Rampaging elephants, diving planes and a yawning hippo!

The Okavango Delta – Botswana

June 2008

Our first stop in Botswana was Chobe National Park, famed for having possibly the largest concentration of elephants in Africa, totalling around fifty thousand. We were obviously becoming accustomed to the craziness that Africa had a habit of throwing our way because even an elephant running loose in the campsite that night didn’t cause too much alarm for the majority of us. Around midnight we were awoken by the shouts of an elephant and several people. Obviously in such an event the best thing to do is go out for a look which I duly did. The first thing I saw was the two new girls peering through the door of their tent with absolute looks of pure fear on their faces, it was hilarious but it highlighted the difference between the guys that had been on tour for the past seven weeks and the guys that were spending their first few days there. Looking further down the campsite I could see the shadows of a couple of the guys standing near the toilet block but other than that there was little else to see and the commotion had begun to calm down. I therefore climbed back into my tent, informed my sleepy tent buddy that nothing much exciting was happening and went back to sleep. As it turned out, an elephant had managed to wander into the campsite unnoticed. The campsite on this occasion had a fence around it which I suppose is fine until an animal wanders in through the gate and you then need to usher it back out of the gate which, is going to be much harder than chasing it away in any direction. A wild elephant in a confined area is never a good thing and as the rangers tried to get it out the elephant got more excited. As a result, a couple of the guys had to vacate their tents and make their way to the sturdier toilet block so as to avoid potentially making contact with the sole of an angry elephant’s foot. How the rangers finally removed the elephant I have no idea. I like to imagine it was a lot like herding an escaped cow with plenty of arms flapping and lots of cursing. From all the commotionI would guess there were some choice words used but as I said, under the assumption that everything was in order, I simply fell back to sleep.

A long drive day took us to Maun, a town on the edge of the Okavango Delta, The Delta is formed by the Okavango river which brings seasonal flood waters from Angola down to the Kalahari Desert. This water never makes it to the sea and instead branches out across the desert leaving an abundance of life behind it, with water levels peaking around July before slowly receding during the dry season. It was a part of the world I had never heard of before and I had no idea what to expect other then we would be canoeing around the Delta enjoying the scenic wildlife and large open spaces. First thing in the morning we all piled into an open sided truck and began a two-hour journey down a mix of tarmac and sandy roads as the sun finally began to rise high enough to generate a bit of heat. The weather had started to change significantly as we tracked a south westerly course across the continent with cold nights becoming the norm. The days were always sunny but the heat varied greatly in the drier landscapes of the west than the lush tropical eastern and central countries of the continent. The south west of the African continent is covered in large areas of desert. The Kalahari covers an area of 900,000 square kilometres, nearly four times that of the United Kingdom and not too far away is the Namib desert nestled on the west coast which adds another 81,000 square kilometres. Back on the truck we were bloody freezing as the cold morning air battered our faces that had been spoilt with warm tropical air up until now. As the roads started to make way for nothing but wheelings in the dust we finally came to a stop in front of some water surrounded by long grass. Basically, it looked like a shallow pond. Scattered around the water’s edge were numerous mokoros, the name given to a dug out canoe in Botswana. Some were upside down, some were the right way up and some were half submerged in water. Our team of pole guys got straight to business, picking out their preferred mokoro and making it ready for their guests. The mokoro was very simply a hollowed-out tree trunk and, in our case, Alan and his ten-foot pole was the method of propulsion. Alan stood at the back with two of us lying down in the rest of the mokoro, using our luggage as comfy back rest. This apparently is the only way to travel in a mokoro and when we pushed away from the bank the whole experience was escalated to another level as we dropped further down into the water to the point that there was about five centimetres between us staying dry or getting wet. As you can imagine, these boats weren’t exactly made from California redwood. They were pretty much the width of me, which meant that they weren’t exactly stable and led to a lot of excitement around the group for the first ten minutes of the trip. Once those ten minutes had passed, a whole different experience emerged. Apparently, lying in a hollowed-out tree trunk with nothing but my bag to lie back on and a man pushing us around with a stick was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life. In fact, it was the most relaxing experience of my life. We spent two hours in the mokoro being gently pushed through narrow waterways lined with tall grasses and every now and then trees which would be full of birds. Being so low down we didn’t really get to appreciate the scale of where we were or to see any of the big wildlife but what I could do was lie back and enjoy the huge blue sky above me, basking in the warm sun. Even the weather was perfect, the sun cloaking us in warmth instead of trying to bake us alive. I am guessing we were all pretty much in the same state of mind as no one felt the need to talk. Thirty people gently floating through northern Botswana, not a sound to be heard other than the breeze, an odd splash of water and, a few birds – a sound track we are deprived of all too often. Having a restricted, yet still beautiful view also meant that your brain is relaxed instead of scanning for animals, looking at views, grabbing the camera, getting frustrated with the camera and the likes. Several hours later we pulled up on shore, grabbed our gear and made our way into a small wooded area with a little clearing where we could set up our tents. It was only mid-morning which meant we had a bit of time to explore before lunch. After lunch we all retired for a nap! Most of the wildlife we had seen spent the afternoon snoozing in the shade so it made perfect sense that we should do the same. It was heavenly.

Later, refreshed, we all piled back into our mokoros and made our way back onto the water for a couple of hours during sunset. Another African sunset, the sun falling out of the sky of yet another different African landscape with its reflection bouncing off the water. As ever with the setting of the sun, our surroundings started to come alive with birds flocking to the sky and giraffes emerging from the trees with their long shadows following closely behind. The stars of the show on this occasion were the hippos. As we progressed, the narrow waterways began to open up until we entered a large lagoon with no less than eight hippos parked up in the middle of it. As soon as we entered, all eyes were upon us. As previously discussed, we were well aware of what a hippo is capable of and thankfully at the time I was completely unaware that we were extremely vulnerable while floating around a hippo-infested pool in a mokoro. We slowly and quietly made our way around the edge of the lagoon and parked amongst the rushes and lily pads and just lay there watching the colours of the surrounding area change as the sun set. For the entire time the hippos never took their gaze away from us and I swear they were inching closer and closer. I have a photo of one of the hippos letting rip a stereotypical yawn only twenty metres away from where we were. It would appear that in Africa there is no such thing as standard or, boring sunset.

The following morning after breakfast, we packed up, loaded the mokoros and began our trip back to the open top trucks. In all we had been out on the Delta for no more than thirty hours but it had been thirty hours of pure peace and relaxation, an aura that was about to be smashed to pieces. As the trucks pulled away from the water’s edge around eleven in the morning, I reached for an esky full of beers that had been brought along for the journey and so began Olly’s birthday celebrations in an excitable atmosphere. Not that we knew it at the time but an excess of energy and a bit of alcohol in the system would help ease the feelings we would endure during our afternoon optional activity. We still knew little about the Okavango Delta even after spending a day out on the water and we felt it would be a good idea to get back in the air to get a greater understanding of its geography. As we headed over to our wee seven-seater plane I am happy to admit I was a little nervous, although I felt slightly better when a young English pilot introduced himself and said he would be flying us around that afternoon. I’m sure Alethia was with the other half of the group going in the opposite direction to begin with but as soon as our pilot appeared from the briefing room/pub she appeared by his side in an instant as though she had apparated. A young English pilot (lets call him Monty for the purpose of the story) flying in Botswana with an attractive American hippy lass drooling over him before we had even got in the plane, what could possibly go wrong!? Oh, and as I have already mentioned, there was a second plane which meant that dear old Monty had a wingman, quite literally.

The flight began all very routinely as the plane tore down the runway and pointed up towards the huge African skyline with a can of Sprite sat on top of the throttle in the cockpit. And then it happened. The scale of the Okavango Delta finally revealed itself, a scale far larger than any of us had expected and a scale you could only appreciate from the air. In every direction all that could be seen was an expanse of savannah made up of green grass, patches of desert, trees dotted everywhere, lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, swamps and, termite mounds big enough to be seen from the plane. All of this stretched to the horizon and was framed by the incredible late afternoon sun. As we were casually flying along admiring the view, the undercarriage of a light aircraft suddenly appeared in our front windscreen, albeit for a brief second. Seeing a plane dive down in front of the plane that you are sat in isn’t an everyday occurrence and the natural response to this is to wet yourself. Monty then asked if we wanted to get a closer look at the beautiful scenery below and for some reason we said yes. I don’t know why we said that as we had just spent the previous day fully immersed in the Delta; hippos, water, trees, ants and all. Within seconds we were diving down towards a lake and this time our windscreen was filled with the view of water and our ears were full of the sounds that a plane typically makes when it is in a dive. The pilot was grinning, Alethia was laughing, the rest of us were looking at each other in fear until Monty decided it was time to pull out of the dive only metres above the water. Okay, so I am happy to admit that this may be a little exaggerated in reality but, what you are reading is exactly how it felt and so regardless of whether it was a few metres or twenty metres, it was still a dive with all the noise and it was still bloody close to the water! We then cruised along the top of the lake literally metres above the surface, even managing to get some dry reeds wrapped around the plane’s wheel. At the end of the lake were some trees and Monty abruptly hauled the plane back up into the sky with such force that it felt like we were taking off on a trip to the moon. Strangely by now we were all really starting to settle into it and had managed to push aside the expectations of a cruisy sight-seeing flight and, accepted the fact this was a very much pimped up version which, in total honesty, was bloody good fun as are all unexpected things are in life. The relaxed feeling was about to come abruptly to an end as Monty had one last trick up his sleeve to impress Alethia. Taking into account that she was sat up front with Monty with a steering wheel in front of her I reckon you can take a pretty good guess at what was about to happen! I can’t remember what Monty’s excuse was for not being able to fly his plane, I’m guessing it was to take off his cardigan or clean his aviators but whatever the reason was, when he asked Alethia to take control of the plane, the collective fear of us in the back equated to a fear similar to that experienced by a dormouse caught up in a mass breakout at a cattery. Excitedly, Alethia grabbed hold of the steering wheel and under the instruction of the pilot she managed to keep the plane under relatively good control. As expected, Alethia continued to flirt with Monty for the entire time she was at the wheel, regularly taking her eye off the road, not that that matters quite so much in a vast open sky above Botswana but it is still unnerving to say the least. With Monty back at the controls, the plane finally touched down on firm ground in a controlled manner much to our relief. An experience that packed in so many emotions required a stiff drink to follow which happily coincided perfectly with Olly’s birthday celebrations.

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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