Botswana is one the most popular 4×4 safari destinations in Africa. There are so much to do in Botswana and the Delta area. One activity not to be missed is canoeing in the incredibly animal and plant rich Okavango Delta.
I stood in my bra on the banks of the Selinda Spillway, wringing Okavango water out of my T-shirt. While I shivered in the winter breeze, I reworked a little poem I once heard: We all lay against the shady trees, the coolest we couldfindy But Robyn lay on something else a civet had left behind! Grant Nel of Linyanti Explorations had invited us on a reconnaissance canoe expedition in a remote corner of northern Botswana’s Selinda reserve that was previously the haunt of financially-loaded hunters.
These erstwhile guests were accommodated at the reserve’s rustic, yet charming Motswiri Camp on the banks of the Selinda Spillway. In 2005, renowned filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert bought Linyanti Explorations and opted to muzzle the rifles of Motswiri, since the hunting trade runs contrary to their conservation principles. As a result, a secret spot of the Okavango is now open to exploration on foot, by canoe or on day and night drives for safari veterans who are shopping for something a little more wild, intimate and unscripted. The Selinda Spillway, or Magwagqana, connects the Okavango Delta to the Chobe-Zambezi river system when floodwaters escape from one or both sources to meet in the middle.
Apparently the Bayei, a tribe originating in central Africa, first came to the Okavango Delta along this watercourse, fleeing the aggressive expansion of the Lozi tribe. They poled their mekoro from the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe, along the Linyanti River, then southwest down the spillway to the delta. Today, such a journey would mostly amount to a sweaty footslog, since tectonic movements have disrupted the spillway’s flow to the extent that the great water systems no longer join. An era of arid conditions has compounded this, so that most of the spillway’s torso is overgrown with drought-loving wild sage. For many years until 2000, the Okavango’s annual flood did not even spill as far as Motswiri Camp.
But since then floodwaters have been pushing valiantly more than 30 kilometres past the camp. Since the water is new, impermanent and shallow, it’s pretty much hippo- and crocodile-free – music to the ears of novice (and nervous) canoeists. To date, a total of two extremely shy hippos have been recorded in the neighbourhood. Inspired by the rising waters, Grant had arranged two canoes for the four of us, including his wife, Sharon, who had vowed to never again set foot in any boat with her husband after a stint in Florida’s alligator- aturated Okefenokee swamps: something about facing the wrong way and paddling awkwardly in reverse for what amounted to a very long day. So for the sake of marital bliss, we swapped spouses: Grant took up the backseat steering position in my canoe and Adrian in Sharon’s.
We launched our craft in the ankle-deep floodplains of the false spillway, a channel north of the real spillway. Grant outlined our route to Force Gideon, camp assistant and our one-man logistics crew. We were to follow this channel west to the buffalo fence, hopefully discover a waterway that led south, connecting to the spillway, then paddle downstream to camp. Force shook his head anxiously and pleaded in broken English, “Please, Mr Grant, don’t lost.” We spent the first few hours trying to navigate ourselves out of the thick grass that clogged the shallows.
There was a lot of walking, pushing and tree-climbing to figure out exactly where the wet part was.
By then, we’d all resigned ourselves to wading through the occasional cloud efflorescent green slime we’d nicknamed hippo-booger algae: ‘You may think it’s algae, but it’s snot.’ We were largely ignored by lesser jacanas dawdling along the edges and by yellow billed egrets preoccupied with the pickings of the flooded grasslands. But we spooked a small herd of kudus that flared their white tails as they fled and alarm – barked in a manner that sounded uncomfortably similar to the grunts of a foul-tempered hippo.
A perplexed giraffe stared hard at us from behind the safety of a large fever-berry tree (Croton megalobotrys). Eventually, we came across stretches of knee-deep water, but my joy at finally being able to actually paddle was short-lived when I discovered my paddling partner had the unfortunate inability to steer us clear of drowned vernonia bushes. In summer these plants dazzle the flood- plains with their small, pretty cornflower- blue blossoms. But come July, they turn into a dull-coloured confetti of itchy, scratchy, prickly and sneezy stuff.
By midday, our total canoeing activity had amounted to crossing a handful of small lagoons with beguiling underwater gardens and we’d found a new menace in near impenetrable swathes of sedge that flanked the water. “Did you say we’d be canoeing or carrying canoes along the spillway?” I’d wanted to taunt Grant, but Sharon got in first. * In his eagerness to coax his wife along on the trip, it seemed Grant had been economical with the truth. We all knew that the object of the exercise was to explore new routes for canoe trails, except Sharon, who deplores adventure. She gave Grant more than one piece of her mind and the outing began to replay like an episode of The Amazing Race. Soon we responded to each of Sharon’s good natured complaints with a teasing, “Hey, suck it up, babe.
Just suck it up.” We made for a large fig tree for lunch and, as we pulled the canoes through the head-high sedge, the tiniest frogs I’ve ever encountered hopped on board. A loud, unseen splash caused four sphincters to tighten, until Adrian-The-Tall told us to relax, it was just a reedbuck. We feasted on ham, cheese and tomato rolls, handfuls of peanuts and squares of mint crisp chocolate, while Grant clambered up the tree and delivered the encouraging news that he could see the buffalo fence. He radioed our progress to Force, who responded immediately, the relief in his voice audible. “Mr Grant, please, don’t lost,” he urged. After hopscotching between termite mounds, scoping the horizon and studying the sway of drowned grass to decipher the trail, we soon realised we were in the fervently hoped-for connecting channel. We followed hippo trails, carved through the sedge and papyrus, to the main spillway, tapping our paddles on the canoes to avoid surprising the creators of the tracks. Once in the spillway, we all relaxed as the lodge wasn’t far and nothing could go wrong. We spotted the hippo 15 minutes away from camp.
Just two scared nostrils peeking from the water. Still, we decided to give him a safe, wide berth, which meant that we had to tackle another field of dense sedge. Adrian and Sharon sailed through easily. But for some reason Grant and I ended up in a thick patch and the canoe wouldn’t budge. Grant stood up slowly to try to dislodge us and the next thing I knew, I was on my back, sinking through chilly water that was surprisingly deep. I swam to the surface. “Ha! Ha! A spill in the spillway,” Grant and I joked, laughing so much that it took some time to get back into the canoe. Fearful of the hippo, Adrian and Sharon were far less amused and shouted at us to hurry up. But our boat had taken on a new passenger — 100 litres of delta water – so we limped to the shore where I wrung out my wet T-shirt. Back in the canoes and around the corner, we met Lentibile Dinyando poling through the water. A worried Force had sent him out to look for us.
That night, hungry, sore and happily exhausted, we dried our clothes and shoes in front of the campfire, devoured T- one steaks and red wine, then crawled into bed with hot water bottles. Lions and zebras heckled each other through the night and, in the wee hours of morning, a bushbaby set up an annoying alarm chorus. We paraded seeping sores, scratched limbs, blisters and mysterious bites in front of each other in the morning. Then we coaxed aching limbs into the canoes for an easy downstream float. Impressive bastard mopanes (Guibourtia coleosperma is known locally as the false mopane), sycamore figs (Ficus sycomorus) and leadwoods (Combretum imberbe) lined the banks and a bateleur buzzed a martial eagle perched on a dead tree.
The water was completely transparent and thigh- igh at its deepest. I scooped a handful and it tasted the way soil smells after the first rains. “Is that just a termite mound on the opposite bank?” asked Adrian, after we stopped to pee. As he went to fetch the binoculars, the ant heap got up and stretched. The binoculars picked up two woolly-maned male lions. They were huge, beautiful beasts, but were wary of us and the canoes. They sniffed the air for the moment, eyed us nervously, considered their options for a little longer, then dissolved into the woodlands. We stopped for lunch under a towering leadwood tree and, after scoffing spicy chicken, biltong and chocolate cake, I edged over to the portly trunk of the tree and settled back for a little nap.
Except something smelt really strong in a raw, animal-like way. I studied my surroundings closely, saw no sign of any droppings and drifted off to sleep. When I stood up to re-join the others, the smell followed me and they all recoiled. “Gross, man, you stink.” Adrian discovered a blob of oily yellow paste on the back of my shirt, which Grant attributed to a scent-marking civet, and they both backed off, exaggeratedly holding their noses. “Hey, suck it up guys,” I muttered feebly, before walking to the water’s edge to strip off and rinse away the offending gunk. But civetone, as this secretion from civet perineal glands is known, is designed to withstand rain and shine in its role as a territorial advertisement, and no amount of scrubbing could dislodge the odour.
Aware of its attractant pheromone properties (it was an important ingredient in the early manufacture of perfume), I warned Grant to not try anything funny with me when we got back into the canoe. But he assured me that the smell was doing nothing for his libido. Back home later, it took three machine washes to finally eradicate the scent, leaving me strangely disappointed that my unique and wild souvenir of adventure and good times with friends had faded.
How to get there:
Road access is not advised and is by 4WD only, maps available on request. Air Botswana flies between Johannesburg and Maun daily. Flights cost approximately US$450 (about R3150) a person. Air transfers from Maun to Xorogom airstrip (approximately 45 minutes drive from the camp) cost US$190 (about R1 330) a person.
Motswiri Camp is an eight-bed luxury tented safari camp on the banks of the annually flooded western Selinda Spillway in a 1 350km2 private concession in north-eastern Botswana.
Where to stay
A three-night stay, excluding airfares, costs US$1 875 (about R13000) a person sharing until 31 October and US$1 290 (about R9000) in the low season from 1 November to 15 December. This excludes airfares but includes all activities at camp – guests pay no extra for game drives, walks and canoeing (which is subject to water levels).
Who to contact:
Linyanti Explorations on tel +267-625-0505, fax +267-625-0352, e-mai firstname.lastname@example.org , web www.linyanti.com
We at Ivory 4×4 Hire thank Getaway Magazine for this fantasting article by Robin Keene