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Okavango Botswana

Okavango — a Garden of Eden

Botswana's Garden of Eden is the Okavango delta, a magical water world set in a lush environment. The crystalline waters spreading into flood plains, shallow reed beds, lily ponds and papyrus swamps are unique in Africa, and the world. The visitor can glide silently through the clear waters in mokoro canoes and watch the birds and the fish and the animals as they come down to the waters to drink. It is an experience which lifts the spirit and enlightens the heart.

Nowhere else in Africa is there another Okavango. It is a huge 15,000 sq km delta of crystalline water nestling in the wilderness. It is fed by the Okavango River, which rises in the Angolan highlands and surprisingly does not flow directly into the Atlantic but inland, southeast into Botswana. There it forms swamps, reed beds, streams, flood plains, islands and long stretches of cool, clear water.

Over the aeons the Okavango River has spread its rich sediment over a huge, almost flat area, in the shape of a giant panhandle. It now forms the world's largest inland delta, containing 95% of all Botswana's surface water. Around its perimeter are scattered the exclusive tourist lodges and camps, unlike any others in Africa.

Its water stretches out far over the plains. Most of the water evaporates slowly or melts into the sands of the Kalahari desert. But many waterways meander over the nearly flat surface until they slide through geological faults into the Thamalakane or Boteti rivers. Some water even passes into the Selinda spillway and the Linyanti swamps.

The huge expanses of tranquil, crystalline waters are unique in Africa. Visitors to the numerous lodges and camps can glide through the reeds and the water lilies in traditional mokoro canoes. Once they were carved out of a single mokoro tree but nowadays, in the interests of conservation, most are made of fibreglass. The mokoros glide through the lush scenery under bright blue skies.

The vast silence is broken only by the gentle splash of the polers and the scuffle of small creatures in the papyrus reeds. Tropical fish flash past in the clear waters to avoid the gleaming malachite kingfishers. Birds are everywhere from the majestic fish eagles, exotic herons, brightly coloured bee-eaters and even rarities like the slaty egrets and Pel's fishing owl.

Within this wilderness of contrasts, many of the areas in the delta are surprisingly dry. They sustain permanent populations of prolific game. Four-wheel drive vehicles can take visitors to see large herds of antelope, red lechwe, elephants and buffalos. Not far behind are their ubiquitous predators — lions, leopards and cheetahs.

Maun gateway to the Okavango
The gateway to the Okavango is Maun on the southern extremity of the delta. Maun means 'the place of the short reeds'. It was established as the capital of the Batawana people as long ago as 1915 when it became the local centre for administration, cattle ranching and game hunting. It soon acquired the reputation of a tough, rough frontier town, Africa's Wild West where men worked and played hard and killed game indiscriminately. Even today, as safari companies battle for the tourist trade, visitors drink in new macho bars like the Bull and Bush and the Power Station.

Maun is the operational centre for the safari companies that have business in the Okavango. The modern town has all the supplies and equipment for the intrepid traveller — stores and shopping centres selling fuel and provisions and restaurants and hotels providing a welcome break.

Riley's hotel is still the swishest joint in town. It was founded by Charles 'Harry' de Beauvoir Riley in the 1920s who established a bar for thirsty travellers arriving after a two-day trip from Francistown in the east of the country. The bar eventually became a hotel with luxury rooms and chalets set in the original gardens off the main street.

Moremi Game Reserve
In the 1960s hunters decimated the local game and drove some species near to extinction. This led the local Batswana people under the leadership of the wife of the late Chief Moremi III to set aside a huge part of the Okavango as the Moremi Game Reserve to protect their animals and the environment for the future. This enlightened, forward-looking policy led to a gift of land to the reserve in 1962 with more land dedicated in the l970s and the 1990s. Today the Moremi Reserve covers a third of the Okavango. It includes the Mopane Tongue, a dry peninsula that thrusts into the heart of the delta, and a patchwork of lagoons, flooded pans, plains and forests. The animals are relaxed and allow vehicles to approach closely. Many prime areas on the Mopane tongue can be visited on a mobile safari or a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

There are four public campsites within the reserve and many private lodges and campsites whose owners protect the animals and environment within their own concessions. On the Kwai River visitors can see huge herds of elephant coming to the waters to drink. The Xakanaxa lagoon at the tip of the Mopane tongue is incredibly beautiful where the forests meet a patchwork of waterways. Herds of antelope attract their main predators — lions, leopard and cheetahs. At the heart of Moremi is the Third Bridge public campsite, a small island among the thickets and plains. It is legendary for the large animals that wander through the camp at the dead of night scaring the campers and giving them a good story to tell the next day.

One of the most famous areas is the Mombo concession on Chief's Island where there are open grasslands dotted with date palms and acacia trees. Mombo is the site for many wildlife documentaries about wild dogs.

Most reserves around the delta have shallow flooded plains mixed with dry areas and woodland. Camps in these areas offer vehicle safaris and mokoro trips. Bird watching is superb with waders, kingfishers and darters in the waterways and huge eagles and other birds of prey flying above.

Both the Vumbura and Duba plains reserves on the northern side of the delta are administered by the Okavango Community Trust, which represents the local people who live on the fringes of the delta. They benefit from these camps through work and training as well as having a direct financial stake. The Okavango is a land of plenty, carefully managed and protected, dispensing its bounty to visitors and locals alike.
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