Okavango Delta, Botswana

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Okavango Delta, Botswana

The Okavango Delta is a birder’s and wildlife enthusiast’s paradise; it’s even better for the rider because not only do you have the unique environment, superb birdlife and abundant Big Game but there are absolutely no roads or traffic during this ride. It’s entirely off road, in the bush and splashing through the delta’s warm water.

BHS Okavango Delta ride

Riding with giraffe

BHS Okavango Delta ride. Ride through the Okavango Delta with the BHS

Day 1. Fri 5th July 2019
The flight departs from Heathrow in the early evening for Johannesburg.

Day 2. Sat 6th July
Touchdown in Jo’burg in the morning and head through “Transit” to board the flight to Maun, Botswana. Arrive Maun (pronounced to rhyme with ‘brown’) around lunchtime. We will be met upon arrival and driven out to Royal Tree Lodge, a dozen Km outside town.

This is a family-owned and managed lodge within its own private game reserve on the bank of the Thamalakane River. It is a stone’s throw from the Okavango Delta and Moremi National Park. Within the grounds of the estate is the stable block, home to the horses we will be riding. The country here is flat and semi-arid, but the presence of the Thamalakane and near-by Okavango Delta mean that the land is surprisingly green and there’s an abundance of wildlife including giraffe, zebra, springbok, ostrich, eland, gemsbok and kudu as well as an extensive variety of bird life. There are no predators within the reserve, so you are welcome to stroll around the grounds during the afternoon in anticipation of the game viewing that lies ahead. There is also the option to take one of the horses out for an hour or more. (Additional fee $55/hour paid locally). Accommodation is on a twin-share basis.

BHS Okavango Delta ride. Ride through the Okavango Delta with the BHS

The ride is guided by an armed ranger

Day 3. Sun 7th July
Breakfast at the lodge and pack your main bag which will be moved directly to tonight’s camp. Hang on to your camera, waterbottle and sun cream which will be carried in saddle-bags that each horse will have. We’ll set off promptly for the Buffalo Fence when everyone is ready. Anything not needed for the next few days in the Delta can be left behind at the lodge. The horses will have been moved to the Buffalo Fence the previous evening and left to settle. We’ll match horse to rider and when everyone is settled, cross through the fence and ride into the Delta.

For the next six days the itinerary is flexible: it depends upon animal movements and water levels within the Delta. The absolute beauty of this ride is that we have the professional competence of one of the best guides in the Delta combined with the strength of infrastructure to allow us to react to the actual situation on the ground and play the game in front of us. With this in mind, here’s what could happen ….

Once through the fence the land becomes more lush, but remains flat: this is a delta so the main river (150 Km NW of here) divides into ever-reducing channels that reach almost to the Buffalo Fence. At this point there are channels with water and dry land in between. If the flood is good in 2019 then water levels will be higher. There are islets all through this area that are slightly raised above the surrounding land and support larger trees. It’s upon one of these that the first camp will be established. If the 2019 flood is particularly poor then camp will be carried in on donkey-back; if it’s average or good, camp is transported in mokoros.

We’ll be in camp by 16:00 give-or-take, splashed, no doubt, but warm!

 Ride through the Okavango Delta with the BHS

Big Game – up close!

Day 4. Mon 8th July 2019
It’s impossible to say exactly where we’ll ride or exactly what we’ll see, so I’ll pick an animal a day to illustrate the possibilities: and let’s begin with a bird. This one’s a funny one because it’s an owl that lives on fish. Pel’s Fishing Owl is a big bird with ginger plumage and black spots – not a good colour pallet for a human, but pretty magnificent for an owl. And it’s big, just about the largest owl species in Africa; it’s also rare, shy and evasive but the Okavango is the best place in Africa to see one; they recon there are a couple of hundred pairs in the Delta.

It’s well worth bringing a pair of binoculars on this ride, but carry them in a waterproof bag inside your saddle bag.

We usually return to camp for lunch, but have the option to carry a packed lunch in saddle bags. Following the afternoon / evening ride we’ll return to camp for a second night.

Day 5. Tues 9th July 2019
The rhino’s tail is not a happy one. Well, it’s a disgraceful story of man’s greed, but with an improving outcome! Turn the clock back to 1992 and the stats said that black rhino were extinct in Bot’s and there were just 19 whites left in the entire country.

The Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project kicked into action and has reintroduced both white and black rhino into the Okavango Delta. In the last half dozen years private organisations such as Wilderness have joined the party http://www.wildernesstrust.com/portfolio/botswana-rhino-relocation-and-reintroduction/ and the future is looking pretty rosy. Poaching is still a major temptation for unscrupulous types so the current rhino population stats are withheld – a state secret no less! Blacks and whites are doing well and the anti-poaching patrols are well trained and well-armed; but isn’t it a shame they’re necessary.

Swapzies: to augment the number of blacks, Bot’s continues to swap sable antelope for rhinos from South Africa. Win-win!

The horses: some of the horses were born in the area, all have been brought up in the area. This means that the Okavango Delta is their backyard and splashing through water, encountering wildlife and coming across predators that could potential make a meal of a horse and all second nature to them. They are reliable horses, but given the above comments the rider also needs to be competent. They are mainly TB cross-breeds (providing hybrid vigour) and range from 15hh to 16hh. The tack is snaffle bit with McClellan saddles.

BHS Okavango Delta ride

BHS Okavango Delta ride

Day 6. Wed 10th July 2019
Today we may move camp, though this could have occurred yesterday! When camp is struck it’ll be announced the previous evening during the campfire briefing session. When we move you’ll need to pack all your belongings into your bag and leave your tent ship-shape. As soon as we set off for the morning ride the camp crew will drop the tents and pack everything into a flotilla of mokoros. They’ll make their way directly to the next islet, while we’ll take the day to reach the same destination via a circuitous network of game trails and watery channels.

The chances of seeing buffalo en masse and the lions that prey on them are good. But what I remember most from this part of the Okavango Delta is a battle royal between lions and hyenas for possession of a hippo carcass. In the end the lions won, by which time their faces were smothered with mud and blood so that when they lifted their heads to stare at me their pale eyes burnt through masks of black and red. Such are the unpredictable dramas and delights awaiting riders who visit the wild and watery theatre-in-the-round that is the Delta.

Day 7. Thur 11th July 2019
Let’s talk giraffe because 1. they are so graceful and 2. there’s nothing more thrilling than running alongside a cantering giraffe (which is a real possibility). There are nine sub-species of giraffe in Africa, some very rare, others recovering numbers and some relatively plentiful. In the Okavango Delta we are most likely to see the Southern or Cape giraffe, though the Angolan giraffe crosses over into this habitat. The name ‘giraffe’ comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘fast walker’ and they certainly can cover the ground. And they do it almost in slow motion: gracefulness personified.

BHS Okavango Delta ride

BHS Okavango Delta ride

Camp life: incredible meals are prepared by the experienced camp chef over a log fire each evening. Camp is extremely comfortable in lightweight tents with standing room, fully made up stretcher beds, bucket showers and short drop toilets. There are no vehicles involved in this ride from the point where we rendez-vous with the horses at the Buffalo Fence

A typical day will start with an early wake-up call and a light breakfast around the camp fire as the dawn breaks. Mount up and spend the morning on horseback following ancient elephant trails, seeking out wildlife, enjoying the prolific birdlife and cantering through the recently flooded plains. Herds of buffalo may be in the vicinity, giraffe may saunter by and red lechwe will splash through the water alongside you, whilst kudu peer out from the thickets.

Return to camp for lunch and siesta under the shade of the giant jackalberry and leadwood trees.

In the afternoon enjoy a gentle evening ride, appreciating the tranquillity of the Okavango, listening to the sounds of the bush and the snorting and splashing of your horse; dinner under the stars. Occasionally you (and the horses) may want a rest in which case you can take a peaceful journey in a mokoro, the traditional way of travelling in the Okavango. Or venture out on foot to look for the smaller creatures that inhabit the bush and learn some tracking skills before enjoying another fabulous African sunset.

N.B. In 2018 the flood was low and only just reached Maun by the first week of July. If this is repeated in 2019 some of the camps may use smaller tents because the large tents weight 20 Kg each which is too much for a donkey to shift.

Day 8. Fri 12th July 2019
Today we’d probably move camp for the third and final time. If we’re lucky, really lucky, we may see Wild Dog during our ride. They are certainly resident in the Delta and their numbers are growing. They are also known as Hunting Dog, or Painted Wolf (I’m convinced the last name was dreamed up by a committee trying to find a pc name). Botswana is home to around a third of the world’s remaining population of 5,000. They were once found in 39 countries in Africa, today, they are found in just 4: Zim’, Tanzania, Bot’s and South Africa. But it’s not all doom and gloom: their numbers have troughed-out and have been on the increase for the last decade. They are prodigious hunters and carry out their business in packs: not the fastest and not the most heavily armed predators, but they do possess amazing stamina and will sit on a prey’s trail for mile after mile, running them down till they drop from exhaustion. Harsh but effective.

They live in packs and only the alpha pair will breed, which restricts their capability to increase numbers, but means there are plenty of aunties and uncles to look after the pups. They have vast home ranges of up to 750 Km² and can travel 30 Km a day, which can make them tricky to follow.

BHS Okavango Delta ride

Cape buffalo encounter

Day 9. Sat 13th July 2019
Our last full day riding, so by now you’ll be fully tuned in to your horse and the tack which might have been a little unfamiliar at first. One of the main animal species not mentioned yet is the good old ele. We are virtually guaranteed to come across elephant at some stage: perhaps a female-led breeding herd, or a group of bachelors, but the Delta is absolutely perfect ele country, lush and green and heaps of water. Botswana as a whole is home to a fifth of Africa’s elephants, mostly in adjoining Chobe National Park but they are numerous in the Delta too.

The African elephant has never been domesticated to the same degree as the smaller and more mellow Asian elephant. There are a few examples of working Af ele’s, but they are few and far between. There used to be a camp (Abu’s) in the Delta where you could ride Af ele’s, but that’s now stopped on humanitarian grounds. You can still visit Abu’s but just to walk and interact with the ele’s, not ride them. There’s a similar project at Vic Falls and another in Zim. Perhaps the greatest African Elephant project took place in Zaire in the 1890’s and 1900’s: there’s a park there called Garamba and when Zaire was run by the Belgians, King Leopold sponsored a “catch from the wild” elephant programme. It was actually pretty successful and had about a dozen breeding females and 3 bull elephants. In the 1990’s is was possible to visit Garamba (between civil wars and state-sponsored genocides) and see the last three remaining cows, who must have been 60 or 70 years old at that time. It’s all gone now, but here’s a link https://www.africanparks.org/the-parks/garamba [The very excellent ‘African Parks’ is a management organisation that runs several African parks and has brought most of them back from the brink.] More specifically here’s the link to the ele project

Day 10. Sun 14th July 2019
Retrace our steps to the Buffalo Fence and rendez vous with the vehicle. Say goodbye to the horses and the wonderful support crew and drive back to Royal Tree Lodge. There will be an hour or so spare to wash-n-brush-up before our final dinner.

Day 11. Mon 15th July 2019
It’s not quite all over! There’s time this morning to visit the outstanding MAWS http://www.maunanimalwelfare.com and see some of the work they are carrying out with both domestic and wild animals. Incidentally, they are always looking for qualified volunteers, so if you know any vets who would like some overseas experience, here’s where to point them! Our guided visit will take a couple of hours, allowing time for some last minute shopping before heading back to the airport and boarding the flight for Johannesburg and Heathrow.

Day 12. Tues 16th July 2019
Arrive Heathrow in the morning.

BHS Okavango Delta ride

Mokoro fleet ready for action

BHS Okavango Delta ride. Ride through the Okavango Delta with the BHS

Staying on
Your time in the Delta is never enough! It’s an amazing habitat, or rather an amazing combination of habitats. If you can spare a bit more time then fly into the heart of the Delta where the permanent water is found and different species live, such as the sitatunga: a deer that dives. The first thing you notice about a sitatunga is the ‘bandit’s mask’ just below its eyes. The remarkable fact about this relatively unremarkable deer (in its appearance) is that it likes to be close to water, hence its nom-de-guerre ‘swamp deer’. Being close to water allows it to flee to a deeper channel if threatened and dive down leaving only nostrils and eyes protruding! A great strategy, so long as there are no crocs around.

To experience a different part of the Delta check out where we have whittled down the array of Delta camps to just 11 of the best. Further down that page you’ll find a weather guide to Botswana. And if you really want to get your head around the water dynamics of the Delta, here’s some bedtime reading

BHS Okavango Delta ride

Down time