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Tuesday, 01 September 2020

Poling the Okavango, Botswana

Written by Richard Taylor
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The Old Bridge Backpacker’s Lodge has a cool, bohemian wayfarer air; a shrinking anomaly in Botswana, where the tourist mandarins are phasing out the backpacker crowd and phasing in the high rollers (flights into the bush and want-for-nothing lodges at two thousand dollars a night). But the packers were certainly here today, sitting at the outdoor tables, chatting and smoking and having breakfast, so Botswana hadn’t purged them yet. And it was a lovely spot to boot, with a pond and a creek and water birds and the rickety bridge from which, I suppose, the lodge took its name.

There was also a sign near the pond: BEWARE OF CROCODILES

So the reported sighting yesterday may have been legit. While I’d been arranging for the Okavango trip at the tour office in Maun, one of the other clerks burst through the doors.

“They saw a big crocodile at the Old Bridge yesterday.”

“I don’t believe it,” said the lady sliding my credit card.

“They said it was at least five meters long.”

There’s an urge to say “What a croc” at such claims, but one just never knows. I’d been on two safaris already and it’s the kind of thing one doesn’t say out loud, along with “Bite me” and “I’m game.”

In the morning, my taxi driver Rose had dropped me at the lodge, gave the desk man her card, told me to call her when the tour was done and drove back to Maun, about thirty kilometers away and the jump off for trips to the Okavango Delta. I’d arrived in Maun the night before via the Francistown bus and, as usual, various antelope, ostrich and wart hog were bunched along the highway. This had always seemed odd to me and I’d asked the driver about it.

“Three reasons,” he said. “They prefer the grass by the roadside. The rains run off the road so it is always greener. They also do it for protection. In about thirty minutes you will see a lot a zebra because the lions are attacking now.”

The zebra had shown up on cue; also impala and giraffes and elephants. It was a thrilling night safari, served up gratis.

What was the third reason they liked the highway? What had the driver said? I couldn’t recall, which bugged me.

Maun itself is a dusty, quiet little cow town and the bovines go as they please, walking the curbs, blocking the morning traffic as they head to pasture and snarling it again on their evening return. This gives Maun an air of the subcontinent and as in India, the cattle are precious, although in Botswana, this is grounded more in economics than spirituality. The cattle industry is vital, so much so that border crossings, whether by foot or vehicle, include a wetting of shoe sole or car tire in a liquid disinfectant, a precaution against hoof and mouth disease.

In much of Africa, solo tours are hard to come by, not being financially attractive to dealers. But today the required minimum was filled by Paul and Samantha, engineer and teacher respectively, up from South Africa and ‘vagabonding’ as long as their money lasted. They joined me for a two hour drive to the grassy port and we met our guides and polers, a young man named Doctor and an older woman named Flora, who’d been poling for thirty years.

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The mokoro is the famous dugout canoe of the delta, these days made of fiberglass, the traditional tree under government protection. Doctor dropped a cooler into his boat and added a pair of bucket seats for the vagabonds. Flora followed suit for me. It looked an uncomfortable arrangement but the seat fit my contours surprisingly well. As Flora pushed off, I gripped the sides nervously until we were around the first bend. Then it occurred to me that ten dangling fingers might attract some attention and I pulled them onto my lap.

Crocs and such.

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It was a lovely boat ride though, and the fingers would absentmindedly dangle again. But nothing took the bait and all was tranquil among the reeds and lily pads, except for Flora’s labored breathing, which sounded harsher as we pushed through a tangle of bulrush while Doctor navigated through the thick of things.

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Around another bend Flora suddenly stopped poling and pulled the mokoro back a bit. Ahead of us, the other boat was still.

“What is it?” I asked.

Samantha held up a finger. An enormous grey form was just visible behind the tall reeds, drinking or bathing or both.

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Doctor and Flora started poling backwards quietly. The elephant moved off.

We banked the boats for the walking portion of the tour. Doctor set the cooler on the ground and flipped one of the canoes over it. I was dubious about the efficacy of this boat flipping but there wasn’t much choice, unless we carried the cooler with us. Flora found a long branch for a walking stick and the trekking was quite easy, the pancake flatness of the delta punctuated by copious termite mounds, a more basic edifice than the showy cathedral model I’d seen in Ghana, favored by those snobby west African ants. Besides, the termite mound had greater utility.

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“The antelope use them for lookout posts,” said Doctor.

We stopped by the bleached skeleton of a giraffe.

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About two hundred meters away, an elephant was slowly paralleling us but seemed content to keep his distance.

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Doctor pointed out one of the tusker’s footprints, an odd mosaic pattern, as if someone had tamped a stressed leather cushion on the earth.

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There were more giraffe now, with plenty of meat on their bones and striding with that unique awkward grace. There were yellow hornbills, Africa’s toucan, gliding about the acacia trees. There was a singular lack of flies and bugs among the tall grasses, which was a blessing.

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Doctor waved us to stop.

“Leopard,” he whispered.

In the bush, about thirty meters away was the silhouette of a large feline. We had about three seconds to “ooh” and “ah” then it jerked its head at us and disappeared.

We circled around and headed back for lunch and Doctor flipped the mokoro back over again and unpacked the cooler, which was still there. So this boat flipping worked after all, although not completely – I flicked two ants off my sandwich.

This part of Africa hasn’t been sold properly in the West,” I told Paul and Samantha between bites. “It hasn’t been promoted properly. When we think safari, it’s still more East Africa…Kenya, Tanzania, zebra and wildebeest in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. You tell them ‘Botswana’ and they look at you funny.”

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Samantha laughed. “It’s true,” she said.

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I mentioned the drive to Maun, the animals near the highway, the bus driver’s explanations of rainy green grass and lurking lion and that elusive third reason I couldn’t recall.

Probably because the road’s warmer at night,” Paul said.

That’s it!” I bellowed. “Yes! At least it sounds right. Makes sense too.”

After lunch, we headed back. Once more, Doctor shushed us. Once more we rigged for silent running. An elephant, perhaps the same one as before, was sloshing out of the reeds and up onto solid ground.

Doctor started wrestling with a giant bulrush.

What’s going on,” I asked.

Paul said, “I mentioned to Doctor that the inside of the bulrush is edible. Would you like to try some? It tastes a little like celery.”

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Doctor had been paring down the bulrush with his knife. He handed me a piece. It was pleasant.

We banked the boats and thanked Doctor and Flora for a splendid tour and returned to the backpacker’s haven where the lodge manager contacted Rose and I said my goodbyes to Samantha and Paul. I waited at the bar. Ordered a very large, very fine burger from the kitchen. Drummed my fingers on the countertop. Stuffed the fingers in my pocket.

Crocs and such.

 

(c)Richard Taylor

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 September 2020