The sky was a perfect dome of pure azure blue, not a wisp of cloud was to be seen, it hadn't rained for seven months. The flaming eye of the sun gazed down upon a dessicated landscape of parched grasses and dry, brittle shrubs rooted in baking Kalahari sands.
It only took one spark and the desert was ablaze, a creeping curtain of flame that transformed the landscape into an otherworldly wasteland of blackened stems and ash.
Entering this smoking wasteland I began my journey across the desert, hoping to reach the cooling waters of the Okavango delta on the far side...
They said that the whole desert was burning, the haze from the smoke and dust hanging in the air and turning the moon a satanic shade of red each evening.
Into the far north of this burning wasteland flows the Okavango river, snaking its way down from high in the mountains of Angola until it reaches the endless flat thirstlands of the Kalahari. It then spills out over the desert into a vast array of endlessly twisting channels, filling the parched earth with life-giving waters. This vast fan-shaped delta covers a staggering 16,000 sq km. creating a watery wonderland of serpentine channels, magical lagoons, wildlife-rich islands and waterlogged meadows before finally being consumed by the vast sands of the ever-thirsty Kalahari.
The Okavango delta is a unique wilderness of profuse wildlife, providing a home to some of the largest concentrations of the world's most formidable animals.
Elephant and buffalo are common everyday sightings while hippopotamus and crocodile lurk in every channel.
Lions and leopards prowl the night while their prey, the antelope, occur everywhere in huge abundance.
Troops of baboons and vervet monkeys are also frequently seen,
and the ever-present birdlife adds constant variety and movement to the changing landscape.
With patience you can also spot cheetah, giraffe and rhinoceros, and small mammals, lizards and snakes too numerous to mention. Nestled amongst this primeval wilderness are a few isolated villages continuing an age-old existence.
No map or compass is any use in the delta as the channels wind around like a nest of serpents and change their course from season to season and from year to year. A lagoon can become grassland or a channel can become impassable from one month to the next. You could follow a channel for days only to find a dead end, or you could enter a lagoon and be confronted with a dozen exits.
After making my way across the vast and seemingly endless bushveld of the Kalahari desert in the wilting heat of the summer sun,
I was about to enter this aquatic wonderland in a mokoro with two native guides from the local Bayei tribe.
Our mokoro, or traditional dug-out canoe, was of a design that has been used in the delta since the dawn of man.
Its shallow draft enables it to float in just a couple of inches of water allowing it entry to the most inaccessible places in these beautiful
but threatening swamps.
The mokoro is propelled by either one or two people, using long poles that they push against the bed of the channel,
or paddles if the water becomes too deep for poling.
Our destination was a small village within the delta called Jedibe where I hoped to meet with Keikanamang, the last of the true river bushmen,
a remnant of a lost race and a lost time.
The river bushmen were a unique branch of the San people who have inhabited the Okavango delta since very ancient times.
They plied the waters of the delta in their mokoros, leading a nomadic existence and living off the abundant bounty of the fertile waterways.
They caught fish in wicker traps, and like their cousins the forest bushmen they gathered roots, nuts and berries as well as hunting for both small and large game.
But like most of the San people they have now been evicted from their native lands, resettled and forced to live what to them is an unnatural sedentary lifestyle.
Into the vacuum left by the disappearing San people have come the black Bantu speaking tribes with their herds of cattle, goats and donkeys. Interbreeding with the San people the Bantu speaking black migrants have now come to dominate so that today the river bushman, the nomadic hunter-gatherer of old, no longer exists.
My guides for the trip were to be 'C Company' and his brother 'Action' (How they got those names I never discovered!) Members of the black Bantu speaking Bayei tribe they were both tall, thin, dark skinned and alert. They grew up in the delta and so knew it's waterways intimately, but even so I took my compass with me just in case, even though it would have been futile to try to use it in the endless twisting channels and waterways, I would have to rely totally on my native guides and their local knowledge.
I met C Company in Maun and we set off down the highway in my hire car for Etsha 6, a small resettlement town on the western edge of the delta.
The roads were long, straight, dusty and empty with nothing but the occasional stray ostrich or lurking vulture to break the monotony.
Despite the virtually empty roads I still managed to almost have an accident with a police car when it did a sudden and dramatic u-turn in front of me,
forcing me to slam on the brakes!
The policemen grinned at me sheepishly and then proceeded to do the same thing a few minutes later in front a pick-up truck with a boat trailer that was
driving some distance behind me. “And that's how the police drive here!” the fat Afrikaans pick-up driver said to me later in a service station.
We arrived later in Etsha 6, a dusty nowhere place that passes for the main commercial centre in this sparsely populated area.
It is a mixture of traditional huts made of sticks, mud and reeds, and
charcterless, windowless breeze-block dwellings.
The Etsha villages (1 to 13) were created by the Botswanan government in the 1960's to house refugees from the war in Angola.
Nowadays they house a mixture of peoples who scratch a living out of the delta and the dry Kalahari sands.
We paused at the local store to buy supplies.
The store was of the typical small-town African variety housing a meagre selection of wares on half empty shelves.
We then continued on down the dusty tracks and I parked under a shady mopane tree by a traditional hut.
Attached to the hut was a courtyard, fenced off with reeds, and sporting a dirty old sheet as a front door.
C disappeared under the sheet and, not for the last time on this trip, left me wondering just what was going on.
I decided to follow and peered over the reed fence to be greeted by the sight of a rag-tag mob of dusty women and children.
The children filed out to stare at me, and so I greeted them and stared back.
Taking out my camera I snapped a few shots and was greeted by excited screams as they inspected the images on my camera screen.
After that I decided to lock my camera safely away in my car, making a conscious decision not to take my camera with me on this trip.
This would leave me completely free to soak up the atmosphere of one of the worlds last true wildernesses and interract with the locals as an equal, not as a tourist.
We then drove on to another dwelling, a simple, windowless, breeze-block shed in a small sandy courtyard complete with a small, breeze-block drop-toilet on the far side.
I parked my car under the shade of a lonely tree and alighted to be introduced to the owner of the property and to C Company's brother Action.
We sit down and chat and I discover that the people here do not own any of the land, they only own the buildings that they construct on it.
Shortly a beaten up old bakkie pulled into the courtyard which I guessed was going to transport us to the mokoro station.
( 'bakkie' is the term used throughout southern Africa for a 4WD pick-up truck, the most common method of motorised transport in rural areas. )
I took a seat in the front next to the driver while C Company and Action climbed into the back.
Heading east out of town towards the delta we immediately had to weave our way through large holes in the ground,
excavations from which people were drawing mud to dry into simple bricks.
We then drove through deep sand and across open country containing a maze of 4WD tracks.
This open country was dotted with stands of trees and palms that I guessed used to be islands,
many of them were crowned by giant, towering termite mounds.
The country we were driving across must have been underwater fairly recently.
I asked the driver about this and he told me that there had been no water here for 15 years,
the creeping tendrils of the Okavango had since altered their course and this land was now left high and dry,
the parched grasslands slowly reverting back to desert.
All around now could be spotted small herds of hardy African cattle and the ubiquitous goats and donkeys of the settlers.
C Company tells me later that they intend to build a fence here soon, to separate the wildlife of the delta from the ever encroaching farmers.
We make another inexplicable stop along the way at a reed hut in the middle of an empty plain where we are greeted by a guy wearing ragged clothes and
a pair of trainers which look like someone has exploded a stick of dynamite inside each one and then attempted to tie them back together with string.
After a brief word we head off and stop at another reed hut where we collect the mokoro.
I am disappointed to see that it is a fibreglass one and not a traditional wooden one, but relieved that it appears to be large and in good condition.
The government provides these fibreglass mokoros at cost price to the locals in the hope that this will prevent them from chopping down all
the sausage wood trees from which they are traditionally constructed.
Finally we arrive at the mokoro station.
The 'station' appears to me to be nothing more than a boggy field where two old wooden mokoros are rotting away in the grass.
Nevertheless C and his brother proceed to unload our mokoro from the bakkie.
The mokoro is about 4 metres long by 70cm wide and will be loaded up with all our gear including cool-box, tents and
inexplicably a large, black airport bag with wheels that belongs to C! I am curious how they intend to get this thing afloat...
“There is a channel there!” C says as he points at the boggy field, the huge gap between his front teeth causing him to speak with a slight lisp.
I scan the field sceptically seeing nothing but soggy grass.
They load all their gear into the mokoro and I proceed to sit down in it feeling slightly ridiculous.
Predictably it doesn't float. So C gets out and pushes while his brother pulls.
Push, pull, push until finally we appear to be floating in about an inch of water.
They climb into the mokoro and optimistically start poling until inevitably we grind to a halt again, and soon it's back to push, pull, push...
I notice that the grass is now starting to look longer and eventually it turns into pampas and reeds;
the water, however, is not getting much deeper, and so we're having to push our way through using brute force.
We're definately in a small channel now, but its so narrow and winding that we're frequently having to make 3, 5 and 7 point turns.
After half an hour of struggling we appear to reach a dead end, so C gets out to scout ahead on foot while his brother backtracks the mokoro.
After about another hour of struggle I'm beginning to wonder if these guys know what the hell they're doing,
but eventually the channel becomes wide enough to take the occasional corner without having to back up first.
And now the real adventure begins!
The reeds grow higher and soon we enter into a tangle of magical papyrus fronds,
their green crowns dangling in our path and gently brushing my cheeks as we pass by.
The channel is still narrow so the papyrus meets overhead creating an otherworldly half-light of hanging fronds and glowing green stems as we
descend into the mysterious heart of an unknown wilderness.
It feels like I'm on a magical water ride in a theme park so I have to keep reminding myself that this is the real deal!
It won't be over in five minutes and anything could happen while we're out there.
I'm now in the hands of fate and Mother Nature and if anything goes wrong I will have rely completely on the knowledge and skill of my two Bayei guides to
extract me from any dangerous situation.
For me it was a thrilling and exhilerating feeling but to my guides it was just another day at the office...
As we glide along gently I start to make acquaintance with some of the inhabitants of the swamp as insects and spiders fall into my lap,
and then at last we push through the papyrus to an area of open water scattered with grasses.
But what's that I see in the distance sploshing through the water? A couple of donkeys? With people riding them?!
We call out a surprised greeting in Setswana:
A rather surreal scene as our mokoro has to give way to the two donkey riders in the middle of a swamp.
“Crazy people riding donkeys in the swamp.” C says disapprovingly, but an indication of how shallow the water still is.
We push on for a while through some more tall reeds and then enter our first real lagoon.
The sense of space is exhilerating and it's quite a relief to be out in the open and not having to swat away soggy reeds or visiting insects.
Like most of the small shallow lagoons in the delta this one is covered in water lilies.
The lily pads here appear to be quite old ones however, and many are covered in tiny, bright red knobs of fungi.
We cross the lagoon and crash back into the reeds again, battling away until at last we make it through to one of the main channels.
The channel is long and fairly straight and ranges in width from couple of metres to four or five times that size, giving us lots of breathing space.
These larger and more open channels attract a whole host of birdlife.
We see African jakanas performing their walking-on-water act with huge feet as they step from lily pad to lily pad,
red-eyed reed cormorants and blacksmith plovers leap up from the riverbank as we approach,
while ahead we see a busy heronry with trees full of white egrets and little squacco herons.
To one side of us a couple of pied kingfishers dive for fish before chasing each other away into the distance.
I lay back and enjoy the abundant and ever-changing birdlife and feel a sense of incredible peace and calm.
After a while C poles the mokoro into a narrow side channel and it becomes evident that we're about to make camp.
As we aproach a small island I can hear swarms of bees humming loudly overhead as they collect nectar from a flowering tree,
while birds of all varieties call out their evening choruses.
I can also just make out the distant mooing of cows,
which makes me realise that despite the long hours poling down twisting channels we have still not travelled far from inhabited areas as the crow flies.
We beach the mokoro on the island and the first thing C does is make a fire.
“Is that to keep the wild animals away?” I ask rather naively.
“No,” he replies in his thick African accent “I want a cup of tea!”
It seems like it's going to take me a while to learn the ways of the bush!
As the fire gets going I notice many large insects crawling through the leaf litter fleeing away from the flames.
Even the creatures of the delta would seem to be familiar with the dangers of fire.
After pitching the tents and eating some food I take the opportunity to ask C about his childhood.
He says he was brought up on an island in the delta and has been living here all his life.
As a youth he would regularily pole his mokoro all the way across the delta to Maun to trade and buy supplies.
I was amazed! By all the accounts I had heard this was an incredibly dangerous thing to do.
C didn't seem to think so. He knew the way, so he couldn't get lost, and he knew how to avoid the bad-tempered hippos and hungry crocs.
“But why go all the way to Maun by mokoro?” I asked, “Why not just take the bus?” (A journey of only about 4 hours from Etsha 6).
“Where should I find room for my mokoro on the bus!” he answered incredulously.
Enough stupid questions for one night, so I went to bed.
We set off early and soon entered deep channels that were a metre or two wide and entirely flanked by the magical bright green papyrus fronds. It was obviously a little travelled channel as we had frequently to push our way through the overhanging and clogging papyrus. Further on the papyrus gave way to high reeds forming towering green corridors of stem and leaf, and finally we emerged into a perfect little lagoon.
Entirely covered in a patchwork quilt of water-lilies as far as the eye could see it lay completely still and silent like a reminder of the tranquillity of ages past. The broad green water-lily pads lay suspended on the surface of the sparkling water, while jutting through them armies of white and yellow blossoms stood perfectly to attention on their erect green stems, patiently awaiting for insects to descend and sample their nectar. The mokoro glided through in perfect silence, the poles making the slightest splish each time they broke the surface of the water. We soon passed through that perfect little lagoon and I took one last look back at the world of timeless beauty that we had just so briefly disturbed, and watched as the gentle ripples from our mokoro slowly subsided.
The channels grew wider from here on and overhanging vegetation gave way to wide open channels of water flanked by stands of reeds amongst the grasses and pampas. A jakana gave a cry of alarm as a marsh harrier swooped overhead, he flutters off in terror only to be disturbed again by us as we pass him by. We are entering an area of prolific bird life now, at every turn large flocks disturbed by our presence take to the air, spur winged geese, white faced ducks, squacco herons and regiments of open billed storks feeding upon the snails and leeches left exposed by the receding waters. Meanwhile multi coloured dragonflies flit around our mokoro, skim the surface of the water and then perch on broken reed stems all around us.
We pole off into a twisting side channel and I wonder if we're stopping for lunch already. I catch an unfamiliar sound on the wind. Voices! Two women are sitting on a small island weaving little decorative baskets while they chat merrily to each other. Behind them sits a reed hut of entirely traditional construction. “Dumela!” We wade ashore and while C is talking to them I take the opportunity to have a look around. Fishing nets are hanging from the branches of a tree and a wooden mokoro is beached to one side. The hut itself is constructed from upright wooden branches with horizontally laid branches connecting the wooden uprights at the top to form a roughly circular framework. The space behind the framework is filled in with reeds to make a circular hut with just one opening which serves as a door. The shallow conical roof, which is also made of reeds, is supported on a wooden framework. Leaning against the hut lies an axe of basically stone age construction, a wooden cudgel with a metal blade wedged into the bulbous end (Originally the blades would have been made of stone). Behind the hut grows a garden of maize and pumpkin surrounded by a towering wall of reeds. The men are out fishing, leaving the women behind to weave their baskets. At this time of year the Bayei do not return to their villages but camp out at 'gardens' such as these where they fish and tend their crops.
The women appear to be giving directions to C and so we set off again. More reeds, more papyrus and then another lagoon. This time we try several exits but each time turn back and end up back in the same lagoon. C and his brother consult with each other and then we set off straight into the pampas grass. There's no channel here so we have to force our way through. The pampas gives way to sedges which are higher and thicker and even more uncomfortable to force a way through, the leaves and stems swatting me in the face and breaking off into the boat. We enter several small ponds but each time fail to find a channel and so set of directly into the pampas and sedges again. I'm not enjoying this much as I'm battered left and right by the vegetation. We make several reverses and by this time I'm pretty sure that my guides are lost, but trusting to their local knowledge I sit back and try to enjoy the ride as much as I can. We pass by four frogs clinging to a stand of reeds, two painted marsh frogs and two white foam frogs. They're so brightly coloured and motionless that they look like little plastic fridge magnets until they hop off into the water, disturbed by our intrusion.
Eventually we make it back to a main channel, our 'short cut' ending up taking much longer than expected. I'm getting famished so thankfully we stop for lunch on a small island. The mud where we beach our mokoro is covered in fresh hippo tracks. C goes off to look for honey in the trees but seemingly the bees have vacated this island since last he was here. He looks a bit disappointed but makes a fire and settles for his usual bowl of sweet milky tea.
After lunch we continue up the main channel and again I'm overwhelmed by the stunning array of water birds. Fish eagles with their eerie seagull-like calls, African darters, weavers and everywhere the egrets, herons, cormorants and plovers. After an hour or two of sitting back and enjoying the ride and the wildlife I spot some reed huts in the distance, then more and more. Jedibe! Our destination at last! We pull in to the mokoro station where a couple of wonky looking wooden mokoros are beached. “Children, making mokoros from trees that are too small,” C says disapprovingly.
We unpack our belongings from the mokoro and begin to make camp under a shady tree. The village looks deserted with only one small boy sitting under a tree to note our arrival. I hear choral singing in the distance and realise that it is Sunday.
“Everyone at church?” I ask Action.
“No most are out fishing and looking after their gardens,” he replies.
“Do you go to church?”
“Yes,” he replies
“What about C Company? Does he go to church?”
“No... he eats roots and herbs!”
Roots and herbs, what a strange reply! I start to wonder if C knows more about the old ways than he is letting on...
The village looks deserted, it is full of wide open dusty spaces with small collections of reed huts scattered about over a large area. We start to walk into the village as boy watches us disinterestedly from under the shade of a tree. Reaching the other side of the village C takes us into a reed enclosure. Passing through a small courtyard we enter the inner enclosure. As I pass through the gate into this inner-world I get the distinct feeling of travelling back in time to another age. On the floor by a reed hut sits a skinny, wrinkly, dusty old woman dressed in dirty threadbare clothes and headscarf, she is working away at something in her hands and on her right hand I notice a large sore between her thumb and forefinger which she scratches. She greets us with a toothy grimace, exchanges a few words with C and then shows us her tobacco plants, a few dozen pathetic looking wilting green shoots lying in dazzling white sand that is dry as dust. Beside the plants, drying in the sun are three large conical blocks of what looks like hashish, in her hands I notice another block.
“What's that?” I ask.
“Tobacco,” says C.
I pause, slightly curious, “How do they take it?”
“Ah, I see!”
Apparently this woman grows tobacco to trade with her neighbours and make a few pula to buy food. The pula is the Botswanan unit of currency and literally means 'rain drop', an appropriate unit of currency which makes you realise just how precious water is in this parched land!
Some children enter and start to peer at us, all dusty and dirty like the old woman, but one girl of about 2-3 years old is entirely clean and looks like she's been oiled. She's wearing nothing but a string of beads around her waist. I try to ask why she's dressed like that but don't get an answer. One of the boys says something to her with a big grin on his face and the girl looks at me scared and has tears in her eyes.
“What did he say to her?” I ask.
“That you want to marry her!” Action replies.
I feel sorry for the girl and ask him to say that it's not true, but I don't think he bothers, he just grins.
We enter another inner enclosure and finally a reed hut that smells of incontinence. Inside is one of the oldest men I have ever seen! He is sitting hunched on the floor fondling a blanket with his eyelids closed, made blind by some disease or simply old age. He has absolutely no teeth and lots of loose folds of skin hanging from his skeletal frame. His curly hair is a couple of inches long and mainly grey tinged with black. His fingernails are yellow and split. His name is Keikanamang and he is the last of the true River Bushmen! He was born in 1910 which made him 98 years old when I met him. The delta was a very different place when he was born, the Bushmen and their neighbours the Bayei were free to roam and to hunt in the delta as they pleased. They never took more than they needed, ensuring a good food supply for future generations.
The name Keikanamang, I found out, meant “Who can I trust?” and he got it one night while sitting around the Bushman camp-fire. When the question was asked someone pointed to him and the name stuck. His father was called Tanikhwe which meant “Stand up” because he always seemed to be standing while others were sitting.
In my attempt to get some window into the past life of the hunter-gatherer I asked him “What was life like in the days of your youth? Was it hard or easy?”
He confirmed what I already believed “It was easy. We could go wherever we wanted. Hunt whenever we wanted. We didn't have to worry about working or earning money.”
“Did you have lots of free time?”
“And what did you do in your spare time?”
“I was like you, I liked to travel from place to place!”
Action was acting as interpreter, and aware that Action was a Christian I tried to ask the difficult questions about spirituality. I didn't really make much headway but Action explained to me that they worshipped the ancestors, and after a successful hunt they would dance around the fire until they entered a trance like state. He said that people still danced around the fire to celebrate. The old woman entered and showed me one of the reed skirts that people still wore in order to perform the dances. The old woman, I found out, was Keikanamang's wife, though she must have been at least 25 years younger than him! She was not one of the San (Bushmen) but was one of the Bayei like my guides.
The Bayei arrived in the delta many thousands of years after the Bushmen, but they adopted the Bushman customs and soon integrated with them, so that nowadays the Bayei call the bushmen their 'cousins'. C told me about when he was younger how he used to go out hunting with Keikanamang, whom he calls 'The Old Bushman'. Keikanamang must have been in his late sixties or seventies even then! They would take two mokoros, one carrying C and Keikanamang, the other with some women or children, and go to places they knew they could find red lechwe or other antelope. Once they had found the spoor and located an island where the lechwe were grazing they would send the other mokoro around the back of the island where the women and children would scream and shout, drawing the lechwe's attention. The lechwe thus engaged, C and Keikanamang would glide up silently behind them in their mokoro and try to despatch one with their spears. C said that the lechwe could sometimes be caught so much by surprise that one could be killed lying down!
I took the old Bushman by his hand and thanked him for our chat. I told him what a great honour it was and I agreed with him that the old ways were the best. He seemed pleased with that and so we left him in peace and I wondered if that would be the last time that anyone from the outside world would speak with the old river Bushman, the last of his race. Jedibe very rarely had visitors from the outside world these days!
Afterwards C showed me around the rest of the village. It was all traditional and you could imagine that you had gone back in time hundreds of years were it not for the occasional piece of modern garbage lying around or the dishevelled modern clothing of the inhabitants. You might also notice the modern 'clinic' which is painted in a lovely bright pink! Today the clinic is the reason for the existence of the village, many of the smaller settlements that used to be dotted around the delta have disappeared as everyone has moved to larger settlements like Jedibe to take advantage of their meagre facilities. I was told that there was one store, where an enterprising villager sold food and other essentials that he picks up or has delivered from the nearest town, Etsha 6. C Company presented to me a small shed with a shuttered opening where he proudly proclaimed it was possible to buy food and other supplies. Predictably it was closed. The village has around 1000 inhabitants all told. There is no school so children must stay in Etsha 6 to study.
Finally you might notice that some of the mud huts have strange circular patterns all over them which on closer inspection turn out to be old coke cans which have been cunningly used instead of bricks to make walls. The cans are plastered together and then plastered over. The plaster soon falls off, revealing the rusted cans. I can't imagine that the huts stand the test of time for long and C tells me that they make a terrible mess when they finally cave in.
As we're walking around the village I take the opportunity to ask C about the “roots and herbs”. He says he boils them down and then drinks the resulting potions.
“Do you give them as medicine to other people?” I ask.
“No they're just for me,” he replies.
He seems reluctant to talk about it so I don't press him further on the subject.
On the far side of the village we come across an incongruous looking fenced compound. Inside are a dozen or so dark green dome tents and lounging around in front of them are a handful of uniformed men who C informs me are from the 'water board'. C greets them and they are a jolly bunch who seem to take an interest in me and what I'm doing there. One of them is fondling a shiny new propeller that he has just removed from it's packaging. It all looks oddly out of place in this traditional and impoverished village.
We continue our tour around the village and C greets several more people who all turn out to be either his cousin, his aunt, his cousin's children etc. None of them look particularly pleased to see each other and it's hard to imagine the C has been away from his home village for over a month. The Bayei are a very soft spoken and reserved people, I very rarely saw any of them displaying much emotion, be it laughter, surprise or anger, they seem to just take everything in their stride. Coming back to the village after a month or more away would appear to be nothing to get worked up about! Their word 'Ee' (Which means 'Yes' and is pronounced like a very deep, softly spoken 'Ay') which they seem to say almost all the time kind of sums up their laid back attitude. Whenever anyone speaks they always seem to be replied to, or simply just acknowledged, with a simple “Ee”!
As the sun went down we set up out tents on the edge of the village near our mokoro and had some simple cooked food followed by more sweet milky tea. One of the local villagers came to join us with her children. We gave her tea and snacks and afterwards I asked Action who she was. “I don't know,” he shrugged seemingly unconcerned. C said we had to be up at 5 so I went to bed early. Unfortunately C and his brother stayed up late talking and despite the softly spoken voices and the soothing “Ee” sounds repeated every few seconds I still had trouble getting off to sleep that night.
We were up before dawn and as usual the first thing C did was make a fire, boil some water and fill his large flowery patterned cereal bowl full of about 2 pints of hot and very sweet milky tea which he seemed to be totally addicted to. I noticed that the large bag of sugar he'd brought was already nearing half empty! The villagers were already up and about and some of them joined our camp-fire, including Keikanamang's wife and another one of C's brothers who I'd never met before.
We waved goodbye and set off in the mokoro again, heading back out of the delta towards Makwena. After a short while we pulled into a side channel and beached the mokoro. “Let's go for a walk,” C said. The idea was that me and C would go for a bush walk across a large island while Action poled the mokoro around and met us at the other side.
We hadn't gone more than a few yards when C pointed out a perfect impression of a paw print in wet mud, “Cat!” he exclaimed.
“Leopard?” I asked.
“No, my friend! It is Lion!”
“A big female, passed this way yesterday afternoon.”
We continue on into an open area flanked by trees and bush, up ahead we can see a troop of vervet monkeys passing by. C spots some more tracks in soft sand, “A leopard... no, two leopards, passed this way 2 days ago.”
When we reach the other end of the clearing where we saw the monkeys C checks the ground again, “Lion! She is still in the area!” he says.
I have a sinister foreboding but C seems to relish the prospect of a meeting with this killer and I suddenly remember what someone told me about C having a liking for tracking lions. It's at this moment that I notice that C is not even carrying a knife, I also realise that I probably couldn't run as fast as C and nor would it take a lion long to work out who was the easy prey out of the two of us!
“I like to see Lion!” C says.
“But aren't they dangerous?” I ask rather pathetically.
“Yes.. But I like them!”
“Let's just stay away from the lions OK?”
“OK,” he sounds a bit disappointed, then he perks up “but if we see Lion, do not run!”
Anyone who has walked in the bush in Africa has heard the old adage, “Whatever you do, do not run!” The advice if you meet lion is something like “Make yourself big, make lots of noise, threaten the lion and he will run away,” on the other hand if you run the lion will see you as prey and then it's game over... So C is confident that if the lions get nasty he can just chase them away. Unfortunately I don't share his confidence, despite the fact that C had told me stories about chasing lions from their kills! He told me how he would chase the lions away, then run in and cut a piece of meat off the carcass for his supper! The first time he told me this I just thought he was being incomprehensibly African as usual and didn't really believe it, but when he told me another story about how lions had just killed a giraffe and he chased them away and stole a huge hunk of giraffe meat for the pot I started to think “This guy is crazy, he actually means it!” Once he even got tracked down by the game wardens and got in trouble when they found a piece of buffalo boiling in his pot. He explained to them that he wasn't a poacher, he'd just stolen the meat from some lions, they seemed to think that was OK and let him off with a 'fine' of a six pack of beer!
I'm feeling rather vulnerable so I pick up a lechwe horn that I see lying on the ground. It's not much of a weapon but it feels better than nothing!
Ahead we suddenly hear a loud crack that sounded like gunshot. C didn't bat an eyelid and just carried on walking.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Elephant,” he said.
I peered ahead and saw a big grey shape stripping leaves off the trees. We continued to walk directly towards it as it slowly made it's way into some bushes. When we were about 50 yards away C finally stopped. If an elephant decides to charge you there's very little you can do, if you run he can run faster, if you climb a tree he'll just knock it down. All you can do is stand there, hope that the elephant's only faking it and try not to wet yourself. C of course could tell the difference between a mock charge and the real thing, and has been mock charged by elephants several times. For me it was a thrill that I'd rather not experience right now.
“OK, we go around,” C decided and so we gave the elephant a wide berth and made our way through some thorn bushes.
After much scratching and scraping we reached another open area, much bigger this time, as far as I could see there were open plains of grassland surrounded by stands of vegetation containing the usual trees, palms and termite mounds which indicated that they were once islands in the swamp. I asked C about this and he says that it still floods every year, a few months earlier he could have ridden his mokoro around here.
“I was born here, on that island he says,” indicating a forest of trees far off to our left. “My family lived here, then we moved to that island,” indicating some trees far off to our right, “then to Jedibe.”
“Why did they leave here?” I asked.
“Too many Lion.” he answered.
Keikanamang had told me earlier about the “Place of Calling” an island that got it's name from all the lions that used to call to each other there, I guessed that this must be it. Most of the islands in the delta still have names that were given to them by the Bushmen, the Bushmen have gone, but the names live on and are still used by the local people.
Ahead of us the ground is waterlogged and C decides that rather than wait for me to take off my hiking boots and socks I should take a ride, on his back!
“Jump on!” he says.
“Are you serious?” I ask.
“Sure, jump on!”
It's been a long time since I took a piggy back ride so I hesitate and then think 'What the hell!'
“Hold this,” I say and hand C the lechwe horn.
“What you doing with this?” he says.
“Souvenir?” I reply.
“Throw it away,” he says, “It's not allowed!”
Very reluctantly I let the horn drop and jump onto C's back as he waddles across the water. Reaching the other side I drop back onto dry land and try to recover my dignity. A bit further on we see the dismembered skeleton of an elephant. It must have been there a while as all the bones were bleached white and half gnawed away by hyaenas.
At last we reach the other side of the island but Action is not there. C is looking a bit confused and peering around. “Wait here,” he says, and then goes wading off into the water. As he disappears off around some bushes it dawns on me that I'm standing all alone in the bush, miles from help with no way of finding my way out of here. If C were not to come back for any reason then there's no way I'd be able to make it out of here alive, and what if a lion should appear now? What would I do with not even a lechwe horn for protection!? I call after C. No answer. OK now I'm getting suspicious and a bit annoyed. Damn! I take off my shoes and decide to wade out after him, but wait, what about crocodiles! Now I'm swearing and C's face appears from around a bush, “What's up?”
“What the hell do you think you're doing leaving me alone in the bush?”
“It's OK, come..”
I wade through the water and back onto dry land and we find a deeper channel ahead made by elephants crossing. At last we see Action poling towards us in the distance. “He's so slow!” C comments.
Relieved I get back into the mokoro and we head back into the papyrus, channel after channel of it, seemingly endless waterways with only the occasional bird or bat flitting through the reeds to break the monotony, slowly I begin to doze off..
Suddenly.. SPLASH! What was that!? C cries, “Faster!” as he and his brother start to pole furiously. I don't want to look behind for fear of upsetting the delicately balanced mokoro but all I can think is 'Hippo'! Hippos are by far the most dangerous animals in the delta. Everyone who lives or works there has several horror stories to tell and they make for interesting night time stories around the camp fire. Hippos are very territorial and they perceive any boat that approaches them as a threat. Basically they have two modes of attack, either they will bite the hull of the boat and try to stick their massive teeth through it, or they will swim underneath the boat and then emerge suddenly to tip the boat over. Either way the result is the same, the boat sinks or capsizes and you end up in the water where you're susceptible to further attacks by the hippo or by any nearby hungry crocs. Your only option is to swim as fast as possible for the shore and then preferably climb a tree to evade the angry hippo. This is exactly what happened to a guide called Martin who I met on a previous trip, the hippo attacked his boat and bit his friend, rupturing his testicle. Martin spent the whole night sitting in the tree with friend trying to staunch the flow of blood until eventually the hippo lost interest and retreated some time later in the morning. With great loss of blood his friend only just survived.
C and Action start to slow down so I venture to ask: “What was it?”
“Crocodile! Big one!”
Now I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure that a crocodile can swim a lot faster than a mokoro can be poled. It could be under the mokoro right now! Crocodiles have also been known to attack boats but it's much rarer. I decide not to trail my fingers in the water for while anyway, just to be sure..
A bit later we heard a thrumming sound ahead, C knew immediately what it was and pulled the mokoro over to one side behind some reeds, as the sound got louder I could hear that it was a motor boat travelling fast. There was no way that they could see us in the winding channels so C had to wave his arms frantically as the motor boat turned the corner ahead of us. If the boat didn't notice us we could be easily capsized in it's wake and then it's dinner time for crocs! At the last moment they noticed us and slowed down. It was the water board officials, grinning like school children! They greeted us and we exchanged a few words, telling them to look out for a big crocodile!
Not long afterwards we entered a huge lagoon entirely surrounded by papyrus, the papyrus on the other side of the lagoon looks so small it must be at least a mile away. There's no wildlife on the lagoon and no lilies, just a vast open expanse of rippling water, the sense of space after being trapped in the dense papyrus for hours is overwhelming! We pole across it making good speed and round a headland to continue on to the other side of the lagoon. And then we're back in the papyrus again and the now familiar feeling of being enclosed in green fronds, the visibility no more than a few meters ahead and a metre or so on either side. Twisting and turning until we reach another lagoon, not so big as the previous one but still very large.
Hrrr, Hrrr, Hrrr! The deep throated boom of a hippo! We keep close to the left edge of the lagoon amongst the water lilies to try to give the hippos a wide berth. Then a tense moment as we push off at double speed across the centre of the lagoon, the pod of hippos now a distance away to our right. The water is too deep here for poling so C has to paddle. I'm looking out for the hippos but can't see anything. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What if they're heading towards us right now under the water? Action points to the left and away in the distance I can see where a patch of papyrus by the edge of the lagoon which has been trampled flat: “Hippos come in there,” Action says. It is not reassuring to see that we're directly between the hippos entry point to the lagoon and the place where we last saw the hippos. We make it to the channel which is to the right of the hippos entry point then it's back to papyrus alley, we can relax again, for a while!
A lot of the papyrus here is burnt. I'd heard about papyrus fires but couldn't imagine a fire in a swamp, but now that I'm here I can see that the old papyrus becomes very brown and brittle in the heat of the sun's rays and just accumulates year after year. Eventually it catches fire and then burns furiously, everything more than a few inches above the water becoming charred and blackened.
Eventually the papyrus turns to reeds and then we arrive back at the deserted mokoro station at Makwena where the bakkie is due to meet us. C tells me about the lagoons we've just passed through called Xhamo and Qhaaxwa (pronounced !zamo and !ka-!kua, the ! Representing the click sounds found in the Bushmen language). He tells me that the names come from the Bushmen, as do most of the place names in the delta. I ask him about the hippos we just saw and he says that they're usually there, you just have to stay well away from them!
Heading back over the now familiar landscape to Etsha 6 I have time to ponder my journey. The little river bushman may now be a thing of the past but his legacy lives on. The delta which was his home has changed little and but for the occasional disturbance of motor boats carrying tourists or supplies down the main channels he would notice little difference. The Bayei who he lived alongside for hundreds of years are still there in their reed huts, some of them hunting as the bushmen used to hunt, and dancing as the bushmen used to dance, surviving simply on what the delta has to offer, but of course nowadays having to deal with the ever present authorities and government officials who were seldom seen in the past. The names of the islands and lagoons are ones he would mostly be familiar with and the traditional wooden mokoros and the tools used to make them, laboriously hacked out by hand, are of an ancient design, indistinguishable from the ones used by his ancestors. But the small yellow-skinned Bushman, living his secret otherworldly existence in the most inaccessible corners of the delta is alas a sight no longer to be seen.