As we set out for our walk that morning, something strange happened – a helicopter flew over us. This little reminder of the outside modern world seemed so outrageously out-of-place, which made me realise what a dream-fantasy I had been living in for the last two days. We were tourists on a two-day mobile safari in the Okavango Delta, but really we were Livingstone’s lost offspring on an intrepid expedition through uncharted Botswana wilderness. You can’t blame me for getting the two mixed up. If you were there, I bet you’d have done so too…
Being told I could join Sun Destination’s filmmaker Kevin on a two-day mobile safari was probably one of THE most exciting things I have ever been told (I am not exaggerating – Botswana is my favourite country in the WHOLE world and this was something completely new for me).
Of the many mobile safari operators out there, Afrika Ecco Safari’s is unique because it’s exclusively Motswana-run. Our guide, Teko Mbwe Ketlogetswe, was born on the tip of Chiefs island (One of the Okavango’s largest islands, near the famous Mombo camp). When he was still a young boy, his family relocated due to an outbreak of Tsetse flies (attracted by the large herds of buffalo in the area) to a place of permanent water. As he grew, Teko began learning to understand plants, interpret animal tracks and make mokoros. “I learnt to become a man”, he told me.
Our boat was launched from Maun heavy-laden with bright plastic tubs filled with rusks, eggs, biscuits, bananas, cereal, yoghurt and basically anything you could want under the African sun! A cooler box might have been a better place for the yoghurt (said the dairy farmer’s daughter in me), but that would soon be the least of our worries!
There were about seven of us in total. Amongst others, our group included Chris (the owner of African Ecco Safaris) Rose the cook, Ntwe (trainee ranger and poller) and Teko. It was a rather extravagant ensemble for Kevin and I as the only guests!
As our boat hummed along, loud voices echoed across the water as the men greeted their friends on the riverbank – aunties, brothers, friends and cousins appeared around every new corner! Everybody knows everybody in a small town like Maun. In fact, the more time I spend in Botswana, the more I am convinced that this is true for the whole country! We passed cattle, sad looking donkeys, half-drowned fences and grey herons sitting like old grey-haired men on dry branches. Teko was calling out the names of birds as we passed them: “African Jacana!”… “Pied Kingfisher!” … Hammerkop!”
With Maun behind us, the river changed. Channels began to split, weaving and wandering through thick reeds and papyrus. These sedges formed a great green tablecloth which made the islands of wild date palms and termite mounds look like lavish party platters. We cruised through channels made by hippos and elephants (two of the Delta’s most important architects). It felt like we were the only people in the world. When we passed some large contented-looking ellies, I decided that if only they could understand me, I might have dared them to spray water at us.
A few hours later and we suddenly became aware that something was wrong. The boat slowed and the men began talking loudly and irritably amongst themselves. Teko climbed onto the roof with a pair of binoculars and everybody seemed to be looking around for something. For what? I had no idea!
Eventually we got an answer (in English). The men were looking for some mokoros (singular for ‘mekoros’) that were going to take us to the island where we would stay the night. We had arrived at the meeting place, but the mekoros were not there.
I couldn’t help wondering what the “meeting place” referred to – how on earth does one begin to define a meeting place in this maze of channels?… “I’ll meet you at those water lillies by the bed of reeds on the left of the hippo channel – you know, the one near the papyrus island where the elephants like to hang out…”
Scenarios of spending the night on the boat began playing out in my head. It wouldn’t have been so bad actually, certainly an interesting adventure! We definitely wouldn’t have starved either!
Meanwhile, the guys decided that the best thing to do would be to go to the village (an hour away) and enquire about the mekoro pollers. When we arrived at the village, we found them! I never figured out why they weren’t there to meet us at the discussed spot, but the important thing is that we had found them.
The next part of our journey began in true-Bayei style. In some places the water was so low that our mokoros had to be pulled!
Reaching our cosy island camp was very exciting. Everything, including tents, showers, chairs and tables had already been set up for us under some beautiful Jackalberry trees. I was completely in my element. This is definately the wildest, most remote place I have ever camped at.
One of my favourite questions to ask people goes like this: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be? My own answer to the question is usually something along the lines of: Camping in the middle of the Okavango, far from other people, wild and free… It’s a pretty cool feeling when you realise that the place you so often wish for is where you are right now.
Bucket showering in the bush is the ultimate, except when you run out of water before you’ve washed the soap off yourself! This was a rookie error which was made trickier by being the only girl guest around. My soapy naked self complete with paper-thorned bare feet had to call for help and then wait in the tent, trying not to cover everything in wet soap. Meanwhile the men refilled the bucket from the river and boiled the water on the fire. Next time my strategy will be like this:
1) Turn on the tap and get whole body wet
2) Turn off tap
3) Cover whole body in soap
4) Turn tap back on and rinse off soap.
We had a real fire that night, blazing and crackling and lapping up the night shadows with enormous orange flames. We sat with Chris and Teko, while Rose and the others prepared dinner at another fire a little further away.
“Please tell us a story”, I asked.
Leaning back in his canvas chair, I could see Chris was brewing something. He grinned at Teko. The two of them are cousins and, as it is in families, seemed to have some secret language going on. The story he told was about their uncle going fishing on a mokoro, and how he had upset a hippo. The hippo had chased him right out of his boat and up the riverbank. The uncle (who was wearing a large coat that day), ducked behind a tree. The angry hippo was so close behind him that, as it charged past the tree, it took the cousin’s coat right off him!
Chris and Teko’s bellies were shaking with laughter imagining their cousins facial expressions. With dinner (including Rose’s freshly baked bread) and more firelight, the stories continued into the evening.
Another highlight of mine was learning to poll a mokoro. The urge rose suddenly and I hopped onto one of the boats and paddled out – well, it wasn’t that easy! Luckily Ntwe saw what I was doing, jumped into another mokoro and began to teach me. The trick is to put the pole in the water as close to your boat as possible, this makes it easier to steer and to push off from the bottom. It really isn’t as easy as it looks though, especially the steering and takes a lot of practice to get right!
The next morning we went for a walk around the island. It’s called “Sepmane” Island, which means mopane tree. There used to be a lot of mopane trees here but they’ve been wiped out by ellies. The island was much bigger than I had first thought! After the plane disappeared (the one I mentioned in the first paragraph), we were left in peace. It was just the three of us: Kevin, Teko and me, exploring our surroundings; we admired the tracks of a spring hare, glimpsed a greater honeyguide in flight, touched an elephant skull, climbed a termite mound, and smelt sweet wild sage. Tourists on a bush walk? Nope – we were Bayei tribesman going for a morning stroll around our own little Okavango island…
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