Why you should care
Because water safaris and danger.
No crocodiles in this part of the river. At least, that’s what they told me. Also, the hippos — about as friendly as aquatic tigers on a juice cleanse — supposedly stick to the so-called hippo channels. Call me go-getter or gullible, but either way, I jumped in.
I was in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the world’s most complex water systems, drifting in a dugout canoe through tall papyri and overgrown water lilies. A local guide with a long wooden pole stood perched on the end, propelling us along as I lay back, water almost level with the rim. It was scorching hot. A dip in the delta sounded perfect.
Little did I know, just two years before, a crocodile had pulled a well-known South African outdoors guide from his kayak while his clients watched, horrified. His body was never found. “I know so many dogs and people taken by crocodiles,” says Amanda Stronza, an anthropology professor at Texas A&M who studies tourism in the Okavango Delta. In my case, the guide could see to the sandy bottom, and I did not become a human snack.
The canoes, known as mokoros in Setswana, transported us to our dirt island campsite, where we slept under the stars. With no fences to keep the wildlife from investigating, our guides lit a fire and took shifts to ensure unwanted guests didn’t wander into the camp. The vulnerability of it all, whether real or imagined, made even the dull moments exhilarating. The next day we went on an on-foot safari, without the safety of a vehicle or guns (Botswana regulates its firearms use heavily). The guide instructed us to walk single file in a tight line. No stragglers. Although the surroundings seemed idyllic, the danger was real. At one point we rounded a corner and encountered a massive elephant snoozing under a tree. The elephant reared up, quite annoyed, and our guide demanded, sternly and only mildly panicked, that we walk backward slowly and deliberately. Luckily for us, off into the bush the creature went, presumably to go back to sleep.
When 28-year-old New Yorker Amanda Karas visited the Delta last October, she came upon a herd of around 50 elephants “hustling.” Her group was in a Land Rover, so they took off after the pachyderms, who ended up joining another herd of the same size at a huge watering hole. The inland delta is one of the biggest in the world and smack in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, making it a vital source of water. “It was the best trip ever,” Karas says.
This sort of abundance of free-roaming wildlife is, for some, what sets Botswana apart from more popular safari destinations in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. Botswana is, as Stronza puts it, “a jewel on the planet for habitat that has high integrity for wildlife.” But, she adds, the “crazily spectacular” wildlife comes with a high price. For tourists, that’s quite literal: The government maintains a policy that keeps prices high and volume low. It also means you’re pretty much guaranteed an off-the-beaten-path experience. If that unnerves you, consider what locals have to deal with: lions picking off livestock and elephants trampling crops. Now, that is no vacation.