Next up in Richard Winter’s series of travelogues – Botswana. Make a cuppa and read on…
“Is that frost?”
My arm stretched out between the zips of the tent and touched the cold red sand. The clear surface shattered into a dozen tiny sharp icy white pieces. It was June in Botswana, and the ground was frozen.
I had learned my lesson: Africa is cold. I hadn’t expected to have to climb into a sleeping bag fully clothed. I hadn’t expected that I would also need a woolly hat, and a rough-spun cotton blanket. I also hadn’t expected to see a white frost on the ground of the Kalahari Desert in June. But the desert sky is cloudless, and as the day’s warmth is lost, the overnight temperature plummets. Around 4am, when the sun starts to rise, so does the mercury. Which is fortunate, because it’s the same time that we have to pack down the tent for our long day’s journey to the Okavango Delta – a wetland Eden to Africa’s wildlife.
The flexible metal poles had been bagged, and the hardy Safari tent canvas is laid flat. Campers are only been taught the procedure once, but you follow it precisely for two reasons. First, fitting the kit on to the truck is an exercise in precision, and second, to keep a constant lookout for scorpions that have made the sheltered sand under your tent their home for the night.
The pick-up leaves a pot-hole strewn road, and turns onto a track of loose sand, and drives deep into the African bush. Above us, the sky is lapis blue, through the twisted dark trees flecked with shooting green buds, and the trail of ancient rust-coloured sand beneath the wheels causes the pick-up to sway. On a bench in the back we bounce with every plunge and tuck the blanket around our legs to keep out the chilly early morning wind.
Minutes feel like an hour, but eventually you stop at a riverbank. Local men and women line up by the water’s edge with their vessel. These beaming inhabitants live off the delta and will be our guides. We are greeted with smiles and they proudly show us their Mokoro; a handcrafted canoe carved from a single tree. The long narrow body sits low in the water, with rounded rear and point at the front. The design has been perfected over generations and is ideal for carrying heavy goods over shallow Papyrus reed beds. There is enough room for two people to sit one behind another, comfortably squeezed between backpacks and a tent. The captain stands at the rear and masterfully guides the precarious vessel with finesse.
These flooded plains are a patchwork of interconnected streams, lakes, ponds, and Papyrus rafts. Some channels are as broad as a river, but as we go deeper into the delta, they are just wide enough for our Mokoro to pass as it gently pushes the reeds aside. He effortlessly navigates through the Delta’s myriad of winding water channels. You lay back and watch as tiny two-seater planes cruise overhead, in a sky shared by African Fish Eagles. The chirp of waterfowl comes from all directions, and tiny birds hunt insects on the wing inches above the reeds. You have no idea how deep the water is, and you have no idea what lurks beneath the surface.
The captain beaches the Mokoro on one of the delta’s many islands. He points into the distance, and with both hands on the rim of the boat we shakily got to our knees to see our first zebra. And then another. Their heads are down, but they watch us with their ears as they graze. Our captain explains, “These fertile lands are home to hippo, buffalo, hyena, and elephant”. “Elephant?” I say out loud. I look around, there is plenty of greenery, but this is far from the dusty Savanna images I had watched on the BBC.
After slowly navigating our way for hours through the delta’s waterways, we arrive at our island. The boat gathers speed and we gently run aground. We will camp here for the night, miles from roads, hotels, and hospitals. We are completely cut off. We get our priorities straight; the tent is the first thing we do. After a week of early starts and late nights, we’ve become accustomed to setting up camp in minutes. We choose a shady spot under an ancient Sycamore Fig tree. The branches fan out wide, and the rough bark is laced with old vines. It is the first tree between the gradual incline of the water’s edge and the small copse, that shelters the rest of the camp.
Ollie and I sit by the water, binoculars in hand, as he tries to document one hundred different bird species before going home. He points at the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, and in the distance a flock of Goliath Herons glide by.
Before the sun goes down, I decide to see how hard life is as a Mokoro captain. Sara sits cross legged in the middle of the canoe, while I push the wooden canoe around the expansive shallow lagoon like a venetian gondolier. The water is dark, and on the surface dozens of insect’s glide and dive. Just as I’m learning the mirror-image navigation techniques, I hit a reedbed below the surface and the unstable boat stops, but I don’t. I tumble over the edge. If there was anything skulking in the shallows, I didn’t give them time to take a bite, as I was back in the boat before Sara could scream. She looked at me as I lay on my back in the canoe, dripping swamp water, and struggling to withhold her laughter.
I pulled up a camping chair to a flat stretch of land that jetties out into the water. As I dried off in the last warm rays of the days sun, I was joined by our small group to watch the sunset over the distant forests scattered across the Islands. As the temperature slowly drops, the wildlife begins to emerge from the shade. We join our guides on our first hiking safari – this time there is no protection from the rumble of the Land Rover, it is simply you and a guide walking into the African Bush in silence.
Respecting your surroundings is vital. Within minutes of leaving the camp, a huge grey head reared from over a hedge line. Its tusks pointed towards the sky, and its broad ears spread wide. This African Bull Elephant was giving us an obvious warning to steer clear. There was no time for pictures, he could charge at any moment. Our guide hurries us towards the water, and we help one another climb over a fallen tree between islands. When we have put enough ground between us, he tells us to relax, but remain alert. This new Island is much larger and flatter then where we are camped. The dusty scrub covered earth is pockmarked with bathtub sized holes. The guide explains that these are fish nests. In the wet season, these islets are flooded and fish dig homes into the clay to safely lay their eggs. We climb a small hill, and from here watch wildebeest grazing. A dozen silhouettes of zebra stand in the distance, and at my feet, a large Praying Mantis is camouflaged perfectly on the stem of grass.
We wander across flat plains spotted with Marula Trees. Some laden with fruit, others are bare. When the fruit is developing, it is sour and gets left, but when it is ripe it sweetens and is the favourite treat of the African Elephant. And that’s when we see him. Upwind, an enormous bull elephant stands peering out of a woodland. His huge ears lay flat against his body, so we know we are not a threat. He begins a slow march across the plain, towards the base of a Marula tree that sits alone in the centre. We watch in silence, as he draws near enough for us to make out his battle worn face without binoculars. His profile against the setting sun puts his size in perspective; the bushes that we hide behind cover all 6’4” of me, and then some. This huge male stands tall above them all, his tusks swaying to push them aside. We watch in awe at something I had never dreamed to see so close. The guide advises it’s time to leave, we duck into a nearby wood, and are shocked to learn that this enormous creature is just a five-minute walk from our camp.
Dinner is cooking in a huge steel pot, and our evening is spent around a blazing campfire. The local guides stand before us and ask if they can share Botswana songs with us. These upbeat tunes have beautiful interwoven melodies, and we watch with a warm mug of hot chocolate, fortified with hearty dose of Amarula – a deliciously fragrant cream liqueur, made from the sweet fruits of the Marula Tree. The evening’s festivities are finished with the ‘Frog Song’. While the group sing, our captain and one other squat down on all fours, and begin to bounce around the blazing fire. They dragged a few campers in to join, and within minutes the sound of laughter drowns out everything but the rhythm.
Under the delta’s humid night sky, where the clouds drifted in the silver light of the almost full moon, I climbed into the tent. I drifted off, to the sound of distant lion’s roars and the howling of painted dogs. “If I could witness all of this in one day” I thought to myself “what would does tomorrow have in store?”
Watch Richard and Sara’s trip down the waterways – HERE