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IT’S very late. The Milky Way cuts a brilliant swathe through a dark sky ablaze with stars. Hippos are on the move chortling, swishing, splashing round the camp. A Pel’s fishing owl – one of the world’s most sought-after birds – screeches from a low branch, its call like that of a soul in torment. A lion roars softly in the distance, as closer, a hyena whoops. Painted reed frogs supply a backing chorus of piping chirps.

Suddenly, the great grey shape of a bull elephant materializes beyond the fire, and vanishes as silently as it came into the darkness. It’s just another regular night in Botswana’s legendary Okavango Delta

There aren’t many places left on earth that can be called true wilderness areas. This is one of them. Deep in the heart of Botswana, it’s the only inland delta of its kind in the world. Formed by the Okavango River, which floods down from the Angolan highlands once a year, it fans out into northwestern Botswana in a meandering, complex network of papyrus-lined channels, deep still pools where crocodiles lurk and hippos snort, secret waterways where reeds and grasses almost meet over your head, palm-fringed islands and natural lagoons. The limpid, lily-studded crystal-clear water is so pure you can drink it.

This year the rains and the flood have been exceptional and the water has almost reached Maun. Even the legendary „Stolen Channel“ – The Savuti River – which has been dry for decades, is flowing freely. Thousands of zebra are roaming the area accompanied by the predators which have followed in their wake from Moremi Wildlife Reserve.

Lettie Letsile, manager of Xakanaxa Camp, says in all her years in the area, she has never seen so much water. As a small girl growing up in Makalambedi village, north east of Maun, she remembers going to fetch water from the river for Beauty, her grandmother.
„One evening I saw an owl with two faces and ran all the way home. I was so frightened.“
Although now an accomplished birder, Lettie didn’t know then that the fierce tiny Pearlspotted Owlet, which fits inside a beer mug, has „mock“ eyes on the back of its head to deter predators.

“And we were always very careful at full moon because Beauty told us the moon was a giant eye watching us, and we were very scared of giants. And of witches too. We could always recognize a witch because she had long long nails.”

Beauty would no doubt be amazed today to see her granddaughter managing one of the delta’s oldest and loveliest camps, where some of the staff have worked for decades, like Lettie herself. You’ll feel immediately at home as you pass through the thatched entrance.

Two young American brothers, Ryan and Matt Fleming from Seattle, have momentarily fled South Africa’s soccer frenzy to come to the Okavango. We have driven far sough this day, have watched a pride of 12 lions dozing in the midday sun, a baby waterbuck running after it’s mother, several stately giraffe, and some Okavango “specials” – red lechwe, and the highly endangered wattled cranes and saddlebilled storks.

After a picnic beneath a giant sausage tree, where parrots scold us and starlings murmur, we climb into the boat for the long journey back to the camp. The sky is a washed-out blue, and a chill wind whips round us, because this is winter, when temperatures can drop to freezing after the sun goes down. We chug along through feathery fronds of papyrus, thick reeds, flat bright green lily pads, and carpets of white water lilies whose long red juicy stems float just below the surface. My world is half sky, half reeds and water. Tops of tall trees show above the head-high vegetation as clumps of waterberry trees arch over us. A tiny bejeweled Malachite Kingfisher darts across our narrow channel as it opens into a wide sparkling lagoon where hippos eyeball us inquisitively and jacanas lily trot. The wind picks up, and a heavy-lidded crocodile which has been watching us from a sandbank, slithers into the water.

But there is another danger in this Eden. A Brazilian water weed (Salvinia molesta) is encroaching. Back at camp, our ranger, Baams, shows us a weevil breeding project which combats the weed. The weevils (Cyrtobagous salviniae) are bred in large half drums of water then released into areas where the weed is proliferating. The project has been going for 25 years and is just keeping the danger at bay.

Like many guides in the delta, Baams has his share of hippo stories. Once, after being chased by an angry hippo, he describes how he “was shaking like a small tree in a big wind”. And like all the local guides, he is an expert poler, skillfully guiding our mokoro through a maze of hippo channels and narrow waterways.
“We learnt to pole as children, Our parents wouldn’t let us use their mokoros because they said we would break them, so we cut down palm trees and made mini mokoros out of the trunks.”

Another day, at Orient Express’ Eagle Island Camp, I go for a bush walk with Fiannula and John from the UK, on their first visit to the delta. Our guide is the experienced Roc, from the Bayei tribe, who has lived and worked in this area for many years. We have zoomed through pods of hippos, along innumerable waterways, drifted along in a mokoro, and are now walking on one of the delta’s many islands. Roc explains the “four keystones of the delta – termites, elephants, hippos and mice. These creatures keep the waterways open, and renew the vegetation and soil.”

“Mice?” I question. “Oh yes, very important,” says Roc. “Mice spend a lot of time gathering and hiding food supplies of seeds, burying theirs caches in holes in the ground. Problem is, they often forget where the’ve hidden them, and that means the seeds sprout and grow and so new trees, plants and shrubs spring up.”

Our trip ends with a helicopter ride over the Okavango back to Maun. Stuart Mackay, who runs Mackair, has just dropped off England’s Prince William and Prince Harry, frequent visitors to Botswana, in Maun. He points out game as we fly 600m above the seemingly endless water wilderness. A herd of buffalo doesn’t pause in its collective chewing as we fly over. Elephants are more skittish and Stuart takes great care not to alarm them by flying too low. Giraffe are ultra cool, while sunbathing hippos take to the water in a splashing, hectic rush.

But that’s about the only rush you’ll experience in the Okavango Delta. You’ll experience tranquility, a cocooning-away from the real world, as you are suspended timelessly in a bubble of perfect peace.

Very importantly – and safety is an issue on many traveler’s minds – it’s safe. More than 40 years on after independence in 1966, Botswana is not only the world’s leading producer of gem-quality diamonds and one of Africa’s richest countries, stable democracy. You might have lions, hyenas and leopards outside your lodge or tent, but there certainly won’t be predators of the two-footed kind.

If you would like to find out more information on the Okavango Delta or join a safari that includes the Okavango Delta then please contact Jenman African Safaris for further information. They can be contacted on info@jenmansafaris.com or alternatively visit their website www.jenmansafaris.com for more details.

TURKINGTON, Kate; Okavango Magic in Travel 2010, 24/25 July 2010

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