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Difference between revisions of "Okavango Delta"

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(Southern Africa Flying Safari including Okavanga Delta)
 
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The cheetah moved silkily, stealthily picking up one front paw, then the other. Behind her, imitating her movements, were two young males. Our guide explained in a near whisper that she was teaching her teenage sons how to stalk, aiming for a distant group of impala.
 
  
Three open Land Rovers, reasonably far apart, held us, the rapt audience. Fifteen minutes passed in utter silence as the cheetah paused to sniff the air, exhaustively scrutinize the terrain, then move on. Suddenly, she dropped low and started running at warp speed, in complete silence. Then to our immense disappointment, she suddenly disappeared behind some small trees on this mostly open plain. Our drivers threw their cars in gear and we careered down the dirt track, but we were too late.
 
 
It was the most thrilling moment in an afternoon of game viewing at Mombo Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. But there were so many moments. That morning, we had seen three male lions patrolling their territory. Among the striking birds was the lilac-breasted roller, a lovely little creature (common in southern Africa) in Popsicle tones of lavender, green and turquoise. Zebra and impala were so common they were pretty much ignored, although the elegance of the dainty impala never ceased to charm me.
 
 
This was Day 7 of a two-week ''flying safari,'' a mid-May tour of southern Africa with vacationtechnician.com & Wilderness Safaris. The ambitious itinerary started in Johannesburg, going from there to Namibia, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Zambia Victoria Falls and finally Zimbabwe.
 
 
I had arrived in Johannesburg on my own, traveling anonymously, to join what I was told would be a group of 10 others. In fact, when I came down to the lobby of the elegant Grace Hotel, after a night to recover from the numbing flight from New York, just two people were there -- Dan, a lawyer from San Diego, and Bruce Van Niekerk, the young, chipper and omnicompetent South African who was our guide and pilot for the entire trip. This was a group?
 
 
I never discovered why the numbers shrank so, but one result was that Dan and I had a private pilot, as well as a terrific guide and companion, flying us around southern Africa in a small plane, a Cessna twin-engine 310. In short order we took off from Lanseria Airport, flying northwest across the Kalahari Desert to southern Namibia.
 
 
When, several hours and one refueling stop later, we approached Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, the first of six lodges that we would visit, we were definitely in the middle of nowhere -- a stark, lunar gray-brown desert.
 
 
It seemed impossible that anything could live here, but waving cheerfully as we touched down on the small landing strip was Dios, crisply uniformed, who drove us in a Land Rover up a bone-rattling steep track to the camp, almost invisible above the plain. Two smiling staff members met us with cold washcloths and showed us the handsome lodge and our cabins. Nine of these thatch-roofed, stone and wood ''guest rooms'' (actually individual structures) were strung out along the hillside.
 
 
I was amazed at the comfort of my tile-floored bungalow, with its king bed draped in mosquito netting, a chaise and a few pieces of attractive dark wood furniture, a double free-standing sink and claw-foot tub, a toilet and a shower with a small window that opened to the desert. A tiny porch with a postage-stamp sized pool completed the setup, all sited for total privacy.
 
 
There wasn't much time, however, to luxuriate. We left after a quick late lunch to explore the Kulala Wilderness Reserve in which the camp is set, and before dawn the next morning, were off to the adjoining Namib-Naukluft Park to see the sun rise.
 
 
At almost 19,300 square miles, it is one of the largest nature reserves in Africa, noted not for game (although there are ostrich, springbok, oryx and many birds) but for the vast sweep of huge ocher dunes, truly orange-red at dawn and sunset.
 
 
Backpackers and tourists of all ages walked and hiked in the park. Bruce pointed silently to a dune lark, unique to this area, hopping in the grasses before we unpacked a generous picnic brunch under an acacia tree.
 
That night, back at Sossusvlei, we were surrounded by deep silence, and a black night sky brilliant with low-hanging stars.
 
 
The next camp, Ongava in northern Namibia, could not have been more different. We reached it after a diverting day flying up the coast, stopping for a boat ride to see seals, have lunch on the beach and walk around Swakopmund, a pristine little coastal town founded by German settlers in 1892.
 
 
At Ongava Lodge, we were in rich game country. The flat plain of vast Etosha National Park, 8,600 square miles, was practically next door. At a popular park watering hole we visited in a Land Rover expedition the next day, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, springbok and black-faced impala milled about. We saw 14 giraffes browsing, their necks sticking up at wild angles, and two young males fighting. A lioness thrilled us by giving chase to a jackal, as her five cubs popped their heads up.
 
 
The camp itself, undramatically set in scrub trees at ground level, is in the safari company's private game reserve. As a result, much of the same park game can be seen in relative solitude, or from the lodge, overlooking a watering hole lighted at night.
 
 
At Ongava the skill of Shadreck, our ebullient driver-tracker with superhuman eyesight, came into play, as an afternoon game drive extended into darkness. Driving while holding a floodlight, he showed us the track of a python, and knew an elephant's size, age and sex from a footprint. His triumph was finding a family of rhino. On the way, a group of rare Hartmann's mountain zebra dashed across our path.
 
 
As at all the camps, at night you are accompanied to and from your lodging by a staff member. After all that rough driving, I fell into bed after dinner, to be awakened by the roaring of a lion, near enough to make the air vibrate.
 
 
After arid Namibia, Jao Camp, in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, felt like a verdant water world. Our band of three flew there from the unprepossessing small city of Maun, the jumping-off point for the delta's many camps.
 
 
All nine units (wood floors, tented sides, thatch roofs) and the main lodge are connected by wooden walkways, high above the ground under towering trees. Even the animals like the arrangement, as it allows them free passage underneath.
 
 
My bungalow was downright luxurious, its wooden floor gleaming, with a comfortable couch and coffee table, free-standing double sinks and tub, and notably, a toilet in a separate enclosure with a floor-to-ceiling view of the delta. An open veranda ran its length. As at each camp, there was an outdoor shower; a mischievous vervet monkey in the canopy tossed a nut down at me as I showered, the closest I got to injury in the wild.
 
 
Another amenity, a deeply cushioned gazebo, looked out on the delta, one segment of a vast area where the Okavango River spreads out and comes to an end in an aqueous world of reeds and stunningly rich bird life. Water levels have been a concern in recent years, but the river had just released a substantial amount of water.
 
 
At Jao, the few hours of downtime between early-morning and late-afternoon game drives were particularly welcome, and the dawn symphony-- peepers, bell frogs, bird calls -- was scintillating.
 
 
It was also the liveliest camp socially, in large part due to the warmth and constant attention to detail of the couple who run it, Rebecca and Clinton. Often, Rebecca met groups when they returned from drives; Clinton quickly fixed a glitch in my outdoor shower. One very jolly dinner was held in a circular log stockade constructed in traditional form; inside, a bar, a communal dinner table and copious buffet, and a stomping, rocking group of welcome songs from the African staff kept us up late around the campfire.
 
 
As at other camps, guests were a mixture of Europeans and Americans. Among the 20 or so guests were four Belgians, a French father with teenage son; an Italian and several American couples. And there was at least one young honeymoon couple in each camp.
 
 
In addition to game drives, Jao offered boat trips. Moving silently, the narrow makoros, the traditional hollowed-out log boats poled by a standing oarsman, carried us into the mysterious, sinuous delta. We made our way in narrow channels through papyrus and thick reeds, opening into large pools studded with waterlilies. A thumbnail-size green painted reed frog clung to a reed, and a tiny brilliant malachite kingfisher flashed by. At sunset, we pulled up on shore near a huge baobab tree to observe the tradition faithfully followed at every camp, the sundowner. Out came the drinks kit, and shortly a cool vodka and tonic or a glass of good South African red wine was in hand as the sky lighted up and the reeds turned to bronze.
 
 
Just 10 miles away, but still requiring a flight, was Mombo Camp, less green than Jao but equally comfortable. The camp looks out on a large shallow lagoon, which animals sloshed across at all hours, particularly lechwe, a marsh-loving antelope, and elephant families.
 
 
One creature, the vervet monkey, was all too present; the monkeys had just learned how to unzip bungalow screens and had trashed three cabins.
 
Leaving Botswana for Zambia, we flew northeast, arriving directly over Victoria Falls before landing in Livingstone, just across the Zambezi from Victoria, which is on the Zimbabwe side. The river was so high that rafting was forbidden and the falls were only partly visible under a cloud of mist.
 
 
We were headed for the River Club, a delightful hideaway several miles outside Livingstone, run and co-owned by a paragon of English style, Peter Jones. The lovely small manor house, decorated with hunting prints and deeply comfortable furniture, is supplemented by 10 thatch-roofed, tent-sided bungalows high above the Zambezi. Simply but pleasantly furnished, they are completely open on the river side. To wake up looking directly out on the Zambezi, magnificent in its breadth here, was rivaled only by descending a short staircase to the open-air bathroom (the toilet was enclosed).
 
 
Lunch was pleasantly set up under the trees, then guests were free to swim in the pool or take the sunset cruise, as most of us did, seeing hippos and birds including the brilliant bee-eaters. Not a game lodge, the River Club offered a visit to a nearby village with traditional style huts, where we were able to meet Zambian children and talk with their teachers, as well as visits to the funky but interesting Livingstone Museum in town (now under renovation), and of course Victoria Falls. Under umbrellas and slickers in a drenching rain created by the torrent below, we inched along the slippery but well-fenced path on the Zambian side, as moved by the water's thunderous roar as the view, because only a portion of the cascade was visible through the mist.
 
 
When Peter Jones was in residence (one night of our two), the River Club was also host to passionate croquet matches.
 
 
Before leaving for our last stop, Chikwenya in northeastern Zimbabwe, I wanted to see the Victoria Falls Hotel, the grand 1904 hostelry on the Zimbabwe side of the river. We had already seen the blocks-long lines of cars waiting for gasoline in Livingstone, and an even clearer expression of the political turmoil in Zimbabwe was the near emptiness of the elegant and impeccably maintained hotel.
 
 
After meeting Bruce at the Victoria Falls airport, Dan and I were reassured by the long flight over Lake Kariba and hundreds of miles of bush: our Zimbabwean destination was truly remote.
 
 
Chikwenya is set in a valley of Eden-like beauty in Mana Pools National Park, a World Heritage Site. The Zambezi, much narrower here, is flanked by huge acacia trees, and game is plentiful, although the camp is known for its fishing. In style, Chikwenya is comfortable but rustic and plain; sadly but unsurprisingly, it was barely half full.
 
 
We joined an English angler, who comes here every year, on a morning fishing trip. He immediately caught three fish, including a fighting tiger fish the area is famous for; no one else had a nibble. Then to my astonishment a tiger fish grabbed my hook. I battled to reel it in, and succeeded, with the shouted encouragement of five males. What feelings of triumph!
 
 
On our final outing, we took a canoe trip downriver, carefully led by camp staff because of the hippos dotted around the water. A saddle-billed stork, baboons on the bank, egrets, all were at eye level, and as we paddled, the Zambezi was stained pink by a brilliant sunset. It was hard to imagine anything other than peace in this lovely corner of the world.
 

Revision as of 19:25, 20 December 2004

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