First there was the dry. Then it rained high up and far away in the mountains. And water flowed. Life giving water filled the river banks and overflowed. Life giving water which itself gives up its life in a few months when it sinks into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. But while it lasted, it would be called by a name that echoes in the halls of fame which list the most beautiful places on earth – the Okavango Delta.
It is like my arm – our guide and boatman, Happy – told us, talking about its shape. Rain falls on the shoulder, the mountains in Angola and water flows down the arm and into the fingers only to be swallowed up by the sands of the Kalahari, home, among other species, to the magnificent black-maned Kalahari lions. But while it lasts, the water gives life to an entire ecosystem of plants and resident and migrant animals and birds, that has no parallel on earth.
Our boatman introduced himself, ‘I am Happy.’
I said, ‘So am I.’
He said, ‘That is my name.’
I said, ‘That is my state.’
He gave up but first he smiled. The famous African smile, which the people of Botswana, the Batswana (Tswana people speaking Setwsana) seem to represent so well. A smile that starts in the heart and spreads all over the body and shines out of the face. When the man is happy you can see that in every part of his body. Not like the smile that is on the lips but the eyes say something else. If I could get reincarnated, I would wish to return as a boatman on the Okavango.
We landed in Maun; my dear brothers, Ebrahim Patel and Farouk Hassan and my mentor and teacher, Prof. Salman Nadvi. We had never heard of Maun but there it was, nevertheless, proving that whether people know you or not is a mark of their knowledge or lack of it; not a reflection on your significance. Maun has a wonderful little airport batting way above the average. The immigration official was anything but officious. He also had the trademark smile. Asked me how many days I wanted. I said, ‘Five’. He said, ‘I will give you ten.’ I thanked him. On my return on the fifth day, he was again at the desk. I said to him, ‘You gave me five days but I wish I had stayed for ten.’ He said to me, ‘Next time you must stay for ten. But I will give you twenty. Whatever you ask me for, I will give you more.’ That seems to me to be the attitude of the people of Botswana. Such warm and lovely people.
We walked around our hired car with the company representative inspecting the car and found two scratches on one side. I helpfully offered to add two more on the other, if the man wished, but he emphatically refused my offer. And so, we drove off to the resort where we had booked our accommodation, The Thamalakane River Lodge. I have always wondered why African languages sound so musical. The most mundane word sounds lilting. I think it has to do with the fact that almost every word has three syllables. When you have three syllables, it makes it sound like a song. Thamalakane is not pronounced as it is written but as Tha-ma-la-ka-nay.
We were checked in by a very charming lady with once again a huge smile on her face and shown to our chalets which came with all amenities and a sign outside the door which read, ‘Beware of hippos and crocodiles.’ That was just in case you forgot that you were in Africa in the Okavango Delta. I don’t know about wandering crocs but I heard a hippo loud and clear late one night. So, the sign was not for scenic effect alone. One ‘amenity’ that the chalets have, is a four-foot-high curving wall between the bedroom and bathroom. Nothing more. The resultant potential for auditory and olfactory sensations is impressive, to say the least. One is well-advised not to eat too many baked beans or peanuts for fear of replicating the sound effects of the Battle of the Bulge. This is a classic example of design before utility, even before common sense which not only takes away useable space from the bedroom but also ensures an assault on the senses that one can well do without. There is a point to be made about privacy and that intimacy needs to be limited within boundaries. Listening (and more) to your room partner (no matter your relationship with them) discharging their responsibilities is not an experience to be sought.
This is entirely inside the Okavango and has an area of 5000 square kilometers, which gives you an idea of how big the Okavango is. After the rains, it becomes totally water bound and most parts can’t be reached overland. But when we went, though there had been rains, it was motorable. We got into our open Land Cruiser (the workhorse of Africa) and drove out of our lodge. Conversationally, Farouk Bhai asked the ranger driving the vehicle, ‘How far is Moremi?’ He said, ’160 km to the gate.’ That is when it struck me that sitting in a fast-moving open safari vehicle was not the most comfortable way to travel. What we should have done is to have driven in our hired car to the gate and then boarded the safari vehicle at the gate. Hindsight is always 20:20. Meanwhile we had a freezing cold drive ahead.
Driving through rural Botswana is different from driving through rural South Africa. South Africa has more developed infrastructure, better roads, electricity and more upmarket cars on the roads. There seem to be no speed limits posted on these Botswanian roads, but speed is limited by the road. Occasionally you do see a police car and I understand that you can be stopped for overspeeding. Botswanan Police have a very admirable reputation. Unlike the police in many other countries including mine, Botswanan Police strangely seem to think that the law is not open to interpretation, especially interpretation that is sought to be facilitated by the transfer of wealth from one pocket into another. Anyone who is stopped for a misdemeanor in Botswana had better come clean and quietly pay the fine unless he is seeking state hospitality. Going by the standards of Botswanan hospitality and the soft and easy going nature of the Tswana people, I dare say that may not be an end to be feared, but I would rather pay for my keep rather than the other way around. All this by way of filing-in color. We didn’t meet any police nor did we need to seek state hospitality.
Why do roads get corrugated? This one was. Driving fast on a corrugated road is a hard-core way to get a vibrator massage. At the end of 160 km, my bones, teeth and brain were all rattling. Driving slowly makes it much worse so driving fast, it had to be. Once you get used to the cold wind in your eyes and your eyes have wept enough tears, your sight clears and you see small holdings on either side of the road. Small homes with large yards, filled with country chickens, ducks, turkeys and goats. There are cattle everywhere and horses and more donkeys than I have ever seen except in parliaments. And like those, these are also jealously guarded. I was told that the worst crime on a Botswanan road is to knock down a donkey. But thankfully given their lethargy and contentment with their side of the fence, the chances of knocking one down are negligible unless you set out to do this because you have a grudge against a particular beast. Where there are horses and donkeys, there are also mules. Every single animal of every kind in top condition. That is what hits you first. Sleek, well cared for animals, well fed and well kept. I didn’t see a single animal out of condition in all the many hundreds of kilometers we drove in that area.
The area is designated Code Red, meaning that it is susceptible to Rinderpest, a dreaded cattle disease that is transmitted by the Cape Buffalo which are in the forests. As such there are fences to keep them there and not allow them to wander into inhabited areas. But fences are fences and buffalo are buffalo and the inevitable happens. What being in the Code Red area means is that beef produced in this area must be consumed in this area itself and can’t be transported out of the area. This is done to prevent the spread of Rinderpest to other parts of the country. Not a very happy prospect if you are a beef cattle farmer in this area but that is how it is.
In Moremi, what we saw lots of were single male elephants. Some in Musth, with the telltale secretions from the glands behind the ear as well as discolored hindlegs thanks to their almost constant urinating in this period. An elephant in Musth is not someone you want to meet, up close. And we didn’t. But they were a magnificent sight with massive tusks. One had a couple of other males as companions; an old bull with two Askaris (guards). Another one was bathing and got disturbed when we turned up and flared his ears and shook his head to express his opinion. Another was busy digging for water in a waterhole that was damp but has no water in it. “But where are the herds?”, I asked the ranger. Further inside the reserve, was his guess. Lots of Mopani trees, favorite elephant food, on both sides of the cattle fence that I mentioned above. However, inside the fence they are all cropped short as if by a hedge cutter. While outside the fence they grow tall and shady. Evidence of the attention of elephants which eat all new growth and so the tree never grows tall where there are elephant herds feeding on them. You can see this in Kruger National Park also; hundreds of acres of neatly cropped Mopani. Wonderful creatures, elephants. My favorite among the Big Five.
In Moremi we also saw the Tsessebe antelope, the fastest of all African antelopes, very rare in the Kruger but much more common here; a giraffe making faces at us and ostriches with their superior looks down the nose.
We stopped for a picnic lunch on the bank of a lake, under some sausage trees. These have a gourd fruit which is like a very long and fat sausage. The fruit is supposed to have legendary properties related to human reproduction which I am sure you can guess. If you can’t, then rejoice at the fact that you have a clean mind. The alleged properties are purely legendary and fictitious, so not to worry. What is more interesting about these trees is that it is from their trunks that the famous Mokoro (a dugout canoe) of the Okavango is made.
You must be brave and suicidal in equal measure to sit in a Mokoro in a place that is populated by hippos and monster crocs, but people do. Mokoro are the most common means of travel for local people and for tourists who go camping on the islands of the Okavango. Today, the government has prohibited the cutting of sausage trees to make canoes and so Mokoro are made of fiberglass. But you can still find plenty of authentic wooden Mokoro if you wish to take a ride. The boatman stands and poles it like the Shikara boatmen of Kashmir or the Gondolas of Venice, with the exception that in those places, you are not likely to meet a resident hippo with territorial tendencies or a sovereign citizen Nile Croc. Not an encounter to be wished for.
As we drove off, I spotted a Pied Lapwing; sitting on eggs in her nest and refused to move even when the wheels of the Land Cruiser were inches away. It simply sat still like a statue, which is its most common defense against predators. If that fails, then it will take off and pretend that one wing is broken and goes away from the nest, calling plaintively until it has succeeded in drawing the predator far away from the nest, before it flies away. Then it makes a series of dive attacks on the predator until it drives it away completely. It is amazing to see how this small bird with almost nothing to defend itself, makes up for that in spirit and courage.
The next day we took an all-day boat ride, a flat-bottomed aluminum boat powered by an outboard motor, Happy at the wheel, and went up into the Okavango for over 150 kilometers. Imagine water so clean that you can see the bottom clearly 3-4 meters below, carpeted by multicolored lilies as far as the eye can see. Not a single plastic bag or piece of paper or cigarette to mar the landscape in hundreds of miles of wilderness. African Jacanas abound and wait until your boat is almost on them and then take off in low flight with their long stick-like legs and elongated web-less feet trailing behind. Imagine heaven or come to the Okavango.
As you proceed, you will see the eyes and snout of a hippo bull staking out his territory. If you get too close, he will dive and can remain underwater for over half an hour. Usually he will surface a distance away and face you again. When you are in a motorboat this is an interesting sight. In a Mokoro, you don’t want to see it. For if he decides that you are a threat, he can submerge and surface under you and give you a very real chance at becoming a historical figure. Hippos kill more people annually in Africa than all other animals combined, so they are a real threat, not be scoffed at.
Lots of birds in the Okavango of which African Fish Eagles with their striking plumage, white head, neck and a bib on the chest, stand out miles away. If there is a tall tree, you can rest assured that you will find an African Fish Eagle on it, scanning all around for prey. The other very common bird is the African Jacana, busily walking on water – actually, running on its especially adapted feet on the lily pads which cover almost all open water in the Okavango. You will see all species of Kingfisher but the black and white, Pied Kingfisher seems to be the most common.
Then there are Egyptian geese, sunning themselves close to a huge crocodile. Plenty of Nile Crocodiles in this place, some of them real monsters.
Imagine driving through a narrow channel through head-high reed-beds where you can’t see on either side anything except impenetrable reeds, waving in the breeze. The reed-beds give way once again to lily carpets interspersed with islands. These islands are mostly the result of birds depositing seeds on termite mounds. Here is a very interesting account of how these islands are formed. http://www.itravelto.com/okavango-islands.html
The islands are home to wildlife, Lechwee antelope, elephant, hippo, lions, leopard and in some places, cheetah. Warthog and other smaller game like jackals, hyena and occasionally wild dog also inhabit the islands. As the day progresses and the sun comes out, you are likely to see crocodiles sunning themselves on the edges of islands, always within reach of the water, to slide into at the slightest hint of danger. Although looking at some of the monsters, you can see that nothing except humans are any danger to them. These islands range in size from literally termite mounds to vast tracts of land, the biggest of them being Chief’s Island. This used to be the private hunting reserve of the tribal chief and is now a thriving tourist hub. You can fly in to Chief’s Island from Maun or drive there or take a boat.
Sitting in the bow of our boat, with the wind blowing through my fast disappearing hair, I couldn’t but think of the prospect of meeting another boat traveling in the opposite direction at the same speed. Quite likely and scary especially around the many bends. Even less happy is the thought of being in a Mokoro and meeting a boat like this come at you round a bend. The problem is that even if the boatman stops his boat, which happens quite easily because given the resistance of water, if he throttles down, the boat comes to a halt; the bow wave that it creates, doesn’t stop with the boat. A motorboat traveling fast, can create a wave big enough to completely swamp and sink a Mokoro. As I said, not a happy thought.