Canoe on the Selinda Spillway
Photo by Elie Seidman
When you fly across Botswana, most of what you see for miles is the Kalahari Desert. But in the northern portion of the country, is a unique Savannah habitat where the Okavango River flows down from Angola spreading into the Okavango Delta. In 2009, for the first time in thirty years, the headwaters that feed into the delta rose to an extent that they flooded an area of grassland to the northeast of the delta, called the Selinda Spillway. In 2010, the headwaters met even earlier in May. This year due to incredible rains in the watershed of the Kavango and Kunene Rivers, the Selinda Spillway's headwaters have joined from both the Western and Eastern directions, fully connecting the two waterways from the Okavango through to the Zibidianja Lagoon.
photo by Elie Seidman
Before 2009, the Selinda Spillway was not a complete waterway and the Selinda canoe trail didn't exist, which makes this one of the least visited places in Southern Africa. It is also one of the wildest and most exclusive regions of the continent. The Selinda Concession only permits forty-eight guests spread over the 300,000 acre private reserve and a maximum of eight people on the canoe trail.
The canoe trail begins northwest of the Okavango Delta and then one can meander eastward through the Selinda Reserve. The 45 kilometer trail finishes close to the convergence of the Linyanti and Kwando Waterways. The spillway forms an important conservation connector between the Okavango Delta and the Chobe area.
elephants in the Selinda Spillway photo by Elie Seidman
From May to September, during North America's summer - Botswana's winter - the waters have been flowing further and deeper than in the past. The spillway continues to fill up at both of its' ends, the channels separated by a diminishing section of dry land. Given the rarity of the spillway phenomenon, and the few people you encounter on the trail, the Selinda Spillway is one of the few places you can find that has that elusive quality Tom Friedman calls the "land of no service," what I think of as being truly off-the-grid.
After we arrived at the Selinda air strip, we were picked up in a Land Rover by our guide, Clinton "Cliff" Phillips, and didn't see another person or built structure for the next three days, aside from the four members of the support staff who canoed ahead of us, to set up the tent camp each night. We had no phone or computers with us; Cliff also wisely suggested that we leave our watches behind. When I left behind my watch and ipod, my senses awakened to the natural rhythm of the ecosystem. I felt more attuned to the busy movement times during dusk and dawn and the tranquility of the river at other times.
Selinda at night photo by Elie Seidman
"Just go with the flow," Cliff told us as we paddled along in our Canadian canoes across the spillway, "nothing is guaranteed in the bush." For most of the trail this was easy advice to follow, until we stumbled upon a pod of hippos in their watery bedroom on our third day on the spillway.
We had encountered many submerged Mopane trees in the water that created obstacles for canoeing, but this time as we paddled around a bend in the river we encountered what seemed at first to be a black rock. But then the rock moved and snorted, and I could make out the thick neck and bulging eyes of the hippo.
I had been told that Hippos are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal and can run at speeds of over 20 miles. (The only possibly more dangerous animal in Africa is the mosquito). I had never seen a hippo before up close. I always imagined them looking sort of placid, but when this beast reared its head above the water and snorted, it looked anything but peaceful. It submerged its head again and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. But then I heard even louder snorts and four other hippos shot their heads up, like jack-in the boxes. Before I knew it, I had counted 15! We furiously paddled to the side of the banks, as hippos usually like to stay in deep water during the day. It hadn't occurred to me until that moment how much easier it was to paddle while looking at birds, as opposed to while keeping my eyes transfixed on this pod of hippos. I had never been so afraid of an herbivore before.
Hippos! photo by Elie Seidman
As we quietly navigated around the river bend, and away from the chorus of hippos, I felt humbled and invigorated by the unpredictable hippos and the temporary waters of Selinda Spillway.