Journey into the Okavango Delta

July 13

I woke early again to shower, which was one of the worst decisions I have made in a long time. The air could not have been even at 0 degrees, and though I jaunted over to the shower rooms, and threw on the scalding water, I shivered and shivered throughout the entire time, getting even colder once I turned off the water and stood wet in the still freezing conditions. Alisa also slept poorly, so we weren’t in the best of moods this morning, but there was no time to commiserate as we had to take down our tents and get ready to pack the truck that was coming. As soon as it pulled on the sand in the lodge, I realized my luck was not getting any better as it was an open air truck with two long back to back benches running the length of the middle of the truck We pack all of our supplies, and help move all the food and kitchen equipment that is also going into the Delta underneath the seats, and then Alisa puts her big wool blanket on her lap and I break out my sleeping bag in order to give us some protection on this bitter morning. The trek out to the main road along the sand tracks wasn’t terrible, but once on the main road and cruising at 80km the wind and the cold were biting. The fact that this was a 90+ minute ride added no comfort and so I tried to sleep the ride away with Alisa and I bundled closely together. No one spoke the whole way, though the wind would have made that difficult, but it was obvious that everyone was trying to solider through. We stopped on the side of the road by a bakery for Jay to run in and get fresh loafs for our two days, and we drew the most peculiar looks from passersby. At first I thought this odd as this was the ‘Gateway to the Delta’ and locals must be used to seeing tourists and Westerners, but then I realized that we all probably looked a bit disheveled and perhaps a little migrant looking with all the blankets and apparel that we had put on to protect us from the cold. What a sight we must have been!

We finally arrive at the station, but just before Jay tells us what to expect as he notes that it can be a bit hectic with people coming out of the Delta and people going in. He says that we should just get in a makoro and not worry whether we are the first or the last out the station as we are all going to the same place. We arrive, and while it is not as busy as I expected, the station was just a small grassy area where the makoro pulled up to and we waited in a group while another group moved their stuff onto their makoros. Then a tall man walked up to us with a white K-Way beanie and big fake Prada stunner glasses on his head. He said his name was Julius and that he would be taking us into the Delta, and then walked right up to John and Christine and asked where their stuff was and they walked with him to his Makoro. I was confused with what was going on, but looking around, African men were approaching individuals and couples in the group, grabbing their stuff and taking them to the ‘dock’. We finally had someone approach us and ask us where our bags were located, and he went and picked them up and started walking off. We fell in behind him and headed to his makoro. He wanted our sleep mat to put down on the bottom of the makoro, but we only had Alisa’s wool blanket, which he seemed a tad perplexed about why we did not have a proper plastic mat, but he set it down on the makoro and placed our backpacks as our back rest, with my sleeping back providing nice lumbar support. The makoro wasn’t lying on dry ground, and so we took off our our shoes and socks and climbed in. The makoro was surprisingly stable, but once in, we both noticed that significant rocking would be hazardous, as the side of the boat wasn’t more than 2-3 inches off the water with both of us onboard. Alisa was up front, and I placed my legs up on the sides of the makoro behind her. We were all in a holding pattern in the water, while everything else was loaded, and soon we were off.

The boat was a dug out canoe that was driven by a poler on the end of the boat with a large 1.5 inch thick wooden pole. We cruise along in silence for the first half an hour, whereupon Dixon, our driver, inquired about our names and our backgrounds and we learned about him, and his makoro. It was a seven years old, and belonged to his grandfather, who’s “time had now past”. He is hoping to save for a fiberglass makoro, which some of the other polers in our flotilla of a dozen makoros used, which seemed much more ‘delta-worthy’ as they were higher off the water level when laden with cargo and people. We soon came to see that the seven years had not been entirely kind to Dixon’s makoro as he had to stop every 30 minutes to kick out water that had build up in the back of the makoro where he stood. We were broadside against another makoro with two Australian girls, who had begun to loudly voice their concern with the water that was seeping into their makoro. They noted in a slightly nasty tone that they had all their valuable cameras with them in the boat and we could see the side of one of the girl’s legs was wet from ripples/waves coming over the side. I began to wonder how deep the water was in the rear of our makoro, but it was difficult to turn around and I didn’t want to seem like I was inspecting Dixon’s efforts. However, when I did turn to check the sides of the blanket he sincerely inquired about whether anything was wet, and surprisingly everything was just as dry as when we started, and thanked him for doing a good job on keeping us dry.

We encountered a good number of spiders and webs just like the Australians in Victoria Falls told us, and with Alisa slumping to sleep in the front I was catching the majority of the webs in my face instead. When the same makoro with the Australian girls nearly capsized when one of the girls had a close encounter with one of the big spiders, I was glad Alisa was not having the same reaction, though she was more concerned with the water snakes that inhabited the waters even though Dixon had told her they had moved off to another part of the delta to find colder waters. However, on our pit stop on one of the small islands, Dixon ran off and picked a branch that he planted in the stern of the ship that would function much like bow of a ship would be used to break ice in its path. It did the trick and it collected a nice collection of webs and big spiders, that were kept off Alisa and I during the four hour journey into the Delta.

Along the way, Dixon pointed out wildlife (one elephant) and the different flora in around us. He showed us a plant that had a sack just behind the flower along the stem, that if squeezed excreted a burst of water. Dixon told us that this was used by local women to get dust out of the eyes of their children.

The heat really turned up as we went along, and Alisa and I were forced to break out the sunscreen to avoid from roasting. However it was nice to finally be warm, and we both stripped down our layers that we had from this morning’s truck ride.

We arrived at our prospective campsite just after 1300, and quickly went to set up our tent near the former fire pit, hoping that it would be used again and we could have some of the heat rolling off of it keep our tent from freezing over. After setting up, the group broke out the food for lunch and we all sat around on the logs making up the inner part of the campsite. Even though we had napped on the way in, it was now time for siesta, which we all took advantage of because of the early rise we had this morning.

Afterwards we all climbed back into the makoros (this time we were 3 or 4 to a makoro allowing us to use only the fiberglass ones), and set off for our evening walk. We were in the water for about 30 minutes when one of the polers sighted an elephant in the bush, and we all made landfall and set off to find the herd. They were just beyond the brush that lined the water banks, and it was quite remarkable that someone was able to hear or see them from the distance we had been away from them in the water. They showed us a massive ball of wet elephant dung, informing us that the bushmen used to take balls like these and then wash themselves in it for a week and then go hunt. Since they smelled like something that was naturally in the bush, rather than a human, they were much more successive. You gotta wonder who the first guy who came up with it was thinking, and what kind of stick he got from his friends, before he proved it to be highly successful.

We were back in the water to head to our original destination about 15 minutes away. Doing calculations later, I figured the makoro could make a speed of about 3-5 kph depending on the load it carried. We saw elephants, zebras, and hippos on our walk. The excitement of hunting down the wildlife and doing it on foot, is so much more rewarding than going on a motorized vehicle and just pulling up to the animals. I was reminded the sense of adventure that our morning walks in Liwonde, Malawi in 2007 had created in all of us, and got that sense again as we walked behind our guides. Notably, they lacked the shotgun that our guide carried in Malawi, however they had an escape plan: if charged by water buffalo run in a zig zag behind the guide until you are able to reach a tree that you can climb. They didn’t mention what the operating procedures were for a lion encounter…. We divided into two groups and were supposed to play follow the leader as we walked through the high grass.

Our guide was very informative and told us lots about the tracks, flora, and dung that was left behind. I wasn’t expecting these guys to be so knowledgeable, as I assumed they were just local guys who were polers, but over the course of our time in the Delta they really proved themselves to be extremely knowledgeable about the flora, fauna, and history of the area.

We returned to camp where Jay had been making pasta, which turned out superb and we all ate around the fire downing the thick and warm meal before retiring to our tents to make ready for the next day.

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2 thoughts on “Journey into the Okavango Delta

  1. Pingback: Botswana with Kumuka: Our Overland Tour « The African File

  2. Pingback: The Year of the South African World Cup | The African File

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