Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta

Bridge in Botswana's Okavango Delta

Our luxury African safari was, hands down, the most expensive vacation we’ve ever taken. We’ll be paying it off for a good looooong time.

However, it was also the experience of a lifetime, discovering strange new landscapes every day and animals that we’d only seen in zoos or photos…or never even imagined.

The first leg of our epic 16-day sojourn with &Beyond Africa, one of the world’s top providers of environmentally responsible/luxury safaris, would take us to two different camps in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Our six days and nights there were full of discovery, excitement, peace and romance.

After 28 hours’ worth of (relatively) cozy coach flights on Virgin Atlantic from Los Angeles, we had to hit the Johannesburg airport running to avoid missing our own narrowly-scheduled, two-hour connecting flight to Maun, Botswana’s capital. Upon arrival, we almost immediately wedged into a 12-passenger plane for a short, loud jaunt into the hazy bush, soaring above a blue-green-beige-brown-lilac sprawl dotted with round straw-roof boma huts and shimmering lines of water. Our eyes full of adventure, we finally touched down on a narrow, dusty airstrip in the heart of Earth’s largest inland delta.

The last leg of our 36-hour air journey to Botswana

Climbing down from the bush plane, we blinked into the midday glare and smiled at each other. Our safari guide, KB, a soft-spoken, brilliantly observant young guy from Maun who’d worked with & Beyond for almost 8 years, was waiting to introduce us the Okavango.

Our Nxabega safari guide, KB (center), awaited our arrival at Pom Pom Airstrip

Just by chance, we had that very first safari vehicle to ourselves for the 1 ½-hour drive from Pom Pom airstrip to Nxabega (nn-BEGGH-hah) our home for our first three nights in Botswana. & Beyond’s forest green trucks are built to withstand a punishing terrain of water, sand, dust, mud, reeds and grasses, but they have neither windshields nor windows to protect you from, well, Africa. When we asked KB about the glass-free state of things, he told us that wild animals think that a safari vehicle is just another animal; as long as you keep your head and limbs inside, you preserve this illusion.

(Cue cartoon rainbow and a folksy voice-over: “The more you know.”)

Anytime you go for a drive in the Okavango, you're on safari

Before we’d driven for five minutes, we came slowly upon a pair of elephants, 40 feet away, ankle-deep in swamp and cooling off their chalky, hot, wrinkly skin with lusty trunkfuls of water. It was sometime around then that two tears rolled silently down my cheeks. By the time we’d crossed over a clear, reedy stream full of leeches and baby crocodiles on a log bridge only as wide as the truck; watched a whole troop of silvery-brown baboons scratch, eat and play; and saw a family of giraffes help their fuzzy-horned baby reach a thorny acacia tree, I was all but a human puddle. Whatever.

Elephants, baboons, macaques and giraffes are just part of the Okavango's scenery

We’d soon learn that the gauzy visibility of the Delta from the air was due to smoke. At any given moment, some part of the Okavango is always aflame; though accidents, lightning and spontaneous brush fires occasionally happen, usually it’s a controlled burn designed to spur on new grazing growth. Oddly, bush fires can be extremely specific, touching down here and there rather than everywhere; in their wake, we saw outlines of white ash in untouched grass, crime scene markers of quick and violent tree death.

When fallen trees burn in Okavango bush fires, all that's left are ghostly lines of ash

Our eventual, dusty arrival at Nxabega was heralded by great ululations from the staff and cool, juicy cocktails. Dazzled by our new surroundings, it would take us a day or so to realize that this sprawling compound of swanky tented cabins set on raised wooden decks was spread across not just land but reed-choked river water, as well. The entire camp is situated in the northwestern Okavango, on a private concession owned by & Beyond.

The lay of the land/marsh at Nxabega

Nxabega’s dining deck, shaded by soaring ebony trees, was a playground for a cheeky family of macaques, as wel as electric blue starlings and and citrus-orange birds with fat, feathery bellies. Nearby, the hull of a replacement swimming pool rested on the site of its new home, having endured a sherpa-esque journey from Maun and across the bush; the former pool had recently been cracked in half by a fallen tree. Roots stay shallow in the Okavango’s nutrient-poor, sandy soil, and trees frequently topple during the summer rains.

Clearly, it’s not easy to be a tree in Botswana.

After the destructive summer rains had gone, Nxabega awaited a new swimming pool

Far easier to be a guest at Nxabega. Our big tent cabin had a full bathroom and a cozy bed, and electric lights allowed us to read at night (and at one point, to see a small scorpion clinging to one of the mesh walls) in the otherwise complete darkness.

Our tent cabin at Nxabega safari camp

After washing away our endless journey on that first evening, we were escorted down to the dining deck for dinner (you don’t go anywhere at night in the African bush by yourself without proper training and/or a shotgun) only to be ushered to a round clearing of linen-laid tables and trees full of flickering lanterns.

For scenes like this, it’s nice to know that in Setswana, the word montle means “beautiful.”

Our first dinner at Nxabega was amongst a grove of lantern-lit trees

Meals were huge European affairs, a mix of delicious but oddly incongruous Mediterranean flavors. When I asked to try actual Botswanan food (Adam wasn’t as game), our server’s eyes and smile grew wide. There was a bit of delighted kerfufflement enroute to the kitchen, and I was soon brought a heaping plate from the staff’s menu: phalatshe, a porridge made from millet and sorghum; seswaa, a spicy, salty stew of shredded beef; and steamed, fresh greens, all eaten with your hands rather than utensils. For the first few minutes of my delicious, hearty meal, I drew a small crowd of the staff, come to watch an American happily stuffing her face with her fingers.

A non-Botswanan breakfast before the first safari drive of the day

Our favorite morning at camp happened back at our cabin. It started well before dawn, with a loud snap and heavy footfalls just outside. I rushed to unzip the canvas from one of our mesh windows…and saw a baby elephant just by our deck, calmly stripping the bark from a tree and trunk-curling it into his waiting mouth. We’d just learned that elephants, who don’t digest very well, need to eat enormous amounts of leaves, bark and wood in order to retain enough fibrous nutrition.

But all we cared about in that moment? Baby elephant. Right. Over. There.

Sometimes, elephants come over to Nxabega for a snack

We held onto each other’s forearms by the window flap, still, quiet and grinning like fools. Soon came momma, then massive poppa, then the rest of the family, enjoying the convenience of tramping the camp’s graded paths right up to a tasty grove of trees. As the morning sun began to glow, pachyderms fanned out all around our cabin, the only sounds from crunching wood, snapping branches, waking birds and the occasional baboon whoop. Oh, and little, tiny squeaks of joy…but then, those were from us.

There’s so much more to tell…because there’s so much more that we saw. Please stand by.

Botswana's Okavango Delta from the air

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Continued in
Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta – Part Two

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See also
Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa
Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There
Logistics of an African Safari

South Africa: From Plains to Mountains
Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Part 1
Southern Africa: A “Spafari” Adventure – Part 2

and
TWT Travel Binder: South Africa
TWT Travel Binder: Botswana
TWT Travel Binder: Tanzania

Comments

  1. Hi Melanie,

    I enjoyed reading your post and I’m very envious!

    Africa is at the top of my list of places to visit, but like you said, it can be very expensive. Hopefully in a year or so I can finally get there. Just have to keep saving.

    You know, I hadn’t thought about it until I read this, but I’m sure the minute I see my first wild elephant or giraffe I’ll turn into a blubbering fool too!

    Looking forward to reading part two!

  2. Ever since I heard of the Okavango Delta, I’ve been dying to go! I’m so jealous! I should really start planning for Africa soon…

  3. Hi Melanie,

    Thanks for sharing this amazing African safari, it sure looks like you had an amazing time! 🙂 During what period did you exactly travel to the Delta?

    I was actually there last December, and enjoyed my first ever “mokoro” safari, felt extra special! Had a fabulous experience although it was the rainy season so we didn’t see much on land (saw lots of game from our scenic flight though…).

    Looking forward to Part 2. 😉

    Keep well,

    Michaël aka AfricaFreak

  4. David, Connie and Michael, thank you for reading! Having now been to the Okavango, I’d love to go back and explore the whole country. Who’s with me? 🙂

    Michael, we were there in early-mid-October, a few weeks after the rainy season had ended. A couple of posts from now I’ll be writing about our mokoro safari, so you can relive your watery version of the Delta!

  5. Melanie, I have been waiting for these posts and I must say it was worthwhile! An african safari is one of my next trips in the list and I would love to go to the Okavango Delta (my husband is more inclined to Tanzania…not that it would be bad! Hehe…). But my interest in Botswana was increased because of the great concentration of hippos and…because of N.1 Ladies Detective Agency, have you read some of them? Delightful books!
    Well, I’m leaving and going to the next post 🙂
    Congrats on the wonderful trip!

  6. Heya,

    I’m one of the pilots for Safari Air. Just wondering if you have any more photos of the planes? In any stage, on the ground, take off, in flight or while in the plane would be fantastic!!!
    Could you please send them to Safaripilot4@gmail.com if you have time 🙂

    Kind Regards,
    Jeremy

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