Three days ago, I arrived back in Harare after a truly epic eight day adventure into the heart of the Okavango Delta. Back in the comfort of my home, surrounded by my family, the familiar faces, routines and spaces by which I map out my life, I was trying to put into words exactly what it was like – the Okavango was so big, so unlike anything I had ever seen that it was hard to describe.
The best way I can think of to describe how it felt to stop and stand 4 days walk away from the closest camp, deep into the heart of the Delta, miles and days away from the closest sign of human presence and probably as far from the grid as one can get – in amongst the body of the most elegant, intricate and spectacular of water systems laid out behind, in front and all around me – is to ask you to imagine your circulatory system. Think about the exquisite design of your arteries, the extensive interweaving of capillaries and veins. Think about the way your circulatory system is elemental in your being alive, that through its delicate interconnection life is enabled, life flourishes. That is what the Delta is like. To be there, is to be in amongst one of the greatest, grandest and most complex natural marvels on the planet.
Each year the area is revived during the dry season by an inflow of water and nutrients from the River Okavango journeying 1000km down from Angola, spilling out in the basin and baptizing the sands of the Kalahari Desert, creating a kaleidoscope of river channels, lagoons, islands and the great expansive floodplains of the Delta. This annual cycle of birth and rebirth, transformation and reclamation is the life-blood that supports the existence of 1061 distinct plant species, 89 varieties of fish, 64 different reptiles, 482 species of birds and 130 types of mammals – just one reason of many why the Okavango Delta has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To venture unsupported into such a treasure, so alive, vibrant and dangerous, you need to be prepared. John Sobey, professional field guide and the Managing Director of African Horseback Safaris in the Okavango Delta, invited myself and Larry Norton, the renowned wildlife artist to form the expedition party. We were to explore, unsupported and on foot, an area of around 100 kilometers – without any high points or distinguishable islands to use as reference points making it extremely easy to get lost in. Without John’s extensive knowledge of the area and exceptional navigational abilities, attempting a trip of this nature would be unthinkable.
The greatest challenge on the trip was the combination of light meals, heavy loads and difficult trekking. Our daily intake of kilojoules was greatly reduced from that of my normal consumption, adding to that the enormous amount of energy and strength required to walk for hours at a time through water and thick bush with packs up to 35kgs slung onto our backs. I admit, I was hungry almost all of the time! We weren’t on the verge of starvation by any means, we had enough food but just. Breakfast consisted of a cup of wood-boiled tea and a bowl of pre-mixed grains, powered milk and sugar with water added. Lunch was a pre-packed serving of dried fruit and nuts (wolfed down before it had even touched sides). Once the days camp had been made, firewood collected and water boiled, a dinner of boiled rice and biltong, was gratefully received. Every now and then, just when a real stomach grumble would come on, John would fish out from deep in his pack pockets, a couple of Sparkles sweets for us to suck on. Oh the magic of a Sparkle dissolving in your mouth! Larry and John, both experienced expedition bushmen, had worked out exactly the minimum needed to keep us on our feet and moving (although there were many times when my belly felt otherwise) without adding unnecessary weight to our packs.
The weight of my pack was so heavy that there were days when I thought it would be impossible to carry. A tent with it’s poles and fly sheet would have been far too bulky and heavy to fit into my pack. Instead, I lay a hammock with an attached mosquito net flat on the ground – no pillow, no mattress, just a thin layer of material between myself and the ground and a light sleeping bag to sleep in. Aside from the hammock and sleeping bag, into the pack went my all important camera gear, which comprised of the DJI Mavic, a Canon 5D Mark iii with a single 24-105mm zoom lens, GoPro, batteries, vacuum-packed servings of food, one change of clothes, a spare pair of shoes and importantly, thermal underwear. Due to all the water and the desert sands that hold little heat, the nights and early mornings were a sharp, bone cutting cold. Luckily, we were spared the ordeal of carrying water with us as there was no lack of finding some. In fact, there was so much water around due to the incredibly high levels of rainfall Southern Africa has received this year that we had to reassess our original walking plans and add a packraft for each of us onto our kit list. Kokopelli deserve a shout out for having the perfect packrafts for our trip. They were lightweight, durable, easy to use and able to carry a lot of weight when inflated – a lifesaver. Our gear might not sound like much to have carried, but after 6 hours of walking each day, it certainly felt like a load!
If the cold, hunger and heavy carrying is the price to pay for an experience such as we had, I would readily offer myself up time and time again! What a rare privilege to sleep under a night sky so large and untainted by light pollution that it was hard to see where one star began and another ended – and for just a moment, grasp the incredible magnitude of the universe and the smallness of my own worries and concerns. We saw a male leopard up close and on foot (something that few people will ever experience); we watched elephants quietly pull up reeds and rumble in contentment to their companions; we watched in wonder as Red Lechwe picked their way through swampy clogs of grass flanked by the endangered, sombre Wattled cranes searching for snails, insects and snakes; I felt a deep primal fear creep up my spine when wading chest deep in crystal clear waters revealing the visible drag marks of crocodiles – I felt alive! I was really living.
I will be producing a short documentary on the journey in the coming months, but for now, I thought I’d share with you a few of the photographs I took from the trip. If you ever have the chance to go to the Okavango Delta, go!
A big thank you to John and Larry, without whom, I would never know how big a nights sky can be nor, what it is like to walk out into the wilderness for eight days unaided. I am so grateful to have experienced all that we did. A big thank you must go to MackAir for flying us into the Okavango Delta and returning us home safely.
As told by Buck O’Donoghue (written with the help of the very talented Joanna Craig). To find out more about the people and organizations involved, have a look at www.larrynorton.co.za; www.kokopellipackraft.com and www.africanhorseback.comwww.africanhorseback.com