Walking in the Okavango Delta(without a rifle)

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This was our third trip in 7 years to Southern Africa which we had both fallen in love with; the Western Cape, Kruger/ Mpumalanga, Namibia plus two utterly thrilling safaris in Sabi Sand that had us hooked forever on getting up close and personal with Africa’s amazing, spectacular wildlife.More photos are available on: https://www.flickr.com/gp/112613153@N05/xf91V8

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This time, I was keen to see the animals in different  and more beautiful landscapes , spend far far longer in the bush than the 3 or 4 nights we could afford in a lovely Sabi Sands Lodge.This meant going budget and looking at serviced camping , with tough travel on deep sand roads into and across Botswana’s Game Reserves to access Moremi, Savuti , Chobe and the Okavango Delta.  After contacting around 10 local operators (and there are hundreds, mostly small,  privately owned ) we plumped for Mosu Safari Tours due to their prompt and helpful responses but mostly their excellent ‘per day’ cost.

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We had an amazing experience, a fantastic one in many ways, much tougher than our previous safaris and for that reason,  not the way I would do such a trip again. The landscapes more than delivered what I hoped for  –  some of the images during drives were truly iconic, with superb colours and light.Magical in fact.The sheer number and variety of animals and birds was stunning.

Sabi, however, had spoiled us for the sheer thrill of following animals on the hunt, off road,  witnessing a kill, the Big 5 every day, every drive. None of this was Mosu’s fault ; we had over-estimated our own ability to suffer that heat (just two weeks before , as it’s known, ‘suicide October’), camp for 10 days in wild conditions yet which were restricted due to National Park rules. I felt much more frustration about this than I expected to, that we couldn’t go off road or night drive. Walking without a guide with a rifle gave me the jitters too but that’s the Delta for you (around Boro island at any rate).

Our team of Custard, Kilos and LT  and our guide Titi (Delta only) were superb and I am so glad Oliver, from Mosu knows them so well and managed to secure them for our trip.We had wonderful guides in Sabi but in all respects these guys were in a different league again.They made our trip.

15 Sept: Arrival in Jo’burg: Aero Guest Lodge

Arrived at our airport B&B at 10pm after a good flight i.e. – not much turbulence.I get a tad stressed about flying at times but am improving with age – in this alone, at least.

The Lodge got decent reviews , was cheap at £45 per room , offered free transfers to the airport only minutes away. We were pretty exhausted after 18 hours travel  – we ain’t getting any younger  – but it was a little palm lined oasis which raised our spirits no end. All manicured grass and – was that the scent of jasmine? Wonderful! A spacious and attractive room awaited us. Congratulated by hubby , Chris , on a top notch choice . ( I have to add,  his only choice of where to stay for the whole holiday as he tends to book the first thing he sees. I most definitely do not.)

16 Sept : Flight to Maun, Botswana: We meet the Mosu Team

Woke next morning to the sounds of Africa : Cape Doves calling softly and the sharp ‘caw’ of a Sacred Ibis. Magical and evocative. At 8am it was already extremely warm .’Heat – gorgeous!’ I gushed,  still soggy round the ears after enduring one of our beautiful country’s worst summers. They were words which would come back to haunt me during this trip.

Good breakfast, plenty of it and soon whisked away to catch our 11.15am flight to Botswana.

A small Air Botswana plane awaited us on the runway. A propeller job. Nightmare. Sensing the tension, my very attentive and kind husband assured me that it was a Fokker and so ‘first class’. Still doesn’t stop it wobbling all over the place at take-off and landing.Tried to recall how many propellor flights had crashed en route to Maun and couldn’t remember reading of any.We could be the first of course. Just before take off , the captain warned about likely turbulence given the heat rising from the ground. (Note to self –  next big trip, make it the Arctic). In fact, it was a smooth and highly enjoyable flight. Spent most of it mesmerised at the endless Kalahari desert below –  all apricot sand and nothingness. An occasional , intriguing sand road. The colours of Africa, shimmering in that glorious heat.

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And it was that 40C heat which hit us as we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac less than two hours later, into Botswana’s dazzling, bleached landscape. Welcome to Maun indeed, during one of the country’s hottest months.Did I care? For a Northern European, feeling heat in your bones after the chill of a cold climate can have a drug like effect. No wonder we usually end up sunburnt or worse.

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Half an hour to get through Passport Control and get the bags and then suddenly there was Marian from Mosu Safari Tours. A little shy, petite and slim. Handshakes and big smiles all round.Then out into the air conditioned Combo with Kay driving and off into the dusty , straggly town to pick up supplies for our Delta trip next morning. How much water did we need again? Mariam and Kay weren’t sure. Got 10 litres – half of what we should have got. (what we read up on before the trip had gone straight out of our heads, as per usual.) Threw in a twelve pack of individual bottles for decanting. Got wine and beer (Chris’s main concern).

Then a half hour of going through paperwork at Mosu’s office before we were whisked off to our accommodation for the night – Jump Street Chalets, about ten minutes bumpy drive along a pitted sand/gravel road. I’ve reviewed Jump Street and the less I say about it the better – it wasn’t an enjoyable stay. It was budget alright though clean enough. My mistake – I should have upped things and got Mosu to book us into somewhere nicer with an attractive outlook and with the chance of a decent meal for the evening. Caught up on wi fi messaging and texts to the family back home, something I’m a bit OCD about.

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17 Sept: Okavango Delta for 2 nights and we meet our ‘Giant Killer’ cook.

Another reason I chose Mosu –  they operate with the Rolls Royce of vehicles for safaris: Toyota Land Cruisers.You need this for spending 6 or 7 hours per day  – more if you’ve got a cross country journey to do – bumping around on deep sand roads. Canvas roof , open sides, super-comfy. Just what we had in Sabi Sand which had become a sort of gold standard in my mind. The tarmac finished just outside Maun and we were soon being jostled from side to side as the driver negotiated the ruts and bumps during the 1 hour trip to the Mokoro village.

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On board now was one of the stars of our trip. Kilos, our cook – a man who would go on to prepare meals better than anything we enjoyed in upmarket Sabi using only a campfire and bush oven. I am still trying to lose the extra weight I piled on with his superlative home – cooking. In fact, like many of the staff who are used by the local safari companies, he was freelance and had been employed by the BBC during the filming of their ‘Giant Killers’ programme earlier that year. If he was good enough for the Beeb who aren’t renowned for being hard on themselves……

Our Delta camp

The air was hot , hot , hot as we travelled into the very rural landscape. Neat, traditional round houses with thatched roofs and beautiful fences made of twigs and rushes caught my attention. I waved as the owners looked up at the sound of our vehicle and they waved back.

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By 1pm when we arrived, the Mokoro village was going like a fair with several other groups all preparing to head in to the Okavango. The Mokoro trips are run by a Community Co-op and the young polers get allocated equal amounts of work.

Met Titi ( pron. tee tee) , our walking guide for the next two days plus two helpers, Brian and Tbisi. Polite and quiet spoken ,  Titi greeted us warmly. They smile so much, these Motswana! A slimly built handsome young man,  he supervised the loading of our supplies into 3 other mokoros. The amount of ‘stuff’ was incredible : tents for our small team; food, water, bedding, dining table and chairs; toilet tent, shower tent; lamps; basins; crockery.The logistics of it! No nipping out to the shops because you’d forgotten something. Our bedding was made into very comfy seats for us  and in no time we were slipping out onto the crystal clear water.

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Jacanas hopped across the white water lilies.We passed a nest resting on the water plants, with three brown streaked eggs. Dragonflies fluttered around us. A Pied Kingfisher hovered before plunging down to spear a fish. A fish eagle watched over all, perched in the shade of a tree.

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A drowsy, enjoyable hour later and we reach our campsite on one of the hundreds of Delta islands. It was 40C in the shade but camp was all set up and well shaded amidst trees.Plus tea was on and lunch was nearly ready. Salads, cold meat, rice, bread……..an excellent spread was set out. Checked out our tent – a robust good quality canvas affair, bigger than I’d thought. Head height, a small table each and super comfy beds.Hot water buckets outside for hand washing. First class.

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Tried out the toilet tent 50 yds away. Who would have thought a hole in the ground could work so well ? A toilet chair over it and then you trowelled earth onto the doings. Fresh smelling even after 2 days use.

Heard voices close by and soon realised We Were Not Alone. Various other groups were camped a few hundred yards away, younger folks and noisier than we were. Later, Kilos promised us that once in Moremi, the camp would be ‘much better’ with a real mess tent and far more privacy. It would have been nice to have more of a view instead of being totally in the trees. The larger groups had nicer sites I noticed (eventually) presumably because they could justify needing more space. Spent the next few hours reading and checking the bird book and just relaxing before our first walk in the bush.

1st Bush Walk – 2 hours 
At 4pm more tea was brewed and then we were off in the Mokoro again with Titi, a short trip to a large island with game where we would walk for a couple of hours until sunset. Now the nerves started. We’d done a few one hour walks in Sabi Sand, complete with a guide with a rifle. But Titi was armed only with his Bird and Plant Guide. I thought at first he’d left his rifle and looked back into the Mokoro but it was empty. For God’s sake. I looked at the walking poles Chris and I had brought with us and they seemed like a bad joke. Could you poke a lion’s eye out and still avoid being mauled? Not if the lioness was coming up on your other flank.

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Panicked, I noticed that the other groups doing the same activity were all heading off in different directions. Never did being part of the crowd seem so appealing. Now it was just the three of us in the wide African savannah. Two bull elephants grazing about half a mile away, caught our scent and bolted. In minutes, they reappeared behind us. Hippos grunted from somewhere close but stayed hidden. Red Lechwe, very beautiful antelope , grazed across the other side of a small lagoon. A Fish Eagle took off gracefully from a tree ahead of us. Egrets and herons fished silently nearby. The silence was incredible. The heat was still fierce but waning. In a couple of hours the predators would stretch and yawn and be up on their feet ready to hunt.

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“Are there lions about?’ I tried to keep my voice light , pretending I was just curious. Actually, I was already so tense my neck and shoulder muscles felt rigid. “Lions are lazy, they rest up and sleep all day. If we meet lion…’ Titi stopped to address us, his voice serious.’……don’t run or it will trigger an attack response. Don’t take photos. Keep still. Try not to faint. Keep calm.’  Now, I love lions. They were what I wanted to see most of all. Leopard…..beautiful, but nothing, for me, beats the tawny magnificence, the all powerful presence of lion. King of the jungle and symbol of nations. The supreme predator. BUT – to be enjoyed from the safety of a safari vehicle, NOT on foot and unarmed. This was a bloody nightmare – and we had two days of It ahead! Yet Titi was so quietly confident, so sure of himself. Chris whispered to me that it was bad for business to lose clients but I knew he was nervous. We were WAY out of our comfort zone. Of course, we’d deducted that they only offer bush walks in the Delta because there probably isn’t the density of lion you get in Moremi or Savuti but they were still here. Somewhere in the bleached grass or shrubby bushes.

Occasionally in the distance I caught sight of the other groups and felt a surge of relief. But then they disappeared and we were alone again. But the colours of the landscape soon had me distracted – golden grasses, palm trees, distant horizons and I snapped away with the cameras. Grey hulking shapes of elephant came into focus. A herd of zebra, vigilant, watched us pass. Wildebeest, wary and ready to run.

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We were soon a good hour ‘s walk away from the canoe , in the middle of the endless savannah. We heard the hippos before we saw them, a small lagoon opening up ahead beyond thick reeds. Snorts and deep grunts. And then…oh joy…..the other group were there, their guide making clapping noises to get the hippo to react.

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Titi looked on in disapproval as he crouched to drink some fresh water. “They will see that as a threat, ‘ he frowned. But the group – mostly young people – laughed and egged the guide on.

“Time to get back,’ Titi announced and I felt a blessed relief. ‘We do not want to be around here in the dark or we’ll get eaten.’ The sun was well down now, it was 6pm and the light was soft and pink. A lovely temperature to walk in. Aargh….those lions would be stirring! We noticed a couple of past kills….bleached skulls of buffalo and zebra…..all that was left after the hyenas had finished with them.

An hour or so later and I could have punched the air when I spied the trusty mokoro, our transport out of the lions’ hunting grounds. It was a lovely temperature now and there were very few insects. No sign or sound of mosquitoes.

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Hot water shower all ready for us in camp, now brightly lit with little lanterns and looking welcoming and quite delightful.Got washed and popped the cork on some Champagne we’d brought from home – nectar. Drank to still being on the planet in one piece and not several.

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Then a light cauliflower soup which would put many a restaurant to shame. Piri piri chicken, rich and delicious with spicy rice and peppers and a bean salad. Fruit and custard to follow. Scoffed it all.There was a camp fire going  – bush TV they call it and it does draw you: the flames, the crackling wood. Smoky and bright and comforting. One of the most special  things about camping, which money doesn’t buy. Just sitting round a fire, enjoying a drink, chatting.

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I told Kilos about how nervous I felt about lions during our walk and he described an encounter he’d had with lion , while getting the campfire ready by himself in the early morning. A male and female lion had strolled past him a few yards away, barely giving him a glance. “They’re not interested in us. They go about their business and we go about ours. ‘ I wanted to believe him…..

Headed for bed about 9.30pm , with just the lanterns casting a romantic glow.Tomorrow – a FOUR hour walk in the bush early morning.Twice the fun.

Day 2: A 4 hour wild walk and a perfect evening.

“Good morning! Another day in paradise.’ That was always Kilos’s cheery greeting as we emerged from the tent just before 6am. He meant it.He loved the bush, the quiet,  the birds and animals;  much preferred it to town with its noise and hassle. Dawn was always lovely.Dusky pink sky, cool. Birds waking and calling. Somewhere out there, lions would be thinking about making their way to a shady spot and resting up.Cereal and tea and then off we went in the Mokoro at 6.30am  for the Big Walk.

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Titi’s calm manner did a lot to allay my fears but I just never quite settled into the walk or enjoyed it as I should have.Plenty of birds and game about.A big wildebeest herd took off as we approached, all thundering hooves and dust like a scene from ‘Out of Africa.’

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Prehistoric , skittish animals – I love them. Zebra watched us quite calmly as long as we didn’t get too close. Almost unreal in their striped livery, a distraction to predators when the herd run together.

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A big bull elephant emerged from the trees, keeping his eye on us. Beautiful Red Lechwe grazed quietly, ever watchful. Lilac breasted rollers thrilled us with their impossible colours.

Add a description…He’d been having a bathe
Add a description…He’d been having a bathe

Bulbuls, barbets, weavers, egrets, heron, snake eagle, grey falcon, bee-eaters.

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The birdlife was astounding and as memorable a part of the whole experience as the animals. Titi identified them at a glance and spotted many things long before we did, even with our binoculars. He was attuned to everything, fascinating to listen to.

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Met another large group after a couple of hours and they were keen to try out the big 500mm lens I had on the Nikon D5200. With the two cameras I carried – a Panasonic Lumix was the other one – I must have looked like I knew what I was doing when I didn’t. They were mostly on auto, point and shoot. Any decent photos were down to their excellent technology and not the operator though I think I have a reasonable eye for an image.Another obsession : taking ( too many) photos.

Titi was first class.Felt very confident with him.
Titi was first class.Felt very confident with him.

By 10.15 when we got back to the mokoro, the heat felt like a furnace.Titi had hoped we’d see hippos in a nearby lagoon but it was empty – not something I was hugely disappointed about. Being so low in the Mokoro you felt incredibly vulnerable.Great to get back to the camp and shade and of course, Kilos’s excellent breakfast after showering. Eggs, bacon, sausages, spicy beans, tomatoes. Lashings of tea.

From 11am till our next activity felt a LONG time. At 5pm we would set off in the Mokoro to watch the sun go down over a hippo lagoon.Meanwhile, the heat was exhausting, even in the shade. 104F. Even the birds disappeared. Read the bird book and wrote up some details on my Surface tablet.Titi and Tbisi both borrowed the book and pored over it and tried out our birdscope which we’d set up at the edge of camp. Some of the nearby groups were bathing in the Delta, whooping and laughing. High spirits all round. We were tempted but I’d read about the dangers of bathing in freshwater sources specifically re. Bilharzia. Probably too cautious.

By 5pm, neither of us felt much like going in the mokoro again.We don’t have back problems but were both aching a bit. Should have put a blanket in to sit on, stupid of us not to. Brain dead in the heat.

There were LOTS of other canoes about, all heading for the hippo lagoon. The noise was unbelievable….loud talking and laughter, people shouting to each other.Messaging on phones. No wonder we didn’t see any hippos –  if they’d any sense they would have got the heck out of there pronto! We must have been heard a mile off. Watched the sun going down amidst the inane chatter of 20 others. I really don’t know why people do that – thank God we were not in a group for the rest of the time –  it would have driven me nuts.

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Glass of sparkling wine to relax in camp and then Kilos announced the evening’s menu. Lamb stew for mains….excellent.

We wandered down to the reed beds later to watch the crescent moon rise. And then singing broke out across the Delta from the camp opposite – the young polers were chanting a beautiful African song, deep and rhythmic and uplifting. It was incredible – the sound of Africa.Very moving.

Fireflies glowed and danced over the reeds and the temperature was balmy, perfect. A hippo grunted nearby.

The stars were incredible, the Milky Way soon visible and the Southern Cross.

A quite majestic end really.

Next day – 3 days in Moremi 3 Days Wild Camp in Moremi NP

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