Miraculous rains give Okavango new birth

THE flood is coming. Day by day, centimetre by centimetre, the waters of life are advancing into the remotest corners of the Okavango Delta. From their catchment area in the Angolan highlands, 483km to the north-west, the summer rains are now reaching their final destination.

It is a subtle alchemy, this strange collusion of wet and dry. As we glide through the lush, green waterways in our mokoro (dugout canoe), it’s easy to forget that beneath the reeds and lily pads are about 300m of windblown Kalahari sands.

Were it not for the floods, this fertile, teeming, miraculous place would now be turning into an arid desert.

But just as the heavens dry up in March, the inundation creeps inexorably across the land. The longer we are here to witness this slow-motion miracle, the more mesmerised Sarah and I become.

We have been moving between the Vumbura flood plains in the north, now being slowly swallowed up by the advancing waters, and Jacana island farther south, the ultimate honeymooners’ hideaway, where each morning the sun rises like a giant tangerine out of the lagoon in front of camp.

Talk among the bush guides and camp staff is of how high the flood will finally rise when it reaches its peak in August.

In 2010, it threatened to wash away the camps themselves. As with everything else in nature, no one can predict the future with any certainty.

Not even “Map” Ives. Map – his name spells out his initials – knows more about the delta than any man alive. The head of the environment division of Wilderness Safaris (the company Sarah and I are working with), he has lived and worked in the delta for nearly 35 years.

“Sometimes I think the word flood has the wrong connotations,” Map tells us. “This is not about mud and destruction. It’s an inundation, a massive pulse of life. If you cut a cross-section through Africa, you would see that the delta is a raised basin filled with sand. The Okavango is the way it is because it’s part of the Kalahari. It’s a thirst-land, one of the driest places on Earth, where the rate of evaporation exceeds rainfall by five to one.

“The only way you can truly understand this miracle is to experience it yourself, to see it with your own eyes. To smell the air, to watch the waters rising and the birds, the insects, the frogs, the amphibians and the fish arriving in the flood plains.”

At this time of year, the delta is indeed a heart- achingly beautiful place. If anything, after five months in the bush, we feel the thrill of being here even more intensely. On warm evenings we have been cooling off in the shallow waters of the flood plains, dodging the hatchling crocs and praying that their parents are keeping to the main waterways. We regularly see the Big Five, leopard tortoises, rhino beetles and hyenas.

Some of the more familiar bird species have become like old friends in a cartoon rogues’ gallery: the grey loerie with its “Go away” screech, the cape turtle dove and its incessant call to “work harder, work harder” (or should that be “drink lager, drink lager”?). Then there is the hammerkop with its dinosaur-era, hammer- shaped head; the hallucinogenic malachite kingfisher; and the lumbering kori bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, whose take-off makes a military freight plane look elegant.

Now that our senses have become more attuned, we are also enjoying the more subtle sights and sounds of the bush. We notice the alarm calls of the birds and antelopes when a predator is in the area and the subtle differences between night and day lilies, whose flowers rise and submerge according to the movement of the sun. A few days ago, we even caught a distant sighting of a sitatunga, an extremely rare (and very shy) antelope.

Only the mythical tokoloshe has consistently evaded us. Sarah says we should be careful what we wish for. Accounts vary, but it is said to be a hairy, dwarf-like creature with long ears and gouged-out eyes that can make itself invisible by putting a magic pebble in its mouth.

Personally, I think Sarah’s taking the whole tokoloshe thing too seriously. And she has been looking at me in a rather quizzical manner recently. Now, where did I put that pebble? © The Telegraph

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