Botswana – Into the Okavango

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In 2014 the Okavango Delta became the 1000th World Heritage site – and not before time. This vast, varied, wildlife-abundant wetland is matchless, and long overdue protection. Here, we look at the background to the Delta’s designation, and celebrate its many wonders, beginning with James Gifford’s journey through the ebb and flow of the Okavango’s seasons.

Duba PlainsApril sun
The water droplets trickling from the two-metre ngashe back into the channel played a hypnotic rhythm. It was the only manmade sound in this natural bubble of serenity, occasionally punctured by the chirping call of an African jacana, carelessly dashing across the water’s surface in a gravity-defying illusion worthy of David Copperfield.

The April sun was still preparing for its grand entrance as my guide wielded the long pole to propel us through perfectly reflected papyrus tunnels towards a floating field of white and gold lilies. A thin layer of mist hovered above the water – the first hint of the coming winter – creating a hauntingly beautiful scene in the bluish half-light.

Stress and tension slid from my shoulders. This would be my world for the next two days, camping on a deserted island at night. I lay back with a smile: adapting to the tortoise-paced way of life was surprisingly easy. For most travellers a mokoro trip is a brief two-hour respite from the conveyor belt of lodge gamedrives and predator searches. But to really appreciate the local Bayei people’s preferred mode of transport requires a more adventurous approach. In the Okavango Panhandle, far from the busier lodges further south, I drifted past villagers who live among wildlife in the same way as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years.

The only hint of the 21st century lay in the material of my craft, for fibreglass has replaced wood in a conservation strategy to ensure the future of the mangosteen, jackalberry and sausage trees that line the river banks. In addition, my skilful poler would point out fingernail-sized reed frogs rather than the hunting hippos – an astounding feat in these rather precarious vessels. This was not a trip for Big Five list-tickers, but it was a sublime form of time-travel, which gently yet utterly immersed me in the spirit of the Delta.

Two months earlier the water supporting me now would have been suspended in clouds almost 1000km away, waiting to be deposited onto the Angolan highlands, then merging to form the Cubango River before finally entering Botswana as the Okavango. Over the next few months it would disperse into thousands of rivulets coursing through the Kalahari sands, spreading life wherever it went.

August nights
Four months later I found myself once again in the heart of the Delta, just outside Moremi Game Reserve. It was August and the lush vegetation had long since lost its emerald hue, replaced now by shades of ochre and amber. There was a palpable drop in temperature as soon as the vehicle started to move; I instinctively tightened my scarf. The moonless night air felt dense and I quickly became disorientated by the impenetrable blackness that surrounded us.

We arrived at a deep water-crossing – the head of the flood had passed through here a month or so ago but many of the roads still remained a metre under water. Waves washed over the wheel arches as our headlights dazzled a thousand insects dancing to the harmonies of an orchestra of bullfrogs, reed frogs and guttural toads. Off-limits inside the national parks but possible in private concessions, night drives typically reveal smaller nocturnal creatures – barn owls, bushbabies and scurrying civets – but tonight would offer something a little bit special. After a painstaking hour tracking our quarry we found a pride of nine lions on the move. Even as we drove among them they remained oblivious to our presence, striding with purpose either side of our vehicle, searching for the scent that would initiate nature’s primal hunting mechanism. For a brief moment it felt as if we had been accepted into the pride. It was a rare connection.

Without warning, our guide switched off the lights and we plunged into darkness. I felt a tingle on the back of my neck – an innate self-preservation warning, perhaps – as the woeful inadequacy of my underdeveloped senses became unnervingly apparent. I could see nothing except the blanket of stars above my head; my ears could detect only the sound of my own breath; my pitiful olfactory sensors barely registered the remnants of diesel fumes, which the felines would have sensed from afar. By the time the guide shone his spotlight again, the whole pride had moved noiselessly past us, slowly melting into the mopane shadows ahead.

December rain
It was December when I made my final trip of the year to the Delta and the first rains from a few weeks before had already started to soften the baked clay underfoot. I trod carefully, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the crackling twigs as I weaved between towering leadwoods. The treeline suddenly disappeared and I looked up, as the sweet earthy smell of the morning’s rain wafted across an open floodplain. Up ahead, a carmine bee-eater flitted among the resurgent grasses, hungrily snapping at grasshoppers, while a parade of yellow-billed storks spiralled above in a perfectly choreographed aerial display.

A raised hand stopped me in my tracks. The sound of munching jaws became audible over my barely-held breath. Instantly I became acutely aware of my vulnerability – without the protective shield of a vehicle, I would probably win the dubious accolade of weakest, slowest and least-aware animal naive enough to roam around the bush. Despite this (or perhaps, because of it), I had never felt more alive. As I tried to calm my pulsating heart, I realised there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be. With a fistful of tossed grass, my guide silently tested the wind direction and we circled round to watch one of Botswana’s 150,000 elephants from a safer distance.

The sheer range of experiences on offer in the perpetually evolving Okavango is possibly one of its most underrated attributes. For density of animals and predator sightings, the peak winter months with their sparse vegetation and fewer water sources understandably attract the bulk of Botswana’s tourists. But venture off the beaten track, strike out on foot or dare to come at a different time of year, and you will be rewarded with intimate encounters that will surprise, amaze and change your perception of the world’s greatest inland delta forever.

How to make an island
When the Okavango Delta is in full flood it is scattered with islands: some no more than a mole hill, others large and heavily vegetated – such as Chief’s Island, in the centre of the Delta, known for its high concentration of game. This is an ever-changing landscape. For instance, a hippo might plough a new furrow or clog up an old one, causing the waters to flow round; eventually, a blockage might build into an outcrop, then into an islet, then an island. Termites also play a key role. These insects live in huge colonies, in intricate waterproof towers fashioned from wood, soil and saliva. These mounds can be the only mass above water level when the floods hit; this means they are used as perches by passing birds and mammals, which then defecate on the mound. Undigested seeds in these droppings bed down and grow into grasses. Then, the passing waters deposit further seeds and more plants take root. The island grows. Over time, nearby islands merge to from larger ones.

Insider’s tip
For a holistic Okavango experience stay a minimum of five nights, combining a ‘water camp’ (such as Jao or Xigera) with a ‘land camp’ (Chitabe is a personal favourite). If you’re more pressed for time, try one of the ‘combination camps’ (like Vumbura) which offer a diverse range of activities. Take a mokoro excursion for a traditional Okavango experience, travelling silently along the channels. Explore the outer fringes of the permanent swamp on a game drive in safari vehicles. This will give you a good chance of seeing species such as red lechwe and sitatunga, as well as good concentrations of elephant, buffalo and wild dog, lion and leopard.
Martin Benadie, birding and wildlife specialist, Wilderness Safaris

 

Duty of care

Dr Karen Ross worked for almost three decades to protect the Okavango Delta, and was instrumental in securing its prized World Heritage listing. She talked to Paul Bloomfield about the long journey to inscription, and why it is so crucial.

On 22 June 2014 Botswana’s Okavango Delta was confirmed as the 1000th World Heritage site. In total, over 50,000 square kilometres are encompassed by the designated core and buffer zones, including the floodplain that, at its peak, extends over 16,000 square kilometres to create Africa’s third-largest inland delta. Some 482 bird species make this wetland wilderness their home, along with more than 130 species of mammal, 1000-plus plants and 94 dragonflies. It offers sanctuary for rare and endangered creatures including wild dogs, white and black rhinos, cheetahs and slaty egrets, not to mention the world’s largest elephant population.

But what’s most incredible isn’t this cornucopia of wildlife, nor the miraculous geological and hydrological processes that each year transform the heart of the Kalahari Desert into a vast, lush oasis. It’s the fact that it’s taken till now for the Okavango to gain World Heritage status. Conservationist and writer Dr Karen Ross has been involved with the process from the beginning.

“It’s been on the radar of the World Heritage Centre and Secretariat for a long time,” she recalls. “I happened to be living in Maun when a delegation from IUCN arrived, in around 1989. They had just visited the Delta and, in a presentation to the Kalahari Conservation Society Okavango Branch, said: ‘By the way, this wetland is just incredible, and certainly qualifies for World Heritage status…’ And then nothing happened.”

Except quite a lot was going on – not all of it positive. Dr Ross remained in Maun after the film crew with which she’d been working returned to the UK, and soon became involved with conservation of the Delta. “A lot of the issues that we’d discussed in the film started unfolding before my eyes,” she says.

First came a proposal to dredge 50km of the Okavango Delta system – ostensibly to provide irrigation and drinking water but, significantly, to channel water to a large diamond mine. This would have seriously compromised the ecosystem, both immediately around the dredged channel and across the wider Delta. It was only at the last minute, in 1991, after mounting resistance from local communities and vigorous international action from Greenpeace, that the project was put on hold.

“Credit to the government: they listened, and commissioned an independent study by the IUCN. That was quite nerve-wracking for those of us who’d spoken out against the dredging. I remember thinking, I hope we were right! But the study concluded that the project was flawed on three major counts, and it was scrapped.”

The Delta is fed by the waters of the Okavango River that rises in the highlands of Angola, 1600km to the northwest, and flows through Namibia’s Caprivi Strip before reaching the panhandle of the Delta itself. So the ecosystem is always vulnerable to activities upstream. This became frighteningly clear in 1996 when Namibia was in the throes of a long drought: the Namibian government initiated a scheme to pipe large volumes of water from the Okavango River to Grootfontein and on to Windhoek. That plan – which would have seen the volume of water reaching the Delta slashed – was averted only after intervention from groups including Conservation International, with which Dr Ross worked at the time.

This kind of extra-national threat demonstrates the need for additional protection. In 1994 the three countries through which the Okavango flows had signed a tri-partite government agreement administered by a Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM). But this wasn’t enough to preclude abstraction upstream from the delta. “OKACOM is a fantastic convention,” Dr Ross affirms, “and should offer security for the whole Okavango River system. But it is primarily a water agreement focused – and rightly so – on people’s needs for water and livelihoods. It is not a conservation mechanism.”

This is one of the strengths of World Heritage status. “It is a legal convention, and has more signatories than any other such agreement – now up to 191 countries. So if you do something that threatens the Okavango Delta, you’re not just taking on Botswana, you’re taking on the world.”

Legal protection aside, many of the benefits are rooted in the very process of achieving inscription. “It’s a big effort: there are many government departments involved,” says Dr Ross. “It requires considerable engagement with governments, communities, stakeholders – people who get really involved. And then it becomes a huge source of national pride, helping to shine a spotlight on one area. That’s a powerful conservation tool.”

Not that the benefits are instantly obvious to everyone. “The government took its time, asking: what does this really mean? What are we giving up? Are we handing this over to the United Nations? So you have to commend the government. They have pledged to the country and the world community that they won’t do anything that will compromise the natural value of the site – and, given the value of mining to the country [33 per cent of GDP and 45 per cent of government revenue], there is a cost attached to that.”

Some communities were also dubious. “There was concern, especially among the Basarwa community [formerly called Bushmen]because in Central Kalahari Game Reserve they had experienced evictions, been denied access to water and so on. So the government had to pledge that the Basarwa’s rights would be honoured and their ancestral sites preserved.”

Among the benefits of World Heritage listing compared, for example, with National Park designation, is that it allows for indigenous people to remain within the site. “One of the beauties of the Delta is that it has communities living not just around it but in it. As we saw back in 1991 with the dredging issue, one of the reasons the Delta is in such great shape is that these communities have acted as guardians of this environment for thousands of years.”

Even once there was general buy-in to the proposal, the journey to inscription was long. Before World Heritage status was confirmed the site had to be placed on a tentative list, where it remained for two years. The process of compiling and submitting the dossier and achieving full listing then took another four years.

Why so long? In addition to the rigorous procedure for justifying each case, there were special conditions in the Okavango. Dr Ross explains: “The experienced mentor who helped shepherd the nomination through the process said that this was the most complicated potential World Heritage site he’d ever encountered. There were so many government departments involved, and it is such a vast site, with so many stakeholders, two countries upstream, OKACOM… Everyone has to be consulted.”

After six long years, the goal was achieved. But this isn’t the endpoint for conservation in the Delta. Threats remain – not least proposals for dams upstream, which would have a massive impact. “This is an alluvial fan, recharged each year with deposits from the river,” Dr Ross explains. “If you dam, those sediments are held back. It won’t happen overnight, but over perhaps 100 years the Delta won’t be a delta anymore – it’ll just become a river.”

There are many mining concessions around the Delta, and some even within its boundaries. No surprise, then, that Dr Ross – now Programme Design Director of the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi – worked with an alliance of conservation organisations on a statement about the dangers of mineral extraction. Launched at the World Parks Congress in November, the statement calls for governments and industries to commit to no-go policies on extraction (including mining) from World Heritage sites.

The Okavango Delta is a little better protected than it was before. But this precious ecosystem, like so many others, still needs the vigilance of champions like Karen Ross to fight its corner.

Mokoro Master
I am a Moyei, a tribe that introduced mokoro to the Okavango Delta. I was born and raised on an island called Tsobaoro, near Chief’s Island. My first birthday present was a mokoro, from my father, at the age of six. In my lifetime I have handcrafted at least twenty of my own mekoro, and have used them exclusively to navigate the inner reaches of the Delta. I have been working for Desert and Delta Safaris since 1980, at Camp Okavango, taking clients on a mokoro trip nearly every day of the year.
Odumetse John Kata

 

Big 5 Okavango birds
1 Pel’s fishing owl 
Africa’s second-largest owl, russet-coloured with black-spotted wings. Around 100 pairs hunt the Okavango Delta; they like to perch high up on branches near lagoons. Most vocal at dawn; their haunting call can be heard over a kilometre away.
2 Wattled cranes 
Around 175cm tall, with white neck and breast, pale grey wings and back. Usually seen in pairs (or trios, with a young bird) and larger flocks. Listed ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN. The Okavango (home to around 1300 individuals) is one of its last refuges.
3 Slaty egret 
Grey feathers, yellow legs. Rare and virtually endemic to the Okavango, where it is widespread. Likes shallow lagoons with short grass; feeds on small fish, frogs and invertebrates.
4 Carmine bee-eater 
A beauty: greenish-blue crown, green or vivid pink throat, black mask, crimson trunk and wings, blue rump. Gregarious: lives in big breeding colonies. Emerges from nest holes after dawn; flies to feeding areas in flocks. Widespread.
5 African pygmy goose 
World’s smallest duck. White face, metallic green backs, reddish undercarriage.  Likes swamps, marshes and inland deltas, and areas with abundant aquatic vegetation, especially water lilies. Widespread.

Special sightings
Sitatunga – A glorious sight in the deep water and papyrus areas of the Delta, this elusive aquatic antelope feeds on riverine vegetation, grasses and leaves. A strong but slow swimmer whose main threat comes from lions and wild dogs.
Okavango hinged terrapin – Often spotted basking on fallen trunks or even on the back of a hippo, this dark terrapin occurs in permanent water where it feeds on small fish, frogs and invertebrates. Has a head patterned boldly with
yellow streaks.
Painted reed frog – With luck you will enjoy meeting several of the Delta’s many resident frog species, but the most eye-catching is this brightly coloured specimen, with white bodies and variable blotched patterns. It often clambers into boats, but keep your eye out for it: it is only about 3cm in length.

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