Written by Hennie Scheepers
Tuesday, 19 April 2011 20:15
Mokoro guide Ribs Bogosi of Gunn’s camp
hadn’t said a word all day. His two guests from Cape Town, sitting at the bottom of his mokoro, seemed content enough. Fish eagles swooped low over the water, calling as they glided back to their favourite jackal-berry tree. The water was dark, but clear. Papyrus-fringed islands dotted the horizon. The air was- dry and cool, but the setting sun was like a floating candle in a bath — warm, diffused and soft. To the two guests, this panorama was pretty darn good. But Ribs was edgy, a frown etched around his 57- year-old hazel eyes, narrowed naturally from more than 40 years of scanning the sun-beaten landscape. For him, things weren’t going according to the Okavango plan: his group hadn’t seen an animal bigger than a warthog all day.
On the edge of Chief s Island, towards the east of the delta, a camp site was chosen. Tents were pitched under mopane and acacia trees; Ribs made a fire. All through dinner he didn’t say a word, but his entourage was mostly oblivious to his reticence.
They were more concerned that they were alone for two nights, with only a taciturn guide and a thin, see-through canvas tent between them and hungry predators and obstreperous hippos. At the break of morning, Ribs led his guests off into the bush for a random walk down Wilderness Street. Then it all happened at once: a herd of lechwe burst through the shallow water, and a bachelor herd of elephants filtered out of the early morning mist. Ubiquitous impalas merged between zebras and giraffes. Ribs walked the guests nearer, as close as his innate understanding of nature allowed. They zoomed in with their cameras. Anelephant’s eye glowed bright orange, catching the first rays of day. Behind, hippos grunted, warming their fat behinds at the water’s edge.
Ribs muttered his first word in 48 hours. “Paradise,” he mumbled to himself, his eyes glued to the scene. And, as cliched as the term is, ‘paradise’ is what most people expect when they travel to the Okavango Delta. That’s what the marketing industry, the books and the media (including Getaway) has sold the world for so long; if you don’t get to see a lion kill, huge elephant and buffalo herds, or hippos yawning at your mokoro^ then surely there must be something wrong in paradise? It’s something the Botswana tourism authorities have traded on for many years. They reckon that since they’ve got one of the best slices of wilderness in Africa, with great game and a most surreal setting, they can charge visitors huge amounts of money. And it kind of makes sense. In a material world where supply and demand rules, pristine wilderness is rapidly becoming a thing of high economic value. And the seller can charge almost what they want. The result is a dependency on forexbrandishing tourists. They have the cash and they’re prepared to pay. But is the delta worth the money even these flush First World citizens are paying, and what about the rest of the world? Can Southern Africans see the best of the Okavango without crippling their bank accounts?
Going with the flow
“It’s hard not to get sucked into a trance-like vibe here,” said Melissa van Zyl, part-time manager of Gunn’s Bush Camp, one of the camps in the middle of the delta. After a day or two at the camp, it’s easy to understand the dreamy rapture that afflicts delta dwellers. Gunn’s Camp is alone on an island thick with mangosteen, jackal-berry and sausage trees. The comfortably equipped tents at Gunn’s are perched on wooden platforms at the island’s edge, with generous views to the east, encompassing ivory palms set among hundreds of channels patrolled by hippos. The bar’s deck has a 270-degree vista, and dinners are served outside underneath bright stars. Even the animals seem to enjoy the place. Hippos walk through the camp at night, grunting as they munch on the huge fan of surface water seeping into the red detritus of the Kalahari Desert.
There is no mouth to the Okavango River, 95 per cent of the water evaporates, and if the rains are good in Angola, the waters will push past Maun in June or July and spill over into the ancient lakes of Ngami, Ntwetwe and Xau. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And to the animals, the delta is a pretty good place to hang out. Vast numbers of mammals (122 species), birds (444 species), fish (71 species) and reptiles (64 species) are drawn to water that is as pure and sweet as a mountain stream. At Gunn’s Camp, if you want more intimacy with nature, there is an option to hop onto a mokoro with a guide and leave the main island grass. An almost-tame genet lives in the roof of the kitchen and emerges at sunset for its bowl of milk and raw eggs.
A family of warthogs snoozes at night under the wooden platforms. Time spent at Gunn’s is an honest rendition of the standard Okavango Delta screenplay. And because the mix of wilderness and comfort is just right for visitors who don’t want too much pampering, you can sometimes take Gunn’s Bush Camp for granted. “If you consider the context within which we operate, perhaps the price isn’t unreasonable,” said Melissa. Gunn’s is on a small island, a few hours drive and boat trip from Maun, the nearest town of any substance. Anything that’s fresh needs to be flown in and out via small propeller plane from a nearby airstrip. And Gunn’s is in the middle of what many Africa lovers consider the prime wildlife destination on the continent. Slap bang in the centre of Southern Africa’s driest and flattest arid region, the water of the Okavango River travels southeast for five months across hundreds of kilometres.
Starting in the Angolan highlands in summer, the water is then squeezed through geological fault lines near the Caprivi Strip, then spreads out across 20000 square kilometres, a huge fan of surface water seeping into the red detritus of the Kalahari Desert. There is no mouth to the Okavango River, 95 per cent of the water evaporates, and if the rains are good in Angola, the waters will push past Maun in June or July and spill over into the ancient lakes of Ngami, Ntwetwe and Xau. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And to the animals, the delta is a pretty good place to hang out. Vast numbers of mammals (122 species), birds (444 species), fish (71 species) and reptiles (64 species) are drawn to water that is as pure and sweet as a mountain stream. At Gunn’s Camp, if you want more intimacy with nature, there is an option to hop onto a mokoro with a guide and leave the main island for a few nights to camp wherever the poler decides to stop. Guests are expected to make their own food, stoke the fire and pitch their own tents. The guide will help out, but it’s clear that he’s there to keep them out of harm’s way, not to pamper them. It’s perhaps as basic as the delta gets, but in a way it’s supreme in its effect.
Taking it to another level
If you want more luxurious delta camping, Mankwe Safaris runs trips from the Mboma Boat Station. From there, a mokoro guide will take you onto one of the small islands a few kilometres away. Greeting you will be Pierre Lombard, owner and sometime host at the camp site. He’s a South African who visited Botswana every year for 20 years. He now lives on his cattle farm to the southwest of Maun with his wife and two sons, and is building up his beloved Brahman herd. Around a dinner table bedecked with white tablecloths, cutlery, wine glasses and candles, Pierre regaled us with stories of travelling up through Africa, and of his encounters with animals in the delta. “Right where we are now,” the former paratrooper-turned-hunter-turnednature- lover whispered, leaning forward, “a bull elephant walked up to us, smelled one of the glasses of wine with his trunk, decided he preferred marula trees, and disappeared into the moonlight. Can you get that anywhere else in the world, for the same price?” Pierre asked. Mankwe’s camp site lacks nothing, yet is laid bade You arrive to tents with beds and wash basins, sheltered in the deep shade of otsaudi (African mangosteen, Garcinia livingstonei) trees, the same type of trees that David Livingstone once camped under. There’s a long drop and bucket shower which keeps things rustic, but other than that, it’s as close to comfortable as camping will get without being totally naff. That night, as if scripted into a movie scene, a lone bull elephant (surely not the same one?) got so close to our tents that his deep breathing kept us awake for a while.
Towards the other end of the Okavango Delta’s ‘affordable’ scale is Xakanaxa, in the northeast. It’s about as luxurious as South Africans can get without blowing a hippo-sized hole in their bank accounts. Situated within the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, this so-called bottom-end lodge on the edge of the Kwai channel is very top-end if you’ve just been camping for a week without flush toilets.
The tents are practically small villas, each with its own lookout stoep over the channel. All the other nice stuff is there, too: en suite bathrooms with hot showers, flush toilets, quality bed linen and electric power for your digital camera. And because the lodge is connected to the mainland in the middle of Moremi, away from the hunting concessions, the game is awesome. “You can go for 10 days without seeing any of the Big Five, but it’s highly unlikely,” said manager Catherine Roche. That’s when the guides at Xakanaxa make the difference. They’re highly trained, communicative and interactive. They also know how to track the big game, so you’re more likely to find lions and leopards than if you were an independent traveller. After a week of seeing nothing more than an endless procession of elephants, the guests at Xakanaxa were getting edgy. A Canadian woman with a bazooka-sized lens was wanting more than abstract shots of tusks. It was their last morning in the delta, before travelling to Cape Town, then back to their homeland. After a few hours of bumping around seeing nothing, a radio call came through from another guide’s vehicle. “Lion kill on giraffe,” announced our guide, Montshonyane Mmolawa. We raced off to a marshy area, still newly flooded from the incoming waters. Two lions and three lionesses were gnawing on the fresh carcass of a baby giraffe. “Awesome, just awesome!” punctuated the Canadian as she fired off round after round on er digital Nikon. Driving back to camp to catch our flight out, there was an air of profundity among the guests. Hearts were beating fast, still adrenalised by the sight of the primordial interaction. “What more can you want?” asked the Canadian rhetorically. “That is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Is it worth the long flight out to Africa? “Oh yeah, after that, the delta will always be one of my once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”
And what price can you put on that?
Ivory 4×4 Hire thank Getaway Magazine for this fantastic article