Thursday, 6 October 2011

Botswana, Part 2

Click here for Part 1

Fishing for a signal. En route to Maun


Outskirts of Maun
Approaching the Delta
At dawn we got up and struck camp with the sun peeking over the horizon, the first of many incredible sunrises we would see in Botswana. We headed off soon after breakfast, having another long haul ahead of us that day. Heading due west, the road was once again straight and monotonous, but not as long as the previous day. Having gotten away at a decent hour also helped fight the distance wearing us down, although by the time we got to our destination we were all ready for a break from the road! At one point on the road to Maun, we passed through a brush fire that was jumping the road (they were everywhere and the haze was bad for the duration of the trip) and feeling the radiated heat from the flames made for some pretty hairy moments. Thankfully it was just grassland, if there had been bigger shrubs and trees, we may have been in a bit of trouble.

First water we'd seen in a while. Okavango

So, dusty, tired, sweaty and smoke-ridden, we rolled into Maun. This little town is the nexus of Okavango Delta tourism, with an airport, many charter companies and tour operators pandering to the large volume of travelers passing through. We stopped in town to pick up supplies and I went looking for backup SD cards, worried that if something happened to the photos I had taken thus far, I would lose my mind. We then checked into the Delta Rain headquarters, where we would be staying for two nights. Once again it was blisteringly hot in the rooms, an odd mixture of brick building with a canvas roof, but there was running water, so we could get clean before heading off again. After some deliberation, we decided to all weigh in and book a chartered flight over the Delta so we headed off to Maun Airport. We arrived at the modest-yet-cool terminal building during a town-wide blackout, with hordes of South African school kids milling about, no running water and obviously no electricity. Going through security we were subject to a nightclub-type security screening of emptying pockets and camera bags, which was amusing but probably terrifying to First Worlders who have never seen this kind of thing!

Trop buffels
Across the tarmac we trekked, short rows of civilians following their hi-vis vested pilots to their respective planes. And this place was busy! It looked like a miniature version of the Berlin Airlift as we took off, taxiing in a close queue and taking off seconds after the previous aircraft had left the strip. First we crossed the south-eastern edge of the Delta, clearly marked by a buffalo fence and off we went in a long northwesterly box-pattern over the Delta to Chiefs Island, the one place that Rhinos can still be found. They are being reintroduced after poaching decimated their numbers to within an inch of extinction in Botswana.

Hazy horizon over the Delta
The smudged horizon attested to the ongoing veld fires and from the air we saw several burns in progress, but the desperately dry landscape soon gave way to streaks of silver as we began approaching the Delta proper. For forty minutes I was gawking and snapping away at the insane tapestries formed by the overlapping processes of water flow, animal migration and plant growth. It is hard to put into words the incidental complexity that occurs on the ground, but I love to see these occurrences in nature. I am, however, running the risk of appearing either insane or intellectual and I am neither. Although if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of the Okavango Delta, try getting airborne, it is really something else as it gives a sense of perspective into the unique landlocked ecosystem which was formed by a tectonic shift disrupting the flow of the Zambezi river.

Channels and game tracks
Soon we were back on terra firma and gushing like a bunch of schoolgirls, fatigue and discomfort a thing of the past. We were beginning to get the better sense of the place as the journey progressed and it was growing on us. It happened also to be Marianne's sixtieth birthday and the Delta flight must have been one hell of a gift, because none of us could have foreseen how impressive it would end up being. That evening we celebrated Marianne's birthday with a thorough introduction to the duty free Amarula that had followed us from Joburg airport.

Sand, grass and game tracks.
Back to Terra Firma

On the Delta

One of many many roadside wrecks
Hawk food
The next morning was another ridiculously early start as we got going before seven. On the back of a big Merc truck, we set off with a party of very pleasant Peruvians to explore the Delta up close. It was a cool, bumpy ride of about ninety minutes through the neighborhoods of Maun, where everyone will greet you and waves, no matter what they may be doing. We gradually left the town behind and passed small transient settlements. Villages of tents where people and livestock move according to the seasonal movements of the water. We also began seeing the first signs of elephants and the toll they take on the environment. A few twisted trees attested to this and at first you look around as though they are lurking somewhere nearby, but soon we came to realise that this is a common occurrence. We passed one last big settlement and came to the border of the park, the buffalo fence we had seen from the air the previous day. We were entering the unknown in a sense, going into big game territory with no vehicle.

Peter, our guide, and Craig, our driver.

Heading off on the Delta

A short drive further we came to the waters' edge where about fifty Mokoro dugout canoes lay. We were introduced to Peter, who would be out guide or 'poler' for the day. Our little group set about getting situated in the somewhat wobbly craft and casting off, 2 per Mokoro. It was tricky to say the least, basically the two passengers sit on plastic classroom seats sans legs with the poler driving the boat from the stern. There were a number of variables, however, which made the cruise rather interesting. The boat Peter was driving ahead of us was absolutely steady, whereas our driver was a little less experienced and every time she brought her pole around (it's all very similar to a gondolier, but on a much less stable platform) the boat wobbled from side to side, bringing the gunwhales very close to the waterline, which worried me a bit. Another variable was the material of the hull. Our boats had fibreglass hulls, whereas the Swedes were in proper wooden dugouts. Christine's poler often had to stop in order to bail out the water that seeped in as a matter of course while Marianne and Thomas' boat was so low in the water (by design, not weight) that I held my breath on their behalf! Marianne in her characteristic deadpan fashion stated 'I want a bigger boat.' We were all in stitches.
Scorched Earth, interior of island in the delta.
Peter cooling off. 
Siesta time.
The perspective we had sitting at water level while gliding through reed beds was strange to say the least, because all we could see was small areas of water either side of the boat bordered by reeds a meter or two tall. Sometimes we might pass by dry land and a tree would be visible fifty metres from the boat, but overall is felt very restricted. For almost two hours we glided with no sense of orientation on to some destination. Of course they could have been going round in large circles and we would have been none the wiser! We arrived without incident at what seemed to be our destination and went ashore, doing our best to ignore the fresh-looking elephant droppings that seemed to be everywhere.

Heading back in the midday heat.
We unloaded our bags and food under a stand of trees, before going out on a short game walk. We were on a fair-sized island which unfortunately had burned in the past few days as a few tree stumps were still smouldering. This was apparently a common occurrence as Peter explained to us that locals would smoke out wild beehives in order to extract the honeycomb and might not bother putting out the fire completely when they were done. The fire might then get out of hand, leading to the devastating veld fires we saw. If caught, the offender was liable to end up in prison for 25yrs, such was the seriousness of the crime. We walked around the scorched interior of the island, maybe 1km across to the distant tree line. It was hot as all hell as the sun marched towards noon and the mercury towards 40C . We may not have had any spectacular big game sightings, but there was more than enough fauna to go around. A herd of zebra dozing a few hundred metres away, some secretary birds(which have always been a favourite of mine) on the hunt and many man-sized aardvark holes kept us on our toes. Our guide was a wellspring of knowledge and had spent his entire life in the Delta.

We headed back to our landing and had lunch before Peter, Shanna and I went for a swim close by. I would not have had the balls to do it on my own, but apparently hippos prefer deeper waters than the measly channels we were in and crocodiles only came here to hunt at night. Well, if the local says so and he's joining me, then I'll do it. Soon after we got back some member of our party started clock-watching and wanted to head back, but we were all forced to assume the siesta position for a bit longer. I agreed that standing upright driving a boat in this heat couldn't be easy.

Thomas: "This boat is like
 Budweiser, close to water"

So during the afternoon we slowly made our way back to where the truck was waiting for us and said our goodbyes to our guides before heading back to our lodging, sapped and sleepy. Another amazing day done, we got back and sacked out, tomorrow we would be hitting the road again.

Leaving Maun

Cattle casually grazing outside out huts.
Ever-friendly locals

It was now our fifth day in Botswana with more hard driving ahead of us and after two nights in one place everyone was a bit wary of heading off again. But it had to be done, so we said our goodbyes at the Delta Rain base and headed into town for one more round of hefty supply shopping. This turned into quite a process as it became an affair run by committee, but Shanna and I hung back and watched the car with pleasure.
No escaping it. 

We were loitering with no kind of intent when I decided to walk down the road in search of a restroom at the local garage. And to build this up a bit, a number of days prior, upon leaving Kasane, I saw a couple walking along the side of the road who I believed were dead ringers for friends of ours who had recently gotten married and moved to Sydney (A South African guy and Aussie girl, go figure!). We were saying we'd have to mail them when we got home, because this would keep bugging me and lo and behold, walking to the service station I round a corner and there's Laura! It was the weirdest of encounters with me naturally shouting 'I fuckin' knew it was you!' A few minutes later her husband Peter also emerged and we went off to surprise Shanna who was minding the vehicle. A good little reunion followed as they told us of their adventures driving through Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and how in Botswana, now that the roads were improving, their car was giving up the ghost somewhat.
Drawing a small crowd

Our little chinwag came to an and when the shopping expedition returned and about half a metric ton of fresh and frozen everything had to by packed according to preservation requirements. Where we were heading, there was no electricity, no ice and lots of high temperatures and abusive road surfaces and the day was wearing on, so standing in the parking lot trying to make everything fit was not a point of particular enthusiasm. Eventually we wrestled all the chicken, meat, dairy and fresh fruit into their respective comfort zones and prepared once again to set out. It felt as though we had done very little and it was getting on to midday already, but finally we were hitting the road. Leaving town my concentration began to flag, looking at donkeys and cows huddling in the shade of roadside trees. Before long we left the main road and the world became one hard jarring vibration complimented by the midday heat and thick dust clouds kicked up by the odd oncoming convoy of Gauteng registered four-by-fours who didn't seems to warrant other road users worth considering. 
...and the resulting pages.

And we're outta there!

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