The river that got lost on its way to the sea

The Okavango for everyone. The Panhandle is an accessible and affordable alternative - if you're willing to share your campsite with the odd hippo or crocodile, that is. (Jon Minster/Go!/Gallo)

The Okavango for everyone. The Panhandle is an accessible and affordable alternative - if you're willing to share your campsite with the odd hippo or crocodile, that is. (Jon Minster/Go!/Gallo)

I love the feeling of sand between my toes as my feet sink into blond sand all the way from my tent to the bar. A few minutes later, drink in hand, I turn towards the water. It’s late afternoon, the in-between time when most people are having a nap or washing off the day’s excursions.

I have a choice between the pier out over the water or one of the hammocks gently swaying between trees. I choose the pier. Taking a long sip of my ice-cold beer, I look out as the breeze turns the water into an impressionist reflection of the sky above. I’m not at a luxury beach resort, in fact, the nearest ocean is almost 1 000km away and across a desert. I’m staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers on the edge of the Thamalakane River in Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta, in the heart of Botswana.

The Okavango, Jewel of the Kalahari. I wonder what Monet would have thought of the water lilies here, stretching out for kilometres across the shallow water. African jacanas hop along their flat, floating leaves. A long dead tree trunk reaching out from the water provides the perfect perch for a cormorant to study potential food. Overhead I see a fish eagle swooping. It’s hard to believe this is just the tip of it.

The day before we’d taken a mokoro trip into the delta. A mokoro is a dugout canoe that is poled along the shallow river bed. It’s deceptively difficult. Our guide let me have a go while my friend bought smoked catfish from the village; mostly for his own amusement, I suspect.

The mokoro lets you get up close and personal with the delta and its inhabitants. Sometimes a bit too close! We were sent scrambling into the reeds by a hippo announcing his presence nearby.

We studied the tiny frogs which cling to the slender brown seed-topped reeds. We passed a baby crocodile only a metre away. Where was its mother? We saw elephants, zebra and lechwe when we landed on an island for a game walk. It started with a safety talk on what to do if a lion was spotted. Climb a tree, apparently. There are other ways to explore paradise but this is the best.

All this is the result of a river that got lost on its way to the sea. This water starts its incarnation as rain in Angola, flowing into the Rio Cubango and travelling down until it hits the flat lands of Botswana. From there it travels slowly, an infinitely patient journey that lifts not a single grain of sand as it fans out into the rivers, lagoons and flood plains.

By the time the sun starts drifting down, the bar is beginning to fill up. It’s a mix of guests, visitors and locals. Maun is a drinking town and everyone here has a story. There is an old German man whose tab I’m told has been running for years. He’s got a sure case against his ex-partner. He’s going to get a massive payout one day and pay his bar bill. It must be in the tens of thousands with the amount he drinks. I don’t know if the owners are optimists, philanthropists or see him as a commercial asset. It’s a good story at any rate.

There are travellers of all kinds and from all over the world. Some have been here weeks, planned or unplanned, some only days and some are just passing through. It doesn’t matter who you are, the Old Bridge Backpackers is somewhere you instantly feel at home.

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