Botswana: Okavango Delta's not-so-wild life

Encountering cattle is not exactly what a traveller to Africa hopes for. Photo / Thinkstock
Encountering cattle is not exactly what a traveller to Africa hopes for. Photo / Thinkstock

In the Okavango Delta a cow can easily be mistaken for a lion.

Their caramel hides flicker behind tall yellow grass across the large inland delta in Botswana's north.

Tourists halt in their tracks and squint across the field.

A lioness perhaps? They wait eagerly for the guide to make a call. His eyes are glued to binoculars.

"Cow," he says, dashing hopes.

Encountering cattle is not exactly what a traveller to Africa hopes for, unless of course you come from a cattle-less country.

But for an Aussie or Kiwi crossing the Indian Ocean to the land of the big five, farm animals are not top of mind.

And these cows are farm animals. They've passed through broken fences and waded across a shallow tributary to feast on the grass that covers the islands of the Okavango.

It means, when exploring the banks of the delta, it could be more likely you'll see a herd of escaped cows than one of lions. But you could also expect to see plenty of zebras, which appear mythical in their stripey pyjamas, as well as warthogs and copious birdlife.

The spectacular Okavango is said to be home to more than 400 species of birds, including African spoonbills, giant kingfishers and flamingoes.

There are more than 120 species of mammals, according to the Botswana Tourism Organisation, and 70-odd varieties of fish.

The main attraction for many visitors is the potentially dangerous hippo and it's likely you'll meet one while plying the waters in a traditional mokoro (canoe).

Situated deep within the Kalahari Basin, the Okavango is a diverse ecosystem.

Trekking across the grasslands with a Motswana (local) is the best way to learn about the environment and the fauna that lives here.

Morgan, a local working for Australian adventure company Intrepid Travel, shows visitors various creatures on two-hour walks.

When a small leopard tortoise is spotted among bush he carefully lifts it from the ground. Immediately its head retreats inside its broken brown-spotted shell.

"This is from elephant," Morgan tells our curious group, pointing at the crushed carapace.

Fortunately the tortoise has survived the trampling.

The leopard tortoise, Morgan explains, is one of Africa's "small five". The others are the rhinoceros beetle, ant lion (an insect), elephant shrew (a tiny mammal) and the buffalo weaver bird.

Morgan continues through the scrub and the group trails closely.

A fish eagle glides overhead, followed by a spray of pink flamingoes.

Three grey warthogs with scraggly black manes scatter as we approach.

We trudge across marsh, stepping over piles of elephant dung. Our boot prints join the impressions of warthog hooves in the soft ground.

As the sun begins to fall our bush-bashing tour comes to an end and the group returns to camp. It's a camp that's as basic as they get.

We've pitched tents in spots barely cleared of vegetation, beside a rivulet of the delta.

The ground remains muddy from the morning's downpour but you don't visit the Okavango expecting to keep clean clothes.

The evening is spent huddled around a fire on small camp chairs carried in by mokoro.

When exhaustion descends on the group, one by one weary travellers drop off to bed.

They fall asleep listening to the sounds of the forest - birds in nearby trees, warthogs in burrows, and maybe even hippos leaving the water to feed on the expanses of grassland.

It's a risky venture, camping along the banks of the Okavango Delta. But if you leave your tent in the cover of darkness rest assured that it's not the hippo, rhino or lion you'll likely come face-to-face with.

It's the humble cow that will venture close to your camp and make you feel right at home on this vast African continent.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The Okavango Delta is in northern Botswana, which is in the south of Africa. Botswana's airports are in Gaborone, Francistown, Maun and Kasane. Intrepid Travel's Okavango Experience tour starts in Johannesburg and ends in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

STAYING THERE: Okavango Experience is a Basix tour, meaning budget accommodation (in this case, primarily camping) and optional activities. The tour is nine days and costs approximately A$1306 (conditions apply). For departure dates and details visit intrepidtravel.com.

PLAYING THERE: The currency in Botswana is the Pula (BWP) but US dollars can readily be changed at exchange bureaus and there are ATMs in larger towns. Currently, A$1 buys 8.49 BWP. Australian citizens do not need a visa to visit Botswana as a tourist for up to 90 days.

The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

- AAP

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