Friday, February 19, 2016

Okavango Delta, Botswana: February 15-18, 2016

We left our California home on the 13th stopping along the way in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Johannesburg (overnight) and finally Maun, Botswana, where we met our Botswana guide. Moses, owner of Unlimited Safari, gathered us up and drove us north to the Okavango Delta for the start of our Botswana mobile safari adventure.

The means of transportation for the delta is a mokoro powered by a poler. Mokoros were once made from the Sausage Tree (the name was derived from the shape of the fruit). In 2009 the government prohibited the cutting down of the Sausage Tree so the modern mokoro is a simulated fiberglass canoe. A new mokoro costs about $700 USD. Our mokoro is the one with the Coca-Cola cooler in it. Demara was our guide and poler for this part of the trip. Four mokoros were loaded with all the camping paraphernalia, us, our chef, and our stuff and we were off to Rain Tree Island for our three nights in the Okavango Delta.


In 1997, the Botswana government granted six villages in the area this plot of land called NG32. These villages each have two elected representatives that sit on the board that manages the land. All trips into NG32 must be approved by the community service board. Names of community members who are qualified as polers are on a list and when they reach the top of the list, it is his/her turn to work. Tour companies pay the community service board and the board in turn pays each poler. Our four polers live in the village we embarked from and will receive a wage for the work they do in connection with our three-day stay.

The mokoro in front of ours was poled by beautiful and strong Mitoh


As we traversed the small canals and mokoro-wide waterways, Demara gave us a tour of the plants and animals in the delta. Just inches above the water, we floated past lotus flowers that close as the sun fades, bull rushes, common reeds, thatch grass, open-billed storks, distant hippos, fish eagles, and African Jacana. (Demara called this bird a “Jesus Bird” because the way its legs are shaped it looks like it is walking on water.



Our campsite in the trees on Rain Tree Island
Arriving at the island campsite, our tent was set up and our bed rolls ready for us. After dinner, Demara told us to keep our tent flaps zipped closed and that he would wake us at 5:30 am.

2-16-16
Last evening and this morning we were serenaded by marimba beat of the red painted frog and the insistent chant of “Oh-Ba-Ma” from the Cape Turtle Doves. No quiet lullaby this, but a steroid infused cacophony of insistent calls.

This first morning, giraffes were grazing just on the other side of the trees surrounding our tent. It was awe inspiring to see these lovely creatures so close and have no fences between us.

After breakfast Demara gave us a “safety briefing” because we were about to have a “Game Walk” to see wild animals. His safety briefing went like this:

At all times, try to be downwind.
Elephants will first do a mock charge and then the real charge so try to create distance after the mock charge.
If we see lions, stand still but don’t move your legs. It is okay to take photos, but don’t run.
For rhinos, be downwind. If we are too close, move back not forward.
Leopards are shy and usually hiding. Hope that you see the leopard before it sees you. Stay downwind and keep looking up and all around because the leopard is a stealthy hunter. He said a leopard hiding in a tree will jump down onto its prey. For people, the leopard will jump down onto you and with its claws grab your face and rip the skin back over your head closing your eyes.
Water buffalo are aggressive animals. Often they give no warning about their plans. Beware of the injured buffalo.
Hippos are also aggressive animals. Before entering the water, scan the water for waves or bubbles.

I asked about snakes. Demara said that there are snakes on the island: spitting cobra, green mamba, python, puff adder, twig snake which disguises itself as a twig on a tree. Never one to let a frightening possibility go unanswered, I asked if that was why he advised keeping our tent flaps zipped. Demara said it was, but offered that serpents prefer to avoid commotion and heat so they would stay out of our way and out of our tent if it was zipped closed. Now, I’m thinking about all my trips to the campsite toilet last night and during the next two nights. Even before this confirmation of my fears, Dan always gets up with me to escort me to the toilet.

Oh, and yes there are crocodiles in and near the water and Demara is not armed—no guns anywhere. About two years ago, Botswana prohibited hunting. Now, the only “shooting” is done with cameras.

It is the hot, rainy season with very little rain due to a several year drought. Most tourists visit here after May when it is cooler, but not us. Our daily game walk begins at 6:30 am because of the intense heat. Early is also the best time to see the animals as they also try to avoid the heat of the day.

On our first game walk we saw colorful birds like the lilac-breasted roller and the red bishop. And, we saw large animals: giraffes, zebras, hippos, wildebeest (gnu), and far away elephants. To find these animals, Demara checked the trails for tracks and traces. Elephants and zebras use the same paths that look very much like those a hiker would use. Pathways made by hippos have two parallel ruts with a line of grass in the middle much like you would see on a rutted country road. We saw recent buffalo poop but did not find them. Hippos swing their tails as they poop to mark a wider territory. It makes you feel vulnerable and exposed walking through a land that you know has wild animals. Perhaps it was slightly similar to what early man might have felt as they traversed this same space.





We were back in camp about 10:30 am and it was already oppressively hot and humid. We had lunch and a very long siesta time before our late afternoon nature walk to explore the plants in the area. Twigs of the “Red Star Apple” shrub are used to clean teeth. The twig leaves your tongue yellow but teeth remain white. Demara said the twigs have an antiseptic component that helps heal gum disease. Along the way we saw our giraffe neighbors. The landscape is dotted with large termite mounds that can be used as a navigational tool as they always lean to the west.




Each afternoon huge clouds form and we can hear distant thunder; humidity builds but no rain falls. Tonight after dinner the disconcerting low rumble and calls of lions in the distance could be heard. Through the night and in the morning the low rumble of lions provided background noise.



02-17-16
Our second morning when the sun had barely shown itself above the horizon, we accompanied Demara and Bob on a walk to Morutshe Village for a cultural tour. This is the village in which our mokoro polers live. The village was spotless and seemed to be fairly prosperous. One woman we met weaves fiber bracelets and baskets. She also operates a kind of Home Depot selling traditional building supplies: bundles of common reeds for walls of the village houses, bundles of thatch grass for roofs, and bullrushes for the ceiling supports. Her kitchen, like at most of the homes we visited, is outside.

Many of the villagers have dogs that are used as an early warning system that lions are about.

Demara showed us the house that he and Bob live in. Just behind Demara’s house, some children wanted me to take their photo. While they loved seeing their image on my camera’s screen, what they most enjoyed was pressing the test button on my flash. Clever kids!



Some of the houses have tents in the yards that are occupied by “water migrants.” These temporarily displaced people normally live in other villages, some as far away as Angola, that due to the long drought are without water. The tent dwellers are usually related to the person who owns the house. Morutshe Village is occupied by Bayie and Water Bushman.


Back at the campsite for our siesta, it was impossible to find a comfortable, shady spot to relax. This afternoon, Demara broke our long siesta by taking us swimming in a place with clear, flowing water. This was after our earlier discussion about how opportunistic crocodiles are. Demara poled us to a narrow channel of clear water that had a shallow area at each end. The rational for this being a good place to swim was that crocs like to grab their victim, pull him/her under, and lodge the body in debris for later snacks. As the body decomposes to the croc's taste, the croc will return to snack on it. Demara explained that where we swam there was no place for the croc to secrete its prey. The water was quite warm but still refreshing in comparison to the air temperature. Despite Demara’s assurances, I kept imagining a killer croc surfing in from the shallows Orca style to grab one of us. I swam, but I also kept watch.



On the way back to the campsite, Demara showed us a very small Painted Reeds Frog. It has a red underbelly and white back so that it blends with the surroundings when it is in the water.


Our late afternoon field trip was in the mokoro. Demara poled us through the narrow waterways identifying the plants and birds as we floated along. We entered a larger channel and saw a hippo heading our way. The hippo immediately turned sideways and the water began to boil around him as he spewed poop and swished his tail to show us how scary he was. Convinced, we turned back toward our campsite with a stop along the way to watch the sunset.


Eddie, our camp chef, works magic in his outdoor camp kitchen. We’ve had stews, baked chicken, grilled steak, lasagne, cakes, and lots of fresh vegetable salads. Eddie makes fresh bread using a metal box that he places on coals and then tops with more coals. Eddie will cook for us our entire time in Botswana.



02-18-16
Our last morning on Rain Tree Island in the Okavango Delta, we packed up and after breakfast headed back to meet Moses at the “picking up place.” Just as we were leaving, a water buffalo strolled toward us. Demara ordered us to quickly get into the boat and we shoved off.

Demara in a Mokoro
Our camping support team

At the "picking up place" we were met by Moses and we began the drive southeast to Nxai Pan National Park.

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