopards, but Vumbura comes a close second. The leopard sighting seems to open the floodgates and a pride of lions waits around the corner, exhausted and fat from a recent kill. Elephants disturb them, passing in a slow, destructive wave, uprooting trees and sending clouds of carmine bee-eaters into the darkening saffron sky.

Okavango is not just a water wonderland. The colours of Africa against a backdrop of the fish eagle makes it is clear that the ‘dry’ season is a damn fine idea.

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By Peter Frost
Images: Gallo/GettyImages, Michael Poliza Photography, Vumbura Plains Media