Words by Julie Miller
From above, Botswana’s Okavango Delta unfolds like a tapestry, the bigger picture revealed through its intricate stitching. From a low-flying helicopter, I observe its flat expanse dotted with stunted trees and herds of wildlife, marvelling at the minimal impact humanity has on this vast landscape. But the biggest surprise is water, water everywhere – sheets of shimmering riverlets, trickling in like a leaky hose.
“When did the floodwaters arrive?” I ask my pilot as a herd of graceful lechwe leap exultantly through a shallow lagoon under our descending shadow. “Just yesterday,” he informs me. “You’re incredibly lucky to be seeing this.”
Within a matter of days, our landing pad will be swamped and the camp where Okavango Horse Safaris is based will become an island. As I lie in my comfy safari tent that night, I begin to appreciate what the annual miracle of the Delta floodwaters -which occurs between April and October - means to this incredible, 13,000sq.ha African wilderness.
From my bed, I hear the sounds of animals at play in the river – splashing, trumpeting, and what I can only describe as joyful wallowing. Suddenly, I see a large black form approaching in the moonlight; I hear the cracking of branches as it pushes through foliage and pauses in front of my tent. Trembling with excitement, I hold my breath, terrified any sound will startle the giant, tusked bull elephant and send it rampaging, trampling me in the process. He dithers momentarily, swaying, before choosing a route to the left of my tent, continuing his ponderous progress through camp. Exhale.
In the saddle
The following morning we rise early, breakfasting at first light before mounting our waiting horses for our first four-hour exploration of the surrounding savannah. For experienced horse riders, Okavango Horse Safaris offers the ultimate adventure – game viewing from the saddle. On a horse, you become part of the eco-system, a participant in the environment, not just an observer. The horse is not a threat to other herd animals; and if the approach is relaxed, you can mingle happily in their midst.
Our guide Rogers – a native of the Delta and a valued staff member for 23 years - is blessed with the sharpest eyes in Africa, spotting game at impossible distances from his elevated viewing platform. What appears as a shadow on the horizon is in fact a lone elephant, a log on a bank a crocodile, a rock under a tree a wiry warthog, tail waggling comically in the air. Rogers then chooses his approach carefully, circling upwind so the animals cannot smell the human presence.
Rogers is also a body language expert; any sign of discomfort from the wildlife is immediately acknowledged, with retreat the safest option. A graceful mother giraffe allows us to canter alongside her one-month-old baby, poetry in slow-motion, before gathering her doe-eyed offspring close and turning her back; whilst a cranky matriarch elephant flaps her ears and waves her trunk as a warning that we’ve come close enough to her breeding herd.
With long hours in the saddle, ride-fitness is crucial for this adventure, whilst the confidence to gallop out of danger is a pre-requisite. Owners Barney and PJ are adamant that only experienced riders embark on their horseback safaris; non-riders are welcome in camp, however, with activities such as walking and jeep safaris, mokoro trips and fishing offered as alternatives.
Afternoons back at camp are spent lying by the riverside pool or relaxing in an open-sided treehouse, watching for passing hippos. Later, we pile into a jeep for a sunset safari, enjoying sundowners at a scenic waterhole. The return to camp is rewarded with sightings of a leopard crouching warily in the spotlight, and a bold African wildcat, looking extraordinarily like a fat, domestic tabby.
On the water
Another afternoon is spent paddling through the mirrored wetlands on a mokoro, a traditional dug-out canoe manoeuvred stand-up style by our handsome guides. As we pause to watch two hippos snort and grunt in submarine play, Rogers recounts a local legend of how the hippopotamus became a water-dwelling vegetarian, scattering its poop as evidence to the gods that it doesn’t consume any meat.
Regardless of its diet, the hippo is one of the most dangerous creatures in Africa, and Rogers is at pains to avoid the channels, paddling close to shore in the grasp of the waterlogged reeds.
We return to camp as the sun dips over this watery wonderland, absorbing the magic in appreciative silence, in awe of the miracle we have been fortunate to witness.