Okavango Delta (October 24 – 30, 2017)

The next part of our African adventure began when we flew from Kasane to Johannesburg to pick up our car for the next six weeks. After much research and speaking with people we decided to self drive through Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. We started looking into 4×4 rental companies in Kasane, Maun and even Windhoek. Though there are lots of options, most places did not have availability a week out and the ones who did were charging insane prices. We worked it out that it would be cheaper for us to pick-up and return an SUV in Joburg even if it meant flying there and buying the equipment we would need for camping.

After grabbing our whip for the next 6 weeks (a Toyota Fortuner) we headed to Premier Hotel OR Tambo to rest our weary heads for the night. Early the next day we set out to get our supplies, starting with Makro (SA’s version of Costco). We quickly filled 2 carts with a tent, mattresses, cooking equipment, a fuel container and any dry goods we thought would be cheaper there. We also went to their wine section and stocked up on 5 bottles (the allowance to cross into Botswana, though no one checked). After 2 hours the car was packed up and we went to pick up our rental fridge. I didn’t even know this was a thing (I’m learning lots about camping!) but we were soon outfitted with a little fridge/freezer unit that could sit in our trunk and plug into the socket back there. I was pretty impressed. Finally (on my request) we stopped at the Mall of Africa on our way out of town so I could pick up a few small things from H&M – I was getting pretty sick of wearing the same three outfits!

The drive to Gaborone was uneventful (which is exactly what we were after!). We took a main (paved) highway most of the way apart from 30 kms of dirt road that Google must have seen as a shortcut. We were surprised to see rolling hills and farmland, not unlike landscapes in Canada and Australia.

The border crossing was straightforward, apart from some confusion over where we should buy our vehicle permit to enter Botswana but a nice bus driver pointed us in the right direction and we were on our way. Hertz (the rental company we used) had provided us with all the documentation we needed to cross borders and they didn’t even check to see what we were taking out/ bringing in as we left South Africa for Botswana.

We stayed at The Capital Guesthouse in Gaborone and were ravenous by the time we arrived. It’s a small B&B and they were able to recommend a pub close by, so we headed there. The Bull & Bush appeared to be popular with locals and expats alike, and with giant portions of steak and ribs for nominal prices it was clear why. We hadn’t had a steak in ages so decided to split one with 2 beers to wash it down.

The following morning we stopped in town before heading off to Khama Rhino Sanctuary, our first camping spot. The Checkers in town had a great selection and we picked up meals for the next 3 nights and topped up our gas before leaving town. Similar to our drive the day before, we were on a main highway with a speed limit of 120 so we arrived at the sanctuary mid-afternoon. The camping there is very inexpensive ($34 USD per night incl. vehicle) and the park fees are very reasonable, especially for the wildlife you get to see ($7 USD pp)! Each campsite has its own water supply, campsite pit and braii (BBQ) area. They’re also quite secluded which was great as we felt like we had the place to ourselves despite there being other campers behind the tree line.

Once we were set up, we began a self drive through the park – of course the main goal being to see some rhinos. The map they gave us at the front desk showed 2 pans which they told us had the best wildlife viewing. We headed to the first and were instantly rewarded with our first rhino spotting. It was incredible! Soon after another approached and we sat there (the only car around) and watched for awhile before heading on. On our way to the next pan we drove by antelopes and giraffes; since it was our first self drive it was pretty thrilling to spot these animals! We came up to the second pan and saw a large group of rhinos including a few babies. It was amazing.

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James took his drone out for a quick flight, during which two German tourists came to reprimand us for flying in a national park and told us they would be reporting us (since it wasn’t a national park and there were no signs stating that drones were prohibited, there wasn’t actually anything they could do. And when the rangers came to chat with us at our campsite later and we assured them we meant no harm and did not go close to the animals, they were more interested in the specs and generally curious about how the drone worked). Once the drone was packed away and the Germans drove off we continued watching the rhinos in peace and quiet before retreating to our campsite for the night.

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Our last stop in Botswana was the Okavango Delta which was one of the main reasons we wanted to spend more time in Botswana beyond seeing Chobe. We opted to stay at The Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun as our base. They offer (cramped) cheap campsites and have a self-service kitchen area which came in handy for preparing our meals. The shared facilities were clean and the showers were hot with lots of water pressure so we were more than satisfied. And our campsite had a power point which meant we could plug our fridge in. Happy days!

We were thinking of doing a self drive safari the next day but after chatting to some people and realizing it would be 3 hours each way to anywhere worthwhile we decided against it; we’d been driving lots already and could use a day to catch up on emails and do more planning. We decided instead to go for a scenic flight over the Okavango which was incredible. And reasonably priced, if you get paired up with others. It was $150 USD for the two of us to take an hour long flight with 4 other people and we each had a window seat (compared to our $1000 hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti, we both found this more interesting and well worth the cost). It was incredible to see all the waterways of the Delta, as well as elephants, wildebeest, zebras, giraffes and more!

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We landed just as it started to rain and James and I hightailed it back to ‘The Bridge’ to ensure our tent was closed up and get started on dinner before it stormed even harder. We ate dinner in our car as it poured outside watching an episode of Fargo. Happily our tent was warm and dry when we crawled into it.

The next morning we packed up camp and got ready for our overnight mokoro trip; if you go to the Okavango Delta you’ll want to book one of these as it’s pretty quintessential to the area. We took a motorboat to the launching point of the mokoros and met our guide, Jerry, who we would be spending the next 2 days with. We hopped into the mokoro and were on our way. I was amazed at how calm and serene it was. James took the opportunity to ask Jerry about hippo encounters. You’ve got to love people from Africa, they really don’t sugarcoat anything! Jerry said ‘Oh yes, they can attack the boats. If you go over top of one they get quite angry and will come to the surface and knock the boat over. And I don’t know if you’ve seen their teeth? They can chop a boat in half in one bite. A person too!’ I half giggled until I realized he was dead serious. Thanks, Jerry. Couldn’t you have just said ‘They can get aggressive but it’s extremely rare – usually they will just swim away’? After that I was on the lookout for waves and bubbles, as Jerry told us they are a sign for a hippo below.

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After 2 hours we arrived at a shoreline and began a game walk. We spotted a large male elephant right away and safely made our way closer to him, careful not to startle or disturb him. Seeing an animal like that on foot is a completely different experience from being inside a truck! Jerry pointed out some native trees and as the temperature increased we took solace under the branches of some nearby trees and had our lunch.

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Shortly after we were back in the mokoro and on our way to camp. The wind had picked up, creating small waves in the water and I felt uneasy – how would I tell the difference between wind waves and hippo waves?! I was just thinking ‘I wonder what the protocol is if we are hit by a hippo?’ as a big wave came up about 10 feet in front of us and a hippo reared his head and grunted loudly. Jerry quickly steered the mokoro into the reeds and waited for the hippo to move along. My heart was pounding but it appeared we were safe, for the moment anyway.

We met Tour, Lee and Jacob who were the chef and camphands and took a siesta in the shade of our tent (which felt like a small house after 3 nights in our small tent!). Around 4:30 we left camp for an evening game walk which was spectacular. We came across zebra, antelope and wildebeest and were able to walk close up to them and just watch. On our way back to the boat, we saw a male elephant and took a few pictures, then it was time to head back to camp before dark.

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We had dinner by lamplight with Jerry and learned more about him and his family. His love for the outdoors and animals was palpable; he clearly loves what he does. We talked about our ‘close’ encounter earlier and James asked if he’d had many close calls in his 7 years as a guide. He told us the story of when he was with another couple and a hippo tipped their boat over! And he said that you can’t turn mokoros back over in water so they had to swim to the shore (with an angry hippo in the water) and pull the boat onto land before flipping it and getting back in. It of course made our experience seem like nothing (which I guess it was) but didn’t do anything to calm my nerves knowing we had to take a 2 hour ride back the following day. I put my trust in Jerry that he would get us there safe and sound.

We went to bed early and woke at 5:30am for another game walk. Unfortunately it was uneventful; the sky was cloudy and temperatures were cool so perhaps the animals were sleeping in (it was the weekend after all). But I was grateful for the exercise the 4 hour walk provided after much time spent in the car! Luckily we saw a group of elephants near our camp when we arrived, and we spent a few minutes watching them cool off in the water.

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We ate a hardy brunch back at the camp and soon headed back to the launch site (luckily without any hippo sightings). We spent our final night at The Old Bridge in one of their tented en-suites; we had an early start the next day and thought tearing down camp would slow us down. Plus, sleeping in an actual bed every once in awhile is pretty nice 🙂

We’d finished our time in Botswana and were heading to a new country – Namibia. As we drove to the border we reflected on what an amazing time we’d had; the people were warm and hospitable, we always felt safe and the roads were surprisingly good! We chatted about how it would make a good family vacation one day (I know our parents will have other thoughts as they read this! 😉). Either way, I think we will be back one day!

-Catie xx

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