Jewel of the Kala­hari

In the wilds of the Oka­vango Delta

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - CHRIS FITCH

In south­ern Africa flows an enor­mous river, a great tor­rent of water gush­ing across the dry sa­van­nah. Such a river would be ex­pected to con­tinue to grow in strength, as trib­u­taries and smaller rivers reach out like ten­ta­cles and help drain the sur­round­ing val­ley sys­tem into a sin­gle, dom­i­nant chan­nel, be­fore emp­ty­ing its con­tents into the sea. But this river es­sen­tially does the op­po­site; it even­tu­ally fans out across the arid land of the Kala­hari Desert, cre­at­ing a vast lush oa­sis, be­fore van­ish­ing into thin air.

The river is the Oka­vango, and the re­mark­able place it cre­ates is the Oka­vango Delta, the “jewel of the Kala­hari Desert’’. North­ern Botswana is a re­gion where the land­scape is al­most en­tirely dom­i­nated by the pres­ence (or ab­sence) of water, from the dis­tinc­tive fan-shape of the Oka­vango Delta, im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able from brief glances at satel­lite im­ages of the re­gion, to the cen­tral dry plains of the in­fa­mously in­hos­pitable Kala­hari.

To fully un­der­stand the Oka­vango Delta, it is nec­es­sary to look to its wider catch­ment (the area of land that catches fallen rain­wa­ter and drains it into a sin­gle river), roughly 1600km to the north, a high-rain­fall zone in south­ern An­gola. Sea­sonal rain falls on the An­golan high­lands of Vila Nova, on the Bie Plateau, every Oc­to­ber, and over the next six months the fallen rain grad­u­ally flows into small chan­nels that form the Cubango and Cuito rivers, all of which feed into the Oka­vango River.

This trans­ports the water across the Namibia pan­han­dle, be­fore even­tu­ally cross­ing the bor­der into north­ern Botswana. The lengthy trip means the delta re­ceives the high­est amount of water at the dri­est time of year, roughly six months af­ter the high­est pe­riod of rain­fall.

Be­tween Fe­bru­ary and May, when this re­mark­able jour­ney ends, the Oka­vango Delta blooms into life. It lit­er­ally dou­bles in size, as the water from the Oka­vango River floods the land­scape and slowly flows through the wet­lands. It cre­ates the per­fect nat­u­ral haven for the red lechwe, water-dwelling an­telopes that live in large num­bers among the delta’s more than 150,000 is­lands, and the 24 species of glob­ally threat­ened birds, as well as wild ele­phants, chee­tahs, lions, buf­faloes, rhi­nos and many more iconic African species that spread out across its land.

In the con­ti­nent’s dri­est place at the dri­est time of year — even in the mid­dle of win­ter, the sun burns down hot and bright — it is re­mark­able that such a re­source ex­ists. As much as 98 per cent of the water that makes it to the delta ends up ei­ther sim­ply evap­o­rat­ing straight back into the at­mos­phere or be­comes ab­sorbed by a di­verse as­sort­ment of scrubby plants.

The thin Boteti River trans­ports away to the south­east the frac­tion that re­mains. The main river chan­nel car­ries only about 60 per cent of the water that ul­ti­mately reaches the delta, while the re­main­ing two-fifths comes from a se­ries of rivers about which sig­nif­i­cantly less is known. This is pri­mar­ily thanks to decades of civil un­rest in An­gola. Half a mil­lion peo­ple were killed by the 27-year con­flict, a time when vast swaths of the ru­ral coun­try be­came com­pletely out of bounds. The An­golan high­lands were for a long time the heart­land of the rebel move­ment Unita, mak­ing them far too dan­ger­ous for any­one to con­sider ven­tur­ing into, while lim­ited road ac­cess made this a very dif­fi­cult prospect any­way.

Even to­day, years af­ter a peace treaty was fi­nally signed in 2002, mil­lions of land­mines lit­ter the land­scape, the dens­est col­lec­tion of such weapons still to be found in Africa. Such a de­ter­rent to hu­man ex­plor­ers means the re­gion is home to a pris­tine wilder­ness, al­most com­pletely un­touched. The Oka­vango Wilder­ness Project, a Na­tional Ge­o­graphic-sup­ported ven­ture, has made it its mis­sion to ven­ture deep into these un­known parts of south­ern An­gola, to un­der­stand the land that ul­ti­mately gives birth to the ma­jes­tic Oka­vango Delta. This in­cludes send­ing teams of ex­plor­ers, sci­en­tists and lo­cal Ba’Yei peo­ple, who know the se­crets to liv­ing in this en­vi­ron­ment, on a jour­ney of hundreds of kilo­me­tres in tra­di­tional dugout ca­noes called moko­ros.

They travel up through the un­ex­plored river sys­tem, pass­ing the vast quan­ti­ties of im­pen­e­tra­ble veg­e­ta­tion and huge leeches, per­pet­u­ally pop­u­lated by ag­gres­sive hip­pos and enor­mous Nile croc­o­diles (the Cuito River has pos­si­bly the high­est den­sity of croc­o­diles in the world). “That’s the re­al­ity of this place, you’re not in con­trol of any­thing around you,” says project leader Steve Boyes, dis­cussing the Oka­vango at a Na­tional Ge­o­graphic event. “You have to sur­ren­der your­self to prob­a­bil­ity, sur­ren­der your­self to the wilder­ness.”

This is an edited ex­tract from At­las of Un­tamed Places (Au­rum Press, $39.99) by Chris Fitch, se­nior edi­tor at Ge­o­graph­i­cal, the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety’s mag­a­zine.

The Oka­vango Delta, main; view from a mokoro, top; wildlife ashore and afloat, above

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