‘Schifffahrt’ on the Chobe River
After crossing the Chobe River, at the point where four countries (Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe) meet, we were finally in Botswana. Met by a group of police officers dressed in caps sporting a checked pattern, which bore more than a passing resemblance to that which adorns the helmets of London Metropolitan Police, we received a warm and mercifully efficient welcome the country.
As we drove away from the border towards the campsite, we realised that everything here was different from what we had seen in Africa so far. American style out of town shopping centres, KFCs, sealed roads, young women dressed in UGG boots; it was so modern. After the decrepit roads, inflated food prices and scruffy children we had seen playing in the dirt between chores in Zambia and Malawi, we encountered the most impressive façade of wealth so far in Africa. I say façade because much of the wealth in southern Africa is concentrated in the hands of the few. Though shopping malls abound and supermarkets stock imported wines, camembert and sumptuous steaks, for many ordinary Batswana these remain exotic extravagances, not part of their regular diets.
On our first evening we went on a cruise along the Chobe River which was teaming with wildlife, much of it perilous to humans. From hippos (Africa’s most dangerous mammals) basking in the shallow water as the sun slipped below the horizon, to crocodiles and elephants, it was a veritable feast for the eyes. The woman behind us was clearly enjoying the ornithological treasures of Chobe; with every sighting of a new species she almost leapt from her seat, naming each an average of 30 seconds before the official guide and boatman even saw it. When we came across a large herd of elephants drinking and grazing at the edge of the river, we stopped for a magical half hour to observe them at close range.
The river carves an impressive liquid border through the surrounding countryside. Away from the banks of the river, the landscape was dry and scrubby; in parts it was a graveyard of brittle trees bleached white by the sun, their jagged branches pointing up to the blue sky.
Perhaps this dryness explains why the national currency of Botswana is called Pula, meaning rain. For those born in naturally precipitous regions, rain is often depressing; a nuisance, potentially ruinous; a harbinger of bad omens. For the Batswana and the other tribes who have managed to survive the harsh environment of the Kalahari and beyond, the tiny Thebe coins – a hundred Thebe (raindrops) make up each Pula – jingle magically in the pocket, a constant reminder of the wealth which rain can create.