Botswana is all about the Okavango Delta, unless of course you are talking about the rest of the country, most of which is desert. If you own the “Gods must be crazy” franchise then it may be worth visiting the Kalahari, otherwise everybody wants a piece of the Delta.
Twice after leaving Zimbabwe we had to step out of the truck and walk across a mangy piece of sponge – I think it was to stop foot and mouth disease, looked like a slice of pizza that had been in the back of fridge for a month. Officially that was the indication that we had crossed the border however very soon it was clear we were in a more prosperous nation. A visit to the supermarket in Maun highlighted this by the overflowing shelves, queues at the checkouts and a large healthy looking population. Now when I say large, I’m talking massive, at one stage I’m searching for some Milo and two units in traditional dress are heading straight at me. Now traditional dress involves picking up a very large piece of batik style bright colourful cloth and then somehow stretching it across your enormous buttocks around your waist then throwing the leftover piece across one shoulder. Then you find another small matching piece, stick an anvil on your head and wrap it tightly until none of the metal bits are showing. Ok so back to the supermarket, here we have two giant black female versions of Horatio Hornblower heading straight at me, what do I do but somehow duck under them (did I mention the smell?) roll on one side, grab a bottle of Herbal Essence 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner and run to the check out. Ok so I promised the kids Milo and marshmallows around the campfire but at least my hair smelt good!
You only have the luxury of smelling good on the Delta, if you are prepared to swim in it. I had the privilege of doing so after a couple of lessons, concluding that poling a mokoro is no different to snowboarding. To get anywhere on the Delta you travel by Mokoro, a long thin dugout canoe made from sausage tree log. At the back is a man with an 8 foot pole that stands up, his 2 passengers lounge back on their limited luggage in a “I’m watching the cricket and have the remote” pose and watch the world go by. In that pose your world is rather limited so you choose between counting the flies on your partners back and poking your hand in the water and ripping the head off a lily as you float past. I had a great conversation with our guide, he explained that the entire economy of most of the villages near the Delta was based on the visitors; he has halfway through a guiding course that would eventually allow him to lead safaris anywhere in Africa.
The Okavango Delta is an incredibly beautiful part of Africa, six foot high reeds as far as the eye can see, in between snake crystal clear channels only a few feet wide, the edges fringed with purple, yellow and white lilies – surrounded by iridescent green lily pads that reflect the strong sunlight. Once we reached a place to camp, a small mound a few feet above water lever with a couple of trees and bushes on it, we had a chance to swim in the water. There was no better feeling than swimming amongst the lilies, playing hide and seek in the reeds and splashing about in the crisp clean water.
Most of us had poling lessons, it looked harder than expected, the boats were quite heavy and turning was almost impossible – many of them had leaks so you were torn between baling and steering, anyway it was very hot so getting wet was not an issue!
One afternoon they split us into three groups of five and we branched off on foot in three different directions. With our guide out in front we headed along a tiny path that threaded through the reeds, eventually coming to some open plains dotted with the occasional Baobab tree. At one stage a thunderstorm came from nowhere and we ducked under one of these monsters for shelter from the torrential rain. Just when we were about render this walk pointless our guide spotted a herd of Zebra and Wildebeest, slowly we crept nearer to discover that most of them were babies, the zebras mostly brown and white and furry looking. They allowed us get fairly close, a great reward after what seemed like hours of walking in the heat! Back at camp we shared stories to hear everybody excitedly talking about “the briefing” and what they might have seen. It seems the other guides gave everybody strict instructions on what to do if. Eg. See a lion stand still etc. So of course they spent every step nervously looking over their shoulders, one group only going 100 metres into the walk before a younger member nervously retreated back to camp to the safety of his own illusions.
The next morning we did a scenic flight for yet another perspective of the Delta but for me the last night of our Africa journey was right there. It had everything, thunderstorms, wildlife bellowing in the distance, squat toilets, flies, an open fire and a leaky canoe to get us home.
From here on it was just the slow journey home upgrading the transport as we went. Canoe to 4WD to truck to propjet to 737 to A340 to 747 to Subaru to home. In between there was a quick look at Cape Town, arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the dullness and dust of Doha and the reliable and predictable Singapore.
My lasting memory of Africa is of the people, mainly the kids, it feels like every minute of every day was spent waving back at a bunch of barefoot grubby looking kids in ill-fitting clothing, from their houses, the side of the road, in the middle of their own games or whilst running behind the truck. Etched deeply in my mind is the image of three kids running flat out behind the 4WD on a sand track in Botswana, the smallest one out in front, trips over, does the best face plant you have ever seen, rolls twice and without missing a beat, sand plastered over his face, gets up and keeps chasing.
In Africa there is always hope!