An incessant drizzle during the early dawn hours forces us into the truck for a quick breakfast before making our way on across a ferry over the Zambezi and over the border to Botswana (free visa). All of Botswana’s animals roam free, with no fences anywhere.
Two minutes after pulling into the town of Kasane, we see this for ourselves as a family of warthogs wanders through the local shopping center, as nonchalantly as the shoppers are to their presence. We camp for two nights on the immaculately maintained grounds of the posh Chobe Safari Lodge, 20 minutes from the famed elephants of Chobe National Park.
As we prepare dinner, another warthog and two babies impudently stomp up, sniffing around for scraps. It’s comical to see them go down on their knees to forage. When no food is forthcoming, they soon head on for greener pastures and we head off to the fastest internet connection we’ve had so far this trip.
On our second day, we rouse ourselves for a 6 am game drive in Chobe National Park. We set off in a Land Cruiser and see animals great and small, from towering giraffe to the lowly dung beetle.
There are more impala than we can count, their newborns frolicking on long spindly legs. The new members are taking photos rapid fire while the rest of us sit back and relax. However, we manage to get interested again when we see two male impala play fighting, their horns making a loud bang! with every impact.
Just as the morning is about over, we spot two lionesses with two cubs in the distance. The Land Cruiser repositions in a clearing further off and we collectively hold our breaths as the lions emerge from the thick bush, bodies effortlessly taut with the two cubs in tow.
November, with the advent of the rains, is birthing season and we see the regal waterbuck with its distinctive white ring on its rump, also with young. We’re slightly disappointed, though, as we don’t see a single one of the more than 150,000 elephants roaming the park. It’s the rainy season, so the animals disperse into the thick vegetation and, incredibly, it’s hard to spot the world’s largest land mammal.
On our way back to camp, our minds are already on the cooked breakfast that Ebron traditionally prepares after all our morning game drives. A piercing scream of “Elephant!” breaks the silence, as the new grad student spies blobs of grey alongside the road. So, in the end, we get our elephant encounter, just not where we thought we would. We watch the bull herd as they amble across the road, back into the park.
In the afternoon, we set off on a cruise along the Chobe River. The pontoon is packed to capacity but we manage to secure seats along the side. We spend the afternoon slowly navigating the river which separates Botswana and Namibia. In fact, we are just about at the point where four countries converge, including Zambia and Zimbabwe. We see small crocs, fish eagles, dozens of elephants and hippos in various poses – in the water, out of the water, playing in the water – another ‘intervention’ is in order…
The next day turns out to be a driving day on a circuitous route to Maun (the smaller, sandier direct roads simply cannot accommodate our big truck), gateway to the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas. In the first 30 minutes of driving, we see elephant, giraffe, wild donkeys, zebra and a whole herd of cape buffalo, all alongside the road. We’re warned to wear seatbelts in case we need to dodge an angry elephant’s charge. The workshop for today is about taking portraits – the technique of and also how to approach people respectfully.
We arrive in Maun with time to shop for our Delta experience. We’ll be away from the truck for three nights, so we stock up on water, snacks and umbrellas. We camp at a place called Audi, a beautiful campsite with semi-outdoor rainwater spout showers.
The morning sees the group taking a scenic flight over the Delta (USD 100), so we’ll have a better idea of what we’re going into. As I took the flight last year, I sit out, blogging, reading, visiting the quaint shops just across from the tiny airport. However, the group sees lots of elephants, giraffe and hippos on the one hour flight.
We arrive at Etsha 13, on the western edge of the delta. Most overland trucks go in from Maun in the south , but we make the extra effort to approach from the west because here water levels don’t fluctuate as much. Because of the deep sand, we leave the familiarity of Benji, packing everything we need for our Delta experience and are ferried to Guma Lagoon by a smaller truck. The campsite is pleasingly quiet, catering mainly to discerning clientele. We take tents, cooking supplies and clothes for three nights of camping, including one night of bush camping on a deserted ‘island’ in the delta.
Ebron isn’t feeling well, so the culinary-minded in the group ban together to prepare spicy spag bol with melted cheese. The rest sit on the deck and watch the waters of the Okavango River swirl in the brewing storm. There is a massive hippo skull on display, the huge incisors surprisingly sharp. We’ve seen lots of hippos on our trip, but never from the vulnerable canoes we’ll be taking.
In the morning, a speed boat whisks us through wide channels lined with papyrus plants, taller than a man. We spot a small croc in the water, making us nervous for our swim later on. Soon, the channels narrow and we meet up with our mokoros and polers.
Mokoros are dugout canoes traditionally made from 100 year old ebony or sausage trees but have now been replaced with environmentally-friendly ones made from fiberglass. A poler stands in the back, long forked poles propelling the slightly wobbly boats through the water, both shallow and deep. Soon we set off, two mokoros bearing all our gear. Our mattresses are wrapped in plastic and draped over seatbacks.
The day is overcast, rain threatening, adding to the eerie silence of the lush delta. Birdlife abounds and the occasional purple heron, kingfisher, knobbill or ibis startled by our presence takes flight. We move from wide open spaces spotted with fragile lily pads, their purple undersides daintily showing, to narrow passageways lined with tall reeds and grasses.
We try to cover our faces to avoid the grasses but the occasional wet, frilly papyrus top still manages to get through. The only sounds come from the thwack thwack of the reeds snapping back into place and the splash of water as the polers reposition their sticks, moving us slowly forward.
After about an hour, we reach one of the many islands, formed by the fluctuating waters of the delta. We quickly set up camp, the polers preparing a bush toilet for us.
We have about an hour before lunch, so some of us set out exploring the island, but the barely-there paths have us scurrying back after only a few minutes. We know we share our island with wildlife as we see grass flattened by feeding hippos and dried piles of elephant dung. We’re so used to being active all the time that we hardly know what to do with ourselves on this island in the middle of nowhere.
Our polers are mainly fresh-faced teenagers, 18 and 19. Even though English is the official language of many of the countries we visit, most are more fluent in their local dialect and only use English when speaking to us. The polers while away their time in their own camp, a stone’s throw away, congregating over corn meal and the extra chicken we give them.
After lunch, we set off for a mokoro ride to a swimming spot that the polers deem safe from crocs and hippos. The water is refreshingly cool, clear but slightly brown from all the plant life. A few of us have a go at poling the mokoros. Even after a quick tutorial from the polers, the mokoros are frustratingly difficult to maneuver and the balls of our feet are weary from trying to keep our balance. The mokoros refuse to go straight, turning with a mind of their own, as if sensing our inexperience.
Later in the afternoon, we go for a three hour walk on an adjacent island. Selected, our guide, knows the area like the back of his hand. We, however, would be terminally lost in mere minutes. He points out tracks from all kinds of animals – hippos, elephants, warthogs, antelopes – even divining whether they were male or female. We see monkeys from a distance and happen upon a herd of red lechwe, a medium-sized antelope.
Ebron is still under the weather, so we make our own dinner of chicken stew, potatoes and cauliflower under a bright orange sky. We flip over a mokoro to provide seating and enjoy a warm fire before a light rain sends us to sleep.
In the morning, the group goes on another game walk. There is a moment of nervous silence as the mokoros encounter three hippo in a lagoon. The polers are understandably skittish, as these behemoths kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They wait until the animals retreat before motoring past.
All too soon, we repack our gear, heading back to Guma Lagoon, a procession of green umbrellas protect us from the intense sun.
Back at Guma, the staff at the campsite are friendly but shy. If you get a chance to go, spare a kind word for them. They live in nearby villages, only 30 minutes away by truck, but only get home once a month or once every two months. One of the women has two children, a boy named “Knowledge” and a girl, “Pretty”.
She is industrious and bakes fresh bread for us, the best we’ve had in the last month. We greedily slather on butter and jam and spend the afternoon lounging on the huge wooden deck set over the water. Ebron is feeling better and for dinner, we feast on grilled pork chops with homemade apple sauce, with sides of rice and roasted stuffed pumpkin. Toasted marshmallows over a comforting bonfire ends the evening. Tomorrow, we cross the border into Namibia.
Shopping tip: Botswana has beautifully delicate baskets woven from reeds and roots. Along with carved mokoro replicas, the Guma Campsite had quite a few on display, brought in by the workers from their villages. Expect to pay approximately USD 6-7 per basket, but pay by pula, the Botswanian currency. The USD is not readily accepted in any but the most populated areas, as it would entail a currency exchange and probably not at a very good rate.