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Published: February 6th 2011
The perils of hitching in the back of a truck without sunscreen
After Etosha, we all part ways, but an abrupt change of plans means that I catch up with C in Rundu. My arrival prompts him to change his plans too and we both hitch into the once volatile Caprivi Strip before crossing the border into Botswana at Mohembo. From there it's a hot and hefty bus journey south to Maun, the tourist gateway into the world famous Okavango Delta, with a brief and abortive stop at Sepupa (which the LP erroneously claims to be a much cheaper - when actually it is much pricier! - alternative to access the Delta) along the way.
I instantly feel a fondness towards the people of Botswana, and not just because we get a couple of free lifts on the way to Maun. Everyone is just so damn friendly. And friendly without an agenda, which was a disappointing downside to cordiality in some other African countries. They're just plain nice here. People all across Africa like to wave, but they take it to another level in Botswana. We arrive in Maun and immediately go about organising a makoro (canoe) trip into the Delta. Our makoro pilot is the wiry and wily Jake. His
Our makoro man
lean frame somewhat hides his advancing age but it's clear he's an experienced old hand on the Delta. His English is good although he sometimes strays into the realms of incomprehensibility with his tendency to talk too fast. His local knowledge is of course staggering, although he is at his best when just chatting away rather than re-telling for the umpteenth time one of his vast arsenal of stories from the Delta. Laid-back to the point where he himself would probably make an excellent canoe, Jake tells some of these tales with alarming casualness. I personally do not find it a trifling matter that one tourist recently had his tent slashed open by a lion after the moody beast took offence at the man's loud snoring. Not that I snore or anything...
There is a lot to be said for the pleasures of cruising the Delta in a makoro. It's not always the most riveting experience, and I find that three days on the water is more than enough, but it is for the most part relaxing and enjoyable. There is a certain guilty satisfaction to be taken from the decadently colonial leisure of drifting around endless waterways
whilst reclining in the sun. Periods of monotony slowing cruising about are also preferable to the exertions involved in exploring uncharted territory. Mostly we stick to paths already carved through the thick reeds, but we do sometimes stray along "short cuts". This may sound interesting but isn't actually much fun for either Jake, who has to struggle doubly hard to plough through the dense vegetation, or for us passengers at the front, who get layered with thick sheets of spiders' webs and hundreds of spindly (and occasionally substantially sized) spiders. This is not a place for arachnophobes! Our already rampant sunburn begins to approach Guinness world record proportions.
Interspersed amongst all the time spent on the water we engage in some game walks on various chunks of land that litter the Delta. We rarely get near any animals (except the ubiquitous Zebra), but seeing an elephant when on foot (or in the canoe), even at such a great distance is still pretty cool. We also get to within a few metres of an enormous male dear that suddenly springs out from hiding in the long grass when we get too close.
On the second morning while
strolling around we notice some birds suddenly shoot up from one of two small, barren trees up ahead. Jake thinks he's seen a cat and over we go. "Cat" conjures up images of a small wildcat, perhaps like the Caracal we saw up close in Etosha. Neither C nor I are wildly enthused by this, especially as we assume it immediately ran off after seeing us (which is probably what disturbed the birds) and because today's heat is now beginning to arrive in force. We would rather head back to the makoro but inelegantly lumber over anyway, making our usual graceless racket. I follow behind Jake between the trees while C swings round the other side of one, hoping to see something in the distance. Suddenly, to my left there is movement. Out of nowhere, and barely 2 metres away, up jumps a leopard! To say I'm surprised is just a mild understatement! The creature was completely camouflaged in the long grass and I was utterly oblivious to its presence. It would, at most, take two thoroughly un-taxing bounds and this wild beast could be immediately chowing down on a hearty full English breakfast. Fortunately, instead of plonking itself on
my face, it turns tail and bolts. The inconsiderate animal doesn't even offer me the courtesy of enough time to wet myself, let alone whip out a camera for some photos, before it's disappeared. The whole incident lasts perhaps 3 seconds and poor C, who's only 5 metres away but obstructed by the tree, misses it all.
Other close encounters mostly involve our campsite. On the first night we have to use our flashlights to shoo away some elephants that are determined to patrol through our camp. During the day, when out on the water, we leave a fire smouldering to discourage any such designs while we're unable to guard our stuff personally. On day two, following the leopard incident we return to base for lunch. I am sitting in the front of my unzipped tent, book in hand, one headphone in, trying not to sweat too profusely, when I am disturbed by a slight noise. A rustling noise. A slithering noise. A noise right in front of me! With my music on I haven't noticed the approach of a metre long, leathery brown snake. It glides across the entrance to my tent, pausing momentarily about a foot
in front of my crossed legs before continuing on its way. Noticing the incident Jake confidently reassures me that I would usually have about 24 hours to reach a hospital had that particular species of serpent had a nibble...
On the second night we are again invaded, this time by some curious hippos. Despite their comical and sometimes cutesy appearance these animals account for more human deaths in Africa than the Big Five combined. They are aggressive, fiercely territorial, can weight up to 2 tons (the fourth largest mammal on the planet) and would thrash Usain Bolt in a drag race. In other words, don't mess with them! For the entire night I and especially C, who's tent is nearer the water, are kept awake by bellows and grunts that are frighteningly close. In the morning Jake cheerfully informs us that there was nothing to be concerned with. The hippos were merely intrigued by our (hippo shaped) tents and wanted a closer inspection to establish whether our abodes were male and therefore needing to be fought, or female and in need of some loving. I don't know which would be a worse demise.
After 3 days
on the water we head back to Maun and begin to organise our second splurge of the week, a scenic flight over the Delta. The hostel notice board is bereft of fellow travellers to share costs with, except for a couple of guys who, rather tastelessly, are desperate to fly on September 11th. We'll be gone by then, but with some pre-planned help from reception we join with a Spanish couple and get some further luck when we acquire a Dutch couple at the airport. It works out at $60 for an hour flight, which is cheaper than the usual rate and in my humble opinion, a complete bargain. The few photos I've included really can't do justice the awesome vastness of the Delta.
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