(Photos by Allen Denison, Reed Harrison and the author)
After a night in Maun, Botswana, my tour group of sixteen helped carry our chairs, tents, food and kitchen equipment to the two flat-bottomed motor boats for the first leg into the Okavango Delta. Four of my family and I were on a budget safari, initiated by my niece, Annie and her partner, Reed. They had invited my brother, Allen and his wife, Martha, and me to come along. We three were the oldest by many years. Being in the company of younger people brought back pleasant memories of my youth.
The previous night our Chief Experience Officer, Roger, briefed us. Space and weight were limited. Since it was only overnight he suggested we take just a toothbrush and leave most of our baggage in Maun. I travel light, a carry-on size for most trips, but this was extreme. A toothbrush?
I persuaded myself that this experience would be good for me. Leave all that stuff behind. Rough it. Choosing my shoes was a challenge. Should I take the leather walking shoes or my Crocs, the popular plastic shoes? Crocs have holes in the sides. Good for ventilation and great for wet or muddy situations. Bad for spiky things and crawly creatures.
I asked Roger if there would be any wet landings from the boats.
“No,” he said with youthful certainty. “No wet landings.”
Leather shoes seemed the best choice for the bush walks we expected. On our first night he had warned us that unpredictable things can happen so we should be prepared to “flow”, the modern iteration I learned as “Go with the flow.” Youthful Roger never said “I don’t know.” I should have folded that into my decision making.
Proud that I could get everything into my small daypack, I turned my back on my mantra, “What if…” in order to “flow” as Roger had suggested. Pride aside, leaving almost all my gear in Maun was a stretch.
The boatmen revved up their big Evinrudes and we sped up the Thamalakane River, wind whipping our hair and a small rooster tail off the stern. I had a lovely time spotting birds. My first trip to the region was for birding and I was pleased I could remember many of the names. We passed a grey heron, pied kingfisher, Egyptian goose, Hadada ibis and others as we roared into the delta.
The motor slowed and we pulled into a tiny bay crowded with small boats. Three tourist-loaded mokoros were just leaving. In the rear of the small dugouts, tribesmen maneuvered their shallow craft into the river. The BaYei tribe controls this portion of the delta and runs the concession for tourists who want to camp out on the islands.
Several more mokoros were tied to the shore, making it impossible for our boat to get closer than fifteen feet. One of our crew jumped off the bow, waded ashore and tied the boat to a tree. This looked like a wet landing to me unless we were allowed to walk in the mokoros to get to dry land. But no, that didn’t occur to anyone. Everyone removed their footgear and waded ashore
No problem. I could do that.
Shoes in hand, I stepped forward and looked into the murky water. The scar on my foot from a cut inflicted in just such murk, twitched a warning. Holding my breath, I slid off the boat.
Everyone managed to get ashore without mishap, including me. We stood under a shady tree and watched the staff pass our equipment from the two boats into several mokoros. Martha nudged my elbow and pointed at my feet. Small ants were climbing my legs. OK, so I was standing near their hole in the sandy mud, but they were harmless.
I noticed a few people making their way up the dirt road toward the village and knew they were not sightseeing. I was fine, but am cautious when anticipating a voyage of unknown duration and no stops. A prophylactic pee, my term, might be in order here. I brushed off my damp feet and put on my shoes, stuffing my socks into my pocket. Crocs would have been better for this situation, but the once the sand dried I could just knock it out.
The place to “go” was a field of tall grass surrounded by thatched huts. The grass provided privacy, and the field was large enough for my own sanitation standards, no visible stinky piles. I did my business and returned to the shore.
Tami, my tent-mate, waved from the bow of a mokoro. Sleeping pads were folded into chair backs and there was just enough room for two people to squeeze in among the cargo. I stepped into the beached stern, crept to the middle and settled in.
We were a jolly flotilla of about ten mokoros setting off for adventure. The quiet was welcome after the pounding Evinrudes. The Africans carried on a soft conversation and I tried to figure out what was being said by the tone of voice and gestures. I think this was about someone’s troublesome child. The woman ahead of us disapproved of whatever was going on. When she paused, our boatman grunted obligingly but said nothing.
When we slipped into a narrow side channel, the conversation stopped, and we glided gently through the reeds. The poling looked simple, but just standing so high in such a small craft without falling in was a skill in itself. The boatwoman in view stabbed her long pole into the river bottom, and pushed her boat forward with little effort. About half the pole was submerged, so we were in roughly eight feet of water. There was something else she was doing, a little twist maybe, that kept the mokoro moving in a straight line though her pole was off to one side.
From my vantage point, I watched the tops of trees slide by, trees growing on islands. On my previous trip to the delta I learned that trees were important navigation references in an area so flat a person can sometimes see the earth’s curvature. From season to season, the size of the islands grows and shrinks, but much of the wetlands remain shallow enough for the larger animals to wade from one island to another. Elephants can swim if they choose.
My backrest started to collapse. Giving in to the prone position I enjoyed the soft scrape of the reeds on the side of the boat, the fluffy clouds and the call of the occasional marsh bird. Raptors glided overhead and others sat on the tree tops, watching for movement that might suggest a meal. I pulled my pant legs up to expose my winter-white flesh to the warm sun. The mokoro rocked gently and I dozed, relaxed and happy.
All too soon, we shoved into a mud bank with a soft bump.
Our camp was one of several used for tourists by the tribe, so there was ample space to unfold our tents among shady trees. We unloaded the kitchen boxes and equipment next to the fire ring. Then each tenting twosome grabbed one of the heavy bags and found a suitable spot to set up for the night. The damp or muddy ground showed it had rained there as it had in Maun. Rain at night is fine with me. I’m asleep or listening to the pitter patter from my cozy, dry bed.
Tami and I, as usual, were among the first to have our tent sited, up and even swept out from the previous night. I liked having a take-charge kind of person sharing my tent. And such a positive attitude!
I met her our first night in Johannesburg. She was from Australia, visiting for a friend’s wedding. She came straight from the all night party and hastily re-packed for the safari leaving behind her wedding clothes and other non-essentials. Our first night out, she discovered that her sleeping bag was still at the hotel along with her headlamp. I only discovered this by observation. She never said a word. Tami flowed well.
Before many trips, when I am in the midst of deciding what to pack, I have a recurring nightmare. In my dream, I am with a group preparing for a long hike in a remote wilderness. The last night we spend at the trailhead and I discover I have forgotten something essential. Sound familiar? It is always either my hiking boots or my sleeping bag. And there was Tami, living my nightmare. The first night of our trip was warm, so she just wrapped up in her white plastic coat and jeans and fell asleep. During the night she awoke to pull another layer around her feet. Next to her, I slept in my silk bed liner and as the night cooled, took it off and pulled my sleeping bag over me. I grumbled to myself about this incompetent tent mate, disgruntled that I would have to rescue her.
In the morning, she was chipper as ever. I noted her attitude with amazement. Maybe she didn’t need rescuing. On the second night, when I moved to my sleeping bag, I put my silk liner over her. She used it with thanks, but clearly would have coped without it. I thought for sure she would at least buy a blanket in one of the towns on our way. She did look around in Maun but didn’t find one she liked.
I should have learned something about flow from Tami because things were going to get uncomfortable for me.
After our tents were up, we were given a tour of the “facilities”. One of the camp hosts led us up a short, winding path through the brush to a small clearing. To the far left, he pointed to a small, deep hole in the firm sand. That was it. Fortunately, I am limber and can squat easily. I actually prefer this sort of arrangement over a smelly outhouse. He showed us what to do after completing our mission. Put the paper in the hole and throw in a shovelful of sand to cover it. Of course, during the explanation, my busy mind ran through the possibilities of stepping too close to the edge, which could crumble and, you know… or dropping something “down there”. Glasses I would fish out and a flashlight would be just too embarrassing to leave in there, especially if it was lit.
My other concern was another open hole in the direct path back to camp. Our host made a comment to the effect that someone should have filled this in from the last occupants of the campsite. Silly me, I thought that meant he would do it, or someone would.
At the camp, he jammed the roll of toilet paper on the stub of a tree branch and stabbed the shovel in the ground. If the paper and shovel were not there, wait your turn.
As we assembled our lunch of sandwiches and salad, chattering birds drew my attention to the top of a snag. A pair of barbets was changing places at what appeared to be a nest. The thick bills, black and white markings with a flash of red on the heads identified them as Acacia Pied Barbets. Ha. The aged brain still worked.
In the afternoon heat, animals find shade and rest, and so did we. We were fortunate to be camping on the only island where there was a safe place to swim. My swim suit was in Maun. Being twice as old as the oldest of the younger set, I decided not to consider the lovely option of swimming nude. I like my sixty-eight year-old body, but I didn’t think the mixed set of international youngsters, who were still getting used to each other, would be comfortable sharing my exposure in any way. So, I walked the short distance to the swimming hole, rolled my pants to my knees, and dunked my head in the crystalline water. Refreshed and cooler, I did some reading and tai chi.
Some of the swimmers tried poling one of the mokoros. From their laughter and screams, I gathered it was not as easy as it seemed. Reed reported that Annie was the most adept and could almost keep the tippy craft moving in a straight line.
I looked forward to our afternoon game walk if only for the exercise. We had been riding in the van for two days and then in the boats, so I was ready to move. At three o’clock, I slipped on my leather walking shoes, pleased I had them for protection against the inevitable stickers.
We climbed back into the empty mokoros for a ride to a larger island. This time three of us sat on the dry bottom with no backrest but it was only a short ride.
We disembarked and were divided into three groups, each with a BaYei guide. My family was fortunate to remain together. We followed our guide, Oskar (Oh-scar), inland through the bush until we had a good view of a flat expanse of short grasses with clumps of brush and a few scrubby trees.
Oskar stopped us and gave us the safety talk.
“This is how you deal with an encounter with the Big Five.”
That got our attention and raised our expectations.
“Lion: look big, raise your arms and look it in the eye because they are shy and will turn away.
“Elephant: stay downwind so they can’t smell you. They can’t see well.
“Rhino: Stand very still. Don’t run. Their eyes are very weak but they can run fast.
“Leopard: There are none in this area, so don’t worry about them.
“Cape Buffalo: run in a zigzag and climb a tree.”
I glanced at the scrubby tree to my right. Fifteen feet tall, if that, a six inch trunk and thorny branches. I turned and noticed Martha eyeing the same tree. We were both thinking the same thing.
Good luck with that one.
Then he added. “If there is no tree, lie flat. He won’t be able to get at you with his horns.”
Martha whispered to me, “What about his hooves?”
I have seen Cape Buffalo on other trips. Yes, they look ferocious, but I have a problem taking any animal seriously with horns that remind me of a 50’s hairstyle, shoulder length with a part in the center and flipped up ends. Now really.
During the dry season, the Okavango Delta draws animals from all over southern Africa to the last place where they can find water. However, during our visit, the delta was even wetter than usual for a wet season. We encountered several places where the path disappeared under inches of water. Sometimes we could go around but often the entire area was soaked. When there was no dry detour, the guide motioned for us to remove our shoes. After sloshing ankle deep for fifteen or twenty feet, we dried our feet as we were able and replaced our footgear. That was fine. Everyone cheerfully balanced on one foot or helped the tottery people.
On one semi-dry detour, we were stepping from one high clump of grass to another to avoid the water. One bunch of grass was not a solid clump. My foot slipped and submerged. Drat. Leather shoes take so long to dry.
I reminded my self that my hiking shoes get wet all the time and they survive. I still had one dry foot.
I should have brought my Crocs.
There was a ripple in my flow.
We did see wild game. Members of the antelope family, kudu, topi, impalas and red lechwe, watched us as we roamed their grazing grounds. An unusual stork, the African openbill, poked around in the sodden grasses for snails, its favorite food. Ibis, eagles, geese, jacanas, bee-eaters and the ubiquitous blacksmith lapwings delighted us all.
Grey herons and little egrets stood in a small lake, patiently waiting for dinner to swim into range. A family group of zebras approached the water and halted at the edge of the open shore. The large male took two steps, paused to prick his ears in our direction assessing the threat level. The others followed, cautious but less attentive. He took two more steps. Still safe. And finally, they walked into the pond. Taking turns to sip the cool water, while an adult kept an eye on us.
But none of what we saw were the Big Five. For people to whom African wildlife means only large and dangerous mammals, the walk was a disappointment. When we saw clear foot prints of an elephant, big as a dinner plate on the dried mud, the pain of disappointment stung.
Oskar stopped at yet another pile of poop and asked, “What is this from?”
It looked like dog poop. White dog poop, which did seem unusual, but it was still poop. No one else had any ideas or wanted to guess by then.
He had to answer his own question. “It’s from a hyena. When they get really hungry, they will gnaw on the bleached bones that are scattered around and it makes their feces white.” Oskar seemed proud of that fact, but our response was less than enthusiastic. I thought it was interesting but even I was ready for some live animals. Enough about poop.
As the sun dropped in the sky I was disoriented. Where were the mokoros and how far away were we? We had been warned that we had to be back in camp by dark. Hippos can easily overturn small boats like ours. If they are in the water at dusk, the short passage back to our camp could be dangerous. I mumbled my concern and found the others were thinking the same thing. We risked not only a night without our tents and warm sleeping bags but worse, our dinner.
Oskar asked how much further we wanted to go, which alarmed me because I thought he was keeping track of the time. We turned around and soon encountered the other two groups making their way back to the boats. I felt better.
Oskar cautioned us to watch for aardvark holes when we left the path. They were difficult to see if they filled with water or were covered with flopped-over grass. We hurried to reach the boats, taking short cuts across grassy patches. Of course, I found one of the holes…with my dry foot. Now both feet were soaking. I gritted my teeth. Crocs would have been perfect for this walk. It had been slow and flat and mostly on good trails except when they were covered in water.
I was having difficulty flowing.
My little group was the first to reach the beached mokoros. A waiting boatman motioned for me to get in. I sat down near the stern and Martha and Allen followed me aboard. When the boat slid off the shore, the puddle that had been lurking around his feet rolled forward, leaving me sitting in an inch of water. The other two were dry, sympathetic to my plight, but dry.
I reminded myself that this was part of the adventure, if not the exotic part. The boatman apologized. I tried to be gracious but at that point nothing could be done.
At camp I stood to get out of the mokoro. The wet pant legs flapped against the back of my thighs like a cold, soggy diaper. I went directly to the fire where the staff was busy. My back to the flames, I was intent on drying my pants ASAP. I caught a couple of the Africans grinning at my wet butt and it was clear I was in their way. I had to move.
Furious at myself for not bringing a spare pair of pants, I headed back toward the tent. In my head, I tried to work out alternate clothing from the few things I had brought. The light was fading and the mosquitoes were on the hunt. I needed to be fully covered, but I could imagine no solution amidst my spare possessions.
Tami had stayed behind and I met her coming from our tent.
“How was the walk?” she asked innocently, unaware of my building steam.
I whined about my wet butt.
“What will you do?” she said.
I snapped, “I don’t have much choice, do I?”
This to the woman who had been sleeping in her clothes.
OK. That was a bit over the top. Get a grip. Flow.
I tried to lift my spirits. After all we were on the exotic Okavango Delta, camping on an island, a first for me since on my previous trip I stayed in an upscale lodge. One of my friends at home had pointed out that there would be more adventure in tents. Animals come right through the camp. What a thrill to know they were out there, and so close.
Roger cautioned us about leaving our tents during the night. Definitely use a flashlight, he said, and shine around for eyes. The animals will leave if given a chance. And there were old heaps of elephant poop near our camp. Not that I would go out if an elephant walked by, but I could look out and still be safe. Something exciting might still come my way. Oh, boy.
While Roger was preparing our dinner, we sat around the fire and chatted. By then I understood my six o’clock dinner was not on his agenda. I was not alone in my hunger. The appetizers evaporated.
I grabbed the TP and shovel to retire to the bushes. In the quiet, I heard soft singing. When I returned, I asked Oskar who it could be.
“It’s from another camp. They are singing to our visitors,” he said.
And soon, Roger paused and asked us if we would like to have some entertainment by the staff after dinner. Everyone was eager and agreed it would be great to hear some local songs.
I looked at my watch and wondered just when this entertainment would get under way. It was late and I was hungry. More importantly, how long would it last? I had had a rather disagreeable experience at the fancy lodge. At least we would be fed this time before they began. Hunger dampens the enjoyment of most anything. And I could sneak off if it went on too long. Neither was the case two years before. The entertainment came first and went on and on.
When the spaghetti and huge pot of sauce was ready at eight, we dug in. After several mouthfuls, I slowed down enough to taste it. Quite good. It was probably worth the wait, so I put on a happy face.
When the dishes were all washed and the food stored, the staff clustered behind the fire pit. Roger pushed a few bits of wood onto the coals so we could see them better, but the feeble light only illuminated them waist high.
The group of about eight men and women swayed or clapped as they sang. A man’s rough voice led the call and the rest joined in with rich harmonies. During a few songs, the women did some motions with their arms which were difficult to see in the dim light but I liked their enthusiasm. I wondered how much animation they would have in their own villages where songs usually prompted dancing. Were they subdued in our presence, or was this music for a gentle occasion?
In contrast to my previous cultural experience at the lodge, we had been asked if we wanted to hear the songs and we ate before they began. I was able to relax and enjoy the performance. After eight or ten songs, they finished and shyly received our applause. When Martha commented that she loved Oskar’s raspy voice, I realized he was the caller. I had to admit, I liked it all.
My pants did finally dry. No animals came by in the night.
On our morning walk, the glorious sunrise and abundant bird life made it worth the early start. Warmed by the rising sun, I enjoyed the quiet stroll.
The sun rose higher. After a fruitless walk the previous afternoon and another in the making, we grew impatient with antelopes, grass and poop. Oskar paused and peered into the distance. We were exposed, standing in a large expanse of grasses but he was looking far beyond, to a line of trees and shrubs. “Elephants,” he said. We all turned to where he pointed. The shapes were not clear. We strained for some grey, a trunk or an ear. I dug out my small binoculars and studied the brush. Reed did the same and we both said nothing while we puzzled over why the elephants seemed so illusive.
Then the shapes moved. Reed said, “I don’t think those are elephants.” I concurred when three kudus gracefully emerged from the trees.
“Nice try, Oskar,” I said. But I felt sorry for him. Guides can easily spot movement that can be game since they do it every day. Most tourists would be happy for Oskar to tell them there were elephants in the far distance, even though they could not see them after a dry stretch like we had. However, binoculars robbed Oskar of his find.
Oskar endured our light-hearted teasing, but he felt our disappointment. He led us around a small pond, and on the far side, halted again. Pointing into a clump of brush thirty feet away, he whispered “Elephant.” Did I hear relief in his voice?
A buzz passed through our group as each person spotted the well-camouflaged animal. The grey back rose above the bushes, flesh hanging off the sharp backbone. The single old male moved slowly, pulling off small limbs and stuffing them in his mouth. He flapped his enormous ears and flicked his little tail side to side. Single males can be cranky but this one turned away, certainly not preparing to charge. We had an excellent view of his rump and ropey tail; not very satisfying, but we were downwind and safe. And it WAS an elephant, after all.
After returning from the hike, we packed up the mokoros and departed from our camp on the island. Neither Tami nor I even tried to keep our seat backs upright. Rocked gently, I opened my senses to the clear sky and warm sun, the shush of the reeds and quiet water slurps. All the tension drained from my body.
On my return home, I chatted with a friend who has hunted several times in southern Africa. Botswana promotes expensive hunts for the Big Five and other trophies to raise money and cull the game herds. The allowed target animals are selected carefully with an eye to trophy quality and sustainability of the species.
My friend thought someone should have had a gun when we were walking in the bush. I want to believe that the guides knew what animals were in the area since they are there so often, but I later learned that guns are not allowed in the national parks for any reason. The safety lecture was important, since surprises were always possible but improbable, and it raised our expectations, good and bad.
I’m glad I hadn’t read about the cranky bull elephants that jump out of the bushes when disturbed. Then there was the rogue Cape Buffalo that roared up out of a gully and killed a woman. Tragic, though I bet it made a great obituary.