It was early morning in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. As we stepped ashore from the small boat our guide, Slade, immediately stopped to load his rifle. It was a somewhat disconcerting start to our walk, to say the least. He then gave us a short briefing on how to stay safe during our time on Palm Island, one of hundreds that dot the delta.
We were to walk in single file, an arm’s length apart, with him at the front and our other guide for the morning, Bones, at the rear. We should talk in lowered voices and watch for Slade’s hand signals. And if we encountered what he termed a PDA, a potentially dangerous animal, we were to bunch together so that we looked like one large animal, make some noise and, whatever else we did, not run.
Reassuringly he added that he had never yet had to use the rifle; and also that he had never had to deal with a serious threat to any group of visitors.
But still …..!
So we set off as instructed in single file, wondering what we might come across. The island is around eight kilometres across when the water is low in the winter months, so there is plenty to explore. We followed one of many narrow paths made by animals, heading towards a large termite mound which Bones climbed to scan the area for wildlife.
We passed a so-called sausage tree. Slade explained how the San people (the native hunter-gatherers of this region) use its seeds to make coffee.
We saw a Hooded Vulture flying overhead and in the distance some baboons climbing a wild date palm; one of the many which give the island its name.
Then we came across a small group of warthogs, who eyed us for a while before continuing to graze.
The nearby impala were much more cautious, watching us carefully all the time we stood there.
We got a glimpse of a pair of reedbucks walking through the tall grass, but no chance for photos. But we had a much closer look at a pretty Little Bee Eater which posed nicely for us.
The hippo pool
Then we started to make our way towards a large area of water from which hippo noises had been emanating. Sure enough, it was full of the creatures. This was our PDA moment, as hippos are considered the most dangerous mammal in Africa, based on numbers of people killed. Around 500 people in Africa are killed every year because of them; but of course, mosquitoes and tsetse flies are even more deadly.
Here though, Slade assured us that if we stayed on the bank, well back from the water’s edge, they would not feel threatened and would therefore not threaten us. Most attacks from hippopotami occur when they are on land, not in the water.
It was such a special experience to stand so close to these impressive animals and to go eyeball to eyeball with them like this. We watched them for quite a while, and also saw some babies on the far side of this lagoon.
There were so many here that I assumed sightings were pretty much guaranteed. But talking to the other lodge guests later I learned that this is by no means the case; they hadn’t seen hippos on their visit to Palm Island the previous day. As with any other safari experience, it really is a matter of luck, as well as great guiding!
Eventually we left and started to walk back to where we had left the boat. Slade spotted some elephants in the distance which it was just possible to photograph.
We also stopped by a scattering of buffalo bones, which Slade explained had been in this spot for around four years. He showed us the groove on the rib bones which allows each to slot into the next, providing protection for the internal organs.
Time to leave Palm Island
Back at the boat Slade offered refreshments. Then we headed back to the lodge, stopping for a closer look at a big crocodile we had seen earlier – a much closer look! He was now basking on the bank; so Slade brought the boat in right alongside him so we could get some good photos.
I visited the Okavango Delta in 2018