The elephants are surrounding us. Every step we take, every new direction we choose, seems to take us further into their territory and closer to another elephant. It’s like we’re walking into a Wild West town and the elephants are trying to intimidate us. If it wasn’t for Tau, our experienced guide, it would all be a little frightening.
Tau calmly leads the way through the sparse bush with just a thin reed stick in his hand (the thinking is guns create a dangerous overconfidence) and occasionally stops to explain the flora and fauna around us. Half an hour after sunrise and the light is soft and the air cool. The wildlife seem to all be waking up together. Baboons shriek loudly in the marula trees like unruly children, barking warnings to their rivals. Little bee-eaters flit around us landing on nearby branches as if eavesdropping on Tau’s talk.
We’re in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the remotest and wildest places in the world, on a small three-km-wide island called Buffalo Island. It’s only the third day of my two-week jaunt through Botswana. As we walk deeper into the wilderness more elephants appear around every corner, quietly chomping on grass and staring at us. They all seem to be moving closer, like nosy neighbours trying to get a better look.
“We have to steer clear of them because they are young bulls and can be quite aggressive,” Tau warns with a smile. “Other than elephants, we often see buffalo and lion here. It’s… ” Tau stops talking abruptly as if his sentence has run flat into a wall. His eyes light up at something behind us, he turns and walks on, urging us to follow him. I look back and see two elephants standing at an acacia behind us, recently arrived. The sun is rising just behind them, forming halos above their heads.
Tau leads our group of six to a large termite mound where we stop for a moment and look around carefully. This is not the kind of place to be complacent. If anything were to happen now it would be a long way back to civilisation. The closest lodge, the stunning Camp Okavango, is a 25-minute boat ride through the wetlands of the Delta and roads are non-existent. For a long time, it was completely inaccessible due to the tsetse fly and the sleeping sickness it carried. Even then, the wetlands made it near impassable. Today, the tsetse fly is gone but it‘s still one of Africa’s last true wildernesses, a remote Eden like no other.
A fluke of nature
Botswana’s landscapes are notoriously inaccessible: the Kalahari Desert covers more than 70 percent of the country and the Okavango Delta – one of the world’s biggest wetlands – makes up another big portion of it. In fact, when Botswana gained independence in 1966 the country had just 12 km of tarred road – and it’s bigger than Spain! For those who have never been, it can be almost impossible to grasp just how vast and wild Botswana is.
Botswana’s landscape would have been unrecognisable from what it is today if not for one cataclysmic event: an earthquake 50,000 years ago. This shifted the land between Botswana and Namibia slightly, interrupting the flow of the Okavango River. For two million years, the Okavango River flowed through Botswana and drained into the massive Makgadikgadi Lake. The earthquake diverted the river’s course and sent it spilling out into the desert, forming the greatest natural oasis on earth: the Okavango Delta. This also cut off the water to the Makgadikgadi Lake thus drying it out over centuries to form the Makgadikgadi Pans today – Botswana’s other great wilderness.
“The Okavango Delta is a fluke of nature,” Paul Steyn, a National Geographic contributor writes, “an awkward geological twist of fate. The inundated area of the Okavango Delta fluctuates between 6,000 to 8,000 square kilometres every year, swelling to up to 15,000 during the flood. The swamps and floodplains have kept human development at bay, and the wildlife remains as wild as it was 10,000 years ago. More than 150,000 islands now dot the Delta, varying in size from several metres to larger than a big city.”
“Many of the islands in the Delta began as termite mounds,” Tau says, stabbing a mound with his thin walking stick when the sound of a nearby elephant interrupts him. The sound is alarmingly close. The loud crunching and breaking branches is coming from the other side of a large bush we are standing next to.
Tau pauses for a second and shoots his assistant guide, Stagga, a look urging him to find out about the noise, and continues on. “Birds would perch on the termite mounds and their droppings had seeds in them that would sprout trees. People like to complain about termites because they destroy houses and furniture but the Okavango Delta wouldn’t exist without them.”
Snap snap snap
Stagga is back, clicking his fingers loudly and pointing away from us. The urgency and look in his eyes mean one thing. Move!
We scurry off with a nervous giggle and walk away from the noise, retreating towards some bushes. As we breathe a collective sigh of relief, an elephant emerges out of the bushes we’re headed for. Tau sees it and stops. Now it’s his chance to smile nervously. He diverts us yet again.
The elephant capital of the world
Listen to the sound of Botswana's wilderness
A good illustration of Botswana’s pristine nature and thriving wildlife is that it’s the world’s elephant capital. “Botswana has about a third of Africa’s elephant population,” Tau explains, “And the neighbouring Chobe National Park holds about a third of that.”
The Chobe National Park borders the Okavango Delta to the northeast and leads onto the Chobe River. “In the dry season, Chobe has about sixty to seventy thousand elephants on a 50 km stretch of river,” Tau says. “It’s remarkable, you can see thousands of elephants in one afternoon interacting around your boat, swimming across the river with their trunks acting as snorkels.
“The reason for the large number of elephants is that Chobe acts as a sanctuary for them as Botswana is surrounded by countries where hunting and poaching have occurred in the past. Elephants are very smart and remember which places are safe. They’re almost like the refugees of the natural world because they’re not moving into areas they should be moving.” The Chobe riverfront was once only a part of a series of ancient elephant migration routes but civil war in Angola and the Namibian War of Independence saw elephants falling victim to poaching. Despite the unrest having eased, Botswana still acts as their haven.
Botswana’s staunch conservation policies have seen their wildlife thrive over the past century. It may have all started 50,00 years ago with a “fluke of nature”, but that shaking of the earth has been followed up by rock solid environmental policies ensuring that this unbelievable wilderness remains pristine and untouched for generations to come.
We eventually find a safe route out of the encircling elephants and a respite from the primal pressure. Our heartbeats slow and we are soon breathing normally again. Tau continues his guided walk. We see signs of elephant and buffalo in the bush and watch two female kudus appear nearby and linger for a moment. We marvel at the tell-tale green of a Meyer’s parrot that flashes above us in a tree, and then it’s time for us to leave. We make our retreat, zig-zagging past the elephants, back to the boats, and onto the next adventure in the wild heart of Africa.