Africa, Part II: Into the Okavango

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]

When I was little, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d say a Nat Geo photojournalist, the photo bug gifted to me by my father. It’s certainly the reason I started a travel blog: to release the words in my head about the places I’ve been, together with the photos, to complete the story (much easier in digital). My early-on adventures were in 35mm and pencil-on-paper. Midnight jungle hikes and diving the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef in Belize, Mary’s Place in Roatan; the Arizona desert, the mind-blowing ruins at Tikal…

But here I am, 12000km from home, packing a bag to spend the night camping in the Okavango Delta. Yesterday, we took a low-altitude flight over the Delta, mesmerised by the maze of animal tracks in the dry desert grass that map the routes to the best watering holes. The herds of toy animals below ironically reminded me of a Nat Geo special, and I only know it was real because I have the pictures on my camera, telling a thousand words for every giraffe, elephant, zebra, impala, hippo and water buffalo seen from above. Even today, writing about the experience, it seems like a vivid dream (inclusive of massive turbulence!). Neither words nor pictures can do justice to the enormity that is the Okavango Delta. Roughly 20,000 square kilometers in size, the Delta stretches from the northern border of Botswana and its fingers fan out towards the Kalahari Desert. A multitude of endangered species call this place home: cheetah, black rhino, African wild dog, lions and a multitude of birds. If we have the chance to see even one of these beasts on the course of our trip, it will check multiple boxes in my life’s wish list.

Let it be known that I am an elephant freak. Peut-être the reason I gravitate towards Ganesha, I don’t know. And before this trip, I had never seen an ele outside of captivity. I had it in my head that there would be a moment where my heart exploded upon seeing my first elephant in Africa. It just so happens that the first wild elephant I saw in Africa was out a bus window, driving down the Cross-Kalahari Highway at 70km/hr (little did I know then that the once-in-a-lifetime elephant experience was to come on my last full day here).

Into the Delta.

Safari vehicles shuttle us to the launching point where a flurry of activity is readying mokoros (dug-out, flat-bottomed canoes – once wood, now made of fiberglass) to ferry us from the fingertips of the Delta to our campsite some kilometers farther in. Our poler, Papillon, expertly maneuvers us through the hippo highways and back roads of the Okavango, through the Delta reeds that mask the myriad animals watching our parade of canoes. It feels like we’re floating, which we are of course, but it feels lighter and quieter than a traditional canoe or kayak somehow. The water is so still, it’s like a mirror magically guiding our craft along ancient paths. At the end of one such path, we pause by a larger pool to watch a hippo family playing and cautiously checking us out – popping in and out of the water, one by one, with a unique “spluff” that sounds not unlike a whale spouting. Papillon, chatting along the way giving us names of birds and history of this magical place. The polers have an organised association here, shuttling tourists around the Delta. The government of Botswana issues exams for different level of naturalist; each of our polers seem to possess several levels of knowledge of the flora, fauna and ecology of this region.

Hippos weigh more than a small car, can apparently walk up to 1km underwater (they don’t swim) and are considered the most territorial of animals in the Delta, killing more humans than any other animal here, not for a quick snack but in defense of their domain. We’re wary but excited to see them snarfle-surfacing nearby. I keep thinking it feels a bit like being inside a Nat Geo safari special, except the air smells like a sweet mixture of camp smoke and sagebrush. Still the silky texture of the air prevails. It is flat for kilometers and miles; only reeds distinguish wet from dry land, and even that depends on the season.

We arrive at camp after about an hour and a half through the wetlands, eat lunch and venture out for a quickie bush walk with one of the guides. This introduces us to the expanse of the Delta on eye-level. It’s nearly unfathomable, its size, and the volume of life this place contains; again, it feels almost surreal. As we walk, the delta grasses appear as if they are waiting out the mid-day heat for the afternoon traffic to resume. I learn that the pervasive desert sage is an insect repellent, though to my surprise and relief (malaria pills in tow), I’ve seen very few mosquitoes. One thing is certain: I will never again smell sage and not instantly be teleported to the Okavango.

As we saw from the air yesterday, there is a complicated matrix of animal trails, crisscrossing their way across the grasslands. From the ground, the trampled, well-used paths reveal myriad tracks and we see elephant and lion footprints; also antelope and zebra scat (we know they know we know they’re here). Two maribou storks (a humongous Sub-Saharan flying beast, listed in the Ugly Five according to our guide) circle in the sky above; desert grass waves in the slight breeze. Our eyes and ears are pealed for any sign of the Big Five before we head back to camp to rest before our sunset bush walk.

It’s day’s end and animals* are on the move from their mid-day siesta to grazing or hunting grounds. We’re walking farther into the Delta and we’ve gone by mokoro across to another island to see what we can spot. It’s a prickly anticipatory feeling, knowing you could be prey, depending on who or what you come across here. This feels different from any other hike I’ve been on – all senses alert for shifts in wind, rustling grasses, animal behaviour, signs of tracks or fresh poo.

There are reedbok antelope bounding, tigger-like through the tall grass. Cats are elusive this evening, but we see a dazzle** of zebra grazing in a field not 100 metres away. They notice us, but continue alternately grazing and keeping watch, as is their nature. It is incredible to observe them interpreting their continuously-changing surroundings. They all alert to some unseen hazard in the trees nearby, moving en masse just slightly Eastward before relaxing and resuming their meal (enhancing our photo-op in the process).

We race the sun on our way back to camp, the African sky is fire against the wheat-coloured plains. We see more zebra, impala, birds, and as I’m disembarking the mokoro, a tiny elephant shrew (a member of the lesser-known Little Five) bounces into view at my feet, doing its best kanga impression.

The sun sets as we arrive back at camp, and while we didn’t see an elephant this time out, I know this walk is a mere appetizer for what we’re to see in the days ahead. Already I want to spend an extra week here in this spot (despite the warnings about straying too far from camp and a strong suggestion on checking the bush for the glow of eyes before going to the toilet).

The magic of the savannah overshadows the night’s activities only slightly: we’re eating grilled food around an open fire in the Okavango Delta, listening to our polers sing songs from this part of the world. Laughter abounds. I’m lucky to be here, I think, and haven’t even seen an elephant up close yet.

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari] Stay tuned for Part III: the magic of elephants


*Animals of the Okavango

**Animal collective nouns

Kalahari before the safari

The terrestrial part of the trip starts unexpectedly badly, with a raging migraine and a feeling of “why did I sign up for a tour?” as we meet the others with whom we’ll share a bus and myriad adventures for the next 8 days. I’m in Windhoek, Namibia, the starting point of this bus-and-bush trip across Botswana, travelling with a friend I met on my trip to India. The ghastly first dinner helps the migraine not at all; I hate vomiting in unfamiliar surrounds. But with optimistic hats on, we are determined to make the most of the days and experiences ahead.

 

Doha.

To get to Africa, I’ve first bounced for 9 hours on one continent – Asia – where a long layover afforded me a state-sponsored city tour of the weird city of Doha, an uber-riche oasis in the Arabian desert. Surrounded on 3 sides by the Persian Gulf and one by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, they say, is the richest country in the world. Oil, oil and more oil… Elaborate is the first word that comes to mind of the airport here, as the Adhan (call to prayer) resonates throughout the cavernous modern space. One stop on the city tour is the man-made gated island, The Pearl (called this because oil displaced pearl diving for its #1 industry), for Qatari residents only – the workers are accommodated in single-room worker housing and paid $300/month for labour on the massive amount of construction going on here, least of which is FIFA World Cup 2022. The Pearl, in obnoxious contrast, boasts exquisite waterfront housing and a mini-mall replete with Ferrari and Rolls Royce shops, flanked by Hermès, Gucci and other designer boutiques. Regrettably, we only have 10 minutes at this stop so I won’t even have time to choose the colour of my Ferrari. We don’t get a tour of the worker residences, but we are allowed an hour or so to wander the Souq Wakif, their enormous traditional market where I wend my way to the spice section, past all manner of vendors. A small treat in advance of my 10-hour flight to Windhoek.

 

Welcome to Namibia.

Having spent many long flights beside over- and under-perfumed humans, large and small, awkward and fidgety, I was delighted to be seated next to a charming and adorable bush-pilot-turned-private-jet-captain, returning home after a 3-week globetrotting stint. We struck up conversation immediately; books and travel and world views. Pas mal, as they say.

Still chatting away, we step off the plane and into the silky Namibian air. It has a texture I can’t place; clean and pure as if it has magical properties. The sky is a cloudless, crystalline blue. The temperature, a perfect 20°C; the morning chill lingering for now.

My seat-mate issues my first “Welcome to Namibia.” This is the 2nd stranger from a plane I’ve sat next to (the first was a lovely woman from Joburg on the Boston-to-Doha leg) who’s insisted on connecting on WhatsApp just in case I need help while in their homeland. I think: we don’t do that enough where I’m from. One of the amazing things about solo travel is the ability to remove walls and preconceptions…there is an immediacy about the interactions you have, where the minutiae around what you do for a living and other small talk has no place because the connection and the conversation is time-blocked. There is simply no room for fluff.

20170723_080535-1Now entering Botswana.

On most road trips, one expects to see a smattering (and, alas, the splattering) of animals along the sides of the highway; where I’m from it’s deer or red-tailed hawks or woodchucks. But we’re on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, and as such, in the first 20km of open road we begin to see a troop* of baboons and their infants**. We pass a sounder* of warthogs and their piglets**, some round ground birds (guinea fowl) that I later find out are nicknamed Chobe Chicken; an ostrich, yellow-billed hornbills, iridescent and shiny-breasted starlings…and this is just the small stuff. Note to self, as I gaze out at the Kalahari savannah rolling by the window: this moment is time-blocked as well. Fluff has no place here in the desert.

We cross the border into Botswana with little ado, and each of us receives a condom from the immigration folks; a sobering reminder of the fact that 25% of the adult population here has HIV/AIDS. 18 of us on the bus, and we let that sink in: our collective Western privilege acknowledged.

As we drive towards the bush huts in which we’ll sleep that evening, we begin to see more animals (in no particular order): zebras, giraffes, goats, sable, impala, more ostrich, oryx, dik dik (a very tiny antelope), kudu, lilac breasted roller (a gorgeous little bird), and – at last – an elephant (or twenty). We are not in Kansas anymore, although the terrain is just as flat. We’ve already driven something like 5 hours and I’m just starting to get my head around how big the Kalahari, and Africa, is.

The road to our bush camp is straight and flat; vast swaths of scrub brush as far as the eye can see. We’re on the upper edge of the Kalahari proper, tho the animals are not much aware of boundaries. The low scrub brush is interspersed with dusty green desert trees and random baobabs, their roots seeking moisture in the red earth carpeted in desert grass.

More stats: 84% of Botswana is covered in sand; and the Kalahari Desert comprises about 70% of its land. We’re entering a dry, sparsely-populated area (most of the population lives in or near the capital in the southern part of the country), home to the largest elephant population on the planet. The preview elephants we’ve seen so far have whet my appetite (not literally) for more.

 

Bushmen without a bush.

Our lodging for the night is a cache of bush huts on a tract of the Kalahari. Botswana residents are entitled to land from the government, but with it, they are required to do something of use: tourism, farming, etc., so we see roaming goats, cows, horses along the highway; not unlike India, I think, anything might cross the road at any time.

The camp is a swath of lump-looking pods with doors, each containing a couple of cots. Quaint, pseudo-authentic, rustic. Despite the 25° day, it will be 8 or 9° tonight, but at least we’ll have walls between us and the desert…and it’s too cold for snakes.

Our hosts have set up this mock bush camp to teach tourists about the ways of the bush. It’s sad, I think, that the San People (bushmen) need to put on a tourist show to keep their traditions alive; government regulations have all but made their lifestyle of hunting and gathering obsolete. Their language and way of life will die out within a generation or two. Indigenous people were pushed out of South Africa and more fertile lands towards the arid and impossible Kalahari, and so it is like a slow starvation made possible by Western colonization and modernization.

 

The first activity is a bush walk. It’s more a staged demonstration by a few San People, who have changed into traditional garb and driven in for the show. I feel a bit of a voyeur, watching them practice their gathering skills (hunting is prohibited here). The film The Gods Must Be Crazy was made almost 40 years ago and perhaps foreshadowed their brush with modern society. And as we walk with them along the quiet, dry path, I can’t help but wonder if the land was once teeming with animals. We’re encouraged to ask questions and take photos as a means of remembrance; historical preservation: spread the word lest we be forgotten. I oblige because the images are stunning, but I feel simultaneously patron and rich western foreigner taking advantage of the locals. Isn’t this what got them here in the first place? The day closes out with dinner and more of the San show: traditional singing and dancing by the fire.

Dawn.

As the new day greets us with its 5° chill, I dress quickly in the pitch blackness of a Kalahari morning. The African sun rises without fanfare as if it knows it’s in high demand this day. As quickly as the sun pops over the horizon, we’re on the road just after brekkie to see the Okavango Delta. Visions of Nat Geo specials dance in my head….

[Part II: Into the Okavango!]  [Part III: The magic of elephants]


*The full list of animal collective nouns

**The full list of animal baby names