March 2, 2015
The Okavango, a World Heritage Site in southern Africa, is the world’s largest inland delta, an astonishing watery wilderness of labyrinthine channels and lagoons, grassy floodplains, palm-fringed islands, clear streams, and mopane forests. It’s been described as a water meadow, a sloshy, fertile original Eden that for aeons has served as a life-giving oasis for African wildlife.
It’s also here, in a country that’s 80% desert, that Botswana’s forward-looking government settled on a policy of low-impact tourism, restricting safari activity to quality-focused operators to ensure that the country’s most precious resource remains pristine.
Botswana’s Delta gives the landlocked country a dramatic advantage over many other safari destinations. In flood, it’s a kind of miracle, bestowing the region a mercurial quality that makes it perhaps the finest place on earth to view wildlife. After the summer rains, the delta is ravaged by waters that come streaming in from Angola in the north, transforming the floodplains into a soaked paradise that closely resembles most mythical notions of a land before time, sodden and teeming with life.
Arrive at the start of the season, and you can literally watch as it fills with water, typically reaching its zenith from May through September, when many of the floodplains are full, comprising a vast network of navigable, island-dotted channels that make for compelling game-viewing. Experts lead game drives and guided walks across the dry bits, and it’s possible to float through the reed-clogged waterways in traditional mokoro dugout canoes, deftly avoiding crocodiles and hippos, while viewing predators and antelope and other beasts from the relative safety of the water.
All of this is accessible via regularly scheduled plane rides from Johannesburg, touching down in the small, dusty frontier town of Maun, at the Delta’s southern end. From here, scheduled and chartered light aircraft zip across to bumpy little airstrips scattered throughout the Okavango Delta. True adventure-seekers fly in the direction of Okavango Horse Safaris, a much-lauded eco-savvy operation situated within a 2,500 square kilometre private concession in the western Delta bordering Moremi Game Reserve.
Here, as much as there are game drives and mokoro rides, guests spend as many as 10 days exploring this immaculate world on horseback. Unencumbered by combustion engines or mechanical whirrs, riding safaris offer an incredible way to combine game viewing with a genuine sensation of staying active rather than being passively driven around.
Each day, groups of no more than six riders spend up to six hours in the saddle, commencing at the crack of dawn while temperatures remain bearable for the horses. Led by riding experts under the aegis of PJ and Barney Bestelink, you ride deep into the wetlands, the horses wading from island to island where the ground is sufficiently firm to pick up pace.
And as walk turns to trot and that in turn builds to a canter, the breeze you feel whipping through your hair makes you feel as if you’ve reconnected with the very rhythm of life. Once in the saddle and comfortable with your environment, there’s the chance to canter across the plains with herds of zebra or giraffe, splash through the lagoons, tiptoe around hippos and crocs, and stride alongside water-loving lechwe antelope. You might track elephants, rhino, and buffalo, and perhaps witness endangered wild dogs on the hunt, listening out for the call of lions and the maniacal laughter of hyenas.
You’ll spend mornings in the saddle, and in the afternoons mix up your experience with game drives, bush walks, and trips in those mokoros that bring another kind of romance to the Okavango, keeping the whole adventure varied and interesting. Night drives, too, enable you to witness nocturnal creatures, such as aardwolf, aardvark, porcupine, civet, genet, and serval.
There are predators and other dangerous animals, too, of course. Which means riders need to be sufficiently saddle fit to be able to ride – at pace – out of harm’s way. You overnight in different camps, starting with Kujwana Camp with its spacious en suite safari-style tents, and then move on to Mokolwane, where you sleep in “˜treehouses’ some 2m off the ground. Some nights are spent at mobile fly camps, where the spacious Meru tents demand a tiny degree of “˜roughing it’ in camp beds, with bucket showers and bush toilets. The whole experience gives you a taste of classic, classy safari without ostentatious luxury – the focus is on the riding and the interaction with Nature. You’ll hear the endless bush symphony through the walls of your tent at night and wake knowing that you’ve slept in close proximity to the Eden you came all this way to experience.
If you’re looking for an alternative riding safari experience in Botswana, another excellent operator is African Horseback Safaris, located within the scenic Abu Concession and based at top-notch Macatoo Camp, a highly desirable and prestigious property with vintage Africa-style tents, located on the western side of the Okavango Delta. With over 40 horses and a choice of English or trail saddles, this is another great choice for riders looking to experience what has often been hailed as the Holy Grail of horseback rides.
When planning a trip to this part of the world – whether you’re intending to see it from the saddle or settling on a more traditional safari – it’s worth bearing in mind that Victoria Falls, another of Earth’s great wet wonders, is close to the Botswana border in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Scheduled flights from Maun, as well as charter services directly from your camp in the Okavango Delta, can connect you to the Falls, flying to either Victoria Falls (in Zimbabwe) or Livingstone (in Zambia). Many visitors find visiting the Falls a tranquil, relatively effortless, experience after the endless exhilaration and adventure of a full-blown safari.
Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to South Africa from London Heathrow. Book your flight to Johannesburg today.
Have you visited the Okavango Delta? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain