The Selinda Adventure Trail
In 2009, slight tectonic movements coupled with the high waters in the northern parts of Botswana brought life back to the Selinda concession. A body of water that historically joined the Okavango river, via the Selinda Spillway to the Linyanti. Now, each year, as the waters begin to rise, the spillway offers a unique opportunity for adventures to hop on their canoes and experience a wilderness as the explorers of old once did.
As the dry season approaches, the Spillway begins to fill, inland waterholes start to dry and the vegetation loses its grazing/browsing appeal. Animals slowly begin to move closer to the spillway, which then becomes a lifeline in their drying home ranges.
From the air, this cycle is clearly visible. With only small pan systems holding water, the land seems dry and harsh. Elephants pass below us and as we approach our destination, the Spillway becomes visible. Our home for the next 5 days.
Arriving in the concession by private aircraft, we were met with cold refreshments and warm smiles. A quite moment allowed us to take it all in. It dawned upon us that we had left the lights of the big city and were now within a vast tract of land, alive with the sounds of nature.
Not long after stretching our legs and a briefing from our guide, the distant hum of a mechanical beast became apparent. In order to get to the rendezvous point, we would need to take a 20minute helicopter journey deeper into the concession. Following the course of the spillway again, we were able to grasp exactly what we would encounter in the coming days.
The trail follows the course of the spillway along a 40km stretch, as it meanders toward the Zibadianja Lagoon and further toward the Linyanthi swamps. Each departure is dependant on the conditions and water levels and is flexible to change at any stage. Walking and canoeing are the major attractions, feet on the ground, immersed in the experience. 4 nights and 3 different fly camps that are set up in pre chosen locations.
Fortunately for us at this time of year, the water levels were high enough for us to paddle from the rendezvous point to camp1, then onto camp 2 and 3 via canoe. The trail would be a mixture of canoeing and walking intermingled well thought out activities to keep us engaged and entertained throughout the stay.
The helicopter lands briefly and makes it way back to the airstrip, leaving the group deep in this vast land, the “backcountry” (A paddling term meaning: a distant wilderness invaded by those with a sense of adventure). Led by our extremely competent guide, we took to the spillway for a leisurely paddle toward our first overnight stop. A paddle that would set the scene for the upcoming adventure. Still waters, calm breeze and the gentle lapping of water against the canoes bow.
The arrival in camp was nothing short of breathtaking, as the sun set behind us, we approached the shore, greeted with a hearty welcome from the team that makes this adventure so special. Hovering lanterns guided us to the safest exit point, which happened to be closest to an elaborate bush bar, with a blazing fire to enjoy a cold beverage whilst we looked over the spillway contemplating the coming days.
Each morning is met with mist, rising over the waterway, a warm sunrise and a novel hot water bucket shower. The air is still and a chill runs along the spillway. A hearty breakfast is had around a comforting fire, and the excitement levels begin to rise as we climb into our canoes, belongings in toe, to set off on an adventure.
High rainfall in the recent season meant that inland waterholes were still holding water, and for this reason, the spillway was only now beginning to draw animals from far and wide. However, as we made our way down the spillway, it was evident that the area was attracting large herds of elephants and hippos had made definite pathways through the high reeds, allowing us to follow their trails, with notable caution.
In a place as remote as this, much of the wildlife in the region has very limited interaction with humans. A wilderness that is pure and wild. Our encounters proved this each time. Whether it was a quite shuffle to reposition in the boat, or a slight change in wind, each animal we encountered was evidently weary of these unnatural vessels, sitting quietly in the reeds as they passed. The intensity of the experience was felt in each seat.
Small families of elephants lined the banks, hidden by long reeds, revealed only by a slight gesture from our guide, leading the group. A gentle wave of his hand, or quiet snap of his fingers, alerted the group to potential wildlife in the vicinity. There would be an eery silence as we made our way quietly together, crowing the boats in the short reeds so as not to disturb any approach.
Each day on the trail held a new experience, each day plays into a different schedule, a new encounter and constant learning. You are not governed by time, but by the spillway, the animals and the sun. We would set out early in the morning and arrive at a new camp in the late afternoon. Whether our departure or arrival was by canoe or on foot, each time we set out, we were ready to embrace what was ahead of us.
The trail is about welcoming these moments and being fulfilled in each one, whether it be a swim in the water after a long mornings paddle, an elephant encounter or watching a fish eagle feed on a recently caught Tilapia. We enjoyed meals sitting waist deep in the spillway, perfectly set up by the team, who paddled ahead, unbeknownst to us. We waded, knee deep through the waters of the Selinda reserve, encountered lions on foot after some amazing tracking from our guides, sailed past tiny Angolan reeds frogs as they latched onto reeds, hoping to go unnoticed and added many previously unseen birds to our growing life lists.
The trail would not be complete without experiencing the culture first hand. The San bushmen have inhabited this land for generations. All of the staff on the trail are San bushmen, and most grew up not far from the spillway itself. This allows them to impart vital cultural understanding and ancient knowledge of the land with visiting guests. Their philosophy of living off the land is second to none and their quirky anecdotes passed down from generation to generation oozes with authenticity.
I celebrated my 30th birthday on the trail, and on this day we spent the afternoon trailing the San bushmen, learning the ways. We were shown ways to make traps for catching wild animals, how to find, collect and harvest honey from clever Mopane bees, we followed a Greater Honeyguide as it led us to a secretly stashed hive, and we learned of the cultural meanings of plants in everyday life as a San bushmen. The day culminated around a fire that was made by hand, using the ember from a well practiced technique passed down over generations. It could not have been more fitting
The final day saw us poling our way through a shallow section of the spillway on to the last camp. This would be our last day on the water, and we would find ourselves nestled within an ancient forest that provided shade and refuge from our journey down the waterway.
A cleverly planned itinerary sees the final afternoon out in style. Hoping aboard an open top land cruiser and setting out to view wildlife from the comfort of your car seat. A welcomed luxury from the days that had passed. Our guide Kane had made it clear on a few occasions that when we do eventually go on a game drive, we would appreciate it more than any we had been on before. And how right he was.
Our final morning saw us departing at the crack of dawn, bags packed and ready for our quick flight out, but not before a final game drive and a farewell breakfast in the bush, accompanied by a few elephants to send us off.
If you are up for an adventure, a real, feet on the ground experience, one that will keep you reminiscing for weeks and months of the experience, then this trail is for you. Leave the luxury of the real world behind you and immerse yourself with the men of the land, the San bushmen, as you cruise your way down the Selinda spillway. You won’t regret it for a second!
Written and Photographed by: Mike Sutherland