What we know:
Once known as Bechuanaland, we know zilch about Botswana other than it has a wonderful sounding name.
With four fifths of it covered by the Kalahari it is no wonder that its currency is called “Pula” the Setswana word for rain.
Crossing the frontier near Sehengos we follow the Okavango on its journey to the world’s largest inland delta > (16,835sq km of lagoons, channels and islands before disappearing into the sands of the Kalahari.) Our day is spent avoiding donkeys and potholes, which we were, warned about at the border, not the potholes rather the donkeys. . By the time we arrive at the Island Safari Lodge we are shattered.
On checking in I enquire from less than a friendly moron named Nigel as to where the river is. He seems to think that all campers are only one step above the donkey shit that fertilizes the Botswana roads. I get a grunted answer that it has not rain enough for the water to reach the Island in years. In our tired state Pitch no 84 takes some arguing as to decide under which tree to camp. After a restless night I wake to my fiftieth birthday. An excursion by mokoro better known as a dugout canoe is the ideal present.
First we got to find our departure spot. Passing through the notorious buffalo fence that killed thousand upon tens of thousands Wildebeest and other wildlife. Set up in 1954 in an attempt to separate Botswana’s massive domestic bovine herd from their wilder cousins to stop foot and mouth it is over three thousand km long and 1.5 meters high. It blocked ancient wild migration pathways to sources of water. A few corridors in the fencing would have saved and spared many an animal an encrusting death from thirst. Somewhat sore of arsed after two-hour of bumping up and down in the back of our driver’s jeep we arrive out a sandy tongue.
As usual the competition for our business is in your face. Mokoro owners jostle for position each promising an experience of a life time > a trip better and cheaper than the other. All is eventually sorted. Fanny and Flo board their dugout with I in another. Two Canadian fellow excursions follow us out the narrow channel that appears too narrow for the dugouts to penetrate.
Sitting inches from the water this is one of Africa classical experiences. You glide along silently parting the Papyrus that cast their gleaming gold flowering color on clear waters. The feeling of being part of nature is overwhelming. The vast silence is punctuated only by the drip from the long pole as it pushes us out into our first lagoon. The papyrus acts as an immense filtering plant filtering millions of tons of silt and sand. Regrettably because of the buffalo fencing from our entry point, one has to travel a very long way to see wild life. Apparently for days if you want not to see reeds, reeds and more reeds.
Time waits for no man; my Birthday is celebrated on a small island to the cry of a fish eagle and a few egrets the pop of a Champagne bottle and a slice of birthday cake compliments of Fanny. A rendering of happy birthday with a ting of Canadian lumberjack beat breaks the Okavango slow rejuvenation.
With all returning to its relaxed pace I leave the girls to stretch their backs and legs for an hour while I try my luck at catching a tiger fish. Returning empty-handed we glide back to the awaiting bumpy trip back to camp which tests what remains of our best-padded backsides.
(Top TIP: A dugout canoe has no backrests, shade, or seats. Bring a golf umbrella, some thing soft to sit on. If you have Bad back syndrome? – Steer clear. Golf umbrellas don’t take up much room. They are invaluable in the blazing sun when watching animals, fishing, or in those downpours in the wet season. )
On the dusty road home we decide that the only way to get an overview of the region is by light aircraft. When we enquire as to the possibilities of arranging a flight grunt face at the camping site is as helpful as a crocodile. With my ass having developed a rash from the ride back he gets a bit of my mind.
Next morning at Maun, a young New Zealand pilot welcomes us. From the take off it is obvious that he fancied himself as a bit of a macho kamikaze merchant. Florence turns a whiter shade of pale and sees her breakfast for a second time as we bank steeply after take off. The hour flight is disappointing animal wise. We traverse mile after mile of reflecting waters. However it is obvious from the air that the waters of the Okavango are retreating. “It takes anything up to six months for the water to arrive here from the Angola,” says our pilot, > “The Okavango heartbeat.”
“ It used to be the size of Wales “ Over ten billion tons of water that starts as the Cubango river in the Angolan highlands changes into the Okavango on entering Botswana to be channeled into the panhandle by two ridges fifteen kilometers apart at Seronga.” “ Here under the searing power of the sun it evaporates in a labyrinth of channels, and what left vanishes into the sands of Kalahari or the Kgalagadi as it is known to the Bushmen.” “ You know that the Kalahari sands cover almost all of Botswana so it’s no wonder that there is a large temptation to siphon off some of the liquid jewels of the Delta. “Look two elephants.” We bank so steep we all nearly see them in Technicolor.
Back on terra firma armed with the banks manager name I visit the bank, which seems to have the same crowd still waiting for service that were in the Rundu Bank. Spotting the lesser-spotted manager I give him a shout. There is nothing like inside knowledge. My swollen sense of justice in skipping the queue is obvious for all to see as I leave unable to hold eye contact.
Returning to camp we learn of a pool not far away full of hippo and large crocs. A late afternoon sortie to the deep pool full of stinking green water we encounter our first hippopotami, > Far from the best introduction to the river horse of Africa.
Fossils of hippo have being found in Yorkshire in England. The live wild animal is now found nowhere in the world except in Africa. Weighting up to 1000-4500kg they can stay under water for up to 25 minutes at a time. Close their slit nostrils when they are submerged they can swim up to thirty-five kilometers a day in search of food. Eat 159kg of grass at on evening sitting.
Living in groups that can vary from ten up to one hundred and fifty their tusk-like canine teeth in the lower jaw ( weighting up to 3kg) settle many and argument and terminate many a foolish tourist that get between them and water. Their 5cm thick skin suffers from sun burn the reason they spend the day with only their ears and nostrils above water. Their meat is edible and a soup is made from their hides as well as whips known as an sjamboke. One of the best spreaders of fertilizer they get their name via Latin from Greek, Hippos – Horse+ Potamas – River. They are the Okavango guardians in as much as they keeping the watercourses open by following clearly distinct pathways.
We slip out of Island Safari camp before sun up after a god nights rest. Moremi Wildlife Reserve located in the northeastern part of the delta and described by Mark Nolting as one of the most diversified and beautiful is our next port of call. Situated north of Maun in the Haila Plateau the hundred odd kilometers on atrocious dirt road is only negotiable by four –wheel drive.
We arrive at the south gate “Have you booked?” No! “We are full” A group of South Africans are also at the gate. “We have paid by bank draft but the bastard has no record of receiving the payment and is now looking for Pula.” “Who the hell is Pula?” Standing in shorts with legs up to her armpits says a blond bombshell while she flutters her eyelashes at all and sundry.
“What’s your name I enquire of the gate warden?” “Moses” “Well Moses you’re my man.” How about 3rd bridge campsite is that full also? “You should have booked in Maun.” “They told me that you Moses were the man, so how about it?” Ten to fifteen minutes later with 4/500 Pula lighter we camp just inside the gate pitch No 85 on the roof.
Morning breaks cold enough for Fanny to request our major kit bag. Luckily the sun saves the struggle to find her thermal long johns. They never see the light of day.
3rd bridge camp site is forty km up the middle of the 3000 km² reserve of swamp, dryland, floodplains, riverbank forest. On a narrow sandy track under trees that are taking on their autumn colors the drive is stunning. We emerge onto a small airfield, which we are to see once more and once more. Around and around we go lost. Track after track bring us back to the airstrip. Not one bridge did we find never mind the 3rd bridge > A light aircraft lands. Fanny takes a prisoner of one of the awaiting driver, who thunders off down at full throttle one of the many tracks I now know as well as he does. Pointing out the window “Ah that’s where we went wrong.”
Arriving at the wooden bridge the reception – a small group of campers fully understand our need to drive right into the creek. What bliss swimming in the crystal clear water before setting up camp Pitch No 86. The first visitor is a hornbill unfortunately without the bottle of Guinness.
Later that night we awake to our first deep throat lion roar the sound of nobility of absolute authority. Vibrating in the silence of the night it sends shivers of excitement and fear down one’s backs. It creates a unique atmosphere of menace and expectation. “How near it is dad?” “Are we safe?” “What if it comes into the camp?” With all the assurance that we are not on its dinner list I am sure that Florence and Fanny listened for a long period like I did before shuteye arrives.
I am up early, keen to get started. Unlike Etosha this is a hand on reserve. Over breakfast our South African south gate friends arrive. A quick look in our bird book confirms that the blond is not such a rare poser or endemic.
Nothing is Africa quite prepares one for your first lion kill. All the wild life documentaries, photos, you name fall short of the real life event. They like here in these written words are incapable of capturing the smells, the raw senses of survival, the power, the pecking order, the flies, the heat, and the knowledge that you could be dessert.
Rounding a small lake we noticed some commotion in the bush. Lions! Rolling up the windows we drive off the track closing to within three car lengths of the kill. Nine furry ones are dining on a buffalo. They are aware of us but take little interest. We watch for hours. Snarls, snaps, squabbles, yawns, blood stained whiskers, stink, skin and bone. A hundred shots later we leave them in peace determined to come back in the morning to claim the buffalo horns.
Arriving back at camp those yellow staring eyes remain with us late into the night. A large campfire with fresh bush baked bread and some monkey theft finishes a day of days.
After a long good look around I open Williwaws door back at yesterdays kill site. Not a scrap it left horns and all have disappeared. Returning for a spot of breakfast I spot the pride lounging on the other side of a pool. With ballooned bellies they begrudgingly move when I drive up to them. I could have pushed the stuffed gathering into the pool with the bull bars for all they cared.
Back at camp two new arrivals have parked up > A bran new Unimog with a young German couple and an odd pair in a converted ford. The Unimog is decked out for serious business. Solar panels, winches, 700-liter fuel tanks, fridge, the works. The battered ford in contrast regurgitates a South African and an Aussie the odd couple both with a fondness for the grog.
Before we get trapped in conversation we mount up for our second wander of the day. Unlike Etosha one gets a real feeling of being out in the bush here. There are no speed limits, no times to be back inside walled campsite, no tourist shops, and no swimming pools or man-made water holes. Moremi wildlife and scenery is much more relaxed without the constant fear of spotting something and attracting a herd of clicking tourist. Moremi offers wildlife on a more personal one to one base. We have not ventured far when Florence spots a small group of antelope. They turn out to be Greater Kudu. Reddish brown to pale gray in color > white strips running down their sides and along their backs. Standing dead still they watch us with their spiraling horns. Elegant and graceful they go about their business slowly for ever watchful. Not a stone throw away content to allow the Kudu stand sentry a small herd of Impala the long and high jumpers of Africa are also grazing.
The rest of the afternoon spotting taxes our Ornithologist’s appreciate. Fish Eagles; parrots, egrets, kingfishers, herons, to mention just a few we could id. The day is rounded off with a few Hippopotamus with the ever-present crocodiles, and a fleeting glimpse of our first Cheetah to wet our appetites for to-morrow. What a privilege we have undergone. It is difficult to put into words that would justify our sense of living.
Back at camp darkness has not fallen more than a few minutes when over strolls our two Ford friends an Aussie named Rick with Bushy his South African friend. Bushy helps himself to a beer without asking. He is one of these excellent merchants that the word covet describes him to a tee. Whatever he lays his eyes on is his. I could see that he was going to get up my nose sooner than later. Fanny and I take an instant dislike to him and I agree that he has all the attributes of a warthog. Later that night around the Bush TV (the camp fire) he endears himself to one and all. We discover that during our absence two Norwegians fresh out of the fiords have joined the campsite. The Unimog couple is quiet and somewhat shy.
The campfire conversation is when, where, and what did one see. The Norse men saying they saw a leopard up a tree not a mile away when they we driving over here. A night drive is suggested so one Norwegian, one Aussie, one Paddy and one warthog set out in the ford. With us all looking up into the trees including the driver it not long before we come unstuck or I should say stuck in soft sand. Warthog informing us that the ford is only two-wheel drive and proceeds to digs in even further. So much so that we have to take the sand tracks down off the roof. After a good deal of digging, grunting, and nervous looking around we are eventually back on the track.
On we go until we arrive at a bend to be confronted by the lion pride, which is on the move – yellow eyes dare us to go any further so we turn tail and return to the bush TV. Over a few beers we learn that our young Germans have just started their dream trip a lifetime. They have driven down the side of lake Kariba at five miles an hour from Harare and at the moment have no real plans of where next. They are both disheartened, the causes of their problems being the choice of transport – the Unimog and the young man’s lack of off-road driving know-how. Apparently he could not handle the ruts the Unimog acting like a trampoline. I promised to give him a driving lesson before we leave.
Our last day in Moremi confirms that beauty is eternal and wherever one finds it protection is needed. We visit one of the Reserves Safari Lodges that caters for the richer tourist. Our visit over an expensive beer is accepted with less than a ‘You are welcome’ attitude.
We realize that our camp under stars you could pluck, surrounded by inexplicable stillness of the air, with a sense of being watched by some many eyes of passing animals or abandoned spirits, beats hands down the manicured lawns, waiters with silver trays, buffets, gin and tonics, safari rosters, the smell of anti mosquito aerosol.
We return to camp convinced that we are the spoiled ones.
That night while preparing for an early departure in the morning the young Germans approach us. They inquire where we were setting off too. Our plan is to go north into the Chobe National Park, which according to our map is just a short hop from Moremi north gate. They ask can they join us. “No problem” we’ll see you in the morning. Somehow Warthog has got a sniff of our plans. The plot thickens. Over he saunters “I’ve been up that way before and I can tell you that from here to Chobe is a mother fucker of a track > Nothing but soft, soft sand. Later on the bush TV it emerges that Warthog knows what he talking about.
Although Chobe is not more than sixty kilometers away there is no marked dirt road. The option of following the only map-marked road up to Livingston offers over three hundred hot kilometers of corrugations. By cutting cross-country and traversing Chobe we will save over a hundred kilometers. The plan is to enter the park through the Mababe Depression cut through the Savuti an arid region in the southern section of the park named after a dry river that has not flowed since 1981. The fear of the unknown wins over the Germans. The prospect of some off-road driving combined with some excellent game viewing opportunities wins our agreement. Mark W. Nolting book (Africa’s Top Wildlife Countries) describes the Savuti area of Chobe as excellent for Elephants with large populations of Zebra, Eland, Kudu, Antelope Waterbuck, Impala, Wildebeest, and of course with that lot good lion country.
(Top TIP: BUY A COPY. It is packed with current up to date information, with no bullshit and has good attention to detail.)
Over breakfast the problems begin to surface. The easy part was last night, when we all agreed to team up. Two bums with a clapped out Ford, two young German lovers with a Unimog decked out to the nines and one Irish man, wife and child with a seasoned Land Rover. Fuel is the first problem. Where we are going there is no fuel to be had until we reach Kasane over two hundred kilometers away as the crow flies on the other side of Chobe. > The second largest of Botswana national parks covering over 11,000sq km. The nearest possibility is back in Maun. It is decided that the Unimog, which has a large spare tank, will go into Maun and fill up. We still have over 150 liters but we have learned the hard way that any off-road driving especially in sand burns up more fuel than one assumes. The last thing one wants it to have to lug a jerry can on foot through bush where there is every prospect you might run into hungry lion. Never mind the distances, the sun, and the impossibility of carrying a full jerry can which would all end in a spectacular failure.
Looking at the two Ford reprobates warthog has a face like a smacked bum as red as a beetroot when I insist that it’s money up front for the fuel. They have just discovered that Rickey’s credit card is missing > “Must have left it in the supermarket in Maud.” “He will have to go back with them and see if he can find it.”
A decision is taken to meet up at the North Gate later that evening. We leave in the late afternoon. Meandering along now with an inner knowledge of Moremi’s tracks we get one surprise an up to the bonnet fording of a large pothole. Arriving at the North gate there is no sign of the others. Pitch No 87 is on the roof looking out on a long narrow wooden bridge that crosses over a dried out river to a small village and North Gate. Florence and I take a wander across the bridge while Fanny prepares dinner. We return with a few cold beers. There is still no sign of the others. Whether we see them tonight is now in doubt. Darkness is approaching fast. An hour later the alarms of the local monkey population announces the fords arrival to be followed some thirty minutes later by the bouncing lights of the unimog. The card has being recovered and everything is oxo for the morning. Both Germans look a little worse for wear. Fanny serves dinner to all.
TO BE CONTINUED.
DONATION NEWS; The good news is that they might break Zilch any moment. The bad news is it look very unlikely to happen, but hope is eternal.
Robert Dillon. Account no 62259189. Ulster Bank, 33 College Green Dublin 2. Sorting code 98-50-10