The Okavango Delta, Botswana: Our First Taste of Wild Africa
When we arrived to Botswana, I was jumping up and down with excitement. A safari is something I have wanted to do my entire life and I was so happy to be in Maun that I couldn’t contain myself. After clearing immigration we collected our bags and found our safari company waiting for us, Bush Camp Safaris. Unfortunately, my excitement quickly turned into tears of disappointment and frustration. We got into the owner, Eric Birkenstock’s, Land Cruiser and it was at this point he decided to inform us that he didn’t have the funds necessary to pay for the safari to go. When the words left his mouth, my entire world came crashing down. Everything around me went into slow motion as if I wasn’t really there; instead it was just a horrible dream. He then told us we had two options. The first was to pay him an additional $1500 USD to cover the cost of groceries, the boat rental into the Delta, fuel for the boat, and well as the safari jeep, and of course fuel for his own personal vehicle because he was running on fumes. The second option was to not go on the safari, so in actuality, it wasn’t really an option. Our safari had been planned to start in Maun, Botswana and end in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe so we didn’t even have a flight to leave Botswana if we wanted to. So if anyone is looking at booking a safari in Botswana, DO NOT book with Bush Camp Safaris or Sunset Safaris and Tours (they operate under both names, if you do, be prepared to be scammed.
We ended up running all over town paying for groceries with the cook, renting the boat, paying for fuel, paying for park entrance fees, and overall being incredible stressed out and feeling like we were being taken advantage of. It was awful knowing that even with months of researching safari companies to avoid this situation, we still got scammed. He did promise to refund us what we had already paid as well as for everything we were paying for in addition to that, but it still didn’t make the stress and disappointment go away. After spending the afternoon running around town, we finally got dropped off at our lodge for the night where we spent the evening drinking double Cubra Libre’s and trying to absorb the events of the afternoon. We eventually fell asleep but I slept restlessly, still thinking about the ass hole that had ruined my trip.
We were supposed to be picked up at 9 the next morning for our trip into the Okavango Delta. The Delta is one of the largest deltas in Africa and is home to 150 species of mammal, over 500 species of birds, 90 species of fish, as well as plants, reptiles, insects and amphibians. It’s dotted with islands surrounded by water that the animals migrate between. There are also several villages of bushmen that still inhabit the Okavango, and our guide in the delta, Nico, was born and raised in the larger of the villages and was taught everything he knows by his grandfather and father. Nico has been a guide in the delta for 25 years and this, was my only shining light of hope that everything was going to ok. Of course, none to our surprise we were picked up late and then the boat departed three hours after it was supposed to leaving Ronen and I waiting with Eric, a man I could barely stand to look at without wishing I knew black magic. At this point my eyes filled with tears again. This was not how it was supposed to go. It was supposed to be perfect, stress free, but full of adventure and animals.
Finally, the boat picked us up and we headed up into the Delta towards our home for the next three nights, Snake Island. Nico could tell I was upset and he tried to comfort me, “Ellie (which is what he called me the entire trip), everything will be ok. I will keep you safe.” and he patted be on the back. As we drove past the livestock before reaching the buffalo fence (a fence built to keep the livestock from entering the Delta) I tried to relax but it wasn’t until we saw our first giraffe that I began to realize that even with the sh** that happened, we were still on our safari and everything really would be ok. We then saw more giraffes, some elephants, and then a large bull elephant on the bank 50 yards away from us. As we kept driving I lost track of the number of elephants we saw, as well as the number of times we got stuck and our boat driver had to jump in the river in his underwear to get us unstuck. At one point, we got stuck 25 meters from two elephants, luckily they didn’t mind us being so close so it did give us a fabulous photo op.
We also saw impalas, kudu, Red Lechewe, warthogs, a crocodile, dozens of Fish Eagles, and too many other species of bird to name. When we finally arrived at our campsite five and a half hours later, we were met by three of the more permanent residents, elephants, grazing around camp. It was the first time we had been on land with these magnificent and wild animals and I must say that it was a completely different feeling walking near them than it was being on a boat observing them. I felt their power and I felt like I was blessed to be walking in their presence.
Shortly after that, we saw a bull elephant had crossed the river and was walking towards camp. Ronen grabbed the camera and stood at the edge of our tent taking pictures. The elephant came closer and closer and he appeared to become agitated so we began to back up. He then charged us from 30 meters and trumpeted with his ears flared. Nico yelled, “DON’T MOVE” so we stood completely still and the elephant shook his head and then moved off. And that is the first time, but not that last, that I would almost pee my pants out of fear.
It began to get dark and our cook, Gabon (pronounced Wha-bone but she goes by Wha-ba for short), was cooking our dinner on the fire. We could start to hear the sounds of the wild, hyenas laughing in the distance, hippos grunting while grazing, bull frogs singing, and elephant rumbles. Just before dinner, Nico called out, “Ellie come here.” (The entire trip he just asked for me because I don’t think he remembered or could pronounce Ronen’s name). He was shining a light into the bushes and there, about 75 yards away were two hippos grazing. We then ate our dinner that was prepared over the campfire and poured ourselves into our sleeping bags in our tent. After a rough two days I fell asleep with a happy tummy and a happy heart.
The next morning we woke up early to go on a game walk. Right away we saw elephants, they are such impressive animals and they demand respect just being in their presence. We also saw zebras, impala, red lechewe, and Ronen’s favorite, warthogs. The warthogs are hilarious. When they first see you, they look straight at you with a cautious yet dumbfounded look of “huh? What’s that?” and then when they decide you might be dangerous, they stick their skinny little tails straight up in the air revealing their round behinds to you as the trot away into the bushes. They remind me of a domestic dog in some ways. We saw several species of bird as well; the most memorable was the Eagle Owl perched at the top of a tree being pestered by a yellow-billed kite.
When we got back to camp, we ate lunch and took a nap before leaving on an evening mokoro ride. A mokoro is a traditional dugout wooden canoe used by the Bushmen in the Okavango. Today, they are made out of fiberglass because the government has put protection on the trees that were traditionally used to build them, but the idea is still the same.
On the mokoro ride we saw another elephant as well a birds before we stopped at a small village to walk around. The huts that the people live in are made of mud with aluminum cans as bricks and the roofs are made of grass. We were there during Botswana’s Independence day holiday so many of the adults and the teenagers were drinking pretty heavily and almost everyone was dancing. I spent a little bit of time with a little girl who was about six years old. She had seen me play peek-a-boo with a baby so she began playing peek-a-boo with me, covering her eyes and then quickly uncovering them over and over again for about fifteen minutes. Even when I wasn’t looking at her, I could see out of the corner of my eye she was still doing it.
We made it back to camp just before sunset and the wind, which had been blowing all day, was even stronger kicking up dirt into my eyes and caking my hair. Everything in our tent was covered in a layer of dirt. We ate another delicious dinner that Gaba made over the campfire and went to bed to escape the wind.
In the morning, our boat driver picked us up at 8 and we started our journey back to Maun. This time we took a short cut but we got stock A LOT but we still made it back to Maun in only four hours. On the way we saw elephants, red lechewe and hippos! I was so excited to see the hippos poking their heads up out of the water and since it was a gorgeous sunny day, the sun was glistening on their wet heads.
Back in Maun, we had more errands to run to pay for additional groceries as well as the safari jeep and more fuel before we could depart for the second part of our trip. Our time in the delta was incredible, we got a taste of some of the best of what Africa has to offer, beautiful scenery, loads of wildlife, and kind people.