You cannot avoid Maun when visiting the Okavango region. And why would you? It is perfectly situated at the bottom end of the delta and has grown into a centre for all things connected to safari experiences in Botswana. It is also a welcome destination for some weary travellers who have just crossed through the remote Kalahari.

Maun is a town of about 80,000 inhabitants, most of whom are in the tourism industry and support services. There are numerous supermarkets, shops, malls and markets for you to refill your supplies. It is a bustling little metropolis where you can find anything you need, even down to repairing your vehicle, sourcing some tyres, visiting the carwash (more on that later) or having your shoes ‘cleaned’.

Island Safari Lodge

We were booked into the Island Safari Lodge for a couple of days (that turned out to be an extra day after we exited the CKGR prematurely). It is about ten kilometres from town on the road to Moremi and Chobe. The lodge was built sometime in the seventies with numerous bungalows, chalets and a campsite with about ten pitches. The age is starting to creep in a little with some sorely needed maintenance, but this actually adds to the charm of the place, and the staff are super friendly.

The campsite has a couple of water taps scattered about and an electricity point near each pitch. The shower block(s) are quite old, but everything works and there is even toilet paper on hand (this is a measurement put in place during our travels through Europe, with wildly differing results) and serves to gauge the level of service. Maybe a little primitive, but crucial if you’re caught short!

There is plenty of shade under the large trees, but unlike Palm Afrique in Ghanzi the campsite has the usual sandy surface. The pool next door is big and very welcome to cool off from the ever-present heat!

A restaurant does a good job of offering a basic menu (burgers, pizzas) and the obligatory beer to wash it down. For those in need, a quick catchup on the wifi is handy, as well as the booking office where you can book anything from a guided game drive to a helicopter ride. Speaking of which…

Helicopter Horizons

A doors-off, open-to-the-elements private flight over the Okavango Delta! This is an absolute indulgence, let’s be honest. But, on the other hand, wouldn’t you go ‘all-in’ if you’re in the Okavango? Bucket List – tick!

Take off is from Maun airport (with a full passport and security check in order to get airside). A little Robinson R44 awaits, this is a small four-seater, and as mentioned, there are no doors. Vic and I clamber into the back seats and we have two pilots for today – a trainee (all the way from Canada, building hours in the cockpit) in the right seat and what a place to do it.

A short warmup of the engine and we rise off the tarmac and head out into the delta. The beauty of a helicopter is the ability to jump into the air from anywhere and glide over the landscape. And what an experience! With arms out into the slipstream, we point at lone elephants in the water, lines of wildebeest following each other, hippo tracks in the water, and green expanses all the way to the horizon. Have you ever seen wildlife from this perspective? It is both glorious and humbling all at once.

We cross over little settlements adjoining the national park, looking very neat and well-kept, random cattle herd themselves in search of the waterhole. A tenuous existence next to the wildlife. The delta is a large open and empty region, flat as anything with no discerning landmarks, but equally no people live in the reserve.

Anthills are dotted about and serve as building blocks for new ‘islands’ in the landscape. A herd of elephant hugs the waterside of another large expanse of water. Palm trees! Mokoros ply the water 1,000 feet below. Buffalo look up with their signature scowl as we pass by, trying not to disturb.

The contrast with the dry Kalahari is difficult to grasp, this is a veritable oasis. Equally mind-boggling is the size of the delta which the Okavango River feeds from many miles away, all the way from Angola. It was named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and is one of the few river deltas that don’t flow out into the sea. It is truly wonderful to see this from this vantage point, something you would never do from your little 4×4. The hour is over far too quickly and we settle back down at the airport, absolutely buzzing with excitement. The video and the photos fail to capture the whole experience.

Can I recommend it? What do you think? It certainly does assault the wallet, but it is unique and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had our flight at 9 am and it is arguably best to book this for the morning, especially during the summer months when temperatures are high. And trust me we were grateful in this heat wave. Unusually payment was done afterwards at the Helicopter Horizons office just across the street from the airport building. Then the shuttle dropped us back at the Island Safari Lodge. How very civilised and convenient.

Maun Cultural Tour

Another enjoyable experience was the cultural tour of Maun. This was arranged by Safari Destinations and is a good three hours well spent in downtown Maun. They pick you up in an airconditioned taxi van, so already things are agreeable. And we have to give a shout-out to Thato for his enthusiasm and knowledge.

Basket Weavers

First stop is to visit the basket weavers at Botswana Quality Baskets. This is a project run by an incredible woman devoted to teaching young, single mothers the skills needed for weaving using the local palm leaves and then turning that skill into a business. She has helped over 120 young individuals learn how to do basket weaving. You are given the opportunity to try your own hand at this, and soon realise it is far harder than it looks! It is a great example of the upliftment and help community can give each other.

THE CARWASH

Next stop is the carwash, oh yes. Not exactly the first thing that comes to mind, I’m sure. But these are integral to the social vibe in Botswana. They do take pride in their appearance, which is one thing, but it functions as a gathering place to catch up on the news and perhaps some local gossip.

You can park your car while a crew does their best to remove the sand and dust that is ever-prevalent. While this is happening you can have your shoes cleaned or hang out at the tuck shop which has a cool beverage on offer. A pool table sits under a tree, ready for a quick game (these can be seen all over, just out in the open, preferably under a tree). There is even a creche for the kids, so that the moms can go to the market (for a wig, which seems to be a big fashion thing around here). And don’t overlook the rather good graffiti on display, a statement from the local, rather talented artists. Artists that also ply their hand at wood carving and prints. So, not just a carwash. But they do try to flag you down in your rental 4×4, just maybe they can charge a small premium from a foreigner.

And who can blame them? It is their livelihood after all, along with the market stalls that we walk through offering anything you need, in particular are the spices and array of (dried) beans on offer. These market stalls and informal businesses are (sort of) encouraged by the government, especially after the whole COVID situation which decimated the whole tourism industry. An industry that Maun is built on. The ‘tin men’, who have a informal business, once again, under a random tree, and gather all the scrap metal lying about to turn it into useful items such as storage boxes and buckets is a good example of this.

DISTRICT COURTS

The district courts are also something that a (large) tree serves as a host to. These take care of the smaller local problems that arise, like petty theft or domestic disputes.

The issues are dealt with locally and speedily, and can often result in the guilty party being sentenced to ‘slashes’ (with a cane across the backside, like we used to have at school in South Africa). Depending on the severity up to six slashes as punishment, and they can also be spread out over a week instead of all at once. This seems to be a good deterrent, along with the death penalty still being in place in Botswana. All in all it seems to be far safer and less explosively violent than South Africa.

A Traditional meal

A last turn at the local restaurant brings a traditional meal – or a small tasting which was rather nice.

A typical meal is ‘pap (a thick type of corn porridge), pumpkin, beans, a type of spinach and cooked meat, probably chicken. This is served with a thin gravy sauce and a ginger-flavoured drink. Very pleasant, as well as type of cooked corn snack. I can recommend going on this tour, it offers a glimpse behind the curtains of how this country operates and who lives here (making a living). Something you wouldn’t necessarily learn in your luxury lodge.

Okavango Breweries

The local Botswana beer is ‘St Louis’ and it is nice and light, and very refreshing. The low alcohol percentage (3.5%) is just what is needed after a long day behind the wheel in the scorching sun. Just to gather some energy to set up your roof tent!

If you’re looking for something a little more bespoke, then come to the Okavango Breweries. This is a craft beer business in Maun that has a couple of beer types like a draft (with hints of honey) and a couple of IPAs. As someone who enjoys his beer, I can say the brewmaster is doing a fantastic job. Not too heavy on the flavour, but nice and refreshing with a little more flavour than the St Louis. Worth a visit, we got an impromptu tour of the brewing area and next time the beer garden may be open!

So Maun has a lot to offer. It is super laid back with very friendly locals, and all the amenities you need for the next leg of your journey. Admittedly it is busier, but that’s what you get with a larger population and the convenience of well-stocked shops. You can immerse yourself in some local flavour and book anything you would like to do right here, from a game drive to a Mokoro trip to a haircut!