In the half light the camp fire crackled and glowed and a scent of charred moporoto wood tickled our nostrils. The night silence was broken regularly by distant bird calls or ominous rustling in the undergrowth surrounding us. Frogs began trilling as the night air suddenly filled with purple dragonflies, swooping and looping around us. Scattered around the camp were the skulls of antelopes, porcupines and badgers.
We had left our overland truck in Maun and endured a very bumpy ride in 4WDs to the Okavango Delta in Northern Botswana. Overlanding is the best way to reach inaccessible spots like this, and more money goes to the local economy than from other methods of travel.
We had punted our way through the reeds of muddy, slow-moving shallows until we reached a clearing on the shore suitable for putting up tents. Our backsides were soggy, as were the small daypacks we’d brought with us for the night stay. Everywhere else had been too wet or too close to the water to feel safe from hippos. After a mid morning snack of lily roots and cold cokes at our base camp, we had travelled in pairs plus porters in mokoros, or dug out canoes. Our porter, a young man called Jane, had demonstrated the art of punting in very shallow water, but our progress was impeded by water lilies and reed beds. The Okavango is the world’s largest inland delta, a marshy maze of inlets and home to the rare Pel’s fishing owl, green pigeons, fish eagles, jackals, zebras, wildebeest, hyena, wild dog and warthog. A real watery wonderland.
The ever present threat of hippo or croc attacks unnerved me as we pushed our way slowly through lagoons and narrow channels leading to the flood plains. It was August, the best time to visit, when thirsty animals approach the water separating the parched grasslands. We were told to expect the Big Five – lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant.
Before lunch we had a poling competition, the winner being the person who propelled the canoe forwards as opposed to in circles. We partook of nuts and worms, and I was relieved later to find that supper was Soya Bolognese washed down with red wine. We had already been instructed to make use of what our truck driver called the ‘shit shovel’ for jungle bowel evacuations. At five thirty in the afternoon we decided we just couldn’t go to bed so early, and sat in silence, heavy-lidded with sleep, until six, when we all piled into our tents and passed out.
We were woken by Jane twelve hours later for a three hour game walk after a breakfast of porridge cooked over the camp fire. Dawn is by far the best time to see game. Jane strode soundlessly ahead, leaving us tiptoe-ing behind him in single file, like a column of termites from the huge nests we spotted each side of the track. Every now and then he would stop, raise his hand in the air for attention, and look down. He would beckon us to approach, point to tracks on the ground and whisper conspiratorially ‘cheetah’, ‘zebra’ or ‘giraffe’. Just when we thought we could distinguish them, he added ‘elephant’ and ‘mongoose’, and nodded wisely, whilst his eyes clearly conveyed a requirement that we remain silent. In the stillness even the trees appeared to be observing us, ensuring we didn’t disturb the natural order and rhythm of life.
We spent the afternoon lazing in the warmth of the shallows, unravelling slimy weeds from our toes. When we clambered out of our damp boats later to ride back into Maun it was as if we had been removed from the planet for two days. We hadn’t seen or heard another human outside our own party, we had lived as close to the land and water as it’s possible to get, and we had travelled by one of the most unusual modes of transport we had so far encountered. The dusty streets of the town rang with shouts, traffic horns and revving jeeps. Time, which seemed to pass so slowly just hours before, now seemed to hurtle along mercilessly at full tilt. Whilst mankind was galloping headlong towards fatal illness with headlights glaring, the creatures of the Delta crept timidly towards life-giving water and the cooling darkness of the night.