This is my second post for the 2017 A to Z Challenge.
Back in 2008 I finally fulfilled a lifelong dream and made it to Africa on safari. The first few days were spent at Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe side, and we would eventually meet up with the rest of our tour group in Botswana as they were held up in Zambia. During those days in Zimbabwe, I managed to squeeze in a half-day canoe trip on the Zambezi, as well as a booze cruise one evening. You don’t really understand how big the Zambezi is until you’re on a houseboat in the middle of the river after the sun goes down and you cannot see land on either side of you. You just hope you’re far enough away from the falls that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to shore.
Once in Botswana, we spent one night camping near Kasane, right on the banks of the Chobe River. That night we spent out on the water, all 12 of us in deck chairs on the boat, a couple of coolers of beer at our feet, an impossible number of elephants lining the shoreline. The views you get from the water are completely different to anything you see on land. For one thing, your viewing is different, offering up unique photo opportunities should they arise. Secondly, there is less vehicle noise to contend with, and if you can drown out the giddiness of fellow travellers, you can, in turn, realise just how quiet the great outdoors can be, and just how loud a lion can roar (apparently you can hear it for 5 miles).
I have seen many sunsets in Africa – which happens to be my favourite place on Earth to watch the sun set – but that night, out on the Chobe River, the sunset was incredible. Sadly for me, the camera I had at the time was slightly more limited than my photography skills. Thankfully since then both have improved dramatically. But here are a couple of shots of my first Botswana sunset.
One of the major reasons I picked the overland trip that I did, was because it stopped off in the Okavango Delta, a place I had only seen on National Geographic tv specials and the odd outdoor magazine. We would, according to the itinerary, be spending two nights camping wild in the Delta, reaching our final destination by mekoro. The mekoro is a shallow boat that the locals have been using to propel themselves around the Delta for centuries. The Delta’s waters rarely reach over 6 foot in depth, and where we were, barely over 3, but they were still home to large crocodiles and hippos. After arriving at our launch site from our campsite in Maun, we had our stuff loaded into the mokoros and off we went, two people plus a local from the Bayeyi tribe to act as a “poler” to get us out to the patch of land we would call home for two nights. This was going to be the highlight of my trip.
My friend Chris and I shared one mokoro, I assuming the spot in the front so I could take photos as we went. We had a frail woman standing at the back, using nothing more than a 10 foot long pole to propel us through the water. She, like all the others made it look effortless. She steered us through channels when none were visible. We sloshed through big pools where other travellers were splashing in the water, completely oblivious to the fact that there may be hippos around. And all the while, we just sat back in relaxation, shouted across to the others in our group, and complained bitterly when we had to disembark at our spot of land and set up tents. Apparently not everything on this day would be done for us.
After setting up camp, including digging out a hole to be used as a toilet, we had a few hours to kill before setting off on a nature walk with one of the locals who joined us. We were told we could try our hands at commandeering a mekoro. This was something I was not going to let pass me by. Hopping into one of them (very carefully I might add), I ensure I was firmly stood in the back in the classic athlete’s pose (knees slightly bent, weight distributed evenly, etc.), and picked up the pole. You forced the pole into the soft sand beneath the water and pushed away, letting the pole slip through your fingers until it lay out behind you. To continue forward, you would repeat the process. Moving forward was easy. Trying to turn, especially in areas that were only slightly wider than the mekoro is long, proved to be something akin to string theory. And failing miserably for about an hour, nearly toppling out of the mekoro on no less than four occasions, I decided the easiest way to turn around was to simple walk to the other side of the vessel and propel myself back the way I came. Adapting and overcoming; but ultimately failing miserably.
We headed out on an afternoon walk, hoping to see some animals while on foot. The Okavango is home to the Big 5 of African animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo). We were specifically forbidden to take any meat with us to cook for meals, as that might entice any cats that were in the vicinity. As much as I wanted to see a lion, I probably didn’t want to see one with only a thin canvas tent to protect me. Our walk was great, even though we only saw a few zebra and a couple of birds that our guides couldn’t identify. Truth be told, our guides didn’t really offer up much in terms of information, but that did not stop me from completely embracing the experience.
We sat around the camp fire back at camp and shared a vegetable curry with rice (cooked by us), and then when we heard the sounds of hippos snorting a few of us went down to the banks to try and see if we could spot any. We spotted none, despite hearing them for the next two hours. I could get all philosophical on you at this point. I could talk about the silence, feeling small, wondering about my place in the world – but I won’t. However, it is an experience that I think everyone should do if they have the opportunity to travel.
We woke up to the sound of “Billie Jean” from one of our guide’s mobile phone (so much for an authentic safari experience) and went for another walk, spotting as many different animal prints as we could, before returning to camp for some light breakfast. Our plan to stay a second night was scrapped, as all of the other people with me had become a little disheartened with our so-called experts. Sometimes when you book a budget safari, you might just get a budget experience.
As we drifted back to where our truck would pick us up, I pushed all thoughts of the guides out of my head and just concentrated on where I was. The water is clean enough to drink straight from the Delta, and as I trailed a cup in the water and raised it to my mouth, I thought back to the sunset the night before, the sounds of the hippos, the tiny frog that had found a home on my big toe, and I realized, even with the flaws of this journey, I would still regard my mekoro trek through the Okavango Delta as one of the highlights of my life.