Monday, August 26 Kasane & Chobe National Park
Fifteen hours after landing in Zimbabwe, I was on my way to Botswana, driving through vistas of sweeping savannah while dodging elephants, giraffes and ostriches. The first stop was Kasane where we spent the morning zooming around in a jeep in Chobe National Park. The afternoon was spent zooming around in a boat in Chobe National Park. Having seen plenty of African animals before, it took a while for me to warm up to Chobe, but when I did it was pretty amazing: A couple of crocs; dozens of giraffes; hundreds of hippos; and, literally, thousands of elephants (50,000 in fact). Rather than try to capture such a sight on camera, I sat back and watched the elephants silhouette against the setting sun in the tranquillity of Chobe, being disturbed only by the occasional hippo that popped up its head next to us and grunted.
Tuesday, August 27 – Friday, August 30 Maun & the Okavango Delta
The further we drove into Botswana, the greater level of nothingness we came across. Maun town was little more than “modern” facilities built on top of dust, making it clear how it earns its “wild west” reputation. As with most places, the interest was down the back alleyways, where vendors crouched under their tables to escape the ferocious sun, and where sacks of dried tobacco, roots and bark were propped up next to the latest in counterfeit sunglasses, caps and wallets. I purchased some earrings for my growing international collection, making one gogo happy with her $2 sale.
The following morning, as we braced the fresh wind on our open-top truck, the road to the Okavango slowly, slowly showed signs of life – first mopane trees, then grass, then fan palms, until we finally reached water. The local Morutshe community was to be our hosts for the next two days, as part of a community-led tourism project with duties and profits shared among all community members. With pure geniality they packed our excessive camping supplies into mokoros (dug-out canoes), then made a throne for us using our camping mats. Drifting through, and sometimes into, reeds and lilies was serene, but after landing at a small protected clearing where we pitched our tents, I had a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience: I had nothing to do. Idleness and I are uncomfortable bedfellows, yet the heat of the Okavango day precludes any form of energetic activity, so after writing, reading and chatting I finally succumbed to a siesta. I can now understand why they’re so popular!
As the afternoon crept on, I decided to try my hand at poling a mokoro. All I can say is that it’s much like an Okavango version of Stand Up Paddling. Sadly, the guide was too busy proposing his love to provide any form of direction, so my attempt involved a lot of going around in circles and running into reeds. Luckily I didn’t sink the canoe….unlike one of my travelling partners. With all that exercise in the hot sun, it was time for a swim, and the tannin water meant we came out darker than when we went in. I was really beginning to like this Okavango life!
An hour before sunset we took off for a walk through the bush. While it was fascinating to find tracks and poo nearby from all manner of animals that would happily rip us to shreds, the most interesting thing to me was the termite. Coming from WA, I knew a bit about termites, but what I didn’t know is that their mounds make far stronger building material than concrete and that, when dried and pounded, termites make a great alternative to peanut butter.
While the sun during the day is foreboding, the sun in the early morning and evening is breathtaking. I was up for sunrise, partly to witness this beautiful earth rotation, but also because the hippos woke me up – such noisy blighters. We were escorted by mokoro to a nearby island, where we spent three hours walking through the bush in search of animals. Giraffes and zebras were the biggest things we saw, but we did get a passing glimpse of a civet. Then it was back to camp for the usual ritual of write, read, sleep, swim, mokoro, swim, write, read, taking in the sunset via another chauffeured mokoro ride through the waterways. The evening consisted of some great local entertainment, including the frog “Qwark” song and ending with a rendition of “Be-au-tiful Toilet. Toilet!”. That ear worm stuck with me for days.
Just when I was starting to get used to this lifestyle, it was time to head back to Maun. With an afternoon spare (and with refunds / parents’ payment finally coming in – woohooo), I decided to splash out on an afternoon flight over the Delta. Stunning. As all the water in the Delta comes from Angola, and with not a drop of rain in seven months, the seemingly endless channels of blue water filled with lush green reeds appeared incongruous against the stark, dead desert just metres from the water’s edge. Wildlife from the air also offered a whole new perspective than from the ground – hippos plodding along, elephants swimming down channels and a herd of buffalo stretching for miles.
Saturday, August 31 – Sunday, September 1 Ghanzi & the Kalahari
In the cold of the morning, we set off to Ghanzi, a small town on the edge of the Kalahari. Close to the camp was an old quarry filled with crystal clear and freezing cold water that my European travelling companions were brave enough to enter. I was not. What I did do was sign up for a walk with a small handful of San Bushmen. This was, perhaps, one of the most anthropologically fascinating experiences of my life to date.
Only about 3,000 San people continue to live a fairly traditional life after the Brits removed them from their land to make way for farms, and placed them instead in townships. Since then their communities have been plagued by alcohol with a corresponding loss of cultural knowledge. Sound familiar? This tiny group of people (literally), are running tours in an attempt to keep their culture alive.
The tour played out somewhat like a scene from “The Gods must be Crazy” (which was, coincidentally, filmed around here). Not one of the Bushmen spoke English or Setswana, and with two of the six distinctly different local tribal languages represented, they couldn’t even communicate with each other. Luckily we had an interpreter. In an hour-long walk we only made it about 100m into the bush, as every 10 metres the San dispersed and started digging at the ground, enthusiastically showing us what they found through very dynamic non-verbal demonstrations – everything from curing diarrhoea, to hunting and dying skins, and stopping lion attacks. While such tours can sometimes invoke an awkward human zoo feeling, our guides exhibited such joy at being able to share their knowledge, that by the end I was ready to strip off and join them.
This tour was followed up by a dance performance in the evening. When the Bushmen kill a big animal, they must gorge themselves so that the meat doesn’t go to waste. Gorge they do – 10kg of meat in one sitting. Being so full, they then dance to let the food settle so that they are able to sleep. Despite being entertained by a repertoire of songs, I have to admit each yodel-like tune and rhythmic shuffle of the feet appeared exactly the same to me. Perhaps I’m not cut out for the San life after all.
After the temperature in the evening dropped to -5oC thanks to a cold front, I was certain the scantily-clothed San life was not for me. Not only were my tent poles too cold to touch, but the canvas itself was frozen in place. I had to beat it down in order to pack it. Naturally, such temperatures also wreaked havoc on our vehicle, and after trying the obvious recovery options we were forced to call in backup. Backup came in the form of an intensely stereotypical Boer woman that no-one dared argue with, even when her instructions sounded like SES’s latest training on “How NOT to rescue a stranded truck”. I stayed well away in the sunshine, willing life back into my limbs. Finally, by mid-morning we were on our way to Namibia.