Back to Botswana for a couple of days; Poled through the Okavango Delta on makoros; Bush camp and nature walks

We’d only escaped Botswana for two days, because there was nowhere good to camp near our destination, the Okavango Delta. The Delta is a huge freshwater inland marsh formed as the Okavango River spreads out onto the plain, prevented by natural obstacles from ever reaching the sea. It was only a little over a hundred kilometers from Ngepi to the spot on the mainland where we left the truck, but it took us more than five hours to get there. We had to stop for grocery-shopping, and again to take the ferry across the river. The roads got very bumpy the hour or so we drove off the highway and we were all happy to stop for lunch.

It was a very hurried lunch though - we had to pack. We were being carried on little boats out to an island “bush camp” and since the truck couldn’t come with us we had to bring all our food and cooking equipment, plates and cutlery, tents and our own personal things. The guides were waiting for us, so there was a huge flurry of unpacking and repacking and piling up of equipment. The mountain of junk we had to bring was huge in the end - none of our compatriots know how to travel light, and all of the truck’s equipment is built for durability, not portability. The stove alone requires two people to carry it, not to mention the dishes, coolers, propane cylinder and our massive tents. I felt sorry for the guys who had to get us to the island.

Our tranport to the bush camp was via makoros, long flat-bottomed dugout canoes which are poled through the shallow channels in the marsh. The makoros aren’t made of wood anymore because the sausage trees which were the traditional source are now protected. Ours were made of fiberglass. Regardlesss of the construction, they looked like very hard work to move around. The polers stood in the back of the canoe and pushed their four-or-five-meter long forked poles down into the water, then leaned hard on them to move the boat and pulled them up and around in a sweeping motion, leaving a semi-circle of water drops on the surface. They were all muscled like… well, like men who spend all day poling canoes through a marsh. Nothing below the waist, and one shoulder more than the other, which gave them a bit of a lopsided look. The one older man - the one who’d spent his life doing this, and with heavy wooden makoros, not nice light fiberglass ones - had thick, flat bands of muscle all through his back and torso that bulged and slid under his skin whenever he leaned on the pole. He was the one who got stuck poling the canoe with all the heavy equipment.

Poled through the Okavango Delta on makoros

The Delta itself is a beautiful alien landscape. We experienced it from water-level, which gave us a different perspective. The little green overgrown channels wind like a maze through the thick reed beds, which are knotted with heavy yellow-green stems and dotted with water-lilies. Their shadowed interiors smell overpoweringly of growing and decaying vegetation. The reeds are papyrus, famed as the source of paper for the ancient Egyptians. They have big spidery puffball heads like green fireworks that nod over the channels and hang down to swat unwary makoro passengers in the face. Each time we rounded a bend new birds would start up from the reeds, squawking or shrieking or chortling their alarm. Less distressed were the occasional cows, up to their bellies in the reeds and munching mindlessly the way cows do. Once or twice we passed women working in the marsh. They were pulling up water-lily roots to bake and eat - they call them “Delta Potatoes”. Our polers called out greetings in their language - something rude enough to make the women laugh. Equally raucous greetings were exchanged with the group of men out fishing, and more sober ones with the one old man poling a makoro piled a meter high with cut papyrus, destined to be dried and become walls somewhere.

Papyrus head in the Okavango Delta

We reached the nameless island where we were camping after an hour or so on the makoros and schlepped all the equipment a couple of hundred meters away from the water. It was an overcast day with rain threatening so we didn’t need to worry about shade, but I could see that it would be an issue if the sun ever came out since all the vegetation on the island was low and scrubby - only a few tall treees dotted the landscape.

Toward the end of the afternoon the head poler took us out on a single-file nature walk for a couple of hours. He called it a game walk, but experience has shown me that you never see game on these walks except in the distance. We saw the usual antelope, warthogs, various birds, one blue wildebeest and an elephant far away. Walks like these are mostly about the small details - tracks and dung and that sort of thing. I did learn the very useful life skill of distinguishing elephant dung from hippo dung, though (hippo dung is all grass and elephant dung is wood fibers and seeds. Grass and wood fibers can look similar at first glance so it’s the seeds that are the telltale evidence - you heard it here first). I did end up with some good feathers - a black and white one which I think is from a Blacksmith’s Plover, a blue striped one from a Lilac-Breasted Roller, and the prize - a tail feather from a Wattled Crane which was all of half a meter long. I knew it would never survive if I brought it back to the truck with me but I stuck it in the back of my hat to bring it to the tent at least. It towered over my head like a flagpole. I was quite impressed with it, it was the biggest feather I’ve ever seen (not including peacock tail feathers which don’t really count) and it came from an endangered species, too - the guide said that the Delta people aren’t allowed to hunt them any longer and the penalty for violators is fifteen years in Botswana Prison.

After a hot pink and indigo sunset and before the torrential rainstorm, we were treated to a spectacular display of lightning all along the northern sky. Sometimes the universe gives you gifts, if you’re open enough to notice them. They can be big things like a sunset or a sky full of lightning, or small things like the single firefly we saw zigzagging greenly through the foreground, blinking on and off in couterpoint to the storm.

We didn’t have any nocturnal visitors while in the bush camp - it was raining quite hard all night so it might be that they were all hiding out. The guides said that they heard lions during the night, though, and just after we woke up we heard a leopard roar. It’s not really a roar - more of a deep-chested huf-huf-huf sound.

The morning was taken up with another, longer nature walk. We saw a gum fig tree which oozes sticky latex when the bark is pierced, and a jackalberrry tree, source of the seeds in the elephant dung, and a marula tree, whence comes our beloved Amarula liqueur. The fruit, sadly, doesn’t ripen until late January or February - perhaps we’ll be able to have some before we leave South Africa for India.

The polers took us back to the truck and on to our campground on Gau Island after lunch. We had a touch of luxury there at Umvuvu Camp (umvuvu means hippo in the local language) - we were sleeping not in our usual tents but in big permanent camp tents with raised camp cots. It’s the first time we’ve slept off the groud since Zanzibar weeks ago, and it was good to be reminded that we won’t be living in tents forever. I was on cooking duty that night with Lee, one of the new arrivals - a big man from Manchester. He’d had the idea earlier of cooking macaroni and cheese for dinner - nothing short of brilliant in my opinion and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. The execution was mostly mine, though - the cheese sauce came together nicely on the camp stove and I improvised a crust with melted cheese and crushed cornflakes. We put the pot beside the fire and turned it periodically to keep warm and steam the crust nicely while we waited for Lee’s stewed meat to finish. Macaroni and cheese is dead easy but I’m still proud that it turned out well - everyone loved it and went back for more, and there was enough left for lunch the next day. My last cooking effort was a disaster so I was happy to clear my reputation.

Cooking wasn’t made any easier by the evening’s downpour. I’m getting unbelievably tired of being rained on, I have to say. But after the rain a swarm of winged termites began fluttering everywhere, clogging the drains and making it hard to talk because they kept getting in our mouths. Elton said they’re a great snack food and threatened to fry some up for breakfast. I would have tried some, but either he didn’t follow through or he kept them all for himself because there was no evidence of delicious fried termite snacks the following morning. Disappointments are part of life, alas.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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