Botswana's Okavango Delta

In the dawn light the reeds of the delta appeared as brushstrokes against the burnished bronze of the water. Although the crystal clear water flowed swiftly, nothing ruffled the mirrored surface of the water apart from the rhythmic poling of Kamucha, our very black guide who stood at the back of our mokoro, a basic native canoe.

Precariously perched in the roughly dug-out prow, my thoughts alternated between the tranquillity of the morning and the likelihood that we'd tip over and have to dive to recover our cameras.

Abruptly, the reeds only a few metres from our starboard side snorted loudly. Startled, both Lynn and I looked to Kamucha for assurance. Vain hope. Our expert guide looked more scared than we were - a feat that mere seconds before I would have considered impossible.

&quotWe don't take the mokoros out if there is a hippo in the channel," our host had confided the evening before as we sat around the fire sipping vintage South African port. &quotThey are vegetarian, not carnivores, so they won't eat you. However, bad eyesight, nervous disposition, big mouths and strong teeth - it's not worth the risk."

Tales of hapless travellers who found themselves under surfacing hippos - and others who had their craft bitten in half - came to mind. Fortunately, with an admirable display of flatulence, a resounding argument against a vegetarian diet, our hippo submerged and we were left alone to admire the view.

The Okavango Delta is a naturalist's paradise. Most of Botswana is taken up with the Kalahari Desert which, from the air looks even less user-friendly than Australia's Simpson Desert. That makes the abrupt transition from desert dunes to lush green grasslands, a maze of waterways and scores of islands even more remarkable. The delta is where the waters of the Okavango River spill into the flat desert and give it life before evaporating into a cloudless sky.

Not surprisingly, the Okavango attracts countless wildlife that would find life in the surrounding desert too tough. Animals are found here in a profusion that gives the impression of a Garden of Eden. That feeling of innocence is enhanced by game tracking on foot.

In most African game parks, visitors are driven around in vans or 4WD vehicles and there are strict rules against stepping out of the vehicle except within enclosed camp grounds.

Here at Delta Camp in the Okavango, we were staying in tents in an open camp and had already come to terms with the protection likely to be provided by a dug-out log so setting out on foot required no extra courage. All we needed was something solid to walk on.

Kamucha steered the mokoro out of the waterway and into a solid wall of reeds. They parted and we glided across what appeared to be a grassy paddock. Eventually, the water content reduced to a critical level and we ran aground on a large island.

A short walk around a herd of several hundred wild buffalo took us to the top of a grassy knoll. The scene before us could have been taken from a child's &quotAnimals of Africa" primer. In the trees, baboons continued their long-standing feud with monkeys while giraffe delicately nibbled on the lower leaves.

Several antelopes, from the elusive waterbuck to large kudu with corkscrew horns grazed nearby. Dainty - and ubiquitous - impala, that seem to fulfil the role of every carnivore's snack pack, stood around in a nervous herd with each hoping that the others would be taken first. A pair of zebras (described glibly by locals as &quotdisco donkeys") trotted past, giving the impression of the test pattern on an old television with a faulty horizontal hold.

We had been there for five minutes before we realised that shadows under the trees on the other side of the clearing were elephants. This was my first time in Africa and elephants had been a surprise. No-one had warned me that you could look straight at an elephant 20 metres away in the forest and not see it.

And when my mother described us as sounding like &quota herd of elephants" she had clearly never seen an elephant soundlessly step over a pup tent without waking the occupants.

However, it was at Chobe, the next destination on our Botswana safari that we really experienced elephants. This national park, near the meeting point of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana has elephants like parts of Australia has rabbits.

Chobe was also where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married. I asked the lodge keeper which room they had stayed in and, with disarming honesty, he grinned and said &quotwhichever room is empty".

It was on the Chobe River that we saw elephants playing in the water like children - splashing and pushing each other under, then using their trunks as water pistols. At sunset, I saw a lone elephant walk across the bottom of the river using his trunk as a snorkel - at one point, only its tip was above water.

Unless you have lots of time and limitless patience, the standard way of getting around Botswana is by air. When one's alternatives are either a 24 hour drive or a half hour flight, even the prospect of landing on a nondescript dirt airstrip has added appeal.

On the two hour flight from Johannesburg to Maun, we had been impressed by Air Botswana's modern fleet of aircraft and professional service. However, Maun airport was only slightly up market from Coober Pedy. Air operations within Botswana appear to be performed by a secretary with a telephone and the contact number of every pilot with access to a Cessna.

Since it achieved independence 25 years ago, Botswana has been the success story of Southern Africa. The development of three diamond mines (which produce almost 80 percent of the country's export income) has raised the per capita GDP eightfold in the past quarter century.

This prosperity is not reflected in the dusty streets of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango, where even 4WD trucks get bogged in the mall car park. It does, however, give Botswana the chance to determine its own destiny. A recent step was to greatly increase the national park fees to 40 Pula ($A25) per person per day: primarily to deter visiting South African campers who put little into the local economy.

The result was a dramatic fall in the number of visitors - and a slight increase in tourism revenue. After experiencing Botswana's parks, I think we should pay up and be grateful, regarding the camp charges as a surcharge for welcome solitude.

Like Delta, our final camp in the Okavango was a simple canvas affair with simple facilities but excellent food. Xakanaxa Camp (pronounced ka-kanaka) in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve on the northern edge of the delta utilised both open 4WD vehicles and boats.

On our last full day in Botswana, we found a pride of young lions sleeping on a rocky outcrop. Then a full grown lion emerged from the trees and roared so loudly that it seemed to echo around the clearing. To a cub, the gang ignored him and he slinked back into the undergrowth.

That night, we heard him roaring again. This time the whole jungle fell quiet. In the silence, we could hear a snuffling nearby. &quotThat's Amadeus, our local hippo that wanders around the camp each night." our hosts explained. &quotTake a torch if you go to the toilets after dark so you don't surprise him."

In parts of Africa, game viewing has been sanitised and regulated to such a degree that national parks have taken on some of the characteristics of amusement parks. That is certainly not true of Botswana where you don't merely observe, but rather become part of a multi-faceted environment.

If you go

It isn't easy to obtain information about Botswana in Australia. For information contact Air Botswana in Sydney (tel: 02/959 3260 or 008/252 019) or Bench International (tel: 02/290 2877 or 008/221 451). For direct information, call Okavango Tours & Safaris (which doesn't have an office in Australia) in Maun (Tel: 0011 267 660 220 or fax: 0011 267 660 589).

When shopping for any African tours, make sure that all game excursions are included in the tour costs. For game viewing, neutral coloured clothing is essential. Avoid mid summer which is the rainy season in Botswana. Spring is the best time to visit because that is when the grass is low and the animals most visible.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd