One of the highlights of a trip to Botswana is a trip on a makoro/ mokoro (dugout canoe) in the Okavango Delta. Everyone we met seemed to agree that it was magical being out in the middle of the Delta, away from light pollution, traffic and modern conveniences. Assured that one night would not be enough, we signed up for a two-night trip and entrusted ourselves into the hands of a man named Zero, who headed up the troupe of polers responsible for transporting us.
Our brief introduction to the polers was punctuated by a warning from Zero before we departed.
“Please, nobody jump out of the makoro if you see a spider, a dragonfly or a frog. I have had clients capsize the makoro before when they have seen these things…”
Forging our way through the reeds of the delta, like Moses in his basket, our bodies and faces were constantly whipped by rough grass which was home to an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare: white, black, brown and green spiders of all shapes and sizes, coming at your face, crawling over your legs and arms; blown back at you with swarms of other insects, as the dugout ploughed through the foliage.
Like gondoliers, the polers make the arduous task of propelling the dugout canoes through the water appear effortless. Gliding through papyrus choked channels and across lily ponds, they steer through crocodile infested waters and hippo bathing pools. Whenever we asked them whether we should be afraid of an attack they nonchalantly dismissed our concerns, pushing ever deeper into the labyrinth of papyrus reeds.
After three hours, we arrive sun-kissed and desperate for shade. The camp is situated on one of the larger islands in the Delta. Under a canopy of large shady trees we erected our tents, a bush toilet was dug and a fire lit. Water was boiled for tea and we broke out the lunch provisions before reclining in the shade to while away the hottest part of the day.
As the day passed, the sting of the midday sun subsided to be replaced by its milder incarnation. At four o’clock we departed for a bush walk, knowing that we were not guaranteed to see anything, but equally excited by the lion prints we discovered on the way and the copious elephant dung which Julius, our guide breaks apart for us to analyse. In hushed tones he explains the ecosystem in which we will reside for the next 48 hours in his heavily accented English. Sounding like an Irishman trying to pronounce the word ‘film’ Julius struggles with his double final consonants.
“Palumz and elephant tusuks” (palms and elephant tusks), featured heavily in his explanations along with the alarmingly named “wild beasts” (hopefully he was alluding to wildebeests!)
After we return to camp, an inky black darkness encompasses everything once the last embers of the fire burn out after supper. When we retire to our tents the shroud of darkness is heavy, pressing down on us from above, so opaque that it is impossible to see our hands raised directly in front of our faces. If you think about the darkness too much, you start to feel claustrophobic, the best way to quell the workings of an over-active imagination in this dark place, in the middle of nowhere, is to fall asleep quickly and pray that you will not need to search for ‘Dug’ (as we christened the shovel) en route to the hole-in-the-ground toilet during the night.
The second morning begins with another bush walk. While listening to Julius explain the principles of termite construction and the role of elephant dung in the germination of Delta coconut palms, we accidentally venture into the path of an animal which makes the guide and two scouts insist on an urgent retreat.
The day before, we had practised non-verbal signals for communicating danger, including the clicking of fingers, as well as the merits of running zig-zag when pursued by certain predators; today we were going to have to put everything learned into practice.
I must admit that at first, I thought the warning might be an attempt to see how gullible we were – would we run on command or attempt to climb a tree on command? But after seeing the faces of the guides as they hissed the command to “RUN” in a zig-zag, I realised that Julius must have been serious.
Ten minutes later we were still running, leaping and zig-zaging through the bush. Breathless, we stopped behind a termite mound and a felled log to look back at the thing which had been pursuing us. A huge lone elephant bull was walking between the palms, foraging for food. Luckily, we had been downwind, and had been able to retreat without arousing his self-protection instinct. Unarmed and miles from the camp, we would not have stood a chance if he had charged.
Later that afternoon, when the pilot of our scenic Cessna flight over the Delta dipped the wing 60 degrees to show us a herd of elephants walking below, we wondered where the loner we had run from that morning might be now.
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.