Khwai, Okavango Delta, Botswana
When I was 18, I met some people in South Africa who’d just left the Okavango Delta; I can’t remember the details of what they said about it (leopard walked past their campfire? kayak past elephants?), but the way they talked about it stayed with me all these years. They were giddy about the Delta. So this trip to the watery wonderland was a long time coming. We spent most of our time in Khwai concession — Khwai is a small village on the east side of the Delta; Khwai is also the name of a river, and it’s also the name of a community-run concession (protected wilderness area). Moremi Game Reserve is in this area too, but we spent most of our time in the concession, where we had special moments with leopards, big herds of elephants, the incredibly rare African wild dogs, and so much more. We stayed at the remarkable Khwai Lediba, and had the fortune of being guided by Phefo, who grew up traversing the Delta in a mokoro with his dad.
Getting into Khwai is one of those travel experiences that can teleport you from any tiredness or jaded logistics numbness into intense excitement; as you fly over the Okavango delta, land becomes scarce and water abundant. On the right is the main road from Khwai to the nearest big city, Maun.
We spent an afternoon on a mokoro (canoe) in this lagoon. As the sun went down, we sat on the bank talking and drinking and enjoying the sounds of the wilderness. Then these elephants arrived for an evening drink. Then another herd, and another, and another. We could not have approached a breeding herd like this, but because they came to us, we could stay sitting, filled with awe.
Lions seemed to be abundant on this trip, but having looked up a thousand trees for the tell-tale leopard tail, and having seen leopard tracks half a dozen times, we still hadn’t seen a leopard. Phefo heard from another guide where one had been seen recently, so off we went, across plains, through trees, fording rivers. It was worth it; this leopard was relaxed, but active. Posing and soul gazing with us until it got embarrassing.
This was a truly fascinating moment. Lions and leopards don’t interact — they maintain their own territories. This leopard had killed an impala; the pride of lions above got wind of the kill, and chased the leopard off it; he escaped to these high branches, while the pride of lions circled beneath, taking their time with the impala as the leopard planned how to get away.
We looked for African wild dogs (’painted dogs’) for 10 days; we saw them as the sun went down on the 10th day. Some sources say there are only 1,400 left in the world while other sources say 6,000; driven to near-extinction by hunting and habitat degradation. When Phefo heard they were close, we had one of the more thrilling drives of our lives, finally finding 5 dogs waking up, playing, then setting off to hunt. They move very fast, in a jaunty, joyful fashion, and each has a unique coat. A blessing.
The lilac breasted roller. Quite delightful.
No way through. This pride were totally unmoved by the truck; they had better things to be doing. We turned around, being careful not to run over the lioness below, who was so nonplussed by the humans six feet from her that she wasn’t going to move a muscle.