Saying our farewells to the desert, Namibia, and extremely cheap beer (we were able to get a 6-pack of quality beer for about US$4) we found our way to the northern border between Namibia and Botswana. The first stop during our time in Botswana would be in the stunning Okavango Delta.
Crossing the border in Botswana early on the 18th morning of our journey we headed down into the Okavango. Considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, the site is a massive inland delta created by seasonal flooding. The waters of the Okavango River come from the seasonal rainfall of the Angolan highlands, flowing over 1200 kilometers in just one month. Once the waters reach the delta it then spreads over an area of approximately 250km by 150km for four months. The flooding within the delta peaks between June and August, during which time the delta’s water level rises to three times its typical size – attracting a staggering amount of wildlife. None of the water that flows into the delta reaches a sea or ocean, instead evaporating or transpiring within the delta in part due to high temperatures.
We were to spend the next two nights camping within the Okavango Delta. Arriving along a river bend at around nine in the morning we left the truck behind, only bringing what we’d need for the next few days. Catching a speedboat, we roared down the river. Along the way we encountered a crocodile and got our first glimpse of a hippo, its head raised above the surface of the water.
Unfortunately, two of our Norwegians missed out on these sightings as they had had a bit too much fun the previous night. We had to keep a close eye on one of them as we feared that the boat would take too sharp of a turn and she’d roll out of the boat like a scuba diver.
After about an hour and a half we reached shore. From here we switched from boat to Jeep. Making a few pit stops in the local village to pick up soda, water, ice, and some really amazing doughy bread that tasted a bit like hot doughnuts, we drove an hour through this island within the delta.
Reaching a small riverbank, we were introduced to the men who would act as our polers for the next few days. The waters that led to our campsite are too shallow for a speedboat, and so we had to take traditional mekoros through the Delta. Mekoros are a bit like a shallow canoe but very unsteady and easily flipped. Additionally, instead of paddles, poles are used. The poles are placed in the water and after finding ground, used to push off of and power the boat.
Rich and I clamoured into one of these mekoros, bringing our gear and some food with us, our guide getting in behind us. Pushing forward we made our way through the delta, through pathways created by hippos in between high grass and reeds. There were several times where I got smacked in the face by a reed when the hippo-created channels became too narrow. Every once and awhile our guide would stop to point out a tiny painted reed frog clutching a thin reed, or the various day and night lilies that appeared to be floating along the water surface.
After an hour and feeling much like I expect a husky does during Hong Kong summer, we arrived at our campsite. The camp was located just off the water, in a clearing beneath massive overgrowth and trees. Our toilet was just outside of camp behind a thicket of bush, with a lone shovel marking whether or not someone was utilizing the hole in the ground. We were immediately warned never to leave camp without a guide lest we want to become lion food or get severely lost.
Once we were all set up, we were greeted by the lead guide. Nature, as was his actual name, would bring us beyond camp and introduce us to the surrounding area. For a good long while I was as bored as could be, often choosing to sit down and tune out the running commentary. Instead of having us walk around and explore we moved about five paces at a time and then remained stationary for a good ten minutes as we were introduced to why each and every tree or hole in the ground was special again and again and again.
Thankfully, sometime after learning about the consistency of elephant poop and the bugs that survive off it in great detail, we were saved by a passing herd of elephants. Rushing through the thickets of tall grass we got as close to the elephants as was deemed safe – an elephant that feels threatened can be terribly deadly. Upwind of the herd, we sat and watched the elephants as the matriarch deliberated as to whether or not the human voices and human scent that she was catching wind of would be a threat to the younger in the group. Eventually she seemed to decide that we were of no consequence to her, and we were able to just watch the group in peace until sunset.
Going to the toilet overnight was a nerve wrecking experience. Armed only with a torch and a shovel we’d go one by one and use the hole in the ground that, though separated from the campsite by bush, was completely exposed to the surrounding area. Lights shining from our torches and bouncing off the Okavango’s many bugs it was easy to convince ourselves that we were staring into the eyes of a hungry lion or leopard. It didn’t help either that we’d periodically be woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a roaring hippo.
To say the least, I was quite anxious that first night and didn’t get much sleep – and being sleep deprived, when we were woken up the next morning to go for another walk through the bush with Nature, I was less than enthused. At this point I felt that I’d likely learn more from one of my university philosophy lectures (I used to watch movies on mute in that class to pass the time and yet still I received an “A” in the course) than I would from Nature’s over-repetitive speeches about how “special” and “amazing” everything was, and I was getting really bored of elephants.
Don’t get me wrong, I love elephants, but we had been seeing so many recently that I was really hoping that we might be able to swap out an elephant for a cheetah or a hippo or a hyena.
We did of course see plenty of elephants, but this time at least we got some baboons running through the delta. As it turns out, baboons are one of the few animals that locals will not willingly eat because of the belief that a baboon has a soul similar to a humans. It is actually surprisingly easy to see how this would hold true for locals considering the relation between humans and apes on the evolutionary scale, and we did our best to respect the baboon’s space while ogling them from afar.
As the sun started getting hotter and the amount of information we could all process regarding the life cycles of termites decreased, we returned to camp for brunch with the promise that our guides would teach us how to pole the mekoros later that day.
Rather lazily, the group of us spent the next couple of hours doing what we could to avoid the scorching summer sun. Some slept in the shade, some walked back and forth to the make shift shower so as to dump cold buckets of water over their heads, and several of us gathered around a tiny camp table underneath a tree to play cards.
At around 4PM, Nature came back for us in order to attempt to teach us how to maneuver a mekoro. With half of the group getting into a mekoro each, the rest of us watched from land as Nature explained to us that we must push off of whatever we could to move around (not what I would call instruction). The first group pushed off shore one by one, trying to navigate backwards out of a narrow channel and into a larger water way.
Some people had a much easier time than the others – one of the Norwegians, RJ, seemed to be having the smoothest ride. Others though had to keep sitting down so as to not rock the unsteady mekoros too much and have a chance to regain balance. If anything, it seemed that staying upright was the biggest battle here. Capsizing was not uncommon, but hilarious. One of the Kiwis went in twice, the second time was quite the show as she and the Dutch seemed to collide. Desperately trying to stay in the boat, her arms flailed as she furiously screamed his name, “B—–! B—–! B—–!” before hitting the water with a crash.
After the first group all returned back to shore wet and/or tired, the rest of us switched with them. Rich and I eagerly pushed our wobbly mekoros out to sea, deliberating whether or not we should jump out of our boats and into the water for the sake of staying cool under the hot sun. I definitely preferred shoving the boat around vs lazily being pushed along in it. Rich seemed a natural, gliding around with ease while I struggled to get my turning on point.
Before returning to shore, Rich jumped into the delta for a swim while I abstained. Though normally I would have loved to be in there, I was later relieved to have not gone in because as it would be revealed, one of the Norwegians had managed to pick up a few very unwanted passengers in her mekoro after capsizing – leeches.
Once we were all finished, all of our guides reappeared from the jungle and took us for an hour-long mekoro cruise through the delta. Having befriended our guide thanks to my million and one questions about everything in the region, he made us a set of lily pad hats that resembled something Peter Pan would wear. I loved it.
We didn’t see anything that we hadn’t already seen as the sun set over the Okavango (elephants and cows), but I got really excited when our guides started tapping their poles against the sides of the mekoros. Apparently by doing this they were signaling our presence to the delta’s resident hippos. If there were hippos in the area, they’d hear the tapping and come up to look at what was causing the disturbance. Sadly there wasn’t anything around and as the sun set, we returned to camp.
We fell asleep that night to a chorus of hippos and hyenas, but only after one of the Kiwis encountered an elephant much too close to the toilet for comfort.
This morning we left camp and headed back to the truck. Reversing our trip from a few days earlier, we were sent back via an hour long mekoro ride, an hour long trip in the Jeep, and then a one and a half hour speedboat trip back to the river bend where we had previously left the Drifters truck.
Getting back into the truck, we spent the next five hours driving to the city of Maun. After our time in the very German Swakopmund, it felt like we were actually in an African city again. Maun wasn’t as third worldly as I had assumed it would be, but rather it felt like a city on the so-called “wrong side of the tracks”. It was dirty, overcrowded, and chaotic, but it felt surprisingly safe and developed as we all wandered into a local supermarket to buy our snacks for the next few days.
Camp for the night was at the Drifters Camp just outside of Maun. It was stunning, incredibly green, and right on the river’s edge. Once again having access to a warm shower and clean toilets was a definite highlight. Being here felt good.