Okavango Delta, Botswana: Palm Trees, Water and Elephants in the Neighborhood!

After two full days of game drives in Chobe National Park we moved on to the Okavango Delta. We were awakened at 5 am by the usual drumbeat and sleepily hauled out of bed. Having packed the night before, we headed to breakfast by 5:30 am and departed Baobab Safari Lodge an hour later.

After the ride to Kasane International Airport we flew into a dirt airstrip not far from our private Wilderness Safari tented camp located adjacent to the Moremi Game Reserve. The tented camp is located on the Sankoyo Concession, a wildlife management area adjacent to the Moremi Game Reserve.

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Wildlife management areas adjacent to Reserves and National Parks attempt to protect wildlife, which of course range outside of protected areas, and habitat in these areas by engaging local communities in conservation and tourism activities. Members of local villages develop or allow private safari companies to develop lodging in their area.

We were greeted at the airstrip by Sixteen and Julius the game drivers for our stay in the Okavango Delta. Also greeting us was a stiff, chilly wind which caused us to quickly grab the ponchos left for us in the game vehicles.

We enjoyed our morning ‘tea and pee’ at the edge of the landing strip and watched as the Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) group ahead of us left for their next destination, just as we would in four days’ time.

While the terrain in the Okavango Delta region seemed familiar to us, it was distinctly different as well. The first thing we noticed was the very strong scent of sage. Five of us in our game vehicle were Californians and are familiar with the aroma of sage that grows along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was just like that.

Sage bush in the Okavango Delta
The next thing I noticed were the many very tall palm trees and many small palm ‘bushes.’ Sixteen explained to us that the palms were first planted in the Delta in the 1890s by Arab traders. At the time there were no elephants in the area, so the trees grew tall and strong. When elephants came to the area they began feeding on the smaller palms and developed a taste for hearts of palm, just like us. They were unable to feed on the very tall trees, so they remain undamaged, but the elephants continue to feed on the smaller palms. For this reason there are no intermediate-sized palms in the area.

Palms large and small in the Okavango Delta

Sixteen also warned us to watch for thorn trees as we drove through the wooded areas. He cautioned, “They will drag you out of the vehicle.” I believe they would. The thorns were indeed very sharp.

We were in for yet another surprise when we reached our tented camp. The camp is built on platforms, perhaps 6 feet off the ground with elevated walkways between the dining area and all of the tents. The camp is built on the edge of a watery, reed-covered area and many species of animals must move through the area. Raising the camp allows the smaller animals to move freely, and I suppose allows for the level of the water to rise as well.

Our tent on the Okavango Delta
Part of our safety orientation cautioned us that at intervals the walkways lower to ground level so that larger animals may pass. We were instructed to look both ways before crossing such areas, and to step back on the raised walkway if we saw animals in the area.

Animal crossing in camp on the Okavango Delta
On the first morning we were sleepily walking to the dining room, we approached one of these crosswalks for the animals. As I looked to my left I spotted a very tall elephant. It seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him and he immediately let us know he was not very happy with our presence. He shook his head, flared his ears and gave a snort, clearly warning us to step back onto the raised walkway. We did so immediately and he ambled on his way. Wow, what an experience!

I had a similar experience the prior afternoon after lunch. We usually had a couple of hours of free time after lunch when we downloaded pictures, took showers and relaxed. I  showered, gathered my journal, camera and phone and headed for the chair in front of our tent.

My focus was in my lap, writing in my journal. Suddenly I heard this big exhale and looked up. An elephant was standing just on the other side of the walkway to our tent, not 5 feet away. He had not made a sound walking up to the railing, and if not for the exhale, he might have walked right by without my noticing.

Elephant near our tent in the Okavango Delta

As I looked up, the elephant spotted me as well. We both froze. Then I reached for my phone to take his picture and he moved away, startled by my movement.  I will never forget looking that elephant in the eye, both of us startled by the other, but locking our gaze for just a few moments. The cost of the trip was instantly worth every dollar we paid.

Morning game drives were colder than chilly. We all bundled up, it was still very cold. Animal sightings in the mornings were scant, they must have been tucked away in hidden, warmer, sunny locations.

We did see some new animals and many new birds in two days of game drives. New sightings included tsessebe antelope, red lechwe, blue wildebeest, ostriches, white-browed sparrow-weaver, hamerkop, African sacred ibis, Verreaux’s eagle-owl (giant eagle-owl) and jacana (also called Jesus birds or lily-trotters).

Once again we saw sausage trees which in the Okavango Delta region are used to make the dugout canoe called a mokoro. These narrow, shallow boats glide through the Delta waterways by standing at the back of the boat and pushing with a very long pole. It’s a great balancing act.

We took a short ride thorough a waterway in a mokoro and it was so peaceful to silently glide among the reeds and water lilies. Because trees large enough to make a mokoro are endangered in the area, they are mostly made from fiberglass today.

A mokoro on the Okavango Delta
In the Okavango Delta the grasses were dry in areas and the mopani trees are changing color. Along with the distinctive smells of sage, the soil is very sandy. The drivers and the vehicles had to work very hard in some areas to prevent our getting stuck in the deep sand.

Our final game drive in the Okavango Delta was a blast. Pete and I and our friends Leslie and Kathy were the only four in our safari vehicle. After our sundowners enjoying the setting sun, we headed back to camp. We had a wild ride, through very sandy soil and it was a hoot.

I felt as if I was riding a rodeo bronc. I was alternately laughing out loud and taking pictures. We watched the brilliant sunset that included beautiful clouds.

My memories of time we spent in the Okavango Delta will always revolve around my elephant encounters, the smell of the sage, our mokoro ride and that spectacular sunset rodeo! Not that I won’t also recall the full moon and the enormous large termite mounds.

A slideshow of our time in the Okavango Delta follows. We hope you enjoy it.


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