The flight departing from the region of Savuti which the BBC made known for documentaries about its elephant-eating lions only lasted 35 minutes.
It was enough to reveal to us the arid expanse of the Kalahari, dotted with thorny bushes, crisscrossed by long winding roads of dirt more sandy than beaten.
From the altitude at which we traveled, we perceived, in a geological and panoramic way, the importance of water for that region.
In the image of the flow of the Solimões river that runs side by side with the Amazon river kilometers on end, both incompatible due to their different compositions and densities, seen from the air, immense extensions of the terrestrial surface there were opposed by different degrees of humidity.
Yellowish-green against an apparently more dusty brownish defined differing amounts of groundwater.
From time to time, whatever kind of soil it was, we saw distant herds of elephants drinking and wallowing in pools lost in nothingness.
These were the gas stations that allowed pachyderms and other species to survive the long migration to the southeast, where a much greener and more stable domain was hidden.
From the Cubango River in Angola to the Okavango River that floods the Kalahari
When born in the Tchikala-Tchohanga municipality of Huambo, the Okavango is called Cubango. From there, it flows through the provinces of Bié, Huila and Cuando-Cubango and then through the Namibian strip of Caprivi.
Just before entering northwestern Botswana, on the verge of Popa Falls, the river accelerates its course. In the vicinity of a village named Shakawe, its waters disperse.
They are held back by the sands of the Kalahari Desert and dry air above. 95% of Botswana's fresh water is accounted for in this fluvial rambling alone.
While the plane makes its way to the aerodrome, we unravel the river's capricious meanders, drawn in low vegetation.
We land on the grass runway of the Moremi Animal Reserve.
Soft Landing in the Heart of the Okavango Delta
This is the name of the only officially delimited section of the Okavango Delta (in 1963) to allow for the preservation of wildlife that poaching caused to decline.
Native rangers welcome you with a warm welcome. Then they take us to a jetty near the aerodrome. We climb aboard a small metal boat with a canvas roof. Then we set sail for the Xugana lagoon.
The trip is little owed to the best action scenes from the Jamesbondian classics.
For forty minutes, we snaked at high speed, through channels with ocher or champagne-colored water, bordered by papyrus, sometimes more than two meters high.
These channels widen and narrow more or less randomly. Here and there, they tighten so much that the canes invade the boats and arrest us with vegetable snaps.
In its immensity, the Okavango Delta reveals contrasting views and, at almost 16.000 km2, houses the most diverse habitats.
Large swaths of dry land emerge from the midst of endless wetlands. They are mopane forests and thorny shrubs, dry savanna, grasslands, floodplains, a labyrinth of swamps, canals and huge lakes.
Seen from space, the Okavango Delta looks like a bird's footprint.
Papyrus is one of the two plant species that predominate in its perennial swamps, one of which provides the most useful records of its oscillations.
The other, the Phoenix or dwarf palm, prevails on the many islands in the region.
The Great Lagoons that Intersperse the Navigation through the Channels
When we least expect it, the vessel reenters such open lakes, covered with water lilies and shared by about thirty-five million fish of eighty species, by Nile crocodiles, by hippos, marabouts, loons, ibises and a myriad of others reptiles and birds.
Crocodiles and hippos are the kings and lords of the Okavango Delta. So dangerous that the Bayei – one of the five ethnic groups of natives who inhabit it – teach a kind of preventive poem to their children:
“I am the river. My surface gives us life. Underneath is death."
The impressive and lush liquidity of the scenery is fed in an intangible or localized way.
The delta may lack rainfall for months on end. However, heavy rains in the highlands (1780m) of the Angolan Bié Plateau – more than 800 km to the northwest – generate a kind of slow motion downpour.
The surface of these inland parts of Africa is so flat that it can take more than three months for flooding to be felt at the delta entrance. With the approximately 800 km that the new water travels from Angola, it still has four months for it to cross the 240 km of extension of the great wetland of Botswana.
Upon reaching the vicinity of Shakawe, the Delta increases substantially. From then onwards, the slow flood moves on several fronts, through the six toes of the paw that the satellites register.
The deepest and most diverse habitats reside in the “leg” of almost 100 km. There, the flood reaches its peak in April, when the river level rises by almost two meters.
In May, the depth starts to decrease.
The Find That Left Missionary David Livingstone in Disbelief
Will have been the explorer and missionary David Livingstone the first European to hit the Okavango Delta.
The Scotsman found it in 1849. At that time, the flow flowed differently from today, no less mysterious.
“Water cannot run backwards or upwards,” Livingstone retorted to fellow discoverers at the time, Swedish naturalist Charles Andersson.
Both were astonished at the channels that now flowed at great speed and now stopped flowing. Or that they even reversed its meaning.
Livingstone asked Bayei natives to explain the phenomenon to him. They told him what they knew: every year a leader from the north of their territory, named Mazzekiva, killed a man and threw his body into the river. After that, the water flowed south.
It is unlikely that the adventurer would have been satisfied with such clarification.
Long after Livingstone, an Ecological Tourism Always in Vogue
Livingstone opened the way for a flood of visitors who, from the second half of the XNUMXth century onwards, were dazzled by one of the most fascinating scenarios in Africa.
In our day, the Okavango Delta has been protected by the standards of the Ramsar Convention that safeguard the preservation of the wetlands of the world.
Even if the origin and substantial part of the Okavango River is in Angola and Namibia, where it does not enjoy the same care as in Botswana, Botswana has only benefited.
In this young nation, only the prolific reserves of diamonds guarantee more foreign exchange than tourism in the Okavango Delta.
The tourist income comes from operating licenses and taxation of sophisticated and expensive ecolodges installed in strategic places. Several are managed by South African owners, more experienced in the craft.
Xugana. Another of the Okavango Delta Privileged EcoLodges
The Xugana we installed ourselves in was one of them.
Camouflaged by dense vegetation, crowned by majestic trees, it had, among others, the gift of absolute symbiosis with the surrounding nature.
Jumped, swam, crawled and fluttered, squirrels and a myriad of colorful birds and insects, reptiles and amphibians.
As is often the case in Botswana and other lodges that were left behind, the Xugana remained open to the local fauna.
At night, to the delight of guests who are more enthusiastic about the realism of nature in the area, larger species, including the furtive leopards, visit it.
Once installed, we rested until around four in the afternoon.
At the end of the day, we still took a boat to the delta again.
The incursion aims to explore the scenery and fauna of other islands, also from mokoro, the region's traditional canoe, made from a single hollowed out trunk.
But the mokoro were too narrow and unstable. Bearing in mind that we could hardly resist shooting standing up, they represented a serious risk for the cameras we were carrying.
The Wild and Intimidating Majesty of Africa
So, we chose to start from the outside.
By first evaluating and recording the action from the margin. When we separate from the rest of the entourage, one of the guides leaves us with only one piece of advice: "If any animal appears, jump into the box of the van."
Alone, faced with the vastness of the delta, we feel the overwhelming magnificence of Africa as never before.
The blue and lavender clouds discharging in the distance, the gigantic acacia trees that stood out against the heavy sky, and the wind that hissed through the papyrus forest, gave us an unpleasant sense of vulnerability.
In addition to the hippos and crocodiles that we've known rarely attack far from the soggy shores, the Okavango Delta is home to a bountiful population of the most capable terrestrial predators.
Lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and wild boars were just a few of the species that we would have, in vain, to defend ourselves against should anything go wrong.
Around 60.000 elephants roamed around it – one of the largest herds in the world – and thousands of fractious buffaloes.
We survived the lonely wait and the journey of mokoro between hippos and sneaky crocodiles.
On the way back, we witness a splendid sunset, ripped by hundreds of birds. We saw it, adorned by a gray and grainy stain, drawn by the fall of the Pula, the Botswana rain.
So valuable that it denominates the nation's national currency.