Despite the dry Kalahari desert, Botswana is one of the most fertile countries in Africa. This is mainly due to magical rivers such as the Chobe, Linyanti and Zambezi and the unique wet landscape of the famous Okavango delta. This combination results in a rich ecosystem, in which nature uses its own ‘water engineers’.
Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Henk Bothof
A few meters from our safari tent, I hold my breath. Leaves rustle and branches break. Suddenly I see a big grey skin. I’ve never seen them so close before. Manager Anneri of the really beautiful and completely self-sufficient Wilderness DumaTau Camp, hasn’t said that we should be on our guard, or we’re already staring straight into the eyes of an elephant. The animal flaps its ears. Not because it feels threatened, but to regulate its moisture and temperature. “You should never turn around and run away when you see an elephant, because then he will come after you. Always let the animal pass by first. Or as now, we just have to wait until he’s finished nibbling. Because as long as he keeps chewing on grass, there’s nothing wrong”, says Anneri calmly. We wait a few minutes for the elephant to turn around. But that doesn’t happen. Anneri chuckles and finally she claps her hands. She doesn’t like to chase away animals, because we are guests in their environment. But the safety of the guests is paramount. With some reluctance the animal disappears into the bushes and eats its lunch a little further on. The adrenaline slowly slides out of my body. Soon it turns out that this is one of the many grey colossus that we can admire up close. And there are many of them at the same time. A day later, for example, an impressive bull wanders around the reception and during a delicious boat lunch where we float along the Savute canal, we have to wait with mooring. An elephant swims along the quay and decides to go ashore right at the back of the luxury camp. DumaTau ontleent zijn naam dan wel aan ‘de brul van de leeuw’, maar het zijn in dit gebied zonder twijfel de grote kuddes olifanten die hier de dienst uitmaken.
These large ‘parades’ are not only to be found in this area, on the edge of the Linyanti swamp and the Ospray Lagoon. They are mainly found in and around the waters of the major rivers such as the adjacent Chobe and Kwando, the famous Okavango Delta and the extensive Chobe National Park. In addition to elephants, these watery ecosystems are also bursting with hippos, many bird species, crocodiles, antelopes, cat-like species and other wildlife that migrate to the water to drink. We are located in the untouched Africa of North Botswana. Where water systems can still flow largely unaffected and freely and where the diverse ecosystem not only depends on this rich area, but also makes an important contribution to its future.
Complex as a whole
The rich water and river systems of North Botswana are closely interlinked, as well as with neighbouring countries. As a result, it forms a complex whole, with rivers flowing into each other and bearing a different name. The Savute canal starts in the Linyanti concession and ends in the Savuti marsh, which borders Chobe National Park. These are protected areas. The Linyanti concession covers an enormous area of 125,000 hectares and is supervised by Wilderness Safaris and its Wilderness Wildlife Trust. Wilderness Safaris is a large tour operator within Southern Africa and only has its own concessions. In Linyanti they have two other small-scale lodges besides DumaTau. The organization has been in existence for more than 35 years and presents excellent eco-safaris in the high segment. (See box).
Background Wilderness Safaris
Wilderness Safaris is one of the few organizations in Botswana that has the means to rent or lease a number of concessions from the government. The exclusivity is not only in the really beautifully decorated, luxurious tents and lodges, which are often equipped with natural materials and perfectly fit in with the vast landscape. It’s all about the overall picture. The location at the waterfront is breathtaking at all four camps we visited –Toka Leya (Zambia), DumaTau, Quoroke and Vumbura Plains-. The friendliness, service and knowledge of the local staff deserves a compliment. The healthy local products are a party and finally the daily activities are varied and the knowledge of the rangers is always astonishing. In order to minimise the impact of tourism, Wilderness only uses solar panels, which also heat its own purified water. This water comes from the rivers and the swamp. To this end, Wilderness employs managers who apply as clean ecosystems as possible.
The cars and their own planes do have an impact, of course, but they are necessary to get around in this country. Wilderness compensates their CO2 emissions by planting new forests. Furthermore, with their impressive contributions from the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, which has been in existence since the end of the 1980s, they want to make the difference in sustainable tourism. The trust focuses on nature conservation, research, education, running their own anti-poaching management and supports and involves local communities in their projects. There are dozens of projects that the Trust makes possible. But the relationship is symbiotic: without tourism there is no trust and therefore no conservation. But the relationship is symbiotic: without tourism there is no trust and therefore no conservation. Finally, the non-profit organization Children in the Wilderness has an important role to play, with a focus on various educational projects.
More information: wilderness-safaris.com
The Savute water comes from the Kwando-Linyanti river. This river originates in the highlands of Angola and undergoes several name changes on this route before forming a delta-law country on the border with Botswana and Namibia. To keep it ‘clear’: the Kwando River touches the Linyanti fault line and changes direction into the Linyanti River. Linyanti then turns into Chobe, which in turn flows into the Zambezi River near Kasane. Then there is the Selinda Canal, which connects the Okavango system with the Kwando-Linyantis system. In the event of a flooding of the systems, water enters the other network via the Selinda canal. And so all the veins are interconnected again.
The fault lines and shifts of the rivers are clearly visible from the air, so that the change of vegetation (river, swamp, grassland, forest and savannah) also complement each other. Due to the intense presence of all this water, the game thrives in this part of Botswana. And the marshy areas are unsuitable and too remote for settlements. A positive result is that the game has more living space and is less threatened, especially in protected concessions such as Wilderness.
Back to Linyanti. This fairy-tale area of 28,000 m2, situated at the edge of the fertile Okavango oasis, forms a dynamic color palette, with spectacular views over the lively water landscape. There is always movement. During several game drives we see elephants cooling down in the swamps and river. They splash and spray water with their trunks on top of each other, as if they shower together. The grey skins like to swim between a bed of white water lilies, which sparkles in the rising heat. Occasionally a few hippos take a beating. Like a submarine, they appear on the surface, keep a close eye on everything with its strong smell, only to disappear under water again a little later. Gallant and agile impalas spread in small groups in the high reed while jumping. They also seek shelter and refreshment, unaware that there may be a crocodile lurking. Or a leopard, because this devious cat can sneak silently around shallow water. We are very lucky, because a two year old male has been spotted, who is working away an old bite in a tree. The beautiful animal is luckily not impressed by our 4×4 jeep, and is slowly moving after his breakfast. The solitary leopard wanders in its dead field through the high grass and walks over a wooden bridge that the jeeps can cross. The cat screens the swamp for prey with his sharp vision. There is not much to see. On the other side he marks out his territory by a tree, and then, by a small detour through the forest, arrives at an open water spot again. Rttttssshhhh… Despite its speed, the beaten leopard sees its next bite – a lizard – shooting into the water. There is always boss above boss. The cat gives up and disappears into the bushes in search of cooling. I dare to breathe again, what a privilege to be able to follow this animal in this untouched nature.
We move on to the southeast of the Okavango Delta, to Qorokwe, a camp that lies under the vast Moremi Game Reserve. From the air the total area of roughly 15,000 km2, filled with canals, lagoons, swamps, reed collars and islets looks spectacular. Nowhere are asphalt roads, no electricity poles, no light pollution. Nothing but wilderness, in which earthly colours alternate. I feel very insignificant in this great country, but also happy: that I can enjoy this geological miracle.
The world’s largest inland delta, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, borders the Kalahari Desert to the northwest. The original water source can be found some 1600 kilometers upstream in the Angolan highlands. From here, countless streams and smaller rivers in the catchment area of the two main tributaries of the Okavango – the Cubango and Cuito – are fed by summer rains that fall between October and April. Between December and March the rain peak occurs, allowing the water level to rise up to two meters and the delta to expand. In the dry season, the marshland landscape decreases. However, the delta is supplied with water throughout the year, so that the migration of animals to this area is high.
Due to weaknesses in the earth’s crust, formed by tectonic shifts along the Eastern African Rift Valley, the Okavango River was split millions of years ago from the Kwando and the Zambezi and therefore does not flow to the sea anywhere. Instead, the water disappears into the desolate Kalahari Desert after its fanning out. The current funnel-shaped delta was created as a result of a series of fault lines and a tectonic impoundment, such as near the town of Maun, where the watercourse was closed off. It can take four to six months for the water to flow through a large estuary throughout the delta, feeding the seasonal marshes.
Zambezi & Vic Falls
A visit to the north of Botswana can easily be combined with a trip to neighbouring Zambia. The beautifully situated Toka Leya camp of Wilderness Safaris lies directly on the mighty Zambezi river. After the Nile, the Congo and the Niger, this is Africa’s longest river with 2574 kilometers. It is also the longest eastern flowing river on the continent; it roars from top to bottom, which is unusual. The water violence flows from the source of Northwest Zambia through six countries and flows into the Indian Ocean. The river is still intact almost everywhere, but some places are under pressure due to the construction of new dams and hydroelectric power plants. An important junction is the connection with the famous Victoria Falls at the four-country point of Livingstone, which connects Zambia to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The original name of the Victoria Falls was given by the locals and is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means thunderous smoke. It was the famous missionary and explorer David Livingstone who, in 1855, walked the Zambezi River on foot and by canoe and stumbled upon the mighty waterfalls. The Vic Falls with their five connecting waterfalls are the largest in the world. The cascade is 1700 meters wide and can be visited in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Because it is a tourist attraction, it would be a good idea to visit the waterfalls early – before nine o’clock. Then you can walk around in peace and quiet and let yourself be literally rained by the upward-spraying water violence. And yes, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World that you must have seen once. Including rainbows and possible water activities.
Opinions are divided as to the extent to which the delta has changed in recent decades. Ecologist Robert Taylor specializes in wetland studies and is a botanist. He has been working for five years on various projects within Wilderness, such as a successful rhino reintegration project. Taylor indicates that the delta has largely retained its authenticity. A visible change is that the clear water becomes darker. This may be due to the increasing number of forest fires, where peat, for example, ends up in the water and attacks the soil and plants. “There is much debate among researchers about the extent to which the delta is formed from fire; that it is part of the natural balance. Others claim that increasing fires have a negative impact on water and that this is a development of recent years. In my opinion, too little research has been done into the impact of fire on the delta’s ecosystem. In addition, 50 years ago there were hardly any elephants to be found here. Now there are many of them and their presence is visible in the landscape. There are many fallen and bare trees that do not survive. But it is a dynamic system. We can’t agree that because there used to be forests with tall trees, it should look like this.”
The elephant, as well as the hippopotamus and termites, also plays an important role in the landscape. These are the ecosystem engineers and water architects. Rob explains: “The termites, with their hills, create islands in the delta area. At high tide, their structures protrude above the surface of the water, allowing permanent vegetation to develop here. In wetlands, elephants and hippos can use their movements to open channels to allow water to flow. Thanks to this movement, complex networks of pathways through the wetlands are created, which ensures that there is a flow of water and that the areas remain accessible.”
The sparsely populated Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa, with counts exceeding 130,000 since 2018. The fact that the animals thrive here is often due to the remote rich wetlands, the diverse vegetation of open savannahs and forest and shrubs. In addition, the presence of humans is limited, especially in the protected, remote areas such as the Okavango Delta and the private concessions. Because the government allows an exclusively small-scale form of sustainable tourism, it is also a costly affair to visit the wildlife parks. However, the success of the elephant now takes such a refuge that it is a major problem outside the protected areas. For example, at the end of March AG Africa Geographic reported that more than 65% of Botswana’s wildlife is located outside protected areas, in the Wildlife Management Areas (AMMs), demographically speaking. These are mainly pastoral and agricultural areas, where communities live along the border. Here, elephant herds regularly cause great damage to homes and destroy agricultural crops. Sometimes with fatal consequences for the inhabitants. It is a complex discussion about which the opinions and interests of nature organizations and conservationists, politicians and the local population differ widely. The problem goes beyond the elephant problem: it is a forerunner for more human-wildlife conflicts. This is possibly the greatest challenge for the future, not only for Botswana, but also for neighbouring countries and how they should deal with these issues.
In 2014, the previous president, Ian Kaha, issued a hunting ban because of the low level of wildlife. Meanwhile, the current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has lifted this ban since May of this year and it is legal again to hunt elephants. Worldwide, this leads to great resistance and with it, the poaching and ‘pleasure hunting’ that has been fought against so hard in recent years can once again celebrate victory. This is already visible in less protected areas, according to a recent report by the conservation organization Elephant Without Borders: in 2018 they identified four ‘poachers’ hot spots’, where 87 carcasses of elephants had been found. They provided the sites with photographic evidence, ground surveys and had nine international elephant experts look at them. According to researcher Mike Chase and the BBC, the government denies the extent of this poaching and is trying to silence Chase.
Also the dosed shooting by professionals of the dikskins around problem areas is not a solution, we hear from different sources, because that means that a completely healthy family will die, including pregnant heifers and young and baby elephants. An elephant is known for its good memory and can mourn for days when a family member dies. And chances are they will return to the same places. Hopefully there will be more peaceful solutions, which will have a long-term effect. There are success stories, for example, that the animals are kept away with beehives. And there are several international universities and organizations that study the forms of elephant migration. Arnold Tshipa has been investigating the migration and movement of 32 elephants around Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe) for Wilderness for a number of years. Some of them wear a gps-tracking band. In a nutshell, it can be seen that there are animals that barely move around, there are herds that travel short distances and there were eight elephants that crossed the border at Botswana. The migrations are important for the distribution of the families, which can cause the animals to settle in neighbouring countries. Arnold: “It is essential that the elephants are able to move around the major rivers and along the corridors. We will discuss this with politicians in order to stimulate this approach. And if we have more knowledge about why elephants migrate – apart from the dry versus wet season – then we might as well lead them to similar areas where they feel at home. The downside is that such research and the movement of elephants is a very expensive affair and governments must be prepared to give up land so that they can receive elephants.”
Finally, education also plays an important role in the future of elephants, as well as other endangered species such as big cats and the African Wild Dog, which are also the inhabited world crosses. According to Sue Goatley of Children of the Wilderness, education is a key role. Sue has been working in the field as a teacher and school principal for many years and coordinates school projects in the Zambezi region. She is involved in the Wilderness Eco-clubs, which have 18 primary schools. For each school, thirty pupils follow a special nature conservation program for four years. Sue: “Children under the age of twelve are sponges and with the right guidance they can absorb a lot of knowledge, such as how best to deal with wild animals in their environment. The great thing is that pupils not only pass on knowledge to each other, but also to their family members. The children convince their parents or warn them not to kill animals, but they can act in other ways when there is danger. And that they can even – with increasing tourism – take advantage of it.”
“It is essential that the elephants are able to move well around the major rivers and along corridors”
Small water life
The daily problems are hardly visible during our trip. But it keeps us constantly busy, because nature has to fight hard for its existence. When we drive with Robert through the northern flanks of the delta, in the Kwedi concession, again the peaceful silence is overwhelming. The vastness. And every time the surprise. Also for Rob as a researcher: “This is such a unique area. It continues to amaze me. Recently I discovered a new species of dragonfly and lastly near the lodge, Vumbura Plains, a new carnivorous plant species that seems to come from the Congo River. Certainly the varied little water life that takes place here fascinates me.” And that’s what we see when we get into a mokoro. This traditional hollowed out tree trunk has traditionally served as the main means of transport in the delta. In the meantime, the wooden examples have been replaced by durable, light fiberglass canoes. The helmsman uses a long stick to move the boat. We glide criss-cross between the high reed and along countless papyruses. From the water level we see small insects flying by, frogs jumping off leaves and small kingfishers taking a dive. The shallow water is clear and warm to the touch. I doze away a bit and think back to all the impressive experiences of this trip. To the many elephant families I have been able to observe and to their uncertain future. The three little ones of only a few months old who greeted each other, the clown of the family, who gave a show with a stick and then got tangled up with his trunk. And the caring mothers who kept an eye on things in the background. I can’t get enough of it. Nor of this paradisiacal landscape and its inhabitants, in which the power of water, the source of life, is all-encompassing.
FRAMEWORK PRACTICAL BOTSWANA
Botswana is comparable to France and consists for 80 percent (!) of the Kalahari desert.
There are only just over two million ‘Batswana’ people living in this country. Regulated tourism is the country’s second most important source of income after the diamond industry.
The local currency is the Pula (BWP). But a safari at Wilderness is full-board and can also be paid for with dollars or credit cards in the gift shops.
The official language is English and Setswana. There are, of course, various local or tribal languages, such as Tswana.
Subtropical, where drought and wetness can alternate. Best traveltime: We visited Botswana at the end of the rainy season, beginning of March. Then it is still low season. Because of the high grasses, some animals are less visible, but that increases the fun during a game drive when they are spotted. It is also less crowded in the parks and nature is at its best.