On Safari in the Okavango Delta Botswana

Gill Haynes goes on an Okavango Delta safari in Botswana where the local wildlife steals the show.

Adventure Travel, Africa, Luxury Travel, Outdoors

Gill Haynes goes on an Okavango Delta safari in Botswana where the local wildlife steals the show.

It was the first time we’d flown between safari camps in a small aircraft and looking at the tiny plane, its single propeller and the runway made of sand, we were feeling a little uneasy.

A young woman in corn-row braids with braces on her teeth greeted us and took us through the short safety briefing. And then climbed into the pilot’s seat. ‘Er, have you been doing this for long?’ my husband nervously enquired. ‘First day!’ she replied. With a wink. Her flying skills proved to be as sharp as her sense of humour of course – and we soon appreciated the upsides of small plane transfers.

Okavango Delta Botswana
Travel between camps was by light plane

Bird’s Eye View of the Okavango Delta in Botswana

Sometimes with just five seats, light aircraft not only make the transitions from one camp to another seamless but also give you a fabulous overview of Botswana’s landscape – and the Okavango area, the world’s biggest inland river delta, which is what we’d come to see. Botswana is 40% larger than Britain but has just 4% of the UK population. And 39% of its land is given over to nature reserves.

Game thrives here – not in vast herds but in good numbers. Rather than go down the mass tourism route where animals can be mobbed by dozens of safari buses, Botswana has taken a more select approach with smaller, more upscale lodges where a maximum of just three vehicles can follow an animal at any one time.

Okavango Delta Botswana Safari

This makes Botswana an undeniably expensive option but one that repays the investment with unhurried, uncrowded viewings of elephant, big cats and so much more, where the animals are not stressed and their behaviour is a privilege to watch. Such as the baby elephant flapping its ears and trumpeting like a squeaky toy from the safety of its mother’s shadow. Or the three lion cubs spitting feathers as they tried to feed on a downed fish eagle. Or the group of male impalas grunting and clashing horns with each other like a rugby scrum without a ball. Or the leopard leaping across a stretch of the river, clearing the water with a swish of its plumed tail.

We flew through Johannesburg to Maun in northern Botswana where an overnight stay at the start and end of our trip at the comfortable, waterfront Thamalakane River Lodge, a 45-minute drive from the airport, gave us the chance to adjust, with hippo guffawing into the night and an operatic dawn chorus of bird song.

Okavango Delta Camping
Okavango Delta Botswana
Our ‘tent’ at Kanana

We’d chosen three premium safari camps in the Delta, each with very different terrain. Linyanti Tented Camp looks out over marshland and mopane forest up near the Namibia border that’s home to hippo, crocs and abundant elephant. Further south Kanana sits in scrubland that’s punctuated by huge termite mounds, rising like exotic pagodas above the plain and making the perfect lookouts for predators. In between, Shinde safari lodge faces the river in a greener, wetter landscape that supports several lion prides as well as a leopard who’s been known to keep her young cub safe from the bigger cats under one of the lodge’s own rooms.

At all three, you can opt for a calming, punt-like mokoro ride through the Okavango Delta reed beds, getting a waterline perspective on all manner of waterbirds, from the tiny malachite kingfisher to open-billed stocks and sacred ibis.

Three nights at each camp gave us time to get a feel for each location. With no more than eight lavishly-appointed rooms at each, the camps feel personal and with only four guests in the vehicle, it’s easy to share your driver-guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm on the early morning, late afternoon and occasional night game drives. Fellow travellers were mainly British and European plus a few Americans. If you prefer adult company, avoid the July-September school holidays. We travelled in early November and were lucky the rainy season started late, with sunny skies most days.

Attention to Detail

Mokoro canoe on the Okavango Delta
Mokoro canoe on the Delta

The attention to detail showed a clear understanding of what real luxury means, with a tray of tea being brought to our room at 5am ahead of the early game drive, bean bags provided to support long camera lenses in the vehicle, cool towels offered as we returned from each drive and same-day turnaround for laundry – it’s all part of the service, so travel light.

We looked forward to sundowners rounding things off evening, with nibbles and G&Ts – the best made with the local Okavango Delta gin – being conjured out of the Land Cruiser as the Delta’s frog chorus tuned up and colour began to flood the night sky.

Dining was good throughout with Shinde just edging it for its delicious steaks, washed down with an excellent Pinotage, and African bream caught fresh from the river. Salad, vegetables and fruit were gratifyingly plentiful at all three camps, unlike previous safaris we’d been on where they’ve barely made it onto the menu. At Linyanti, we swopped stories over meals with our ranger guide, while at Kanana and Shinde we enjoyed sharing tables and experiences with fellow guests. After dinner, we’d enjoy a nightcap around the ‘bush TV’ – the open firepit.

All three camps were managed and staffed by local black staff, which was also a first in our experience – and with their excellent English and friendly, can-do attitude, they were doing an impressive job.

Okavango Delta Animals

Leopard, Shinde - credit Paul Wiggins
Leopard, Shinde – credit Paul Wiggins

But the real stars were the animals. The bull elephant we found fast asleep with 20 feet of the camp restaurant as we arrived, its ears flapping in time with its snores, which suddenly woke up, shook off its slumbers and headed for the reed beds right outside our room. The sneaky hyena hoping to steal the remains of a meal while the eight lions that had gorged themselves on the cape buffalo kill were too bloated to care. The leopard cub hauling an impala dinner up a tree all on its own.

The small things entranced us too. The dung beetle shouldering its globe of elephant poo like a tiny Atlas, the scarlet fireball lilies springing up in the scrub like fairy rings, the paradise flycatcher flitting through the trees with its long, ballgown train of a tail trailing behind it. The bush buck nosing among the leaf litter on the path to our room.

Botswana is like wild Africa in microcosm – and it felt such a privilege to enter its world.

Okavango Delta Botswana Photo Gallery

Main image: Dominant lion, Shinde, credit Paul Wiggins. Background image: Lilac Breasted Roller – credit Paul Wiggins

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Gill Haynes

Gill Haynes

A travel writer with more than 30 years experience in the travel industry, Gill loves the great outdoors. Her favourite destination is South Africa where one walking safari involved scrambling up a tree to avoid a charging rhino. A keen skier, mountain biker and windsurfer, Gill’s up for doing as much and travelling as often as her years allow. Still on the wish list are canoeing the Great Lakes in Canada and swimming with manta rays in the Maldives.

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