We awake to a cool, damp morning.
The sausage tree above our tent is filled first with brightly colored birds and then with vervet monkeys. Ok, maybe not “filled” with monkeys. There are actually only three of them (two adults and a youngster), but even this small number provides an immense amount of entertainment. They hop from branch to branch high above our heads, methodically munching on each bright red flower.
Depart this morning for your mokoro trail. Spend the day exploring into the further reaches of the delta. All equipment and provisions are packed into your mokoro as you set off with your guide for an unforgettable wilderness experience. Your trail will take you along winding channels lined with reeds into an area renowned for its diverse bird and animal life.
Please note that facilities are non-existent. Your poler will dig a hole to use as a toilet and bathing may be done in the river. Overnight on the mokoro trail.
We are driven to the drop-off point for the mokoro trip. The marshy launching area is surrounded with upside down mekoro and we wait among them. Soon we see a group coming in. Once they are on shore and their gear loaded into a waiting truck, our polers bring their boats over and begin to load our gear.
We are in a mokoro poled by a youngish man named Kim. He moves us through faint, shallow channels in grassy meadows. In places the channels are wider, deeper – sometimes lined with papyrus like the river. Here dainty white and pale pink waterlilies wave gracefully as we move past. These channels sometimes open into larger, deeper pools, although even here the water looks to be less than six feet deep. Everywhere the bottom seems sandy.
There is also a strong current. We hadn’t expected this, since the delta is essentially flat.
Our mokoro is a low-sided, flat bottomed fiberglass version of a traditional dugout canoe-type boat. Ours rocks some as Kim moves us through the water, pushing us forward with the aid of a long, slightly curved pole made from a tree branch. Despite the sometimes uneven movement as we slide over a branch or particularly shallow area, it doesn’t feel particularly tippy. We sit on cushions on the floor that also wrap up against the baggage to form a seat back. They make for stable seating that is not quite comfortable, but not uncomfortable either.
I watch nervously for signs of crocodiles or hippos, but all we see are lovely white egrets, glistening dark darters, lively African Jacanas, tiny jewel-like kingfishers, and many other birds. They surround us with delicate beauty, their musical calls drifting over the watery grasslands.
Too quickly we arrive at the island where we will camp.
I really want to stay in the mokoro and explore more of the delta, but that doesn’t appear to be an option. I stand by the water a long time, not wanting to leave it even as the sun climbs high in the sky.
Our gear is unloaded and hauled up a short hill to the campsite, which is located beneath large trees and away from the shore. There is a large pile of elephant dung in the middle of the campsite. No one bothers to move it, so we trip over it as we move around. Not that it really matters, elephant dung is fibrous stuff, dry, and without any smell. My husband suggests removing it, but no one else seems bothered by it and I find it amusing. It isn’t annoying, just weird.
OT is making what appears to be lunch. We didn’t have much for breakfast, so I suppose we will soon be fed again. We walk around the area a little, but aren’t allowed to go very far and get shooed away when we get close to the water. There really isn’t anywhere to go.
My husband and I stand for awhile along the shore where we landed. There is a nearby island, but it appears to be quiet there too. A group of bird watchers glide past.
There is a rustling in the bushes nearby. I urge my husband to come with me and join the others. What if that is a lion? He laughs at me, but after awhile we head back. On the way up the trail I hear an oddly familiar noise in the rustling in the bushes. . . the bleating of goats. So much for lions!
The delta is very green, but only right where the water flows. As soon as you move just a short distance from the water, (as little as ten or twenty feet), the landscape becomes dry. The Okavango drains into the northern end of the Kalahari and the juxtaposition is startling. Our camp is surrounded by large trees, with scrubby brush farther inland. We are camped only 100 feet or so from the marshy edge of the delta, yet it is dry and sandy at our campsite.
The dust here is actually worse than in the Kalahari. There it seemed like all the dust had been blown out of the sand over the years – unless the wind was strong enough to actually pick up the sand, there wasn’t any “dust” blowing about. Here, on this island in a huge wetland, the dust filters into our tents with the faintest of breezes.
Sitting near my tent I hear elephants calling in the distance. Very cool.
I am eager to be back out on the water, but Kim says that will come later this afternoon.
Mostly we sit waiting for whatever comes next. It is very hot now, with no breeze.
OT hands a big bag of pork chops to the polers. He is responsible for making sure they are fed. Apparently he is handling that by giving them food to cook themselves. I watch a little sadly as the pork chops are stuffed into a too-small kettle over the fire. I really like pork chops and I see that OT has instead kept a bag of odd-looking meat with round bones. I imagine I will find out at dinner what that is.
OT feeds us lunch and generally keeps busy while Kim and another younger poler cook up the pork chops. I say younger because they look far younger than the other polers. They could easily be in their thirties – not kids by any means. They have custody of the phone and appear to have a lot of responsibility for ensuring that things go smoothly. They also have the task of cooking for their elders.
Besides the four polers for the six of us and Dick and OT, there are another two who brought the tents, food, and other gear. There may be more. It seems like there are a lot of them. They are all men and most are older – some quite old. They sit together and talk and laugh while the two younger men cook and answer our questions and do whatever needs doing. OT has brought a lot of beer with us and we see that the polers will take care of most of it.
One of the polers has a beautiful handmade ax. K’s father eyes it longingly for awhile and then negotiates its purchase. He pays 70 Pula ($14 US), which Kaiser later tells us is enough to hire someone to put on a good, basic thatch roof. The purchase of the ax makes K’s father curious about the price of other items. He asks about the cost of various vehicles and then the boats. We are told that a fiberglass mokoro like the ones we came out in cost $3000 Pula ($600 US). Judging by the number of mekoro on the shore back at Seronga, the polers have invested a lot of money in their business.
About 3 p.m. we head back to our mokoro. The sun is still high and hot. Kim guides us through a watery maze of reeds and grass, papyrus and waterlilies. The delta is silent, still, and lovely. It is too beautiful to be scared of the invisible hippos and crocodiles and I actually begin to wish we would see a hippo. Seeing one of the elephants we have heard calling all afternoon would be good too!
Our tour of the delta ends on another island where we take a game walk. Kim is the leader and he gives instructions before we begin:
- Stay together.
- Walk single file.
- Talk as little as possible.
- Keep your voices low when you ask questions.
- If we surprise a lion, do not run. Stay with me, make yourself as big as possible, and I will tell you what to do..
- If an elephant charges, stay with me and freeze, and I will tell you what to do.
- If we unexpectedly come upon a Cape buffalo, run any place and hide – or maybe you can ask me what to do.
So now we are traipsing through a burnt-over meadow under the hot sun. I am already tired and I know I do not have enough water with me. What am I doing here? The guidebooks have strict guidelines for game walks: Have extremely experienced guides and make sure they are armed. I doubt either Kim or the other poler with us has a gun. Everything seems still and dead, but I know that is not necessarily the case. Kim himself seems hyper-alert as we move forward, single-file, behind him.
At first I move to the back of the line, not eager to confront whatever might be waiting ahead of us. As we walk through a patchwork of grassy meadows and burned-over fields, Kim stops occasionally and tells us about the plants we pass. He identifies the bird songs we hear and points out the birds and their nests and animal tracks. . . but no animals.
He stops and points. Look. A herd of zebra graze a head of us, obscured only by the leafless shrubs. We move as stealthily as we can (which is not very stealthy, as we are a klutzy bunch) until we are close enough to observe them clearly through the brush. They are beautiful, with inticate markings: Black and white, but also with delicate tan “shadow stripes.” (These Burchell zebras the most common type.) It is amazing to stand there, peering at them at eye level through the brush.
The zebra are skittish, nervous about our presence. They watch our actions at least as closely as we do theirs and when we try to move closer they gallop off, leaving a cloud of dust hanging in the air.
Somehow seeing the zebra herd eases my fears. Kim is knowledgeable and level headed. The animals really don’t want anything to do with us. I am now eager to see what else Kim can find and move up immediately behind him in our single file line, struggling to match his pace while the others lag behind.
We see other animals. Warthogs run across a meadow. Further in the distance a large troop of baboons works its way across the island. Can get closer? No. Baboons are unpredictable and mean.
We slip under the veterinary fence that bisects the island, wandering in the lengthening shadows, but whatever Kim was looking for is not here now.
Instead we investigate a huge baobab tree that the elephants have been tearing apart. Baobob trees are between 40-75% water, making them more like huge succulents than trees. Here elephants have ripped a huge hole in the tree’s damp stringy flesh. Kim climbs up into the hole and there is room to spare. Yet, if the elephants leave this tree alone for awhile, it should heal and survive.
We head farther inland and cross back under the fence. The grasses here are long and golden in the late afternoon light. In the distance I spot an elephant and turn to show Kim at the same time he turns to show me. It is a long way off, grazing at the edge of a woodland. It doesn’t look real.
We slowly work our way around at an angle.The elephant moves from view, but after a bit Kim stops us behind some small shrubs. Look.
The elephant is grazing perhaps a half-block length from us. He knows we are here and grazes nervously, stopping abruptly at odd moments to gaze in our direction and shake his head. He’s not particularly happy about our presence, but evidently has decided we are not enough of a threat that he needs to chase us off.
It is getting late now and we hurry back past the warthogs, past a large herd of zebra, back to the mekoro laying beside the water. To my relief and disappointment, there are no hippos between us and the boats.
Our route back to the island is direct. We stop only to take a few sunset pictures and then it is a quick race back through the delta’s watery maze before darkness falls.
Back at camp I open a bottle of wine and await dinner. It is lovely and relaxing here. The odd-looking meat with the funny bones turn out to be oxtails. I consider skipping them, but OT has been cooking them all day and clearly views them as a special treat. He says I really should have some. He is right. They are wonderful – as silky and smooth as butter, with a deep, rich flavor.
The polers talk and laugh late into the night. In the distance, elephants call.
During the night I hear the soft, heavy footsteps of elephants near our tent. As they pass by, I feel the ground shift, tilting downward from their weight. Even in my dream, I know that I am dreaming.