Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Okavango Delta

7am and we pile into a small 4x4 open-sided truck. With us we bring tents, mats and enough food, water and cooking utensils to be able to bush camp at the side of a river for two days. We have a three hour drive ahead of us, two hours of which will be spent jolting our way along sand tracks and through mud and water.

It’s sweltering hot already, the sky blue with just a smattering of white clouds. As we turn of the main road after Maun and onto a sand track we start to get a real taster of the desert. The acacia trees are in bloom: small, droopy yellow flowers topped with a crown of pink hang listlessly between the threatening, 3-inch spines which line each branch. As we drive we have to keep bringing in our feet to avoid getting scratched.

The earth is pale and sandy and too hot to stand on in bare feet as Dan finds out when we stop for a bush wee. Every now and again the van dips down into an area deep in mud and water, the driver cuts the speed and we lollop across, putting the 4x4 gearing to the test.

Among the bushes, herds of zebra graze against a backdrop of elephants and giraffes. Weird looking secretary birds run around in search of snakes to eat and in the distance the characteristic black plumage of ostriches.

By 10am we finally arrive at our destination: a small clearing at the edge of one of the small reed-lined channels of the river where a number of mokoros (small dugout canoes that can carry two people and a poler) are pulled up onto the sand. A group of men and women who are soon to be our polers stand waiting and no sooner than the van comes to a stop, they begin energetically loading the boats.

Claire and I decide to share a mokoro between us and are introduced to Wacko who is both the lead guide and our poler for the next couple of days. The polers fold our mats in such a way as to make a seat on which we can sit and, after maneuvering ourselves into the canoes, we begin a fantastic 2-hour trip through the reed beds of the delta to camp.

In the mokoro you are barely 10cm from the water surface. On either side, vibrant green reeds stand tall against a cloudless blue sky and large lily pads line the edge, each boasting a single purple tinted flower. Silence (a rarity on a tour) envelops you, the only sound being the splish-splosh of poles slicing through water.

Every now and then one of the polers lets out a mocking laugh as the junior poler on the luggage mokoro ahead of us gets her mokoro tangled up in reeds.

For half an hour Claire and I sit in almost perfect silence just soaking up this unique environment and atmosphere. And then, swim time! A couple of the group strip off to their undies and jump into the water. After a quick swim to cool down, they clamber back onto their mokoro and we continue on our journey.

Two hours later, we arrive at a small clearing on land. After gingerly hopping off our mokoros (they have a tendency to tip over!) we help unload the boats.

Some of the polers have already put up some of the tents and we help out putting up the others. The tents are arranged in a circle around a small area where one the polers is busy starting a fire. The next step: the long drop! One of the polers uses a shovel to dig a hole about a metre deep in another clearing some way away from the tents. This will be our toilet for the next few days. Once you’ve done your business, you use a stick to brush a small amount of dirt over the offending material. This helps to stop the long drop from smelling.

We settle down to lunch around the camp fire and Wacko explains that we have the option to go swimming in a small pool area among the reeds in the afternoon followed by a game walk at dusk. I opt for the game walk only as swimming among all the reeds doesn’t really appeal.

After a couple of hours reading my book and enjoying the peace and tranquility of the forest surroundings it’s time to set off on the game walk. After an extensive briefing as to what to do in the event of us coming across elephants, lions or a lone buffalo (the most dangerous of the three!), we hop into the mokoros and are taken across to the other side of the river to another area of dry land. Here we dismount, split into two groups and set off after our respective guides.

Flies swarm around us, buzzing by our ears, getting into our hair and landing on our faces. Initially it’s really annoying but eventually you get used to walking and swatting at the same time.

With our group were a junior guide/tracker and an older specialist guide who, armed with his bedraggled book of endemic animal and bird species, helped the junior guide with his tracking. Our guides tracked using animal faeces, evidence of broken vegetation and sound…just as you see in the wildlife documentaries (yes they even pick up faeces to feel how warm they are!)..

At one point our guide stops suddenly and indicates to us to keep quiet. Suddenly, the deep rumble of an elephant reverberates close by. We peer around a bush and less than 20 metres away is a large bull elephant surrounded by his harem of females. They are so well camouflaged among the bushy undergrowth that you could literally stumble upon one without realizing it was there in spite of its gigantic size.

Standing there face to face with eight elephants as they tear away at the leaves and branches of trees, you become acutely aware of your vulnerability: if any one of the elephants decided to charge, we could easily be killed. How anyone could raise a gun and shoot one of these magnificent giants is beyond me.

We watch from a safe distance, maneuvering ourselves out of the way every time one of the herd gets too close. After a while we leave them be to track and find other animals. Eventually we come across a herd of zebra. Of all the animals her, it’s the zebras that are most humanized. Our arrival triggers mild interest; a few heads are raised, tails are flicked before the novelty wears off and the zebra return to grazing.

In the shadows of shrubbery our quide quickly points out the brown hide of a group of Topu who turn their backs to us then hop and skip away, into the security and camouflage of the undergrowth.

As the sky darkens we make our way back to our mokoros. As we near the river we hear the distinctive grunts and moans of hippo. Our guide quickly leads us in a different direction to enable us to circumnavigate the grazing hippo. More people are killed in Africa by hippos than any other species; get in between a hippo and water and you are literally dead meat.

Back at camp, around a roaring fire, we set about cooking dinner. After dinner we find a few thin twigs in the bushes, shove marshmallows on the end and have roasted marshmallow for dessert!

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