Saturday, 12 August 2017

African diaries, part 6: Okavango Delta

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

As I said before, the Okavango Delta was what made me interested in this trip in the first place, so I was excited when we started getting closer. From Etosha we had a 600km drive, first till Grootfontein where we replenished our supplies, then north to Rundu and further east into Caprivi Strip. But very soon after we left Etosha we crossed the Red Line, which is a sad page in Namibia's history. 


Although we weren't asked to leave the bus and walk through a pool of disinfectant then (we were later), you could see the change in the landscape immediately. During our long drives from place to place, we saw few traces of human presence. Just vast expanses of desert, with the few exceptions that I have described. North of the Line, there were endless villages along the road, some looking quite poor, some better, but it was as if we entered a different world. Which was of course exactly what we did.

We saw signs for primary schools along the roads, few and far between. I asked Dumi whether there were any school buses, and the moment I asked I realised what a stupid question it was. Of course there were no school buses. Haven't I heard and read reports from my colleagues' and students' field work in Africa? Dumi said children sometimes had to walk ten kilometres one way to school. Sounds terrible, but on the other hand they did go to school. I may be naive and old-fashioned, but I believe in education. The children we saw along the roads were walking to or from school, rather than herding cattle, like we saw in Madagascar. Namibian adult literacy rate is 80%.

Apart from villages there wasn't much to see, so I slept a bit. We reached the camp at 3.30 which felt a blessing. The camp was on a high river bank, with a great view. On the other side of the river was Angola. 

There was an optional boat trip, about which Dumi said contemptuously: ”You will see absolutely nothing”. But some people went anyway, and they were allowed to alight in Angola for three minutes and take a picture of themselves with a piece of paper that said: ”Illegally in Angola”. In retrospect, I should have done it – just my thing. Instead we went to the bar and had beer (Anton) and juice (Kory and me) and watched another glorious sunset. Because of the river, the landscape was almost rainforest, and the frogs were singing, and there were lots of birds.

In the morning we drove south to Botswana border. We would cross Nabimia-Botswana borders three times in three days, each time painlessly, but I have a traumatic relationship with border crossing. This will be a deviation, but I must explain. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain and then travelling between Sweden and Russia, being searched at the Finnish border each time, nervous that something was wrong. Feeling humiliated travelling by car to France when I had to get transit visas for every country we passed (the Germans were particularly nasty). Feeling humiliated at JFK because, in my US visa stamp, they had crossed out the standard “multiple indefinite” and written ONE ENTRY. It got less stressful when I got a Swedish passport, and since then I have crossed from USA to Mexico and back, from USA to Canada and back (on one occasion I crossed twice, going to Niagara Falls first in the morning and then at night), and I even crossed from Germany to Austria before it joined EU. You get used to it. Having now lived in the UK for nine years, I am more used, once again, to passport control, wherever I travel, but it somehow feels different when it is an actual border, overland. It is all wired somewhere in my brain: border crossing = danger. And now I have all these stamps in my brand new passport. For Zimbabwe, we had to pay for the visa. Dumi looked at me with some anxiety, until I explained that although I live in the UK, I have a Swedish passport. Zimbabwean visa costs almost twice as much for UK nationals.

Back to the first Namibia-Botswana crossing: apart from two forms to fill, it was very straightforward, and we walked across the no-man's-land from one checkpoint to the next. Then we had another hour's drive, and we were now in Botswana time zone, losing an hour. I couldn't figure out whether it made me more hungry or less. Lunch was by the river and boat station at Sepupa. We were leaving our truck there, taking only daypacks and water canisters, and going by boat to an island right in the middle of the Delta. (Well, not really, rather on the edge of the Delta, where the Panhandle opens into the Pan).

We also met our new guide who introduced himself as Frog. I thought it was funny, but people have all kinds of names that have funny connotations in other languages. However, it turned out that Frog was his artist name. He said his real name was unpronounceable for Europeans (it had about fifteen different clicks in it), but he had chosen Frog to reflect his character. Later in the camp, we were all asked to choose animal names that he could remember, because our names were unpronounceable for him. Fair enough.

Anyway, Frog was our Botswana guide, and he was taking us into the Delta. Before we started, he asked us to sign a liability disclaimer. One of us wondered what exactly the implication was. Answer: “If I tell you not to jump into the river, and you jump into the river and get eaten by a crocodile, it's your responsibility”. Later, on the island, he told us that the password into nature was “respect”. Password, you know, he said, what you need to get into your computer. Password into nature is respect.

Our supplies and cooking equipment went in one boat, and we all went in another. This is me, in my silly hat, on the right.

Photo: Susanne Trudsø

These three hours going on a boat through the Delta are among the happiest of my entire life. This was what I had come for. Sure, we saw come crocs and a few hippos and masses of interesting birds. 

 But the boat ride itself, through tributaries that meandered this way and that so eventually you lost all sense of direction; waterways that narrowed and opened again. I know I have dreamed it many times, exactly like this. I enjoyed every second. I think many of my fellow travellers were bored. 

Photo: Susanne Trudsø

Finally we went into narrow channels where the boat hardly passed through, with tall papyrus plants on both sides. And then we were on an island, called Pepere (meaning “papyrus”), that you will not find on Google maps, as far away from everything as you can imagine. 

Have I mentioned that I have a particular love of islands? I have even written an academic paper on the subject. 

There were permanent tents in this camp and real beds with linen, which felt nice for a change. There were two local women who cleaned the tents. They were not invited to share dinner with us, but had to wash up, which made me feel bad. I asked Frog where they lived, and he said in a village eight hours away by boat. He himself also lived far away and only went home twice a month in tourist season.

After dinner we had a briefing. We were not allowed to walk around on the island (except between the tent and the toilet) because at night hippos, elephants and crocodiles came ashore. This wasn't a joke: we saw fresh footprints in the morning. If we did see a hippo or elephant we should not flash our torches at them because they would attack. “Respect” is the password. I wondered whether the animals knew it. There were also baboons who had learned to open tent zippers, so we were advised not to have food in tents.

All night, cicadas were singing.

We had late breakfast next morning, 6.45, and started at 7.10 which must be some secret local time. First a short walk across the island where we took mokoro, which is more like a punt than a canoe, maneuvered by long poles. Two people per boat, and a poler, who was friendly but not very talkative. There wasn't much need for talk because the scenery was amazing. 

Through a narrow channel of papyrus to the next island, where there were supposedly lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and other animals. Strict orders: keep as close together as possible in single file (walking elephant paths), do as you are told. Indeed, within five minutes there was an elephant and no fence or anything between it and us. Frog told us to freeze. I had a short moment of contemplating death by elephant – probably very painful. It moved around us slowly, but didn't come closer. I cannot say how long we stayed there, motionless: maybe five minutes, maybe ten. Then it went away, and we could move on. I asked Frog later what he would have done if the elephant had attacked us, and he wouldn't say. Some people admitted having panic during the elephant encounter and said they hadn't quite enjoyed it.

We saw no other animals, but Frog showed us fresh footprints and fresh elephant dung. This was a different feeling from viewing animals from the safety of a car or bus. He also showed us some carcasses of buffalo and warthog, which the lions had killed only a week before. Completely clean of meat. I am not sure I would like to witness a kill.

We took the mokoro again, for a longer trip, and saw a lot of hippos in a lagoon. Hippos can hold their breath for seven minutes, so it's a bit like whale-watching: you see it go down, count seven minutes, and then out they come, not always where you expect. But because there we so many of them, we saw several at any given moment. We kept a respectful distance. 

Then we came back to our island and the camp and had lunch. Six people had upset stomach. I know it's common on such trips, but it felt awful, and I was mortally scared to get it too (I had a very mild round later). We had a couple of hours to rest, which was what we all needed. Then we gathered again – those of us who were ok – and Frog talked to us about the Delta, its animals and its people, and also its future, if Namibia builds a canal higher up the river to supply water for its own agriculture. Suddenly it all got into a larger context. 90% of water in the Delta evaporates. Maybe it makes sense to try and use it before it evaporates. But who knows how it may affect the ecology.

Then Frog took us on a short walk on our island. We saw two warthogs, but mostly Frog told us about trees and plants and their medicinal uses (particularly for upset stomach). Suddenly we were by a gigantic baobab. We must have seen it all along without realising it was a baobab, hidden behind other vegetation, because it was right by the camp (me for scale). 


Then we went out in a boat to watch the sunset over the lagoon (those crazy Europeans and their sunsets!). 

Next morning was another blissful boat ride through the Delta. It was very early and freezing cold, but I enjoyed the ride too much to mind the cold.

I had this strange idea. What if the whole experience was a simulation? A huge, well-designed augmented-reality game. So if we were to go on the same trip another day, there would be the same elephant encounter (and maybe you need a special bonus to see the lion kill), and the same hippos going down and up again in the same places. While the real animals have been dead since long time ago. This would make a good story, but I won't write it. It may be true, but we will never know.

I also kept remembering Ray Bradbury's short story “The Veldt” - the landscape and the whole atmosphere was inviting.

After the first full day in the Delta, when I had seen what I had come to see, I felt that I must come back and stay longer to see more. Then it felt that I had seen all there is to see. Or else I was so overwhelmed by all impressions that I could not take in any more. I would have liked to see lions and leopards, but apart from that – more papyrus, more water, more hippos, more of the same? As with deserts, mountains and other experiences: after a first taste, you may return to study it closer, but you may not. Anyway, we had no other choice than to move on.

To be continued


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