I turned on my flashlight and poked my head out of the tent. Peered left – all clear. Peered right. All clear. So I stepped outside and cautiously turned the headlamp around the back-side of the tent. Clear there, too. Despite the snorty grunts all around us throughout the night, there is not a grazing hippo or wandering elephant in sight.
The middle-of-the-night constitutional got a lot more interesting when we headed out for two nights of bush camping on the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
We left the Kalahari and headed north – a long drive – for a fishing camp on the Okavango Delta panhandle. The only real excitement was getting stuck in the deep white sand on the way into camp to the bemusement of a truck load of entertained Botswanans who turned up in a huge truck to pull us out. Apparently, this happens all the time.
The next morning we packed up and took a motorboat to meet our Mokoros and head into the reed-filled waters of the Okavango delta. The Delta is a geological anomaly … a huge wetland in northwest Botswana where the Okavango river flows down from Angola and ends spread across a large land-locked swath of arid land looking like a hand print slapped across the desert. In the wet season the water is inches to several feet deep. In the dry season the water recedes, and the islands that are scattered all though the northern panhandle of the delta grow larger.
The glamorous wildlife watching of the Delta is to the east of us in Moremi game preserve – a dry area where wildlife is concentrated and tourists spend thousands of dollars a night for luxury safaris into exclusive lodges. We are choosing to visit the Delta differently, and have come to the Panhandle and Northern part of the Delta – the true wetland area that is also home to the largest local human population in the region – most making their living fishing the rich waters.
We are traveling on the traditional boats of the local people here – narrow dug-out canoes called mokoros that were traditionally made from wood from the ebony or sausage tree, but are now made from tree-saving fiberglass. The mokoros are polled by local men who have been traveling these waters their entire lives and know this maze of islands and water and the creatures that live in them.
Mom and I sit down on the flat bottom of the mokoro and lean back into make-shift seats. We are less than a foot above the water line. Our only job is to not move … you do not want to tip over out here. Our poller does all the work, standing in the rear of the boat with a long poll that is forked at the end. He pulls the boat past the poll walking hand over hand, pulls the poll out of the water and does this over and over as we glide silently for three hours to the island where we set up camp.
This part of the delta is a place to appreciate the beauty of the small things. And you see lots of small things at the waterline – things usually missed looking down from above. As the sharp bow of the boat parts acres of thick reeds that tower over our heads on either side, a new world that lives two feet above the water put on a grand show.
We watch the dragonflies dart and land all around us, the sunlight picking up the metallic gold and copper lace on their wings. Cocoons cling to the reeds, as well as the occasional tear-drop weaver nest that an intrepid bird has somehow skillfully attached to an impossibly thin stalk. Crickets, tiny frogs, caterpillars and spiders occasionally hop in the boat – or on me – for a brief ride as we ease along silently.
The delta has its own garden, led by showstopper waterlilies that open their white, pink or purple flowers to the sun, the lily pads surrounding them green and pink and gold and burgandy. And the water is so clear you can see the stems and roots of the plants reaching meters under the water to anchor below. Less splashy water plants in white and pink and fuchia and gold dot the waters and the reeds. Long shoots of green and gold papyrus form stands that tower over the reeds at the water’s edge. They look like graceful mop-heads swaying and arching over the water. They are also sweet to eat at the base – a favorite of elephants who seek out papyrus and pull it up to eat the sweet ends and a favorite of humans who harvest it for local foods.
And it is all punctuated by birds that swoop and sing in the mornings and late afternoons – led by the fish eagles that resemble our bald eagle in bonded pairs as they hunt and scout the water for fish or perch high in the trees.
While this part of the delta isn’t the place to see lots of Africa’s glamour wildlife, we have seen hippos, crocodiles, elephants and – in the distance – the rare red lechwe, an antelope adapted to the water with feet suited to marshy ground and an ability to submerge under water except for their nostrils to hide from predators.
We are camped here two nights, our days consisting of mokoro rides to some of the thousands of islands where we clamber up and go for an easy walk with our guides under very strict instructions to be quiet and stay single file and follow directions to stop or back up if we happen upon some critter that isn’t so happy to see us. But mostly these walks have led to interesting close up inspections of the huge pointed termite mounds that rise from the earth like little mud mountains. And learning how to identify elephant and hippo and antelope and bushbuck tracks and scat. And learning how local people use the trees found here for healing or food or everyday uses.
We come back from the mokoro and shake the seeds off our clothes and fish debris out of our shirts where we have dodged plants while sitting down in the bottom of the boat. We cool off in the shade and feel unaccountably tired and ravenous after doing nothing but sit and be polled through the silent waters and the incredibly busy waterline world.
Somehow sitting in that boat watching the small world of the delta buzz around us is exhausting. Perhaps because in this slow drift through the water, we are paying close attention to the small things that we usually never take the time to see at all.