African Horse Safari, Part 3: Delta Dreaming

Practical Horseman's managing editor Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore flies to the Okavango Delta area in the Kalahari Desert on horse safari in Botswana, Africa.
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Practical Horseman's managing editor Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore flies to the Okavango Delta area in the Kalahari Desert on horse safari in Botswana, Africa.
Flying over the Okavango Delta | All photos © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Flying over the Okavango Delta | All photos © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

I'm really not a fan of small planes. However, there's no other way to get to the camps in the Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland water system, than in a tin can with wings.

After a lovely lunch of grilled cheese and tea with his sister, brother-in-law, niece and parents in Maun, my chaperone Paul from Natural Migrations and I walked across the street from the caf? and checked in at the Sefofane Charters desk at the Maun airport. We followed the porter rolling our luggage to the security checkpoint. There is only one gate, so it didn't take us long to walk the length of the room, funnel through the metal detector and settle in to the golf-cart-like tram for the short ride onto the tarmac to get to our plane. The French pilot maneuvered our bags into the tiny luggage compartment in the belly of the Cessna. There is so little space, passengers are restricted to just 44 pounds of luggage total (including carry-ons), which may only be soft-sided duffle bags no larger than 9 x 14 x 22. That doesn't sound like much, but you don't need much. Most camps have same-day laundry service, so you can get away with only two to three days of clothing.

The pilot instructed us where to sit--Paul in the seat next to the pilot and me behind him. I pulled my trusty camera from its bag to once again take my mind off soaring above the water. Once through the preflight check, we taxied to the runway and smoothly lifted into the air with my camera clicking furiously.

Common area interior at Macatoo |

Common area interior at Macatoo |

I began to relax as the Okavango Delta unfolded before us, with its lush vegetation surrounded by clear, shallow water and tall marsh grasses. From the air I could see sandy trails cutting through the bush and flattened grasses through the water both from from animals passing through. Essentially an oasis in the Kalahari Desert, the Delta is located in the northwest corner of Botswana, spilling over into Namibia to the north. The Delta covers nearly 6,200 square miles at its fullest and recedes to about half that size during the low period. Camps are built on islands throughout. The Delta remains one of the most unspoiled places on the planet, and Botswana's tourism philosophy of low volume and high income helps ensure that it stays that way.

About 40 minutes later, our plane safely landed and came to a stop on the Macatoo airstrip. We loaded our luggage into a Land Rover and drove down a sandy two-track road that abruptly ended at the water's edge. Our guide explained that because of the heavy rains that extended into the dry season, the road was flooded and we would have to take a boat to camp. The metal powerboat skimmed through the clear water as if on an invisible highway through lily pads and grasses. Just five minutes later, we pulled up to the camp's dock, greeted by four women singing a song to welcome us. They handed us cool, damp towels to freshen up as we disembarked.

We made our way up a beach-type area to the common area. It was a tent but had all of the luxuries of a comfortable lodge--leather sofas, upholstered chairs with throw pillows, a bar and refrigerator. We helped ourselves to cold drinks and received a brief orientation before being shown to our tents to get changed into our riding clothes and get ready for 4 p.m. tea before our afternoon ride.

Macatoo tent |

Macatoo tent |

The accommodations at Macatoo were quite different than those at the other camps. Back at Mashatu's Main Camp there were permanent buildings made of concrete and two guest rooms per building. Each had a king-size bed, a large full bathroom and a powder room, a sitting room and a desk. Macatoo offered large, private tents nestled in the trees, each with two twin beds, two desks, a small covered deck and sitting area outside and a toilet, shower with hot water and sink. It also had electric lights that ran off solar power. This was certainly luxury camping! The beds faced the Delta and there was only a mesh wall between nature and myself. The other sides of the tent were canvas with mesh windows. Inside were the standard can of "Peaceful Sleep" insect repellent, can of "Doom" insect spray (probably similar to Raid) to kill any bugs you might find in the room and an emergency air horn to alert staff in case of a medical emergency. (Guests cannot leave their tents at night because of animals that might be in camp.)

Macatoo tent inside |

Macatoo tent inside |

At tea, we met Hannah, the camp's only other guest. Visiting from Germany, she'd been there four days already and was having a grand time. Each day had been completely different, she said, assuring us we'd have a great time. Paul, Hannah and I made the five-minute walk down andy path to the African Horseback Safaris' stables. Mod, the horse manager, introduced me to Salous, a smallish bay Thoroughbred with a thin blaze, who was outfitted in a nylon bridle and Wintec all-purpose saddle, presumably because we'd be riding in a lot of water.

The evening rides generally last about one-and-a-half hours and are used to introduce guests to their horse for the longer morning ride the next day as well as to assess their riding abilities. It's a slow ride, mostly at the walk and no canter. We hadn't been in the bush long before our guide Sekongo gave us the hand signal to trot. I wondered if Salous had fence posts for legs with his bouncy trot, but he was kind, steady and reliable. Thankfully it didn't last for long, and I hoped that his canter was smoother for the fast ride the next morning.

We splashed through the shallow swamps and came upon a herd of about five zebra. They snorted warnings to each other, then turned and ran away. We slowly and quietly rode around the side of them, taking our time and letting them get used to our presence. Eventually, they stood and watched us as we watched them from perhaps 50 feet away. Sekongo was excited, telling us that in his seven or eight years of working as a guide, he'd never been this close to them before.

Wildebeest, zebra and tsessebe (a type of antelope) |

Wildebeest, zebra and tsessebe (a type of antelope) |

The time sped by quickly but uneventfully. We returned to the stable, dismounted and headed to camp for "sundowners" (drinks) while the grooms put up the horses for the night. Unlike the stables at Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris in Mashatu that was surrounded by a tall lion-proof fence, this stable was merely sealed up tight for the night. I was looking forward to the three-hour fast ride.

Dinner was served by candlelight at a square group table on the beach. Meals are taken with the guides and staff, and we told stories, savored the delicious meal of curried chicken and got to know each other better. Dinner is always a special event here, and the staff will go above and beyond to accommodate any dietary preference provided you let them know far enough in advance to place an order. Out in the bush they can't just run down to the local grocery store to pick up eggs if they run out; everything must be carefully planned several weeks in advance. The highlight of the meal was the dessert. "A la Mama" ("like mom's") was like a pineapple upside-down cake with a warm vanilla cream sauce drizzled over it. Absolutely delicious!

Stuffed from the fantastic meal and tired from a long day of travel, I made my way back to my tent, escorted by one of the staff members to protect me from wild animals. I climbed into my soft bed draped with a stack of blankets and drifted off to sleep, breathing in the cool air and listening to the splashing of a hippopotamus in the water just past my bed, the occasional chatter of the baboons over my head and the echoing reports of one of the horses kicking his stall in the distance. I dreamed of elephants.

More Journal Entries
Part 1: Bush Magic | Part 2: Big Cats | Part 4: The Elephant in My Living Room | Part 5: Hidden in the Trees | Packing and Contact Lists