A Short Walk in the Okavango Delta
Updated: Mar 2
By William Gray
The hyena dropping was white and brittle and after a gentle squeeze it exploded in a puff of chalky dust, just like the meringues my grandmother used to make. “Hyenas aren’t fussy,” Adrian explained as he picked out slivers of bone, beetle wing-cases and tangled fur balls from the powdery remains in his hand. “They’ll eat anything. They’re survivors.”
Adrian Dandridge knew about survival. A life spent roaming Botswana’s bushveld, living off the land, he was Africa’s answer to Huckleberry Finn. “Heading north?” He glanced at White, his Bushman tracker, who was crouching nearby looking for tell-tale signs in the sand. “North.” White nodded, pointing to a hyena paw print, half obscured by tracks dimpling the game trail. Adrian shouldered his rifle and, with White casting ahead for spoor, we started walking. Our boots scuffed clouds of bicarbonate-of-soda on the parched, sun-cracked skin of an empty waterhole. The land felt desiccated; stunned by the dry, breathless torpor of winter. Tall grasses bowed under full heads of seed and the air was thick with the heady aroma of wild thyme and basil. Far to the east a bush fire raged, gasping pallid blue smoke high into the sky.
This wasn’t the Okavango I had anticipated. Not the verdant gem of Africa, the teeming Kalahari oasis. But there was an expectant air about the still and arid land, as if it was holding its breath, waiting for change. We took refuge from the noon sun in the shade of a giant marula tree. “The water’s close now,” Adrian told me. “We could meet the flood any day now.”
Several months earlier, good rains had fallen on the Angolan highlands 1,000km to the northwest. Dwindling streams had become gushing torrents, feeding the rivers that flow south towards Botswana. The Okavango Delta’s life-line had been recharged. Like a pulsing umbilical cord the Okavango River was swelling the delta into full flood.
From the vantage of a termite mound I stared north. It seemed inconceivable that a tide was flowing towards us through those dusty grasslands. This was only the first morning of our four-day walking safari, but already my senses thrilled to the adrenaline surge of exploring the bush on foot. As the sun dipped from its zenith and we began walking again, I felt the primeval tingle of being part of the food chain. There were shadows in the tawny grass like lions crouching in ambush. Far ahead a small herd of zebra cantered into the heat haze like a line of melting bar codes and a ground hornbill called once, a remote booming, like wind lost in a labyrinth.
This was a safari of the senses. An intimate affair with wild Africa. No noisy safari vehicles or mad chases to see the big five. There was not a tick list between us. Instead we walked slowly, stopping often to marvel at small wonders.
“Watch this,” Adrian said quietly, plucking a feathery seed from a tall grass stem. He wetted his finger, gently dabbed the seed and placed it carefully on the ground. Slowly the seed began to rotate, stirring to life, and within seconds it had drilled itself into the sand ready to germinate. “The magic of water.”
Dusk flushed the sky as we reached our first camp. The cricket chorus beat its soft staccato rhythm and a barred owl purred from a nearby leadwood tree. Somewhere far away jackals yelped. Then, much closer, the long ‘whoop’ of a hyena rose and fell; the mournful herald of the African night.
Early the following morning, Adrian and White read the sands, firing vivid episodes of bush life through my mind. A zebra rolling in a clearing, compressing the sand and scuffing deep gashes with its flaying hooves. A python meandering across the oval craters stamped in the ground by a bull elephant.
Later that afternoon, as we walked to our second camp, Adrian noticed a strange object lying half buried in the sand. It was smooth and dome-shaped, the size of a football. When he stooped to pick it up, I noticed that there were others scattered about the pan. Terrapin shells. Dozens of them, lying bleached and broken. And in amongst them, jaws gaping as if fixed in its final gasp for water, the hideous skull of a catfish lay shattered in the hot sands. The last time the Okavango flooded, this dusty clearing was the bed of a lake.
We started walking at dawn the next day while dew still glistened on the feathery plumes of silky Bushman grass and the land was burnished in gold. I was hardly aware of the breeze that came sighing through the grasses. It was only when Adrian turned to me and whispered, “Can you smell it?” that I detected the strange odour. It was the scent of freshly dug soil, sweet and moist after the dry tang of the bush. “Listen!” I tilted my head, but heard nothing but the distant churring of a dove. Then for a brief moment the breeze stiffened, carrying with it a strange fizzing sound. “The water’s close!” Adrian’s eyes were wide with excitement.
Skirting a patch of mopane scrub, we turned briskly to the north. Adrian knew a short-cut through a stand of marula trees and it wasn’t long before we broke into a wide corridor of grassland. We stopped and stared across the plain, squinting into the low rays of sunlight.
They came in a long line, low over the tree tops; a wide V-shaped skein, their wings thudding the air like the steady pulsing of a heart. “Wattled cranes,” Adrian smiled from beneath his binoculars. “Sixty five of them. I’ve never seen such a large flock.” As we watched, the huge birds with gangly necks, long trailing legs and finger-tipped wings changed their flight pattern. The orderly line began to break up and one by one, they tumbled and twisted out of the sky, their legs hanging down, braced for landing.
The woodland blocked the birds from our view and it was several hours before we spotted them again in another large wedge of grassland. Obscured by distance and the wavering heat haze they resembled gnarled fence posts strung across the plain. We set off towards them, eager to discover what had lured so many wading birds to one spot. But we’d hardly walked a few paces before White signalled urgently for us to stop.
A large male baboon swaggered into a clearing barely 100 m ahead, his fur ignited into a golden halo by the low afternoon sun. Behind him, a rabble of skinny youngsters cavorted through the grass, pouncing and somersaulting like puppets on elastic strings. We crouched down. The baboons were moving slowly towards us, pausing to winkle buried morsels from the dry crust of the pan. A warthog trotted to the edge of the clearing, its tail erect like a flag of truce. Electric blue flared nearby as a glorious lilac-breasted roller fanned its wings to land.
Then, slowly, smoothly, like the shadow of a passing cloud, a dark stain began spreading across the clearing towards us. I watched, captivated, as it grew long probing tendrils which slithered forward as they found a way through the scuffed surface of the sand. Water was consuming the clearing. It formed shallow, glistening puddles in platter-sized elephant tracks and bubbled and frothed as it flooded a network of gerbil burrows. In minutes the water was running in eager rivulets around our feet. After drinking their fill, the baboons moved to a small wooded copse sprouting from the phallic tower of a termite hill which was fast becoming an island.
We backed off slightly from the leading edge of water, hurriedly removing our boots and socks. The water was cool on our bare feet and beneath the light film of surface dust it was the colour of well-brewed tea. In awed silence we waded into the flood. Stalking to within 100m of the wattled cranes, the water was still no higher than our ankles.
At this closer range we could see other birds mingled with the cranes. Pacing the shallows like beaters at a pheasant shoot, marabou storks struck hammer blows at desperate rodents evicted from their flooded burrows. I watched as gerbil after gerbil was plucked, sodden from the water, thrown in the air and swallowed whole. Hundreds of saddlebilled storks, cattle egrets, herons and hammerkops joined the feeding frenzy while a pair of African fish eagles wheeled overhead.
All around us, clouds of dragonflies drifted amongst the stems of grasses that still protruded above the surface. A herd of lechwe, the aquatic, splayed-hoofed antelope of the delta, scattered as we approached, kicking sparkling arcs of water behind them. Then, as dusk approached, a chorus of frogs and toads rose from the water, filling the air with the clatter of a million castanets as if they were celebrating the miracle of the Okavango in flood.
Two of the best options for walking safaris in the Okavango are Footsteps across the Delta in Shinde concession and Linyanti Walking Safaris in the Chobe Enclave. Either can be combined with safaris by vehicle, motorboat or mokoro.
Light aircraft, often single-propeller Cessnas, serve camps in the Delta
Camps cater for around 6-8 guests in simple, twin-bedded tents with bucket showers and long-drop toilets.
Walking safaris operate May-November.
Tourist Information: botswanatourism.co.bw