After a good nights rest, we began our trip by flying from Joburg into the Okavango Delta, in the northern part of Botswana. On the first flight to Maun, they served us biltong, a traditional beef jerky, along with peanuts. Biltong is a typical Motswanan snack.
The water of the Okavango River, flowing south from Angola, drains into the drylands of Botswana, never reaching the sea. This water acts as an animal magnet — drawing in thirsty animals from all around. We stopped in Maun and then took a small plane to our first camp in Moremi. We would have liked to have had the time to explore Maun, but that will have to be saved for another trip.
The little propeller airplanes were bumpy and hot, but gave us fantastic views of the landscape that we would soon be exploring on the ground.
Our first stay in the Okavango Delta area was at Xakanaxa Camp, in Moremi, along side the Xakanaxa lagoon on the Khwai River. As would be the case for many of the camps we stayed at, an elephant fence kept out the largest pachyderms, but otherwise other animals were free to wander through camp, including everything from deer and baboons, to huge hippopotamuses which would noisily chomp on grass outside our tent at night.
This was our first experience with a "safari". Safari in Kiswahili (which is not the native language of Botswana) means "to travel". In our case, it meant heading out to look for animals in a guided truck, in a boat, or on foot. It would be luck and the experience of our guide that often led us to find an amazing variety of animals.
For truck-based safaris, we would bump slowly along dirt tracks in the back of a Land Rover (or Toyota Land Cruiser, etc.), trying to track and approach the most interesting animals. Some safari trucks had no windows or walls (which we preferred) or even no roofs. Others had fixed windows or roll-down canvas curtain sides, which could be better for colder environments or high-speed driving. Usually we were driving no more than 15 MPH.
We were blown away by the abundance and variety of animals we found on safari. Around each bend, we encountered more and more animals — elephant, zebra, giraffe, warthog, hippos, termite mounds, a variety of birds, and many kinds of antelope & deer. The other tourists sharing our first safari with us were a bit more jaded. Even when we ran into a leopard, they still wanted to see lions. Well, we would see those the next day!
There were a lot of elephants. Too many, it turned out. We were told that Botswana had about 140,000 elephants — twice the number the land historically supported. When Laura was in Botswana for college, she studied the issue of elephants in Botswana. This is a huge topic that we'll hopefully have the time to write more about at a later date.
We saw evidence of elephant damage around us in the form of downed mopane trees. The berries of these trees are one of the elephants' favorite foods, and when they can't reach the berries, they'll sometimes just pull the whole tree down! We passed through forests of mopane trees, elephant-trimmed into stubby bush-like shapes.
Lions were a bit rarer here than in other Botswana parks. Our guide heard from another driver that lions were spotted nearby, but he couldn't get the crucial information of their location. The next hour was spent driving around and around, following lion tracks, and occasionally driving off-road (which we learned was against park rules), until finally we found them! Our guide drove the safari vehicle right next to a pair dusty lions dozing in the shade! Wow, was that unnerving — sitting in the back of a truck without windows or doors not 20 feet from a pair of lions staring right back. Just don't stand up, our guide said, and the lions will think you're part of the vehicle — not food. The guide was very much at ease, reading and playing with the radio, so we gradually learned to overcome our fear and enjoy the scene, watching lions so close we could almost pet them.
After a while, a big black rotund hippo wandered into the scene. Oooh, what would happen? The lions watched the hippo for a while, but it was too big for them to try attacking, so they went back to dozing while the hippo sauntered by. To add to the machismo of the scene, the hippo flagrantly sprayed a nearby bush (with feces), signifying his dominance in this specific area. Brave hippo!
We must have watched those lions for a half hour before they finally decided to get up and wander off. And good thing they went away, because when we tried to leave ourselves, our Land Rover wouldn't start! After waiting to be sure the lions were definitely gone, some fiddling and pushing of the vehicle somehow got it started, and we were on our way.
Later, we found these lions again, wandering through a field of tall lion-colored grass. We followed them in our safari truck, again off-road, through the grass, until thump bang, we drove over a log hidden in the grass, and got stuck! Stuck, with a lion prowling nearby. Our guide got out and used the high-lift jack to get our vehicle back off the log while we kept an eye on the male lion, watching us from nearby.
At one point, we came across the SUV of some "self-drivers" from South Africa, stuck in the mud. After watching their predicament for a while, our guide was kind enough to wade into the mud to lend them a hand. It turned into a bit of a race — a matter of honor for our guide — to try to extract them before the help they'd radioed for could arrive from back at camp. After lots of sloshing, splashing, and pulling from both ends, we finally pulled the South Africans free, just before their friends arrived.
Unless you have plenty of extra days to spare on your trip driving the bumpy dirt tracks between camps, little airplanes (usually 4½ passenger Cessnas) are the way to go. We spent some hot dusty time at the Moremi airstrip waiting for our flight by Mack Air, which despite many radio calls insisting that they were only 5 minutes away, arrived over an hour late. We would later have a better experience with the camp-hopping flights by Sefofane when we were in Namibia.