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Jo'Burg Days: Dragonflies Over The Okavango

“The alluvial delta is an artist’s palette of primary colours. Yellows and ochres; greens and clear blues. The occasional touch of red from a hunting camp draws the eye; a thread of smoke from a campfire or land clearing stains the sky for miles around, and over it all is the golden sunset air, dusting with ethereal pollen the peace of unspoilt nature…’’ Barbara Durlacher flies over the Okavango delta.

It was nearly sunset at the small country airfield of Maun, Botswana. Standing in neat rows were the fragile dragonfly shapes of the planes which would carry us on the long-anticipated flight over the many-fingered Okavango delta.

Size and age precluded us from taking a makoro ride through the swamps, so here we were, a bunch of assorted grey-haired ladies, probably fifty grandchildren between us, ready for our flight over the fabled watercourse. But the question was, would we be able to climb aboard, and if so, did we trust the pilots?

Australian and New Zealanders to a man, including Brendan a pure-blood Maori, they looked too young to even have driving licences, but ran a thriving airline taking tourists over the delta and up to Kasani for the Chobe Game Reserve.

Encountering certain difficulties shoe-horning my girth into the exceedingly small cabin space, hemmed in on all sides by protruding metal bits, and unable to find a comfortable place to put my feet, I craned forward to peer out the window as we teetered delicately into the sky. Then, over the roar of the engine I heard the following in broad “Strine.”

“Don’t worry ladies – I may look young, but I’ve got all of 10 solo-flying hours to my credit. I’ll do everything I can to make sure I get you back safely.”

Heart in mouth, I locked my fingers tightly and prayed. More importantly, I prayed I would actually see something through the tiny window, the rising heat waves and film of dust and grime on the glass. Circling over the swamps, intently studying the threads of turquoise water for the elusive puku or water antelope we watched as the strange circular, palm-topped islets passed beneath. There were a few zebra; a couple of elephants, raised trunks testing the air for the strange noise from the skies; an occasional giraffe. A solitary makoro poled its way along a channel, passenger reclining uncomfortably in the bilges, but where were the animals?

It seemed we were out of luck; the prevailing drought had driven them further north in search of better grazing, easier kills, cleaner water and less interference from man; today we were destined to see very little in the way of four-footed life. But the ecology of the famous swamps is fascinating, as the islets evolve into islands and islands grow into spits of land as the river channels change shape and direction with every flood.

The alluvial delta is an artist’s palette of primary colours. Yellows and ochres; greens and clear blues. The occasional touch of red from a hunting camp draws the eye; a thread of smoke from a campfire or land clearing stains the sky for miles around, and over it all is the golden sunset air, dusting with ethereal pollen the peace of unspoilt nature.

But there is bad news in the pipeline. Vested local interests have plans to drain the swamps. The feeling is that this is necessary to increase the cattle ranching area. Beef for hamburgers promises better financial returns than government controlled tourism, so the destruction of one of the last great wetlands of the African sub-continent may go ahead unless substantial pressure can be exerted to stop it.

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