From its origin in the highlands of Angola the Okavango River flows south for 1,430 km into Botswana. It is southern Africa's third longest river and yet it never reaches the sea.
Botswana, a flat, landlocked country about the size of France, is more than 500 km from the nearest coast. Three quarters of its area is covered by the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango is the only river that flows into the country. Where the river and desert meet the water fans out across the sand to form the Okavango Delta, a 16,000 sq km maze of lagoons, channels and islands. Ninety-five per cent of the water that spreads onto the delta is lost to evaporation in the dry desert air, most of the rest, all that remains of the mighty Okavango River, disappears into the sands of the Kalahari.
We began our trip to the Delta in Namibia, just north of the Botswana border, where the Okavango River cascades over Popa Falls. More a rapids than a falls, the river drops a few metres over a rocky fault scarp beyond which it begins to spread onto the wetlands of the Okavango Panhandle. Bounded by faults that confine the meandering river to a strip about 15 km wide, the Panhandle extends about 100 km south from the Namibian border before the water fans out onto the main delta.
The B8 highway through Namibia's Caprivi Strip crosses the Okavango just upstream from Popa Falls. We left the highway there and followed the river south on a gravel road to the Botswana border and beyond through a series of small settlements called Etsha. There are 13 Etchas in all, a nomenclature that harks back to the late 1960s when thousands of Mbukushu people fled south to escape the civil war in Angola. They were granted refugee status in Botswana and settled along the Panhandle of the Okavango Delta. Over time they organized themselves into 13 groups based on clan and social status and the numbers assigned to their refugee camps became a permanent part of the urban geography.
At Etcha 6 Odie, our South African guide, parked the Toyota and we transferred to the open back of a huge 4x4 truck with special tires for our trip across the desert to the river. The drive took more than an hour as the big vehicle repeatedly ground to a halt in the bottomless sand and had to claw its way out in bull low. As we approached the river the flat expanse of sand became a maze of dry watercourses winding through open forest, and at the river's edge the desert is transformed into a jungle of trees shrubs and reeds.