African dreams and wild encounters in the Okavango Delta

Posted by Theresa Lozier on 4 July 2011

The ‘road’ to Moremi Reserve, part of the Okavango Delta, is more like a path stretching out into the wilderness. Alternating between patches of loose sand up to your calves, or innocent-looking clay-mud pools the height of your hips, the journey is not for the novice driver or anyone without an adequate 4×4. A snorkel is advised – on a few occasions you’ll have to cross something like a lake, but with the right ride, a couple of white knuckles and a determined face you’ll probably make it through.

When you’re not crossing lakes or dodging clay pools you’ll pass open fields of long golden grass and gnarled trees, some snapped at 90° angles by passing elephants whose tracks can be seen on the road. If you stop and watch for a while you might come upon a pack of them, sometimes up to 30 at once. Watch carefully as they emerge from the thick bush as if appearing from nowhere, stirring up the dust on their way to fresh water before vanishing again between the trees.

It’s odd to think of arriving someplace that’s still very much a part of the wilderness, but nevertheless, you will feel some sense of reassurance when the road ends at Xakanaka Camp. Surrounded by open fields and a few fallen trees, here you’ll enjoy your first marshy glimpses of the magical Okavango Delta. Visit the nearby boat station, run by locals living in army tents, who are more than happy to relieve you of $200 in exchange for a private sunset cruise. The price is steep, but hey – you’ve travelled this far and it’s the only way you’re going to really experience the dream of the Delta.

Once aboard your motor boat you can chill out for an hour-long ride, passing a few luxury camps with chalets and restaurants on the water’s edge. They all look amazing, like magazine spreads come to life. Their calm, dreamy vibe belies the wildlife lurking below the surface of the water. Hippos, while they may look like the laziest, fattest animals on the planet, are actually quite fast-moving and aggressive beasts when their territory is being intruded upon by something like a motor boat.

I learnt this firsthand when my driver stopped and idled the boat. The pause was long enough for me to start to wonder why, and luckily for me I instinctively grabbed on to the handrail. Before I knew it an angry male hippopotamus burst like a torpedo from the water, his giant mouth gaping, yellow teeth exposed, in full attack mode and moving fast toward boat! In an instant the wary driver pounced on the gas and jerked us out of there with such force I jolted backwards, nearly toppling into the water. Once the hippo was satisfied he had sufficiently warned us we calmed ourselves down to a panic and the driver explained that this particular hippo is known to take issue with the passing boats, harassing them and even biting holes in the hull. It would have been nice to be forewarned, but hey, at least my 200 bucks went to someone who knew what he was doing.

If you’re lucky enough to have a wild encounter like mine, I can assure you the rest of your cruise will be pretty relaxed as you take the rest of the time to stop off and inspect indigenous birds resting in the trees, and watch the sun start to set. As the day ends the reeds lining the delta turn a rich golden hue – a colour that can only exist in African dreams.