A Night in the Okavango

After an afternoon wildlife excursion in the mokoro, we arrived back on the island where we had set up camp just as the giant African sun began to sink into the placid waters of the Delta. As we admired the silhouettes of the trees and reeds against the orange sky, Mathebe, our poler and guide, began to build a large fire with wood he had gathered earlier. It seemed to us a pleasant touch.

Once it was roaring, Mathebe stepped back to admire his work and said, “We’ll keep this going all night.” That seemed a little excessive to us. But then he added, “It will keep the animals away from camp.” At that point it seemed maybe just adequate.

But with the sky still a bit aglow, things in the Okavango Delta seemed peaceful. So paying little mind to the idea of animals in the camp, we set about making a pasta dinner while Mathebe gathered more and more and more wood. He was serious about the fire. As we waited for the spaghetti to become al dente, Mathebe sat quietly, scanning our surroundings and listending intently. At one point, he stood quickly, beckoned us over, and asked “Do you hear that?” We listened. “It’s the animals coming out of the water.” Cool, we thought, and went back to cooking and then eating.

During the course of dinner, Mathebe pointed out a few more sounds to us. “Hear that,” he asked after a guttural growl came from the dark beyond our vision. “That’s a leopard.” To a set of grunts, “That’s an impala.” To a sharp howl, “Those are hyenas.” To some deep barks, “Hippos, coming out to feed.” And to the sound of branches snapping, “Elephants. The island was alive with animals, all of which we could hear but not see, our vision limited to the tiny circle illuminated by our fire and our suddenly very weak headlamps.

What had seemed pretty amazing when the sun was still up was starting to feel frankly a bit frightening. “Should we worry?” I asked, as Mathebe pointed out a path that he thought the elephants might take, which of course went right behind our campsite. “The fire will keep them away,” he said. “And in your tent, you’re safe.” Then he added after a pause, “But don’t for any reason come out of your tent.”

Not exactly the most reassuring answer, and our tent, a $3o purchase from the supermarket did not exactly make me feel warm, cosy, and secure. But after quickly cleaning up our dinner and going the bathroom (and praying we wouldn’t feel the urge in the middle of the night), we jumped into our sleeping bag and zipped our tent tightly up. It was about 8 p.m. Sunrise in the Delta is about 7 a.m. We had 11 hours of darkness in front of us.

And let me tell you, those were a long 11 hours. At first, while we could hear the animals, they remained at a distance. But then it seemed as if every animal in the vicinity had gotten a memo saying that we’d disappeared and it was now safe for them to move in. The grunts and growls and snapping branches got closer and closer. Soon we could pretty much hear the animals breathing. I am fairly certain that one or two hippos brushed our tent.

I lay there with every muscle tense (when I wasn’t shaking in my underpants). There was nothing I could do but hope and pray that Mathebe knew what he was doing. The animals that seemed closest to our tent, hippos and elephants, were herbivores. They weren’t interested in eating us, but they were animals and if they felt threatened they would without hestitation kill us. And having seen elephants stamp through what I’d consider dense growth as if it was nothing, I couldn’t help but picture them stepping right onto our tent, bursting our heads like watermelons.

With nothing to do but say a few Hail Mary’s, I just gazed through the thin sheet of our tent at the glow of the fire, reminding myself that the animals would not get too close to it. Every time it seemed to die, I’d feel my anxiety level rise, and it certainly sounded as if the animals got louder and closer. But somehow, every time, Mathebe would come to the rescue. I’d hear the zip of his tent, then the crash of logs on the fire, and then again the zip of his tent. The fire would come roaring back, and I’d thank God that he was braver than me.

Many long hours passed this way, until about 2:30 a.m. when I somehow drifted off to sleep, or at least dozed. The animal sounds didn’t entirely disappear, but they seemed softer, less frequent, less threatening. The fire kept going all night, and around 6 a.m, the soft light of dawn joined the fire. We heard a few more grunts and snaps, a growl or two, and the barking of baboons, and then the sun was up. And with the sun, we again became brave, reentering the world, as if somehow all the things that seemed so scary in the dark just vanished when the world became light. And in some ways, it seemed that they had indeed. With all the ruckus they had made during the night, I expected to see some evidence of all the animals that had made midnight visits to our camp. But besides a freshly trampled path, there was nothing to show for what we had survived. After all, it was just a regular night in the Okavango Delta for everyone and everything but us. For us, it was an exhausting but exhilarating night. And one, I don’t feel the need to repeat anytime soon.

OPT (Okavango Polers Trust)

We had all but decided to bypass the Okavango Delta due to the sheer price factor alone. Yeah, ‘supposedly amazing, yeah, it’s one of everyone’s 20 places you must go in your life, but we can’t do $1000 a night for two of us (and that’s what the lower end lodges, where you sleep in a camping tent, charge). I mean, the Galapagos was a huge splurge for us, but that still came in at under $500 a night in the end. Besides, Maun (the standard jumping off point into the delta) was over 800 km out of our way.

But then we read in our little Lonely Planet guidebook about the Okavango Polers Trust, a community run organization that does mokoro trips into the delta from the village of Seronga, just where the Okavango River fans out and becomes the Okavango Delta. Lo and behond, they were near the Namibian border (and actually a huge pain to reach if you’re already in Maun or anywhere else in Botswana) and had rates substantially cheaper than a lodge or mokoro operator in Maun. The catch was you had to provide your own food and tent, but hey, we’d been doing that for weeks now, no sweat. So we pulled up to their camp at sunset, camped, and, with over 75 community polers in the organization, had no problem arranging to go out the next morning for an overnight mokoro adventure.

In my experience, which as I’ve outlined, is not the classic delta experience but a more local approximation thereof, the richness of the Okavango Delta is not easily enjoyed. I spent most of each day sitting in the front of a boat surrounded by reeds, swatting at spider webs to keep them from breaking across my face and mainly spotting the tops of trees.

All the while waiting helplessly for our poler to push on, or occasionally start backing up because the water got too shallow.

Then there are the notoriously dangerous hippos lurking that we managed to narrowly avoid despite a few aggressive moves toward our boat that definitely had all of us, poler included, a bit panicked.

Hippos are way faster than they look! Patience, endurance, fearlessness (or naivete!) and the tolerance for layers of spider webs on skin (well practiced while hiking this past summer!), was certainly required.

But every now and then we’d break through into a river channel and surprise some otters or enter a lagoon and see all the lillies popping up or sneak closer to an elephant on an island and I’d totally get the magic of the place. The environment is absolutely tranquil.

The poler whisks you along in silence (which you may remember was my main beef with our Ecuadorian jungle experience) in the mokoro. The animals we saw weren’t necessarily the big famous ones, but the birdlife was exceptional, the hippos numerous, and the reeds are whole interesting ecosystem to themselves. And while we didn’t see much big game during the day, the night was a whole different story that Theresa will bring you in our next post.

Hitching a Ride

When I was a child, I hitchhiked a lot. You see, my grandpa taught me how, and whenever I used to go to his house, I’d always go out hitchhiking. I’d stand at the end of his driveway, stick my thumb out, and wait. Then whenever my grandpa’s red station wagon came down the street and slowed for me, I’d hop in, and together we’d ride down the driveway to the car port behind the house. It was exciting.

And it was, until recently, my only experience with hitching—either seeking a ride for myself or giving someone else a lift. Though I often feel for people standing on the side of the road with their thumbs out, I don’t stop. It’s just not a risk I’m willing to take.

But in Africa, hitching is a way of life. The majority of people get around by hopping in the back of a passing pickup or cramming into the backseat of a compact driven by a compassionate soul. As we had our own car as we traveled through South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, and Botswana, we didn’t need to worry about how to get from place to place. But we were in the lucky minority. Every day we’d pass tens if not hundreds of people looking for a ride. Though I was sometimes tempted to, we never stopped. Our backseat was overflowing with all of our stuff, so we wouldn’t just be able to quickly pull over and have someone hop in. And unfortunately the status of our world has taught us to be so suspicious.

But then we went for it. Well, we eased into it, first giving a lift to three British girls who were taking the Baz Bus around South Africa but found that the connecting bus they were planning on taking between towns was full. We then picked up a park employee at the gate of Etosha, who needed a ride to the junction about 20 km away. And finally, in Botswana, while waiting for the three-car ferry that slowly, slowly, slowly took cars and foot passengers across the river, we agreed to give a ride to a guy about our age who was going home to Seronga, the village we were heading to for an Okavango Delta experience.

And though we didn’t get paid for the lift (and weren’t looking to be paid), we were rewarded. Having the hitcher in our backseat was like having a private guide offering insight into life in this rural part of Botswana. He told us about his uniform–a khaki outfit complete with medals–which I mistakenly thought was a military uniform; turns out it was the outfit he and all other male members of the Zion Christian Church (South Africa’s largest) wear to Sunday services. He pointed out the makeshift villages on the east side of the road, explaining that these were the temporary homes of people who had to be relocated from villages on the west side of the road because of flooding, and he identified all the bodies of water that in a normal year would not be there. He talked to us about soccer, a favorite Sunday afternoon past time as witnessed by the many games we saw going on (all with teams in surprisingly matching and official uniforms). And he told us about the upcoming elections when we passed a political party gathered under a large baobob tree. When we dropped him off at his home–a traditional mud and thatch hut, he made sure we knew where to go from there and then thanked us multiple times. It was a good experience for both parties it seemed.

And though I don’t plan to make picking up hitchhikers a habit, especially once I’m back in the U.S., I’m glad we let our walls down and let this guy into our backseat. Thanks to him what would have been pretty but context-less scenery was translated into an insightful look at life in northern Botswana.

Tsolido Hills

Often while driving around in South Africa and Namibia, we heard that there was San Bushmen rock art nearby. But usually this required a whole day’s trip, or a large effort or expense to hire a guide, and so we always passed up the opportunity. It seemed to be everywhere, but always just out of reach. We had started to worry we would leave without ever observing some of the oldest art in human history. But then we passed near Tsolido Hills. Honestly, this probably isn’t somewhere we should have gone in our small Kia, as the last few miles were definitely for 4WD vehicles only.

But it was too good to pass up, and thankfully, our little Kia that could pulled through. Two villages sit at the bottom near the hills and local villagers act as guides for a small fee. Four hills wouldn’t be particularly exceptional except for where they rise – out of the flat, flat Kalahari plains. And so they stand out dramatically, so much so the Bushmen thought the world began at Tsolido Hills. The largest and most jagged they called male, the more gently curved (and one that supported people) the female and the two smaller the children. And given the sacredness of the hills to the people, they covered them in rock paintings. Here’s some of our favorites.

A whole lot of drawings together.

These were far under a rock and are called the dancing penises. I guess its pretty accurate.

Giraffes always look comical.

Two very large and impressive looking rhinos.

A penguin and a whale? In the middle of the Kalahari? They think the the nomadic bushmen may have wandered this far down toward Cape Town to know about them.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand there in front of something drawn 3000 years ago. For me, it wasn’t so much spiritual, which is usually how these things are described, but more of a feeling of the scope and uniqueness of humanity. Here were people, 3000 years ago, that despite living in such a difficult environment to survive (or perhaps because of it) felt a need to use their energy for these creative endeavors. Whether it was to appease or thank the gods or simply needing an outlet for creative energy, it speaks to the the innate way our minds work. It was really fascinating to just stare at one bushman’s legacy. I wish I can leave something that lasts 3000 years.