Tuesday 8 June 2010

shining like a national guitar.....

Day 14 Maun

Approximate Distance: 280 km
Estimated Travel Time: 4 hrs

Our next stop was Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.  We have one night here before we head off to spend the next two nights bush camping out in the delta itself.  The Okavango Delta is the world's largest inland delta. It is formed where the Okavango River empties water gathered on the mountains in places like far-away Angola into a swamp in an endorheic basin in the Kalahari Desert.  Where most deltas empty into the sea, the 11 cubic kilometers of water that irrigate the 5,000 km² of the Okavango delta are lost to evaporation and transpiration, with the rest draining into Lake Ngami.  Not a drop reaches the sea.  It is, in fact, the world's largest inland delta.

When we enter the delta tomorrow, we'll be going in on boats, but the sheer scale of the place is best appreciated from the air.  After we put our tents up, we head back to Maun airport and take a scenic flight above the delta.  It's apparently the size of Switzerland, but from the air it looks quite a lot like the mould you get on the top of an abandoned cup of coffee.

It's vast, and it keeps unfolding beneath us for the duration of the hour long flight as the sun sets.  From up here we can see herds of water buffalo (the last one of the Big Five that we haven't yet seen on this trip), elephant, hippo and even a large herd of sweeping pronking springbok (pronking is the word used to describe the distinctive, four-legs-in-the-air, jumping that various gazelle do, and during the course of the trip has also become an amusing substitute for the f-word).  The pilot throws in some aerobatics in an attempt to make us feel queasy, but we're all pretty dazed already by the sheer scale of the delta.  It's huge.  Back at the airport, we muck about on the runway as we walk back towards the terminal, pretending that we're in Top Gun, and in the terminal itself, I see a discarded sign amusingly advertising a spot of zebra hunting in my postcode in the UK.  I've not seen any game around West Bridgford myself, but there might be some hanging around Holme Pierrepont, I reckon......

Back at the campsite that evening, we're briefed on what to expect in the Delta.  Basically, we're going to travel for about an hour on a speedboat and will then be poled for another couple of hours into the delta on mokoro, the traditional boats of the region.  We will be completely out in the wild and will not have access to comforts like showers and flushing toilets.  There will also be no fences between us and any animals around the place, which will include lion, hyena, hippo, snakes and elephants.  It is emphasised to us in no uncertain terms that we are under no circumstances to visit latrines on our own, especially after dark, as we could easily be taken by lion, who have been known to investigate the campsite from time to time.  Their eyes reflect back golden in torchlight, apparently.....If we meet a lion, we are told not to run under any circumstances, as this will trigger the predator's pursuit instincts.  Instead, we are told to stand tall.  Apparently the lion will recognise from our height and the fact that our shoulders are broader than our hips, that we are predators and not prey.  Hmmm.  I'm not sure that I'd rely on that particular nugget.  Don't lion hunt giraffe and elephant?  We are also told to stay out of the water unless specifically told otherwise..... the water is stained a deep brown colour from all the tannins, and we will not be able to see any approaching crocodiles or hippo.  That said, the guide also says that we should take every opportunity we do have to swim when told it is safe.  Hmmm.  We'll see.  Sounds like an interesting couple of days ahead.

Day 15-16 Okavango Delta

Accommodation: Basic bush camping

After starting before the sun rises most mornings on this trip, we actually have a reasonably civilised start to the day today.  We're able to get up, shower and breakfast after dawn and still have plenty of time to pack everything up for the next couple of days.  As well as a small bag with a change of clothes, we're also packing up the tents, the chairs, the food, some booze, the mattresses and some 10 litres of water per person.... which is apparently what we're going to need for the next 48 hours.  It's quite a lot of stuff.  We load up the speedboats and we're on our way into the delta.

After an hour on the boats, we stop at a busy little village just outside the buffalo fence that marks the edge of the delta proper, and we transfer into the mokoro.  Traditionally these are hollowed out trees that are flat-bottomed and poled through the shallow water.  Actually, nowadays, many of these are made out of fibreglass, but they're still powered the old-fashioned way..... by hand.  Naturally, we don't have to do anything; we introduce ourselves to our poler, who is marvellously called Life, make ourselves as comfortable as possible and settle down for a two-hour ride to our campsite.

There's lots to see - plenty of eagles, kingfishers, darts, storks and other birds, as well as the shifting scenery as we pole through the reeds deeper into the delta.

It's a very restful way to travel.  Apparently it's considered a compliment to the poler if you fall asleep, and as the heat of the day rises, sat on our mattresses, it's hard not to nod off, even with the undoubted attraction of a brown bag lunch sitting within easy reach.

 [photo courtesy of Jess]

...it is pretty comfortable though.

After a very pleasant couple of hours, we arrive at the campsite that's going to be our base for the next couple of nights.  Up until now, we've been staying in fairly nice campsites with showers and the like.  Things are a bit different here.... for starters, the toilet is a freshly-dug hole in the ground behind an old termite mound.  If the toilet paper is still hanging on a branch around the corner, then it's empty, if not, then you have to wait.  It's a simple system, but it works well enough.  Besides, anyone who has used a latrine like this will tell you that it's actually a pretty clean system.  In fact, it's cleaner than some of the toilets we've seen along the way in Africa so far.  The campsite itself is perhaps more compact than we're used to, with all our tents gathered together and surrounded by the tents of the guides and polers, who are to act as a first line of defence against any wildlife that may choose to wander through the site.

 [photo courtesy of Grooves....]

It's actually pretty comfortable (even if most of that water we were told we needed to bring with us has been accidentally left on the speedboats.... I guess we'll have to manage with rather less than 5 litres a day, eh?).  Our schedule for the next couple of days is naturally entirely dependent upon the animals, who are most active at dawn and at dusk.  The plan is to go on walking safaris out in the bush at those times, and then to spend the long hours in the middle of the day chilling out at the campsite.  Water levels in the delta are high - they've received more than twice the usual volume of rainfall this year, which everyone hopes is not the result of climate change and a sign of things to come - and so game is actually pretty dispersed.  As in the Game Parks, the chances of seeing wildlife are much higher when water is scarce and the animals are forced to congregate around waterholes..... so all this water means that the chances are that we won't see all that much whilst we're here, but because we were so lucky in Etosha and have had a good look at the delta from above, I can't help but feel that the pressure is off.  I'm just looking forward to getting out and have a good look around, knowing that I could walk into a lion..... the thought alone is exciting enough. 

To kill the time before our first walk, we kick off a game of movie title charades that will become an obsession over the next day or so, and head off for a swim at a nearby "safe" area.  I've promised my practice nurse back home that I wouldn't swim in Africa, but all of this goes right out of the window when I jump into the cool waters of the crocodile, hippo and who-knows-what-else infested waters of the Okavango Delta..... although I do keep my sandals on throughout.   It's pretty hot out here, so it's a good way to cool off and to have a bit of fun, mucking about in mokoro and splashing about in the water.... although it's noticeable that Bones, the doctor in the party, elects not to get into the water.  Ah, I'm sure it's fine.  I make a mental note not to google the various micro-organisms that might be living in this water when I get home....

On our return to the camp, we break up into groups of about six and head out on our first walk.  Our guide is Vincent, and he takes us out for about an hour's walk behind the campsite as the sun goes down.  It's pretty exciting as he briefs us on the dos and don'ts of a walking safari and we get out into the bush.  Basically, watch him and don't run unless he runs.  OK.  Easier said than done, I think, but ok, let's give it a go..... We walk slowly through the savannah, straining our eyes and our ears for sight or sounds of anything.  We actually don't see much: some zebra, a warthog and some baboons, but it's still an incredible experience.

After a night of more campfire charades, in which I am told that my team is being unreasonable by picking obscure films like "The Shawshank Redemption" (eh? Wait until you get a load of "Titus Andronicus", suckers....), we get up with the dawn to go out on a longer, four hour walk.   In terms of actual animals seen, we don't see very much again this morning.... some impala, baboons, monkeys, warthogs and the like... but we do have the thrill of following fresh buffalo tracks before Vincent decides that we're not in the best terrain for bumping into what is the most dangerous of the Big Five and takes us off the trail.  We also hear a lion.  I'm not sure how close it actually is, but it sounds as though it is close.  Now, part of me would dearly love to see a lion on foot, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that the larger part of me was not all that disappointed that we didn't run into it.  Quite how close the lion were is revealed a little later on when we find the freshly picked clean skull of last night's kill, some 200m away from our campsite.....

We walk for several hours, but in spite of Vincent's best efforts, the high water levels mean that the game is simply too well dispersed for us to see much.  He takes us back via what I assume is an old stand-by for days like these: a set of elephant bones.  Apparently a pair of lion can pull down a bull elephant, a feat that becomes all the more impressive when you see quite how big their bones are.  The ankle bone alone must weigh about 15-20kg, and the skull is huge.

I'm guessing that these particular bones have been here for a while, but who's complaining when it means you get to mess around with some massive bones?  Not me, that's for sure.

Perhaps in an ideal world, we would have seen some more wildlife -- some of the other groups see elephant, and it's not outrageous to think that we might have seen both lion and water buffalo around here.  I'm philosophical though: you get what you get and there's precious little point moaning about it.  I do feel a bit bad for the guys who joined the group in Windhoek and thus didn't get to see all those animals we saw in Etosha, but I still think this was well-worth doing.  It turns out that walking safaris are brilliant, even when you don't see all that much.  It's a unique environment and it's brilliant that we can spend a few days soaking it up.  And playing charades.

On our last evening in the delta, we go out poling to look for some hippo as the sun sets.  We stop on the fringes of a large, deep water pool, and we spend a happy half hour listening to a hippo grumbling and groaning as he wallows in the water in front of us.  We only really see his nostrils when he surfaces for air, but he makes an impressive amount of noises anyway... mostly farty noises, it has to be said.  Besides, we also have another peerless African sunset to admire. 

Back at the camp, the guides and polers have clearly been around us long enough to start feeling more comfortable around us.  Where last night they were keeping their distance a little, tonight they are sitting with us around the fire, joining in (as best as they can) with our game of charades, and then finally treating us to some fantastic singing and some crazy dancing, including "the frog" as pictured below.  It's great fun, sadly spoiled a little when they ask us to sing some songs for them, and the best we can come up with is "The Birdie Song" (which they love) and "YMCA" which they find a bit baffling (who doesn't?).

Another fantastic couple of days in Africa then, and the next morning we are poled back towards civilization..... and then nearly killed in a speedboat when our driver decides it's a good idea to let DJ Tash drive and she nearly runs us into a tree.

Somehow we survive.....

 ...only to see our bread being stolen by a particularly brazen monkey as we were setting up our lunch.  He then proceeded to eat the whole lot whilst sitting in the tree above our heads.  Cheeky little....oh.

Day 17 Gweta

Approximate Distance: 240 km
Estimated Travel Time: 4 hrs

Today's a pretty easy day.  A relatively short drive along a road with elephant and giraffe on either side, followed by an early arrival at a campsite where we will be setting up our tents underneath ancient Baobab trees.  We're on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans here, an immense area devoid of anything but salt and shimmering horizon. As the largest expanse of 'nothingness' on earth, the pans have area the size of Switzerland (is everything the size of Switzerland in Africa or what?), and are clearly visible from outer-space.  Crucially for us though, there's a good set of showers, a really nice pool and a fantastic bar.   We spend the next few hours relaxing, washing off the grime of the delta and generally relaxing before the next stage of our journey.  I drink a few amarulas and learn how to do "the springbok" shot correctly (it's amarula with creme de menthe and there's a whole ritual involved....).

It feels a little like we're on the home stretch now, but we've still got the Chobe river to see, the Zambesi to cross and then Zambia and the mighty Victoria Falls before we head for home.  We're not done just yet......

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