The Ebb and Flow of the Okavango Delta
When the water in the Okavango Delta is high, it is an alluvial fan with marshy islands in the middle, and finger lakes extending far into northern Botswana. Day lilies dot the water, and mokolwane palms and papyrus reeds line the waterways. The reeds are gently swayed in the direction of the current, and cast a golden reflection on the water under the morning light. Crocodiles lurk in the lily pads, and the African Darter torpedoes through the water spearing fish.
However, in the dry season the Okavango Delta disappears. Not completely, but for hundreds of square kilometers its silent channels turn into an endless dusty riverbed. The receding water exposes the land between the islands, sprouting grasses and shrubs, which create new ecosystems. Thousands of animals move into the uncovered abyss, digging burrows, and marking territories, until the water pushes them out again.
Lost in the Dry Delta Abyss
The motion of the water molds the land underneath it; sculpting it with its currents. Each year, the water lifts like a theater curtain, revealing a slightly different landscape. A unique impression of the elemental forces that year.
All the maps we had just showed the delta during the wet season, not conveying the complexity of a shifting land through a static medium. The dry Okavango Delta is a place where you are lost by definition, as there are no known landmarks by which you could consider yourself found. We had a GPS for emergencies, but it just gave coordinates without context, a position in a void.
Camping on the edge of the dry waterways, we navigated a maze of deep sand tracks that we would have sunk down into if we had tried to stop to consult the map. Driving was fast, and navigation was frantic.
We popped out at Dead Tree Island, where tree trunk skeletons stand upright like tombstones, and predator sightings are frequent. This island is the farthest mapped area in the delta, and we found a track heading north into the area of the map covered in water. We followed it into the unknown.
Giving Directions to Nowhere
Honestly, the land does not look that different than the permanent dry land that has been mapped, but it feels different. Those who stood where you are the year before, did not see what you saw. This might be the only point in time where the sandy ridge in front of you exists, or the fallen tree lies where it does. The rising water sweeps the canvas clean every year, and this landscape will only exist in your memory next year.
We ran into a couple other South African explorers drinking beers in the middle of this nowhere. Then we came across two cheetah researchers, trying to find some painted dogs that were sighted in the region that morning. I asked where they were seen. They both shrugged and smiled, “in this uncharted abyss”. The only thing that is easy to find in an uncharted area is adventure.
Tent Tetris under the Night Sun
As the heat of the day dissipated, the delta dust danced in the breeze, painting the rising moon the same color as the setting sun. This night sun rose over the uncharted world as fireflies floated between the reeds, and ten thousand frogs repeated themselves endlessly in the darkness.
That night a great storm rolled in. It seemed like all the remaining water in the delta filled the air, making it as thick as cheddar cheese. Before the rains began the air hung still and buzzed with a chorus of mosquitos louder than anything I have ever heard outside of the Amazon basin. They entered through all the open seams in our heavy canvas tent feasting on us.
We melted next to each other, playing Tetris with our arms and legs in the small tent. Both trying to spread out in the heat, while avoiding the sweaty body next to us. We slapped at the mosquitos, cursed at the canvas, and slept very little.
An Explorer’s Paradise
It felt like a throwback to the discomforts of African exploration in the 19th century. A time when the world was rife with adventure, and but only a few were able to explore it. Now most of the world is charted by the masses that tour it, and only a few places like the Okavango Delta remain wild and unknown.
We left the delta knowing much of what we learned about it, would be undone with the coming rains. Our tyre tracks had mapped it no more than those the year before, which sat buried under the shifting sands. We understood the delta only in a brief glimpse of time, and we only ever will, regardless of the number of times we visit it.
That is fine, because the point of exploration is not always to map the unknown, sometimes it is just to be lost off the map for a while, and it is wonderful to know that the Okavango Delta will always be a place for this.
Author’s Note: The Okavango Delta is in the north of Botswana, and can be accessed through the Moremi Game Reserve. Visiting it on your own, takes careful preparation and experience driving in deep sand and mud. We rented all our gear from Tawana Self-Drive for this trip, and highly recommend their services. We camped at Xakanaka in the reserve, but I would also recommend looking at Third Bridge Campsite, as it appeared better maintained and is closer to Dead Tree Island. Leaving the reserve we also stayed at South Gate Campsite, which allowed us to spend more time exploring Xini Lagoon and Black Pools, but beware of mosquitos and camel spiders.
This article is part of a series of articles on Northern Botswana. You may also enjoy: