– Kayaking Safari Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby, Klein Collection Safaris
If you’re tired of sit-down safaris and want a bit of exercise (and adrenalin) to accompany your game watching, John Sandenbergh’s unique kayak trips through the Okavango Delta are the perfect counterbalance to a more traditional Botswana safari. Now 49, John has lived in the delta all his life and is one of the most experienced operators around, and the only person to offer, or dare to offer, commercial, multi-day kayak trips deep into the delta. We join him for an informal two day trip to get a taste for what it’s all about.
Emily, John’s girlfriend, laughs. “I can’t see John anywhere”, she says. “That means he’s telling one of his crocodile stories!” We’re sitting round the campfire in a bush camp deep in the delta and sure enough, John is describing an encounter with a three-metre reptile that attacked his kayak recently. “It came out of nowhere” he says, “And went straight for me. I jammed my paddle into its mouth and it snapped off, the kayak went upside down, I pulled myself into the front section and turned to breath in the trapped air bubble”. Apart from a couple of broken ribs, he got away unscathed. I’d have thought he’d never want to set foot in a kayak on the delta again after that but he’s circumspect. “This is what I do. I’ve been doing it all my life”.
We’d set out on a motorboat from Maun the day before, zooming through the waterways to the buffalo fence that demarcates the community areas from the wilder interior. John’s right hand man, implausibly-named C Company, went ahead with another boat so when we arrived at our campsite on a remote island, everything was meticulously set up with safari tents, a mobile kitchen and camp fire, kettle already on the boil. C Company grew up in the delta and is as knowledgeable as anyone in the ways of the bush.
We’d transported two kayaks up on the motorboat but this evening we decide to take the motorboat out for some fishing and game viewing, and a couple of cold beers as the Botswana sun sinks low over the horizon. African Jacanas flit from lily to lily, a giraffe pokes its neck out from above the reeds and a couple of young male elephants flap their ears at us as we cruise by. Out here, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, while back at the camp, Emily prepares a delicious braai and we drink whisky around the fire, listening to the nightjars, and more crocodile stories.
It’s the crocodile stories that are foremost in my mind when John and I push off in our kayaks from the island and start our paddle downstream. I try to ignore the bite marks in the polyethylene on the back of the boat. The sun is beating down and the air is silent save the distant resonance of Cape Turtle doves, and the dipping of paddles into water. My eyes constantly scan for moving lilies, and that silent ripple as a croc glides underwater towards you.
John laughs. “The crocs here are not too big”, he says. “This area was dry for too long. It’s up in the panhandle that you have to be really careful”. Over the years, John has learnt which areas to avoid and at what times of year, and his trips are planned carefully to minimise the risks. As we cruise along, he taps the side of the boat with his paddle.
“It’s to warn the hippos”, he explains. “I find that as long as they know I’m here, they’ll leave me alone. It’s when you surprise them that the trouble starts. Sometimes they even answer to my taps with a ‘honk honk’ and we have a little conversation. I’m here, you’re there.” In all his life paddling in the delta, John’s never been attacked by a hippo. “I’ve had a few close calls though!” he confesses.
We pick up the motorboat further downstream and Anne-Sophie has a turn in the kayak. We’re both struck by how comfortable they are, with fully adjustable padded seats and adjustable foot rests. We’ve found on kayak trips before that you can quickly get uncomfortable after an hour or two, making a multi-day trip nothing short of torture. With John’s kayaks you’re comfortable from the start and good for many days of paddling – John’s even done an epic 22 day trip in them.
We relax in the motorboat for a bit and land on an island for lunch. This being a ‘slack-kayak’ we’re enjoying the comforts of the motorboat more than usual, but on a typical 5 day trip, you might kayak 7 hours a day and 30-50km, depending on the fitness level of the group. That sounds a lot, but with the flow of the water at around 3kph (and you always paddle downstream), it goes surprisingly quickly.
What we found most satisfying was the physical exercise combined with the wilderness experience. All too often on safari you sit on your backside day after day, either in a vehicle or on a boat, and get plied with copious amounts of food and drink all day to boot. Sometimes you just crave getting your heart rate up a bit, and a stroll in the bush doesn’t always do it. John’s kayak trips give you as much of a work out as you want, in one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Africa.
If you’re looking for a challenge as well as a safari, this is it.
Kayaking the Okavango 101
For John, this is a lifestyle as well as a business and he does this because he’s passionate about it.
His most popular trips involve taking a motorboat with kayaks and supplies for mobile camps high up into the delta, then paddling downstream for 4-5 days camping on islands where you’ll hear lions roar and see no one. The camps are basic but absolutely adequate with comfortable tents and sleeping rolls and good, hearty food cooked on open fires, and plenty of cold beers after a long day’s paddle.
Trips are for a minimum of two people and can be tailored for whatever you want – from the popular 5-day paddle, to a shorter ‘slack kayak’ where you can cheat with the motorboat, to a full-on, no-frills, self sufficient Trans-Okavango expedition of 10 days or more.
John carries a full first aid kit and satellite phone for emergencies but no firearms. It’s important to understand that this is a remote wilderness area with dangerous game in abundance and although you’re in the safest hands around, you need to be comfortable with this.
Not good for: The fainthearted…
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