Standing in a garage in East London, South Africa, entertaining myself by looking at the photos on the wall while my road trip buddy, Callum, tested out a motorcycle, I saw it for the first time – the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Repeatedly mentioning that he was a professional photographer, very well known in the area indeed, the owner of the bike (and photos) explained that this was one of the best places in all of southern Africa for wildlife viewing, especially by plane.
In all honesty I had never really thought about or heard much about Botswana prior to gazing, mouth ajar from awe, at the glorious photos of the blue and green grasslands, speckled with buffalo and elephants.
Even though Namibia was wonderfully warm, and bright, and left a long-lasting and positive impression on me, as far as wildlife viewing goes, Botswana wins out. Here are the places I visited to illustrate why it was so impressive:
This is an inland delta and UNESCO World Heritage Site with marshes that flood seasonally from March to June (I was there in April). The 250km by 150km area floods with a whopping 11,000,000,000,000 litres of water during this season. Yeah, wow!
It’s an enormous area, full of herds of large mammals — 200,000 of them to be precise — that are best viewed from above. Most importantly to me, it is home to elephants and hippos – two animals that are more murderous and dangerous to humans than any others, but for some reason look like they’d love a big ol’ hug.
The above shots were all taken from a lightweight plane ride over the delta that lasted for about 45 minutes. It’s a great way to cover a large area and to spot the wildlife given it’s so spread and marshy which makes it difficult to cover on the ground. Viewing from above was great not just for the benefit of not disturbing the animals, but to observe the beauty of the delta as well.
Glamping the following evening at Elephant Camp was another highlight. After spending two weeks in a tent with a mat and sleeping bag, some nights of which were wet thanks to rainy season, sleeping in a fixed tent with its own en-suite bathrooms was quite a treat.
The usual chores each member of my overland safari with Acacia was responsible for were on hold for those nights, and the attentive staff cooked all the meals and did all the cleaning. This was a real plus for me because I can be unbelievably lazy about mopping.
I’m not the only one, right?
I spent the day there trying to master the makoro, which is ridiculously hard to balance on given its light weight.
Wading through the delta is a sublime experience. It was so peaceful and so easy to get to an area where nobody else was around. It would also be easy to get lost, so keep that in mind if you find yourself there and don’t meander too far from camp.
I loved the friendly staff there, including my makoro captain, Tom, who manned the boat the following morning at sunrise. He took the extra time to point out every snake and frog he saw.
We got along well and had lovely conversations, he telling me all about the delta and what it’s like to grow up there. When I asked if he’s fallen in the river before while rowing he laughed and confirmed that as a child he had several times. It’s a steep learning curve.
He even invited me to come back one day to make my own makoro, and extended his contact info. He even included his P.O. box. Don’t ever stop being a G, Tom.
Elephant Sands, Nata
Elephant Sands campground has one of the only watering holes in the area that isn’t salty, and that is important for one reason and one reason only – ridiculous amounts of elephants!
This was a way to see wild elephants closer than I ever had before. I got a chance in Sri Lanka, and interacted with rescued domesticated elephants in Thailand, but to see the African elephant this up close was incredible.
African elephants are massive. The smallest adult African elephant I saw was about the size of the largest Asian elephant I’d ever seen, and unlike in Asia, both male and female elephants in Africa have tusks. They use them to scratch bark off of trees, which makes up a big part of their diet.
A few other unique traits include two “fingers” on an African elephant’s trunk, an extra pair of ribs, a completely different head shape with no “dent,” concave rather than convex back arch, much less hair than Asian elephants, and no freckles or skin tone variations. Here’s an illustration if you’d like to see how dissimilar they are physically.
The only thing separating people from the elephants is a 3-foot (1 meter) high concrete wall which is enough since elephants can’t step very high. They’re almost close enough to touch.
I kept thinking to myself, no way this would fly in most other parts of the world. This was particularly evident when I walked out of the girl’s bathroom and heard a loud trumpeting sound from an elephant, warning me that I was too close. You should have seen how quickly I ran!
Walking to the bathrooms where there is no wall and roaming about at night can be dangerous, so keep a light of some sort handy and bring along common sense when staying here.
Chobe National Park
Chobe is famous for the sheer number of animals and likelihood of sightings of some of the biggest and most sought-after creatures. It was among my top choices for safaris in the region mainly due to the beautiful surroundings and multitude of huggable elephants and hippos.
Chobe has an estimated 50,000 elephants which is the highest concentration in Africa.
The riverfront cruise was the best way to take it all in. It allowed us to get close to the animals without stepping into their habitats or line of potential attack. It was also a lovely sunset, and the boat drivers didn’t mind that we brought along our own wine (South African Pinotage, of course) to enjoy along the way.
Do it yourself:
- Okavango Delta plane tours are the best way to see the greatest amount of wildlife, plus the delta is a sight in itself. Delta Rain is the company I went with, and I would recommend them
- Elephant Camp is a great place for glamping on the delta. I really can’t recommend them enough. Bookable through Delta Rain
- Elephant Sands is the name of the camp with the watering hole. Drive right in if entering with a car and camp or book a fixed tent
- I toured all of the above with Acacia Africa as part of an overland camping safari, a method I would highly recommend
*Some of these activities were provided to me for free or at a discount, however, I never mention anything in a positive light on my blog that I did not love. Your trust always comes first.