Before heading to Africa, I knew very little about Botswana. I knew that it was a rising star on the African safari scene, but I couldn’t have told you why. I did know that on our trip, we would be bush camping in the Okavango Delta – one of the experiences I was most excited about! What is bush camping? Well, I had no idea, but I knew I was going to like it.
What I would later learn is that “camping” in Africa consists of mostly what we would call “car camping” in the U.S. Namely, you drive to a campground with a variety of amenities (bathrooms, maybe a restaurant or bar, swimming pool, etc), and set up your tent. “Bush camping” is what we would call “camping” and basically just means you are not camping at a campground. It’s not the post-apocalyptic scenario I was envisioning, which is a statement I can make about pretty much everything I’ve ever panicked about in my entire life.
My very first exposure to the Delta was with a flight over it the day before we went camping. Scenic flights are extremely popular in the area, and they’re about 45 minutes long. I figured the plane would be tiny, and I was right – they fit 5 people plus the pilot! I ended up sitting in the front and had my own set of controls to the plane. The pilot offered to let me fly it, which I did not even remotely entertain. Despite what people may think because of how much I travel and the fact that I like to try new things, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’d like to live long enough to see at least another 50 countries, thank you very much.
My pictures from the Delta didn’t come out that awesome (we were 500 feet above the water, after all!) so you’ll just have to trust me that it was spectacular. We were able to see elephants, zebra, a lion, hippos, cape buffalo, and more from the air!
Our camping adventure started by meeting our “polers” on the water. Polers are people native to the Okavango Delta area who navigate the Delta using dug-out canoes called makoro. They get their name from the 15-foot long poles they use to propel the boats along. If you’ve ever done stand-up paddleboarding, it’s kind of like that, except in a shallow canoe and using a pole instead of an oar. There were about 20 polers waiting to greet our group and help us transport our tents, belongings, and ourselves to our campsite!
My roommate Gabby and I got lucky and had Richard, the lead guide, as our poler. We set off through the Delta and I couldn’t believe how smooth and comfortable our ride was. Thanks to the excellent placement of our camp mattresses inside the canoes, we were extremely cozy and able to enjoy the 2 hour ride. I got the chance to ask Richard a ton of questions about what it was like to grow up in the Delta. I learned that navigating through the Delta can be challenging and dangerous for kids, which means that many of them are sent to live with relatives on the mainland while they attend school, only heading home on weekends.
Richard’s parents lived about 2 hours (by makoro) away from his school, so he stayed with his aunt during the week. This arrangement continued through high school, after which he left to attend training to become a tour guide. It reminded me of the 2-hour trek my guides in Nepal had to make each way to attend school as kids, and I once again marveled at the dedication of children in other countries to their education.
We had been warned not to expect to see animals and to just enjoy the experience instead, but in fact, we saw our very first elephant in the Okavango Delta! A big bull was roaming along on his own through the reeds and grasses, and it took my breath away. Nothing makes you feel small quite like sitting in a little canoe in the middle of a seemingly endless swamp while staring at one of the largest animals in the world!
As our boat ride continued on, we started hearing strange noises and stopped at a large (for the delta) clear area of deep water. All of a sudden, we saw heads popping up and fountains of water shooting into the air – HIPPOS! I was so excited that I almost fell out of the makoro. Then, I realized we were just a few feet away from the animal that kills more people in Africa each year than the Big 5 combined! Still, it was pretty magical to watch them popping in and out of the water as they came up for air – as long as they stayed a few feet away, of course!
Finally, we arrived at our island campsite. The island was beautifully shaded and the perfect place to set up camp. We even got to set up a camp toilet, which was far more elaborate than anything I’m generally accustomed to when camping! It had a seat and everything.
It was still early in the morning, so we had the whole day ahead of us. I really wanted to get to know Richard and some of the other local people that were camping with us, so I decided to ask if he would teach us how to play a Botswana card game. Pro tip: a deck of playing cards is a great way to connect with locals pretty much anywhere you go. I played cards for hours with my guides in Nepal! A group of us all got together and attempted to learn the rules of some very fast paced games, which Richard almost always beat us at. I would never make it as a card shark in Botswana.
After that, it was time to try our hands as polers! Well, mostly me. The rest of my group was initially feeling a big nervous about it, but perhaps in my quest to soak up every single moment when I travel, I was a bit ambitious. Richard climbed in the makoro and instructed me on how to pole. For me, the hardest thing about it is the giant pole! Obviously totally necessary in deeper water, but quite cumbersome most of the time. It turns out I am a natural poler and Richard asked if I want to be a guide one day! Obviously, I am only good at things that are in no way applicable to my actual life.
For a couple of hours right before sunrise, we headed out on a bush walk. We split off into groups and Richard led us around on another large island, talking to us about different wildlife and traditions. It was here that we saw our first zebra of the trip!
The bush walk was more a way to see the beauty of the environment as opposed to seeing a ton of animals, and we got to witness an incredible sunset! There’s no such thing as a bad sunset in Africa, I’m pretty sure.
After a delicious dinner, it was time for a campfire with some incredible entertainment from our guides. We had all been told to think about a song or dance from our home countries to perform after the locals did, but uh…that idea quickly faded after hearing them sing and watching them dance! For a full 30 minutes, they performed traditional songs and dances in perfect harmony, and it was absolutely enthralling. Unfortunately, with the light around the campfire, it didn’t make for great photos or video, so you’ll just have to trust me. It was an experience I’ll never forget!
A few brave members of our group attempted to sing and dance as a “thank you” to our guides, but I think we can all agree that the greater gift was for us all to stop singing. I told our group leader that in the future, we should probably perform first so that we aren’t all immediately put to shame by the uber-talented locals 🙂
We rose before the sun to go on another bush walk and experience the sunrise on the delta. A couple antelope, a warthog, and some zebra made for a beautiful morning and an unforgettable experience before the 2 hour makoro ride back.
Bush camping in the Okavango Delta did not disappoint! One of my favorite parts of traveling internationally is always interacting with the local people, and this was an awesome way to do that. If you’re in Botswana, don’t miss the Delta!
LEAVE A COMMENT: Do you like to interact with the local people when you travel? What has been your favorite experience?