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Delta dreams in the Okavango Delta

There are things in each of our lives that seem to fascinate us endlessly. These obviously vary widely from person to person. Some of our fascinations can serve as motivation while others are nothing more than a hindrance. It can become a defining moment in our lives however when we are allowed to explore first hand whatever it is that has both eluded and fascinated us for so long. 

For me that lifelong fascination has been the African continent. Growing up in the Midwestern United States it probably comes as no surprise to find out that I was never exposed to dangerous animals or extreme climates. Instead, these came alive for me in books, making my surroundings seem all the more vapid and ordinary than they actually were. My escape then became reading stories like those recounting former President Theodore Roosevelt’s big game safari to East Africa or David Livingstone’s explorations of the southern region. Like a Greek siren, every time I read about her Africa never failed to call to me.  

So it came to be in the spring of 2007 that I was fortunate enough to realize my defining moment when the Lilly Endowment awarded me a grant to travel to Africa and study man’s impact upon his environment. Specifically, it was the birds of Southern Africa that brought me to the continent. Most notably the Slaty Egret, one of the worlds’s most threatened. According to Kabelo Senyatso, Biologist with Birdlife Botswana, the Slaty Egret’s numbers have dwindled to an estimated 4,000 birds. With this in mind, I came to Botswana because 60% of their population reportedly nests there.

Our trip would take us through Chobe National Park and into the Moremi Game Reserve. The latter of these two is considered the gateway to the Okavango Delta, which just happens to be the home of the Slaty Egret. Chobe National Park lies in Northern Botswana and this nation of 1.8 million is quickly becoming one of the top tourist destinations on the continent. With the growth in tourism, a flourishing beef industry and the discovery of diamonds, Botswana’s future should no doubt be interesting to watch.

Chobe National Park proved to be an inspiring place. While Rhino were not present, just about every other animal on any traveler’s must see list can be found there with relative ease. A mid afternoon cruise on the Chobe River brought us face to face with Elephant, Hippo and Crocodile. From a stretch of the river’s edge that had been stripped naked of vegetation by Elephant, we watched one ambitious group of males wading into the river in search of an evening meal of succulent river grass. Like Kings perched in their palanquins, opportunistic Cattle Egrets rode high on the backs of these enormous creatures waiting for the occasional insect to stop by. Pod after pod of Hippos could be found cruising beneath the Chobe River like four legged submarines. Their nostrils, eyes and ears parted the water in periscope style as some did their best to pretend as if they weren’t spying on us.

The Chobe riverbank was teeming with birds as well. African Darters could be seen sunning themselves on exposed stumps while White Fronted Bee Eaters and Kingfisher’s flitted about doing battle over the Chobe’s muddy bank. Their shrieks and shouts were drowned out only by the sputtering outboard motor of our pontoon. Chobe National Park was the Africa I was looking for. Most of the areas were accessible by Rover, but the roads were unpaved which allows the game to move more freely and also lends an aesthetic appeal to the traveler’s overall experience. There was little signage, no power lines and almost no construction has been allowed inside the park. 

When you have grown up surrounded by cornfields fearing no wild game at all, there is an indescribable feeling you have the first time you are a nine iron’s length from a female lion. In one powerful moment the two of you reach a nonverbal understanding as she realizes you are here only to watch her and you realize at any moment she could send you home in a pine box. It is a time when you are truly forced to harness your nerves as part of you longs to remain in the encounter while the other half wonders who in their right mind would actually want to be this close if given the choice.

Chobe is filled with just such encounters. There are lodges to serve all itineraries and budgets around the park and along the river, but the true experience is a camping safari. Working with Go2Africa as a liaison, we were able to arrange a wonderful 10 day safari through CC Africa Safaris. CC Africa provided us with an amazing guide who proved himself both colorful and extremely knowledgeable. There were two other members of the camp staff including one young cook who prepared all our meals over an open flame. In a word the food was nothing short of excellent.

From the Serongala region of Chobe National Park we drove west to Savuti. This area is famous for its Lion prides. Botswana is well known for the physical size of their Lions, but Savuit is famous specifically for those prides who feed upon Elephant. In fact these fearless cats have made such an impact upon the Elephant population in Savuti that females with young absolutely will not travel there during migrations. This being said, ever challenging the “king of the jungle” status bestowed upon the lion, the big Bull elephants still come.  

Savuti looks like something belched from the bowels of Hell. It is a dry, barren floodplain that is green for only a few short months. It may look desolate, but it is home to one of the few remaining packs of Wild Dog in Botswana. Cheetah also can be found in the Savuti Marsh and while we were there we were also fortunate enough to see a male Leopard stalking an Impala and two Lions mating. All of these scenes played out exactly as they had in the books and stories from my youth. 

From here it was on to Moremi and the Okavango Delta. This part of our journey took us through rural Botswana as we left the park and traveled on public roads for the first time. We passed through several small villages and even stopped at a few places to meet some locals, including a soccer team comprised of young students. These boys may have been playing with worn out equipment on a dirt field but they were certainly more than happy to pose for my camera. Though this was a part of the trip that CC Africa did not advertise it was nonetheless unforgettable and worth the money. You know the people of the continent are by and large wretchedly poor, but until you are face to face with it you will never appreciate it.    

Fed by rainwater from the mountains of Angola, the Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta on Earth. Every year during the North American spring the Okavango River overflows it banks creating the delta. As the flow of the water changes and recedes, the game moves accordingly. Botswana’s weather is most comfortable for travelers in May but the game viewing becomes better as the year progresses.

Upon arriving in the Delta I was on a mission to find the threatened Slaty Egret. To me a sighting of this bird would equate with the big game hunter Frederick Selous bagging a record male Lion or Livingstone finding Victoria Falls. Birdlife Botswana cites reed cutting by locals and disturbances from Elephant overpopulation as two of the biggest threats to the Slaty Egret. Currently efforts are underway to solve both problems.

The egret’s home is a maze of narrow channels and flooded plains all sweeping towards a verdant horizon of Mopane trees and shrub. Using a Rover we drove what paths we could and forded those flooded areas that would allow it. On more than one occasion the Safari Snorkel on our truck was put to use as our guide drove through water spreading over our hood. On more than one occasion as well we became stuck in the muck of the Delta’s waters. This can be a somewhat humbling feeling when you find yourself miles from the closest lodge and the jeopardy of an overnight stay in an open air rover lies in the hands of CB Radio.    

To that point I had burned through 14 rolls of film while blazing a trail through Chobe and across rural Botswana towards Moremi. For the Slaty Egret, I had set aside an entire roll. On three separate occasions while trawling our Guide drove us within striking distance of the elusive little egret, but every time they proved themselves too flighty for my camera lens. Finding all the other species we had seen to that point had seemed so easy that the standoffishness of these egrets was filling my palette with the unsatisfied sting of a spoiled child.

My most lasting memory of the Slaty Egret seemed destined to be an indistinguishable black shadow winging off into the sunlight. On our last effort, we actually parked the Rover and set out on foot. From the start our guide had said we would spend very little time out of the truck due to the risks involved. With this thought swimming through my mind it might come as no surprise that my steady hands soon turned to jelly. Having already seen one threatened bird, the Wattled Crane, I still viewed the Slaty Egret as the ultimate jewel in my crown.

As our guide knelt next to a shallow pool of crystal clear water and pointed through a shrub, I scared the bird off by stepping clumsily on a stick while rushing to get any shot at all. Although disappointed by this, I must admit that I felt so fortunate just to be in Africa in the first place. I was lucky to have experienced a place firsthand that had for so long vexed me completely. I had always longed to see it and know more about it and at the hands of Go2Africa and CC Africa, my once in a lifetime trip never once disappointed. The Slaty Egret proved too illusive for us and I did not get a photo of it but, now that I have been to Africa and so many of my questions have been answered, it seems only fitting that some part of it should remain a mystery to me forever.

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