Two days later at Little Vumbura, dead on the centre of the Delta, my safari mates were an American couple, Sean and Jennifer, who were much more interested in birdlife, if only because Sean liked hunting in the Montana woods and the easy availability of guinea fowl, francolin and sandgrouse made him whistle with excitement (“I hunt for the pleasure of it and the experience, not for trophies” he was quick to clarify). But shooting anything, even for food, was not allowed in the Moremi National Park or on any of the reserves I stayed in. As a result, animals were less afraid of humans and were more likely to allow us to come close and observe them. In some South African game reserves you might be served kudu pie, impala pâté and nyala stew, but our dinners were obstinately based on beef, lamb and chicken.
“So, how does Little Vumbura compare with Xigera as far as birds go?” Sean asked me over one of those dinners.
How does it compare, indeed…
Only a few dozen kilometres north from Xigera and I was literally in another world. The first camp was water-based, where the emphasis was on aquatic outings, whether by slow dugout (called mokoro in the delta) or by fast powerboat. The habitats were either open water covered by floating waterlilies or permanent swamps defined by banks of magnificent papyrus sedges in the deeper end or bulrush in the shallower sections. Everything was surrounded by riverine forest composed largely of the tall, majestic razor-sharp fronds of fan palms and cluttered copses of smaller date palms.
Waterbirds were especially prolific: apart from the omnipresent African jacana, there were elegant Egyptian geese, flocks of white-faced ducks, solitary foraging green-backed herons, plus gaggles of great white – and all kinds of – egrets. Open-billed storks occasionally walked among them; cormorants stood on stones drying their wings; and African darters swam immersed in the lagoons, their long thick necks protruding from the surface like watersnakes. African fish eagles perched majestically on tops of trees, while malachite kingfishers balanced on reed tops and sociable weavers’ nests – always facing west to avoid the strong eastern winds – hung sturdily over the channels.
Little Vumbura was in a sense a complement to Xigera, situated as it was near dry woodland. There were no palms to be seen, while baobabs, jackalberries and bushwillows abounded, sometimes giving way to savannah scrub where knobthorn and sweet-thorn acacias were dominant. Here the sunlight played on the glossy iridescence of the plumage of Burchell’s starlings; the click-click hammer-on-the-anvil sound of the blacksmith plovers filled the air; coppery-tailed coucals spread their wings in the early morning sun to soak its rays; red-billed and yellow-billed hornbills watched us carefully from the trees; bearded woodpeckers advertised their presence in staccato outbursts; and those game birds I described earlier made Sean’s heart race.
As for kingfishers, you can find here species that don’t like to fish (they exist, they exist), like the grey-hooded kingfisher or his cousin, the migratory woodland kingfisher, whose arrival, marked with a loud, cockerel-like morning call, indicates the end of winter in the delta.
Big game also followed suit. In Xigera we were surrounded by hippos and the semi-aquatic red lechwe – we even had a glimpse of the elusive sitatunga antelope. In Little Vumbura we saw kudu, tsessebe, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, waterbuck – even ostrich – plus elephants, hyenas and packs of African wild dogs on the prowl.
“Different ecosystems,” I replied laconically, “different birds”.