The Dried Up Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta in Botswana was was one of the places I was most looking forward to after Victoria Falls.  Unfortunately, the experience fell a bit short due to Mother Nature.  We were lucky (read: unfortunate) to experience both a heat wave, as well as a drought in our 3 days and 2 nights we were in the Delta.  We were able to keep relatively good spirits throughout the experience however, and I hope one day to be able to return with more favorable conditions.
The Delta receives its water from the Angola highlands, which drain into the Okavango River, and later flood the plains, providing a haven for a large variety of wildlife.  The waters usually begin to flow into the Delta around January-February, but seemed to be a little later this year.

Flight over the Delta
The day before we were set to venture into the Delta, we had the opportunity to take a 45 minute flight in a 7 seat airplane to provide an aerial view.  The Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers an area of over 1500 kilometers, so the flight provided a great opportunity to cover a lot more ground than what is possible on foot or mokoro (name for the local canoes).  Not only was I excited to see the beautiful Delta from above, but this was the first time I would be riding in a private airplane, having only been on large commercial jets previously.  Unfortunately, a few of my fellow passengers who were prone to motion sickness were less than enthused about the small aircraft.  Being the tallest passenger, I was offered the co-pilot seat, so the controls of the plane actually lay directly in front of me!  Don’t worry though, I made sure to steer clear (pun intended) of them to avoid any possible mishaps.

Okavango Delta
Group Selfie from the co-pilot seat.
Okavango Delta
All of the controls at my disposal.

Taking off was exciting, as we rapidly picked up speed on the airway before the pilot turned the nose of the plane up and off we were!  After a few minutes we soon reached the beginning of the Okavango Delta.  My first impressions of the Delta was that it was much dryer than I would have thought.  I pictured being able to see mainly water from above, with patches of land here and there where the animals would be congregating.  The land was mostly dry and brown from what we could see, and smoke could be seen billowing in the distance, indicating brush fires.  It wasn’t until about 5 minutes into the flight were we able to see the beginning of the waters.

Okavango Delta
Looking more like a desert than a delta
Okavango Delta
Smoke from a brush fire in the distance.

We alternated looking out both sides of the plane, craning our necks to see if we could spot the animals below.  Hippos proved to be the easiest to spot, their glistening skin in the water reflecting the sun.  Elephants were also easy to spot, as were the giraffes.  Other animals we could spot, but were not able to distinguish what they were.

Okavango Delta
Finally some water!
Okavango Delta
Hippos trying to keep cool

Pretty soon it was time to turn around to head back to the airstrip.  Even though the lack of water was a bit shocking, it still was an awesome experience to view the Delta from above and I was excited for our 3 day safari there which would be starting the following day.

Okavango Delta
All smiles after our flight over the Okavango Delta.

Safari in the Okavango Delta
A majority of the group elected to go on the 3 day safari into the Delta.  In order to arrive to our campsite, we would have to travel by mokoro (canoe), with a local guide navigating the waters with a pole.  The ride to the campsite only took an hour, even though we went at such a slow pace.  The water was only about 2 feet at its deepest point, and we even had to get out a few times to help push the mokoro through the most shallow waters.

Okavango Delta
A poler on his mokoro, navigating the waters.

It was 10am when we arrived to our campsite, and it was already extremely hot outside.  Our campsite was located in a small cluster of trees, which provided some of the only shade available on the flat Delta.  After helping unload the supplies and setting up camp, we had the rest of the afternoon to relax, as it was too hot to be out in the sun.  We spent the afternoon playing cards and joking around to pass the time.  Even in the shade we were sweating, and had to constantly drink water in order to not become dehydrated.

Okavango Delta
Beautiful, albeit the hot temperatures and absence of wildlife

Around 5pm, we went for a bush walk, as the temperature was finally bearable.  Sadly it was still too hot for the animals, and we were only able to see a couple bull elephants from a distance, as well as various different types of birds.  Our guide explained that while usually a lush wildlife area, the animals had all moved toward the water sources that were still around, further into the Delta.  He was able to show us the various types of plants and trees however, and it was nice to be out and about after lying low all day.

Okavango Delta
Some of the lone wildlife we encountered.

During the walk we saw various path ways which our guide explained were usually filled with water.  We ended the day by witnessing a beautiful sunset, so all was not lost.

Okavango Delta
I never get tired of these sunsets.

That night we were offered another spectacular view of the stars.  It’s amazing how bright they are when there isn’t any skyscrapers or light pollution to dim their glow.  A few people took advantage of this opportunity to work on their night photography.  Unfortunately my Samsung smartphone does not have that capability.  We were also able to see a brush fire burning in the distance, its orange glow a sharp contrast to the black night.
We awoke the next morning bright and early around 5am, in order to go on another walk before the sun heated up.  We again did not see a lot of wildlife, only a few zebra.  The sun rose quickly and heated up just as fast, and soon it was time to seek refuge in the shade again.  This second day of simply lying in the shade took a toll on a few people, everybody managed to keep positive attitudes.  We heard of a small watering hole that was clear of crocodiles and went there to cool off during the day.  This water was also very low, only about a meter deep, so we crouched down to allow our whole bodies to feel the cool water.
After not having too much action in our first two game walks, we unanimously decided to forgo the evening one on the second day, and instead watched the sunset from camp.  That evening, our guides treated us to some of their local songs.  They were very enthusiastic and animated, and proved to be very entertaining.  It definitely turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
The next morning we awoke early again to begin the journey out of the Delta before the sun heated up.  The extreme temperatures the past two days had evaporated much of the little water that we had used to arrive to the campsite.  At this point, it was much easier to walk the few kilometers out of the Delta versus making the poler’s job extra difficult by having to push the canoe through the low waters.  On the walk out we could see quite a few fish lying on the banks, not able to survive in the little water left.  It was a very sad sight to see.

Okavango Delta
The extremely low waters.
Okavango Delta
The local village, home of our guides for the safari.

When we reached civilization, we found out that the area had been experiencing a heatwave, with temperatures hovering around 110 degrees Fahrenheit!  Now out of the heat, our humor returned a bit, and we joked about “surviving the Delta”.  I was a bit disappointed that the experience did not turn out as I would have hoped, but I guess I will have to try to come back during the high waters.

Okavango Delta
Delta Survivors!

How about you, have you ever had a trip that did not turn out how you had originally expected?

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