Botswana: Into the Okavango

Last updated on December 10th, 2020

It is beautiful morning and I wish we were spending the day exploring the Hills.

Looking up at a cliff

We wait while the campsite is packed up, giving me time to consider the campground. Aside from the inevitable dust, this is a great place to camp. Everything runs on solar power and there seems to be an ample supply of water. The staff comes in each day to clean the bathrooms, which have toilet paper, hot water, mirrors, and at least a couple working toilets. The office has been open each day and staffed by friendly and helpful people. The camp dogs, although officially not welcome, are friendly and generally well-behaved.

map to the Okavango

At last we take off. As much as I would like to stay here longer, I am also intrigued by and eager for the next phase of our journey:

A short drive to Seronga where you will visit the surrounding area including the village and the Okavango Polers Trust, with whom you will be participating in a mokoro trail the following day. The Okavango Polers Trust was formed in 1998 to enable the community to establish a community based eco-tourism operation. There are over 75 members who each own their own mokoros, using fibreglass instead of the wood mokoros in order to preserve trees. Overnight at the Poler Trust campsite.

K has been told that rather than driving to Seronga (a very long trip because there is no bridge near here), we will be taking a ferry across the river. When I look at the map, it seems that we will actually have to travel THROUGH the delta, rather than just crossing the river. I hope this is the case. I love to be on the water.

Another flat. We are getting used to this and the guys (our husbands and Kaiser) fix it almost immediately – under 10 minutes. There is only enough time for K to snack on a handful of jackalberries and for me to get one (only one) contact lens rinsed. It is also just enough time for one very large, very black cow to come over and check us out.

A short while later we are at the Swamp Stop at the edge of the Okavango.

The Swamp Stop looks like a good place to spend some time – simple and casual, with a bar that overlooks the water. It’s a small place, but with comfortable-looking accommodations and brilliant pink and orange bougainvillea. (I’m a sucker for bougainvillea. Nothing says “paradise” to me like those bright blossoms.) I wouldn’t mind settling in here for a few days. . .

Phil, who owns the Swamp Stop and has provided for our transport to Seronga, explains to my husband that our trip through the delta will take 1 ½ hours – longer if we stop to watch wildlife. He recommends that we keep an eye out for the crocodile research station, as we are likely to see a lot of really big crocs near there; explains the schedule for the return trip; points out the “normal” water level; and discusses the flooding that occurred earlier in the year.

boats along a river

Soon our motorboat is loaded and we are off.

On the River

Most of the time we travel in the main channel, surrounded by tall stands of papyrus. Sometimes the papyrus is interrupted by thick reeds. Both the papyrus and the reeds appear to grow right out of the water as if there is no river bank supporting them. (There probably isn’t.) Only a few waterlilies float at the base of the papyrus, but some are a thrilling shade of pale blue.

river with papyrus

In some places the papyrus is interrupted by banks with grassy meadows or small woodlands. Some of these host exotic-looking palm trees. Large grassy meadows tend to sport grazing cattle. The few crocs we see seem to prefer smaller spaces close to the water’s edge.

cows along a river bank

Despite the research center, we actually see very few crocs — although the few we do see are quite large.

We glimpse a river otter.

We see birds. Lots and lots of birds.

There are darters, egrets, kingfishers, and a host of birds we aren’t quick enough to identify even with the boatman’s help.

birds flying above a river

We get wonderful views of a pair of majestic fish eagles keeping watch high above the river.

fish eagle in a tree

Every bend in the river brings a different vista.

palm trees above a river

We come around a bend to see a sandbar reaching out into the channel ahead. Birds line it’s sunny, sandy shore. We swing wide around it, getting a sudden view of a large monitor lizard basking in the sun along with the birds.

sandbar with birds

The river is quiet. We meet a couple of boats similar to our own and another comes from behind to pass us. We pass a pair of vacant-looking houseboats tied to the shore. For the most part, we are alone with the egrets, darters, eagles, and hidden crocodiles.

As we approach Seronga we see building materials (bundles of thatch and reeds) being moved on boats both modern and traditional.

The landing in Seronga is still active at mid-day. A group of men and women work together mending nets spread across a dock built high above the current water level. Below them a group of young women sit and flirt with a young man while he works on a boat. Above the boat landing, a man is carefully loading a wagon with thatch while his donkey waits patiently.

We have a lot of gear, but eventually the last of it has been loaded into a pick-up truck. We climb on top and ride through the busy village of Seronga to the Okavango Poler’s Trust campground.

At camp in Seronga

Our tents are pitched in a wonderful, bucolic spot under a sausage tree covered with lovely red flowers that drip sticky sweet nectar. From our tent we have a view of a wet pasture populated with cattle, donkeys, and birds.

OT sees that we are fed and then we have the whole afternoon ahead of us.

Our itinerary mentions visiting the village, but the village looked hot and dusty and we are tired and feeling lazy. Instead, I do a few productive things – shower, hand-wash laundry, write in my journal.

Mostly we all just sit by the pasture and watch the slowly changing tableau in front of us. We identify the different birds as they come and go. We watch women from the village carrying thatch home atop their heads and children playing in the water.

The bar at the restuarant looks inviting and cool, but it isn’t. I want a cold drink that says “safari” the way rum punch says “Caribbean.” I’m not sure what that might be. My husband suggests whiskey. He’s right, but no thanks.

There is no bartender in sight, but we ask around and eventually someone appears. My husband orders a cider and finds a way to open it using the edge of a counter while the bartender is elsewhere in search of a bottle opener. There is no ice, but there is a cold Coke in the refrigerator and, mixed with a little rum, it is fine.

Back to writing and watching the scene around us.

Near our campsite the cook is preparing our dinner for tonight over an open fire. Their duties done, OT and Dick (we have only two of our usual foursome with us for this part of our trip) sit near her, quietly talking with her while she works.

We have the choice of a regular dinner in the restaurant or a traditional dinner – assuming they can find enough waterlily root yet this afternoon. We choose the traditional dinner and pay for OT and Dick to join us. As darkness falls, we too sit by the fire, where we are also joined by a group of personable South Africans on a bird watching trip and an English couple.

The meal features fish mashed with waterlily root, maize meal mixed with porridge and beans, mashed squash, and some sort of cooked cabbage. The waterlily root is incredibly starchy, but not bad, and overall the dish has lovely flavor. The meal is good, although not as good as at Betty’s.

The entertainment is interesting and very different from that at Betty’s. OT tells us that this is the music and dancing the local Bayei would learn at home, while the entertainment at Betty’s was the formal music and dance taught in school. There is also a lot of audience participation – we are expected to entertain them too.

Most of the audience participation is goofy stuff, but we finally convince them to let K sing. I am pleased to hear her begin a western song and am eager to see how the Batswana will react to yodeling. K’s voice floats clear and lovely above the crackling fire in the otherwise still night air. At last she comes to the yodeling. She does it beautifully and is rewarded by a frenzy of clapping and ululations from the local female singers.

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