Jewel of the Kalahari The Okavango Delta with Vegan Food
The Okavango Delta is a dream destination. As any nature lover would know, this is an environment like few others – one of the most pristine oases one may have the luxury of traveling to on this planet we call home.
It’s a bucket list staple for all who have ever heard of it, or seen pictures of hippos wading in the watery wetlands.
When visiting Botswana your trip would truly be incomplete if an escape to the Okavango wasn’t on your itinerary. Or at least I am of that opinion anyway.
The delta is an area that covers roughly 17000 square kilometers of the Kalahari Desert in northern Botswana.
The Okavango River starts in the Angolan Highlands during seasonal flooding between March and July and slithers 22000 km’s across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and into the Kalahari Desert.
A convergence of dust and life-giving water. More than 150000 islands protrude during this period, and the incredible diversity of wildlife that inhabits these lands is remarkable to behold. During drier months one’s chance of spotting larger wildlife increases, as animals become more concentrated in their visits to points of water.
During a visit, one might be lucky enough to encounter African Bush Elephant, Buffalo, Wildebeest, Giraffe and Lions, to name but a few. The water is also teeming with wildlife; Hippopotamus pods wallow and grunt; crocodiles lie in wait, and hopefully, it is not for you, as these prehistoric creatures rank amongst the largest in the world.
Lizards, snakes and terrapins also make the marshlands their home. Our team knew that we absolutely had to include a safari in the Okavango as part of The Ultimate Vegan Adventure’s Botswanan episode. We were on a mission to find a tour company to partner with that practices both ethical tourism, and that would also be able to cater to our vegan needs.
We did our due diligence and found an operator that we thought might fit the bill! As vegan travelers we are always hyper-aware when booking any kind of trip; our planning inevitably requires research as to what the hotel or tour operator is able to offer us in the way of vegan food.
As we well know, saying that they can provide good vegan fare, and actually living up to that statement can be worlds apart. We are accustomed to being under-catered for or given measly portions of fruit or unimaginative salad, whilst others are tucking into hearty meals.
When Kalahari Breeze Safaris proclaimed that they can cater for any special dietary requirements, and a vegan diet especially, it was certainly a bold statement to make and one that we were happy to put to the test! Prior to our trip, we were advised that there are a few essentials that would be indispensable for traveling into the Delta, even so with us going in with an all-inclusive tour company, as we were.
If you have just added the Okavango to your must-visit travel list, please take note; you will need to take nontoxic soap, sunblock, natural mosquito repellant, a sun hat, long pants, closed shoes, and an adventurous spirit.
Of course, a camera and binoculars go without saying! As we drove up from Gaborone to Maun, we were excited for a safari expedition that would actually cater for us, and so we set off hopeful but nonetheless still dubious as to what exactly we would be served.
We were transported to the start of our expedition on an overland vehicle, an adventure all of its own, as we crossed waterfilled marshes and brushed against encroaching branches. Traveling through the delta as one might imagine is an interesting experience. We visited mid-April and the wetlands were brimming with water.
Eventually, you reach a point where the vehicle can go no further, and your journey on the water begins. We entered the river at a launching point in Boro Village, which interestingly is a rural community that still follows a nomadic life, moving with the water.
To get from Boro to our campsite, some hour’s trip away, we boarded a mokoro alongside several others, all carrying the tour company’s team and camping supplies. They headed out in front of us so as to reach the site first and set up camp before our arrival. This is a part of what it means to explore the Okavango on an overnight safari. We sat with our camping bags behind us in the mokoro – a traditional dugout canoe-like vessel — which is navigated by an experienced poler from the village we had just departed from.
The tour operators providing trips into the delta have to make use of the polers’ services from the village. A roster system is closely adhered to, ensuring that all community members get a turn to use their well-honed skills to bring in an income for themselves and their families.
Kalahari Breeze made us aware of how important respecting this system is, and that it is an integral effort into not only supporting this community but also keeping the tradition of mokoro’s alive. Their passion and respect for this system was one of our first insights into the ways that our chosen tour company practices ethical tourism.
Experiencing a ride in a mokoro is otherworldly. I sat as instructed, tucked into the boat, with my arms at my sides, silently taking in the greenness all around me. Land and water merge so seamlessly that at times I wasn’t able to conclude where they met. The boat is guided through reeds, creating a corridor in the delta.
If you have a guide as astute as ours was, tiny creatures, almost impossible to catch with an untrained eye, will be pointed out to you. Isaac, our wonderful guide, stopped time and time again for us to examine Painted Reed Frogs, their intricately painted skin a marvel to look at. We were also in awe of the African Jacana tiptoeing across the water and completely mystified by the painted body of the Lilac Breasted Roller.
We were even lucky enough to watch a mating pair of Squacco Herons. The Okavango truly is a birders paradise, with over 530 bird species to search for. So far, we were off to an enviable start with siting mere minutes after our trip had begun. As our luck would have it, we were also in for a treat where our meals were concerned.
This was evident right from the very first vegan snack bars we were given to stave off our hunger pangs on a short break we took midway through our Mokoro ride en route to our camp – a quick detour Isaac had in mind to give us our first sighting of hippos!
As it turns out, the fruity vegan snack bars were a wonderful omen of things to come as we would soon be treated to feast after feast. Every thought was made regarding our vegan diet! We arrived at our camping site to find the entire camp already set up – in what was the short time we spent spying the hippos, and searching for the elusive crocodiles – the team had been able to erect an entire living area, inclusive of tents, bush bathrooms, a mobile kitchen, and dining area.
We were nary off the mokoro than we sat down for a hearty lunch. When you are camping, you automatically prepare yourself for basic meals, but the food that was presented to us was remarkably anything but! The lunch menu comprised of stuffed gem squashes topped with tomato relish and served with a light salad.
More snack bars and a selection of fruits, tea, coffee, and juice were also on offer. So far were immensely impressed by the catering aspect of our trip but as mentioned, we wanted to ensure that we were going to camp and film with a tour company that practices sustainable tourism.
This term of reference is used to brand the philosophy of ethical travel practices that really speaks to our show.
As animal lovers, we always seek out companies putting their money where their mouth is and doing their bit to take care of the space in which they work; especially if it’s something that they attest to do.
For us, ethical travel means respecting the environment, animals, and the communities through which we travel.
When you meet Chris, who is one of the owners of Kalahari Breeze Safari’s, you will instantly get an understanding of what this means to him as a person and to the brand – a company that truly practices what they preach.
From ensuring the best treatment of those who they work with (the polers’ from Boro – the rural village from where our journey began) to creating as minimal impact on the environment through which you journey and camp in, are of great importance to them.
Everything that they take in (which includes tents, washing basins, camping toilets, shower bags, a whole kitchen set up, and a whole lot of food) all come back out again, and the earth is left as if no one had been there at all.
As animal enthusiasts, we were very eager for any sightings that we would get to encounter during our trip.
After having the most incredible start to our nature experience, we were eagerly anticipating what wildlife we would have the opportunity to see next.
After we had our fill of lunch, we set off on our afternoon trek with Isaac.
I was wise to wear my long trousers because we headed off through dense, grass and at times there were thorny bushes interjecting our pathway, as we walked for about an hour or so in the direction of the sun.
We walked briskly so as to keep pace with Isaac, but cautiously enough to keep our eyes peeled for any Elephants or Giraffes. One of our first sightings was of an African Fish Eagle, which of course we heard before we saw.
We were in our element trekking along, stopping to examine spoor and appreciate the wildness of where we were.
Feet on the Ground
There is something so special about having one’s feet on the ground, walking and searching, and feeling more a part of nature than when one is seated on a game drive vehicle. When Giraffe came into our line of sight, we immediately had the compulsion to walk closer to them.
Isaac however, who is an expert in all things flora and fauna in the Okavango, kept us back and reminded us that we are in the territory of wild animals, and not only for our own safety, but to also respect and preserve the environment as a wild and safe space for these animals, it is our duty and privilege to admire them from afar.
We are well aware that guides will often be convinced to move in closer to sited wildlife to enable their patrons to ‘get a better picture’; a practice which can be not only dangerous but also disconcerting for the animals alike.
It was such a humbling experience for us to be the ones being reminded of ourselves, and to remember where we were.
Not much long after this, we were blessed with a siting of elephants including two calves. I was positively giddy with excitement.
Unfortunately, the wind changed direction and the breeze blew our scent towards the herd, encouraging them to move on. After our encounter with the Elephants and the Giraffe, we headed back to camp, as the sun was setting behind us.
I had read about the endangered African Wild Dog, and so we looked out for them with earnest hoping to catch a glimpse on our walk back. I can’t say however that I was disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to see these playful creatures during our walk because we were overwhelmed by so many other remarkable sightings!
The camp kitchen was illuminated in the dimming evening light by the fire that snapped and crackled. Some delicious veggie burgers were being braaied for us, and when we sat together at the table – yes there was a whole dining table in the camp! – to enjoy our dinner, we were presented with so many mouthwatering side dishes I could barely eat them all.
The Sounds of the Lions
Our night sleeping in the Okavango was as peaceful, as it was alive with the sounds of the wild. One can’t help but be lulled to sleep by the bellowing frogs and the swooshing of water as animals wade in and out. When we awoke the next morning, we were asked whether we were woken in the night by the roaring lions.
I repeat – the roaring lions! We had not, which was perhaps eerier. We were then told stories of times when the camp would lie in silence as lions entered their space and took account of what was going on.
On our arrival at the camp, we had been warned that if ever a situation where lions or other dangerous animals approached the camp, everyone was to calmly enter their tents, and keep still and quiet until the curiosity of these creatures is met, and they move on.
As the light started to pour through the trees, we again headed off for a ride on the mokoro, this time in search of nothing in particular but simply content to take in the experience of gently gliding through the reeds. Lilly pads decorated the water around us and I found myself wondering time and time again about what may be lying beneath. I know I have held the food in high esteem, but really the glory goes to our breakfast experience.
This was hands down my favorite meal of the trip. To start with, we were served a creamy maize porridge (which was more than I have been served at some hotels for breakfast), only for this to be followed up by an entire ‘English breakfast’ with vegan sausages, fried mushrooms, smoky fire-cooked sweet potatoes, and it was complemented with some ciabatta and fig jam to boot!
Botswana’s Okavango Delta
I mean come on, you must concede that this is better than some restaurant’s ideas of vegan breakfast and WE WERE IN THE OKAVANGO DELTA!! On that note, let’s not forget that this setup is deep in the bush, literally hours away from any amenities.
I was also thrilled by the simple fact that I was able to go into my camp bathroom and not only use a toilet in privacy, but I was also able to shower, with hot – yes hot – water, fresh off the fire. I do not even think I can call this glamping, because I have been glamping and that wasn’t half as sophisticated as this.
The whole experience surpassed our expectations. Time and time again. It was a pleasure to be guided by someone who is highly astute and always considering the environment around you. I felt safe and at ease throughout the entire trip and that was all thanks to being in such experienced and considerate hands.
When next you plan to head out on a safari, whether it be on the Okavango Delta, or somewhere in the great plains of Africa, we encourage you to also search for one of the considerate tour operators who practice sustainable and ethical tourism.
Search for businesses that base their operation on foundations of respect, careful planning, and experience, to ensure the lightest travelers’ footprint.
If you are considering ticking the Jewel of the Kalahari off of your travel bucket list, I cannot recommend Kalahari Breeze enough!
From start to finish we were in awe of how well we were taken care of, and how carefully they paid attention to ensuring our vegan diet was prioritized. They certainly exceeded our expectations. We felt instantly at home in a landscape so vastly dissimilar from anything that we are used to.
Bianca Ivankovic van den Berg is a vegan chef and author based in Durban, South Africa. Bianca is the founder of Shap Shap NPO, a vegan social development organization that works in the rural communities of KwaZulu Natal. Currently, Bianca is busy co-producing and presenting, The Ultimate Vegan Adventure, a debuting vegan travel show.