Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Okavango Delta

No matter what we do, we can’t seem to avoid hitchhiking. You would think being out in the theoretical middle of nowhere, in a dug-out canoe, surrounded by tall reeds and water, we would be safe from it. But no, during each of our three days in Botswana’s Okavango Delta thousands of bugs hitched rides in our mokoro, hoping to find a better meal down the river. Gnats coated our arms and legs and the inside of the narrow, hollowed out canoes. Spiders ranging from tiny, almost-translucent spots to inch-long monsters crawled around the plastic seats we put into the boat for a more comfortable ride. It turns out that marsh lands are not for bug haters.
The front of a mokoro
Our only stop in Botswana was in Maun in order to tour the Okavango Delta, a massive river delta region that floods for about half the year allowing narrow traditional dug-out canoes to traverse the temporary channels and hop from island to island. During the dry season much of the area can be accessed on foot, but after the rains, walking is limited. This doesn’t deter the massive number of animals, though. Elephants easily and loudly splash through the streams with ease. In areas where the water is very deep, they go in over their head and use their trunks as a snorkel. Different antelope are specifically adapted to swim and live in the marshy environment. Even the lions here have learned to swim short distances. It can take more than 30 days to cross the 16,000 square kilometers of marsh land in the non-motorized boats. We opted to just go for three.
Our most striking encounter during this adventure was once again with elephants. We camped for two nights on Elephant Island. Though we immediately noticed the large amounts of elephant dung near our site, we still walked around the island without much thought. Our guide didn’t tell us not to, and we wanted to climb a tree to see a new species of antelopes, red lechwes, in the distance. Our second day there, we realized we were probably stupid to do so. Two large bull elephants decided to chow down on the small trees around our campsite. We stood 30 feet from them with only a few thorny trees separating us. When they were full, they cruised right by us with nothing protecting us other than their complete indifference. Sometimes it’s nice not to be noticed.
Friendly campsite visitor

Mokoro poler

Lily pads
Red Lechwe

Mads, our Danish tour companion, Jeanette with a Cape Buffalo skull, and BT our guide

And we thought we were close then, when a small lake was between us!
Unlike most of our outings in the past three months, this excursion was very relaxing. On the first day we sat in the mokoros for two hours as the guide “poled” us to our camp site. Tall, thick green reeds and thinner grasses pushed smoothly to the side as the boat slid almost silently through. The grasses sometimes opened up into pools filled with blossoming water lilies.Traveling by mokoro is basically like riding in a gondola in Venice. You sit in the front while someone stands in the back, pushes a pole into the water down to the bottom, and propels the boat forward. The polers make it all look so simple. It’s not. I tried to pole the boat and could never seem to get it to go straight or quickly. And balancing while standing in a moving boat, even when tall reeds on the side keep it somewhat steady, is not easy. I somehow managed not to fall in (good thing, since I only packed one set of clothes), but I fell over into the canoe and have another set of nasty bruises from my efforts.
After arriving at the site and setting up, we just hung out. In fact, all three days we had specific times for doing nothing. Our guide said that the government prohibits you from walking around during mid-day while the animals are resting. Though that seems somewhat unlikely, it was a nice change. During our evening and morning game walks, we wandered around other close-by islands looking for animals. We walked right by lechwe, zebra, wildebeest, elephants, and warthogs. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, we didn’t see any lions.
Sunset on the delta
We also had many close encounters with different varieties of the rare species Homo sapiens. The H. sapiens safarianas was clad completely in khaki with wide-brimmed hats and each carried a camera worth more than a tooth.* The more agreeable H. sapiens familias was heard making their typical social calls of “Mom, stop saying that…” while the loud and overbearing H. sapiens overland-touris disturbed the peace of the evening with loud singing and strange howling. Our trip into the delta was not the wilderness experience we anticipated, but nevertheless it was a fabulous journey.
Our last day on the delta was fairly uneventful, but it gave us time to realize that maybe we needed a plan for our onward travel. We have six weeks before we need to be in Tanzania to see an old friend and four countries we want to visit in the meantime. We’re actually going to have to pick up the pace a bit, so we’re spending one more day at this cheap backpackers to figure out where to go next. I’m pretty sure we’re Zimbabwe bound. I hope we can get a good hitch there…

*One tooth is worth approximately 160 days of traveling in Ethiopia or US$5,000.      

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ladies, I hope you are well. It sounds like the adventure continues to be enlightening, invigorating and exhilarating. I was listening to the birth of a new nation tonight and thought you might like to know there is a new Republic of South Sudan, in case the news has not made it your way yet. Keep having fun and taking care of each other.
    Love and Hugs,