Sights and Sounds of Mysterious Okavango Swamps
My flying days took me all across the beautiful sub-continent of Southern Africa. It was a mosaic of lush farmlands, cattle farms and rolling plains.
I was fortunate to see more than most travelers, because I am a certified Commercial Pilot and had access to a modern, fast and very maneuverable.
Amongst my most memorable trips was a charter flight I was hired to perform, through Rossair out of Rand Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa.
I was booked to fly a family to the Okavango Swamps, in Botswana, Africa via Maun. This small town is the gateway into the ‘Swamps’ and has Customs and Immigration facilities to enter Botswana. We had been reserved accommodations in the form of a collection of tents, at Xugana Island Lodge.
As the sky turned red over Jan Smuts Airport, my three passengers came out of the Airport towards the Piper Saratoga STOL that awaited them. I had already done the early morning pre-check of the aircraft, checked and filled the wing-tanks, walked around and closely inspected the airplane for safety and performance.
Stashing the families belongings in the fuselage luggage compartment, assuring they were comfortably seated and aware of our general route and flight schedule, I taxied the Saratoga towards the take-off runway. At the staging point of runway 27 (270 degrees – west) I went through the engine, surfaces, brakes and take-off checks. Once satisfied, I made one last check of the passengers and accelerated down the runway, and off to Botswana.
I climbed the aircraft to 6,000 feet above sea level, about 3200 feet above ground level in South Africa’s midlands. The engine purred powerfully as I decreased power and set her up for a level cruise towards the west. Our destination, Maun, Botswana, is 387 nautical miles northwest of Johannesburg and would take approximately 1.3 hours, in this specially converted Saratoga, with it’s drooped wing-tips, extra large fowler flaps, leading edge slats and modified tailplane. All this to facilitate short take-off and landing on bush airstrips and unprepared fields.
After enjoying canapes, cold beer and wine, in the case of the adults and a cold Coke for the young man, the passengers bobbed from side to side , craning their necks, taking in all the sites below, as the African bushveldt passed beneath. It wasn’t long after their refreshments that I sighted the far off scatterings of a settlement. Maun was coming into focus, the sandy, arid and dusty homes and shops now sitting under a hot, bright early morning sun.
I positioned the Saratoga for a long, easy and shallow approach, before requesting landing permission from the bored sounding Air Traffic Controller. We were granted a straight-in approach and notified that there was no other reported traffic. It was an uneventful, smooth and comfortable landing, after which we slowly taxied to the Airport building and parked.
Maun’s concourse, if you can call it that, was cool and welcoming, and after the formalities, I suggested my passengers find the conveniences and refresh themselves before our final leg to Xuanga Island Lodge in the Okavango Swamps.
We cleared Customs and Immigration, refreshed ourselves and bought some hot, fresh coffee and scones, before heading back out to the Saratoga. As it had been a relatively short, 1.4 hour flight and that the airplane has better tha 5.0 hours fuel endurance, I didn’t request any fuel at this stop. This also gave me less all up weight for the landing at Xuanga’s rather rugged airstrip.
My guests got comfortable once again as we taxied out to the runway and after receiving permission, I accelerated and we rose into the clear skies once more. The short flight to Xuanga Island Lodge would take us only 25-30 minutes, so I decelerated and brought the aircraft back to a slow, 80 mph, to allow the passengers to really take in the beauty of the upcoming Marshlands.
Down below, amongst the meandering canals and at the many pools, we saw life going on as the natives went about their business. There were patient old men fishing, children splashing in the canals, uncaring of the crocodile that surely lurked nearby and naked women pounding at their pile of colorful washing.
As far as they eye could see were lush waves of papyrus cane and aquatic plants, glistening canals crisscrossed the wetlands, surrounding grassy, treed islands and pools with colorful lilies. The passengers were all ooh’s and aah’s as we slowly glided across these beautiful, mysterious and surprising Swamps. They gasped as we spotted a herd of elephant, saw hippo’s wallowing in the canals and the many antelope hiding or springing about.
I noticed a waft of smoke from the outdoor fire that the Xuanga Island Lodge’s cooking pit. There would be a whole duiker or other buck on a spit, being prepared for the days meals. If my memory served me correctly, we would be offered roast leg, sliced steaks, ribs and the ever popular biltong or dried meat.
I flew over the picturesque, rustic camp that offered traditional tents, self-contained bungalows and the more luxurious cabins scattered among the massive trees. Piet and Marianne du Maurier, the owners and operators, came out waving and pointing toward the airstrip a few miles to the east. I could see a driver pull the battered Landrover onto the narrow, pot-holed dirt road that lead to the landing strip.
We circled around and I put the Saratoga into a steep, all flap, all slat, powered descent toward what looked like a handkerchief in the surrounding bush. I kept a look out for wild animals in the airstrip as we came in, but just then the Landrover sped down the airstrip to do just the same.
The Saratoga touched down, it’s undercarriage rumbling, shock absorbers pounding and wings shaking, as she settled onto the rough terrain. I braked gradually, guiding the aircraft to a safe landing, trying to be as gentle as possible. We came to a stop and I turned back toward where our driver waited. My guests disembarked thankfully and I secured the airplane, tied her down tightly and covered the fuselage with the fitted tarpaulin. We jumped into the Landrover and headed towards Camp.
In the three miles we traveled, the driver/guide pointed out a kudu with her frisky calf, two curious buffalo and scurrying worthog, sniffing and rooting for roots. The drive took us through overhanging trees, beneath massive branches and thick vegetation. Off in the distance we got glimpses of the watery marshes, shiny canals and pools. The driver pulled into Xunaga Island Lodge, as the Du Mauriers came out to meet us.
Our welcome was warm and sincere, as my guests were brought into the shady varandah surrounding the main lodge and it many rooms. Cold beers, frosty and delicious were soon being offered around, with soft drinks and several choices of iced tea, wine and finger food.
The conversation took on an animated twist as my passengers were shown around the Lodge, taken down to the waters-edge and shown the surrounding points of interest. After the guests relaxed and got to know the Lodge staff members, they were escorted to one of the bungalows that included a private bathroom and toilet, fully stocked kitchen and small bar. Overlooking the far off islands that are home to wild game, the bungalow had it’s own patio and outdoor ‘braai’ or bar-b-que.
From this point on the activities flowed one into the other, canal gliding in makoro’s, fishing trips to the islands with over-stuffed picnic baskets, aerial game sightings in the Saratoga, and those day and night guided game safari’s, to search for the Big Five and their ‘kills’. Most interesting too, were the exciting hide-out excursions beside the waterholes, pools and favorite gathering places of the wild animals.
Crisp, fresh, bird-chirping mornings sipping freshly brewed coffee, enjoyed overlooking the river. Hot, shimmering and still afternoons beside the cool swimming pool, sipping icy cocktails as the cicada’s wailed in the distant flamboyant trees. Incredulous sunsets bathing us with gold, orange, red and violet, as we sipped ‘our sundowner’ beers, cold and frithy, our feet up on the comfy ottoman’s. Fun-filled dinners around the open fires within the boma, as natives performed their ritualistic and ceremonial dances for our pleasure.
The youngsters were kept busy with target practice, tree climbing, bird-watching, makoro lessons, carving demonstrations and a myriad activities with the native children from the local village. Yet it was the swimming pool and water-sports that kept them busy most days. The thrill of the kill would always fascinate and excite the whole camp, as a marauding lion pack would enjoy their nights work.
We saw giraffe, leopard, lion, elephant, bufallo, crocodile and to many varieties of antelope to say. The majestic eland and elegant kudu made a great impression on us, as did the sprightly duiker and slightly built impala. The wild game surrounded Xuanga Island and knowing they weren’t endangered by man, allowed us very close proximity to their grazing, foraging, bathing, drinking and hunting.
All too soon the trip was at an end, and it was with regrets that my guests, now friends, bid the du Mauriers and their friendly staff members farewell. We spent the final evening around the fire beside the swimming pool, exchanging memories and stories, enjoying a meal befitting a farewell. There was roast venison, stewed crocodile tail and homegrown vegetables, fruit with preserves and pastries. Large platters of various cheeses, hams, cured meats and pickles intermingled with crunchy breads, crackers and grilled flat-bread. The beer and wine flowed bountifully, as the laughter and conversation reverberated through the sleeping Okavango Swamplands.
Our unforgettable safari was at an end, but our memories would last a Lifetime as the Saratoga climbed effortlessly, up and away from that isolated paradise that is Xuanga Island Lodge and the mysterious, beautiful and amazing Okavango.. We set our sights for home, those thoughts and memories swirling about as my passengers sat back, closed their eyes and smiled little smiles………………………