It is a light Cessna aircraft rather than a magic carpet that introduces you to the Okavango, but as it carries you deeper and deeper into the Delta the effect on the psyche is no less magical.
The Delta unfurls below, laid out as a richly textured exotic carpet, unfolding mile by mile beneath you. We are flying at a speed and a height where the trees, the great palm fronds and the elephants are visible, yet high enough to pass a bateleur that glides past your window, eyes not on you or the plane but on some distant prey. You now keenly sense, if you had not already been alerted before, that you are heading for somewhere very special, and that it really is a magic carpet ride of a particular sort.
You may think you know the African bush, that you are an old hand who has ‘done’ the safari experience countless times before, but this is the Okavango and if you didn’t know before, you are fast realising, that this is very different experience. It’s no wonder it is a proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On we fly, Maun now a fading memory. From our flying perch the age-old tracks carved since time immemorial by herds of traversing elephants and red lechwe stand out clearly through the marshland – the life veins of the Delta.
From the air you will notice high densities of palm trees and palm ferns. The seeds that gave this landscape its unique life have been carried along by billions of gallons of water made crystal-clear by its journey across the Kgalagadi sands, tumbling down from the Angolan Highlands for thousands of kilometres. These two plants, the willowy phoenix palm and the giant papyrus palm, carry sweet fruits that are favoured by elephants.
The scale is immense; a paradise rolling out below you as your plane flies ever deeper into this watery, mysterious world.
In preparation for my trip I had read that the Delta in times of high water flow can cover 8,500 square kilometres. But nothing quite prepares you for the reality. It boggles the mind to think of the sheer scale of the volume of water and sand that is moved and shaped each year to form the myriad channels and islands that make up the ever-changing Okavango.
Life teems here; inhabiting the waters of the Okavango are an estimated 35 million fish of almost 80 species. The most abundant species are tiger fish and bream; the staple diet of crocodile. Hippos flatten paths through the papyrus on their nocturnal forays to graze, allowing easier access for the sitatunga and magnificent herds of red lechwe and other antelopes to traverse across the swamps that you will see in abundance over your stay in this unique wonderland.
Belts of forest fringe the swamps with tall trees giving shade to big herds of larger game. The greatest concentrations of game are found in the open savanna where predator families such as lion, leopard, cheetah, hyaena, and wild dog are often sighted. And it is here where elephant and giraffe can be found browsing with sable, roan, buffalo and wildebeest.
This beautiful oasis of blue-green water, emerald papyrus reed beds and towering trees is your first introduction to Botswana before landing at the airstrip at Jao Camp.
Jao is our home for the next few days, and MD, who introduces himself with a warm smile is our guide and mentor during our stay. We know immediately that we are in the hands of an expert on the Delta. It is clear that he is immensely proud of his home. The bush is for me, in the words of JJ Cale, “where sacred scenes unfold, and the meaning and purpose of life becomes clearer”.
Jao Camp is made of beautifully crafted timber, built high up on stilts amidst a deep clump of huge trees, a haven for birds. Each of the tented rooms is completely private, with a deck and sala facing on to the main channel. The channel is a playground for elephant, buffalo, lechwe and a place where fish-eagles, kingfishers and jacanas abound. The treetop walkway links each tent to the main deck with incredible views of the scenery as well as birds and game that can be seen as you walk along.
As magnificent as the camp is, every meal is an event; whether in the boma or at roaring open fires, the food is varied and superb. Saying all this, the real star of the show is getting out into the wilderness and interacting with nature and your guide.
One morning at the swimming pool, I sat and watched a herd of elephant – matriarch, aunts and sisters together with three very young as they moved past me, a little more than a trunk’s length away. Up close they are even more magnificent to look at. An elephant’s trunk has over 3,000 independently controlled and moving muscles, this alone is extraordinary. Capable of picking up a single blade of grass, elephants can also topple large trees, suck up litres of water, flick away flies and sort out a lion foolish enough to venture too close! They move past, unhurried. The young are protected by two of the larger matriarchs who carefully check the depth of the channel before letting the youngsters cross.
No matter what your interests you will find it here. Birds, many exotic and indigenous only to the Delta are ubiquitous, especially of course, the water birds. We saw a grouping of 23 wattled cranes, more saddle-billed storks than I thought were still in existence and 77 “lifers” in all – just magnificent, this pleasure was re-experienced at home after downloading and viewing the 2000 plus images I had taken during our trip.
Our memories are too many and too varied to cover in this article; you must take the plunge and garner your own. But ours are imprinted in mind, some recorded on film and include a lion hunt. We watched in amazement at the actions of a magnificently-maned large male that was intent on killing a younger rival. The alpha male chased the young male. The young lion crossed over a bridge into camp, where he was able to shake off the large lion who was reluctant to cross the bridge...
I marveled at the way pied kingfishers both spot their prey and almost fold their bodies in two as they hover, then swoop. The exquisite bee-eaters and cattle egrets were never far from view. Jacanas skittered over water and lily pads with their extraordinary long-toed spindly legs, canoodling hippo, cavernously yawning hippo, reed cormorants by the score, just marveling. I was particularly amazed to see one swallowing a fish nearly the size of itself supplied by a jacana, presumably because she just knew she was fish-outsized!
Every visitor, every global wanderer, will of course have their own unique and special experiences. I would be poorer for not having visited the Okavango, a place that if you can visit, you certainly should!
There simply just aren’t enough superlatives in any dictionary to do the whole experience justice, and in thinking of it all again, the words and music of JJ Cale came to my mind; music so often is the soundtrack to our lives.
Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul
In the stillness of the midnight
Precious, sacred scenes unfold
You will leave the Okavango a changed person, a better person, a more environmentally aware being, full of precious memories that will indeed fill and feed your soul. I look forward to going back.
It is that simple.
Written and Photographed by Jon Quirk, Wilderness Safaris Guest