A blissful retreat in the Garden of Eden

Botswana's Okavango Delta, birthplace of humanity, feels like a home from home, says Holden Frith.

The Okavango Delta is probably the closest any of us will get to the Garden of Eden. It was here in northern Botswana, about 200,000 years ago, that the first modern humans were born. They lived on the shore of a lake the size of Scotland, fed by rivers stretching across a swathe of southern Africa. Today, the area is mostly desert. All that remains of the old super lake is a network of waterways that fans out across the dry land like branches of a fallen tree, nourishing one of the world’s richest, strangest ecosystems.

In the wettest years, the delta covers an area of 6,000 square miles and spills over into the River Zambezi, where my journey began. I had flown to Victoria Falls and I heard the roar of water before I saw the plume of spray, which fell as a cooling shower as I approached along a shady wooded path. Witnessing the mile-wide curtain of falling water was a visceral experience, its raw power resonating in my stomach as the waters tumbled into the gorge and swirled through the rapids below.

To reach Okavango I followed the river upstream, crossing from Zimbabwe into Botswana. The landscape here in Chobe National Park had a curiously English feel, its gently rolling grasslands punctuated by oak-like mopane trees. Less familiar were the giraffes that sought out their shade. The last part of my journey, on a light aircraft, took me into the delta’s very un-English patchwork of forested islands and sinuous streams.

The Wilderness Safaris lodge at Chitabe is in one of the drier spots, its smartly furnished tents and timber walkways built into an outcrop of trees. I had arrived at the end of a long drought, but a strip of lush grass in front of the camp marked the course of a narrow stream, which pulls in thirsty animals from miles around – animals such as the bull elephant, which strolled towards my tent and reached above the canvas roof to pluck leaves as I unpacked.

Distracted by his gentle presence, I did not notice the gathering storm. The sky had darkened, the temperature had dropped and wind was tugging at the ropes of the tent – and then the rain came down in sheets. Twenty minutes later it stopped just as suddenly, in time for afternoon tea, and we set out on our game drive with the sun in our eyes and the indigo-black cloud in retreat. Outside camp we encountered a troop of baboons, a species much-maligned for its near-human capacity for guile and aggression. On this occasion, though, we saw a more endearing side of primate society: a tender exchange between a young baby, his mother and an adult female who wanted to pet the youngster. 

A similar intimacy was on display the next morning, when a trio of young lions strode towards our 4x4, nuzzling and jostling as they passed around us. We followed them until the strengthening sun forced them into the shade of a termite mound, where they flopped down on top of each other to wait out the heat of the day.

Big predators are plentiful in the delta, drawn in by the herbivores that feast on its rich grass, but it’s the watery landscape rather than the animals that make this place unique. To experience it up close, I took a short flight and boat ride to Little Vumbura, a beautiful lodge surrounded by water and well hidden by reeds. 

The area is best explored by mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe propelled with a pole. A serene form of transport, it enforces a change in perspective: the reeds towered above me as I sat on the floor of the boat, my hips below the waterline, and we glided down a narrow channel. A few moments later we emerged onto open water and I was eye-to-eye with a pair of Angolan reed frogs – and then a tiny malachite kingfisher, his feathers bright in the late afternoon sun. 

Dusk fell gently, suffusing the sky with a soft peachy glow, as a flock of storks flew low overhead in search of somewhere to roost. We sought safe harbour, too – a dry spot for sundowners – before turning back to camp. I made the most of my last evening in Eden, savouring the silence of the mokoro as we slipped through the reeds towards the sole human outpost for miles around: Little Vumbura and its oil lamps, glimmering over the dark, glossy water.

Holden was a guest of Audley Travel (audleytravel.com). An eight-night safari costs from £9,580pp, incl. flights.

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