We always knew that as we got closer to South Africa, we’d probably get a bad case of ‘berg pony’. This phenomenon, to which we were first introduced by our very good friend Arthur (who has helped us with this website – thanks Arth!), basically describes that onwards and upwards feeling that you get when you’re almost home, but not quite. The name derives from those little ponies which one is so often issued with in the Drakensberg (a wonderful area of really rather large mountains in South Africa). They never like to leave home and go on the mountain treks for which they’re hired out, but are always keen as anything to get back, so tend to speed up as they get closer to home – sometimes losing a rider or two in the process!
Anyway, we were conscious of this when we sat down to revisit our schedule and make plans to enter our penultimate country: Botswana. We knew that we were a bit ahead of schedule, and so could spare a couple of days extra time here. Our key site of interest was, not surprisingly, the Okavango delta. The world’s largest inland delta, it covers a huge area – some 6000 square miles. It is one of those places that you see featured in BBC nature documentaries or National Geographic films and think to yourself ‘I must go there one day’. So, we did.
The ride there was all on tarmac, which meant we completed it at speed, except for the part where we rode through a terrific thunderstorm. The raindrops were so huge, and hit with such force, that I wondered if it was hailing. Fortunately, we could see it coming a mile off, so had managed to jump off the bikes and don our boil-in-the-bag rain suits. We rode through, arriving in Maun, the main town just south of the delta from which most safaris and related activities in the swamps are launched. As with the Tanzaninan town of Arusha, Maun felt very much like a launchpad – a place through experience-seeking tourists expectantly pass on their way to a vast African wilderness, little noticing the vast infrastructure and teams of people who exist there permanently in order to make their dream a fleeting reality.
Our chosen accommodation, Audi camp, was a few clicks on the other side of town. We seemed to be the only people there when we arrived, but it soon filled up with families on holiday from neighbouring South Africa. We staked our claim to a sandy patch of ground, and began investigating how we might get a dose of the Okavango delta. After much consideration of the rather hefty prices, and having then been told that the camp itself couldn’t organise anything with their concessionary area so late in the day anyway, we decided to try and organise our own Mokoro ride in the morning. Mokoros are traditional dugout canoes, and are a good way to visit the delta.
The following morning we donned our biking gear and headed north for the gate of the nearby Moremi Game Reserve where we’d been told we’d probably be able to organise a Mokoro. I’m not sure who gave us this advice, but it meant we took a 3 hour ride on sandy roads (and by now you know how I feel about these) past skittish giraffe, zebra and brown kites, only to discover that (a) there was no way we could get into the park, (b) there was no way we could organise a Mokoro ride from there and (c) there was no way we could even use the toilets, as there was ‘no water’ – this in a place that floods every year! I was not best pleased, but we made the best of a bad situation by taking some nice off-roading pictures of ourselves, something we’d neglected to do most of the way ‘cos we’d been concentrating too hard on our riding! I can’t complain too much about the road, as it did actually have a good base, so despite the sand the riding was not too difficult and we returned to base a bit deflated from our abortive mission but equally pleased to have the chance for a swim and a cool down before deciding on our next plan of action.
Quietly, and without consultation, I decided to investigate scenic flights over the delta instead. This, I figured, would probably be more expensive, but it would mean that we could see it from the air – something we’d been told was just wonderful, and worth the expenditure. It would also mean you weren’t mosquito food either! So, while Glyn tinkered with the bikes (removing another nail, again without bursting the inner tube), I toddled off to see if I could get some info on the internet about flights. Two hours later, and we’d not only booked a flight for the next morning, but we’d managed to share the costs with a new arrival in camp – Brian, from San Fransisco. A backpacker, travelling north, Brian was keen as we were to see the delta; and because the flight I’d found was in a 3 seater it all worked out just brilliantly.
Next morning we were up early to pack everything away and get to the airport by 7:30, which was half an hour before our departure. However, as the clock ticked its way past 7:30, then 7:45 and then 8:00 we realised that there was a problem. Sure enough, our pilot hadn’t been informed of his new plans! However, as Brian said, this is Africa, so we weren’t too worried, and within 10 minutes another of the pilots had organised things so that he could take us up for the hour-long flight. I’ve never been in such a small plane. Glyn compared it to riding in a VW beetle, which is a very apt description indeed. We took off from Maun’s airstrip, and were soon coasting above the many islands, lagoons and sandy channels that make up the delta. I was, I will admit, expecting to see more water than we did; but I shouldn’t have done, as it wasn’t the rainy season yet (that’s around April time). However, it was just splendid to get a bird’s eye view of the swamps. Indeed, once or twice I found myself looking down on the back of a kite or an eagle, which was a very peculiar sensation. We saw quite a bit from the air too, including giraffe, zebra, buffalo and some elephant herds, including babies.
We both commented on how surprised we were to see quite so many palm trees below us. It was really rather odd, having ridden through areas of thick thorn trees to get here, to now see lush vegetation flourishing beneath us. As we touched down, I felt that warm glow that you get from enjoying an experience and being glad you’ve had it. I am incredibly pleased to now have a mental image or two of the delta and what it looks like.