Bush Camping in the Okavango Delta

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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.

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Just in case you weren’t entirely sure where the Okavango Delta and/or Botswana are.

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.

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Tiny little baby plane that I did not fly.

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!

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Beautiful Delta

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!

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Mini poler in the making! AKA the cutest baby ever.

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.

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Richard: “Can I smile for the picture?!” What a babe.

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.

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Winding our way through the Delta

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!

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First elephant sighting!!

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!

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New favorite animal

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.

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The fear of falling into the hole was real.

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.

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Richard teaching us the rules of Chifofu, which means “blindness” in Tswana

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.

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I’m a natural poler, sadly born outside of my natural environment.

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!

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The zebra are in the background…somewhere. Shirt and pants are from KUHL and hat is from Headsweats!

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.

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Brace yourself for a million more sunset photos in subsequent blog posts.

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!

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Somehow perfectly coordinated and harmonized despite the fact that they don’t practice and it’s a different group of polers all the time!

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.

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Checking out the warthog at sunrise. Jacket from KUHL

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?

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17 thoughts on “Bush Camping in the Okavango Delta

  1. Oh, wow! What an amazing adventure!!!! I love this and now I desperately want to go to Botswana.

    I love interacting with locals, so I always look for experiences like homestays or having a hosted dinner.

    1. Botswana is awesome! I definitely recommend it. I really knew nothing about it when I headed to Africa and was completely blown away.

  2. You are so lucky! We traipsed around the Delta for 3 hours and didn’t see anything more than some prints and half of a snake skin. I guess the time of year does really matter. However, the evening spent around the campfire was transformative. By the time the group was done singing (Botswana! Africa!) we were mostly in tears. It was so awesome. I thought the toilet situation as almost too easy 😉 We were lucky with a full moon, so it was a cinch even at night.

    1. Oh my gosh, I was pretty much in tears too! I loved it so much. I have listened to the recordings on my phone pretty much every day since I got back! I was really lucky to be going there in the winter/prime animal viewing time, but I really didn’t plan it that way – it just worked out. We had a full moon, too!

  3. My step dad’s favourite animal is the hippo. I might pee myself a little (both from fear and excitement) but I would just LOVE to see one.
    Aaaaaaand all the other animals 🙂
    Can they all be my favourite?

  4. Girrrrrllllll!!!! You continue to freakin’ amaze me with your bravery. Holy crap! The plane? Nope. Taking a tiny little boat in hippo infested (yes, that’s what it looked like to me) waters? Hell no! Camping in Africa? Are you nuts? No – you are amazing. Each post gets better and better and the sunsets? Bring on ALL the photos!

    PS – I’ve been showing my kids all the pics and videos on FB and they loved the video of the singing and dancing around the campfire 🙂

    1. Hahaha! I have flown in a little plane like that a couple of times before, so it was ok. I did feel confident once I found out we would only be flying 500 feet above the ground – that seemed survivable? The hippos definitely did give me a little pause, but the fact that all of our guides were there and have grown up in that water and knew what to do made me feel a lot better. So glad the boys are loving the photos and video!

  5. Sounds like the Okavango was all it was cracked up to be and more. Nat Geo did (and is doing again) a wonderful series called “Into the Okavango”. It’s a group of scientists who start in the rivers in Angola that feed into the Okavango and canoe their way along recording wildlife, taking water samples, tracking changes in human settlements/use along the rivers, etc., until they reach the Okavango. I follow them on Instagram (IntotheOkavango) and it is fun to follow along. (I’m also a map person so I may try and find where they are on Google Maps…)

    I’m all about interacting with locals when I travel 🙂 While on Pemba (where the only other white person I saw was a Peace Corps member), I ended up eating a traditional Tanzanian breakfast on a lonely little beach with my guide and three anti-smuggling policemen (they camped at the beach to patrol the waters). We had come to see some ruins and had parked by their camp. As we went to leave, they invited us to join them. Ugh, I’d go back tomorrow if I could!

    1. Awesome, thanks for letting me know! I’ll have to check that out – it sounds so cool. One of the guides for our tour actually did something similar and canoed his way through the whole Delta for research when he was in college. Slept in his makoro and everything! That has to be an incredible experience.

      Love that story! That’s what travel is all about (for me anyway) 🙂

  6. I think hippos are awesome, Alex, has other ideas.
    I love your level of immersion in cultures when you travel. None of that Disney resort stuff for you (which is why I love you and we get along).

    1. Thanks girl! I majored in geography and human geography has always been my favorite part, so I guess it makes sense 🙂

  7. What an incredible adventure! I already loved the pictures you’d shared, but showing more and adding context … amazing.

    I am definitely an immersion traveler as much as possible – I try to learn some of the language, interact all the time, and just enjoy the culture (as opposed to those who seem to want to transport their home culture with them everywhere). Lisa is the same – she just has to worry about food since she has so many allergies and sensitivities.

    I think my favorite was going to Germany for my first job – everyone said ‘don’t worry, they all speak English’ … but I took time, learned some German, and when I hopped off the plane and looked for the train to where I was going, knowing German was invaluable … same for taxis, finding local places and off-beat things to do. This was the late 80s so there were no cell phones or internet … so I really only had what I brought with me! But doing it that way made it so much more fun!

    1. Can’t agree more about people who want to transport their home culture with them everywhere. That has never made sense to me. Why travel if you just want everywhere you go to be exactly like home? Obviously, the food thing has some constraints, but I try and enjoy as much local food as I can. I actually find it easier in other countries (especially developing countries) because their food is less processed, so there is typically less gluten contamination to begin with!

      1. Cool on the food – I know Lisa has been doing reading and research on things, but in general we plan to be adventurous as she can manage 🙂

        We actually had new Indian neighbors move in next door a few weeks ago, and they just had a house-warming party on Sunday and invited us (and most other neighbors). They had loads and loads of food they’d made, family and friends from New Jersey (where they moved from) brought stuff and they had catered other stuff. They were really patient and helpful with Lisa in terms of choosing foods, and as a result she had no negative impact (I just ate everything – it was awesome!). And that experience made her very hopeful for the trip – because wherever you go people really are very willing to be helpful (so long as you are not unreasonable, of course) .

  8. I had never thought about traveling to Botswana, and I do not like to camp, but you have introduced me to places I now would like to visit, and things that now don’t seem so bad. Thanks for opening my eyes and my mind to new experiences! I love all of your adventures!

    1. If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be camping in the African bush, I would have thought you were crazy! I had never camped in my life before I spent the night on Great Cranberry Island after the 50k in 2013. While I don’t foresee myself ever being the type of person that goes out and camps all the time, I do enjoy it when I do it, especially when traveling. It’s worth it!

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