Okavango—Africa’s Desert Paradise
By Awake! correspondent in South Africa
THE circle of light cast by the gasoline lamp was small comfort as the herd of elephants moved quietly in the darkness around us. Their deep sighs and the rustle of the branches gave them away. As the still African night fell, we knew that more than one pair of eyes was watching us.
We were stuck in the Okavango Delta—a unique watery world that begins as suddenly as it ends, on the vast sands of the Kalahari Desert in northern Botswana. Although the size of Northern Ireland, the delta is lost on the 100,000 square miles [260,000 sq km] of trackless, undisturbed Kalahari. After leaving the border of South Africa, we had plowed through 400 miles [600 km] of thornscrub, grassland, and salt pan at a steady 12 miles per hour [20 km/hr]. Only a shimmering mirage danced deceitfully on the horizon.
On the fourth day, a noticeable feature made its encouraging appearance. The sky started to take on an aqua-blue brightness. Somewhere ahead there was water. Lots of it! A marshland that reaches out like the fingers of a giant hand to turn a parched desert into a verdant garden. Rising in the highlands of central Angola, the Okavango River meanders through a thousand miles [1,600 km] of Africa, searching for an ocean. But in vain, for the river dies on the empty expanse of the Kalahari. However, before it expires completely, the aging river gives birth to a unique ecosystem.
In disorder, the water spills over the sandy floor to form braided channels, crescent-shaped lakes, and papyrus-bordered waterways. Trees and plants capture our attention in a riot of shapes and colors. Ivory palm, wild fig, ebony, and sausage trees fringe the delta. Tall buffalo grass, water lilies, and fallen magenta flowers diffuse the filtered light of a winter’s morning. But this is still Africa, and before long the stinging heat of the day is felt. Welcome relief is found in the rustic patchwork of tall mopani forests. These very trees make the traverse of this wilderness possible, for the swaying, creaking log bridges are all that link us to the outside world.
The splendid variety of delta dwellers lures us on. After the sterile desert, there seems to be a carefree spirit in the air as all creatures cavort and wallow with no thought of tomorrow. Bloated with easy living, 30 hippos stare at us with rheumy eyes. Their short, deep snorts warn us not to intrude into their Epicurean life-styles. A herd of more than a hundred elephants has just kicked up so much dust that the dancing shafts of light play tricks with our eyes.
For sheer number of animals, the Okavango Delta is astounding. Twenty thousand buffalo, in herds numbering up to 200, graze contentedly along the grassy verge. Occasionally the tranquillity is disturbed by the predators—lion, leopard, hyena, and wild dog. The disruption is usually short-lived, and early in the morning, only a spiraling column of vultures tells of the night’s carnage.
Large ant colonies push the delta soil into heaps that grow in size. When the waters of the Okavango rise, these anthills become fertile islands. Antelope in great variety find a haven of peaceful security on these scattered islands of the delta—sassaby, wildebeest, kudu, lechwe, roan, and the rare sitatunga. This shy buck lives in the seclusion of the reeds and seldom ventures into the open. Any hint of danger and down into the water he goes, with only his nose sticking out for air.
Water—life-giving water! The Okavango Delta is anything but a tepid swamp. Explorer and missionary-doctor David Livingstone, who came across these parts in 1849, exclaimed: “We came to a large stream . . . I enquired whence it came. ‘Oh, from a country full of rivers . . .’ We found the water to be so clear, cold and soft . . . that the idea of melting snow was suggested to our minds”! Tilapia and tiger fish are plentiful and provide food for the African delta dwellers.
Little has changed over the years, and it appears that the tsetse fly and the mosquito have succeeded in keeping the hand of modern man from ravaging this wildlife paradise. The river Bushmen were once true masters of the Okavango. Later they were joined by the baYei people. Today you may still be fortunate enough to see these expert boatmen poling their mekoro (canoes) at sunset. There is an old proverb among them: “He who pushes his pole too deep stays with it”! When you look again, they have disappeared along secret channels cut through the reeds.
The Okavango is also a bird lover’s paradise. Hundreds of species make the delta their home for at least part of the year. At night a sharp wail may lead you to the rare Pel’s fishing owl, which fishes by night. During the day the penetrating, clarion cry of the fish eagle blends with the silly twitter of the hornbills. There are pygmy geese, Goliath herons, sacred ibis, and neatly dressed lily trotters. The variety is endless. From lofty vantage points, sanctimonious-looking marabou storks in their undertaker suits seem to glare disapprovingly at the frivolous goings-on.
The setting African sun reflects liquid fire, gently bringing another day in this desert paradise to rest. From somewhere over the lagoons, the lilting music of a kalimba (African hand piano) wafts on the breeze. Zebra, giraffe, and elephant come from the grasslands to slake their thirst side by side.
How Long Will It Last?
Dust and sweat ran in rivulets of mud down our bodies as we struggled to replace the axle of our Land-Rover. Sand as fine as talcum powder had sucked the wheels down to the rims. It was then that the axle had snapped. With a satisfying clink, the new axle slid into place.
Because of the urgency of the task, the surrounding elephants had not perturbed us, nor did they seem afraid. It made us think of the time when man and beast will again exist in perfect harmony. (Genesis 2:19; Isaiah 11:6-9) Our only regret was that soon we would have to start the long, dusty trek home.
However, as with other beauty spots on earth, there is growing concern about the impact of man and his modern hunting methods. “Every year,” writes Creina Bond in the book Okavango—Sea of Land, Land of Water, “8 000 animals are killed in the Delta by 1 300 tribal and 200 recreational hunters.” In addition, other men dream of diverting the Okavango’s waters for human use.
Whatever man does, we felt reassured that the Creator of this marvel will fulfill his purpose for the whole earth to be made a paradise. Then, its attraction will be even greater, for “the desert plain will be joyful and blossom as the saffron. And the heat-parched ground will have become as a reedy pool, and the thirsty ground as springs of water.”—Isaiah 35:1, 7.
[Map/Pictures on page 24, 25]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)