Okavango Summers Are Incomparable
Okavango summers are incomparable. Those of us who live here are amazed at the widespread impression that this is not the time to visit. It is true that it is not the best time of the year for game viewing, but did Adam and Eve define their days in the Garden of Eden by the animals they saw? The accompanying images are of sunsets, but the dawns are often as beautiful. And what these images cannot convey is the abiding sense of peace and tranquility that underlies the visual splendor, the bird-song, the flocks of water-fowl winging their way to roost, the early call of lion awakening, the grunting of hippo, the tentative, tinkling call of bell-frogs, the dying of the day and the slow seep of the night, warm, caressed by soft breezes, spangled by the Milky Way. We think it no less than tragic that the obsession with game-viewing, at the expense of beauty and the balm for the soul that utter peacefulness heralds, discourages all but a few visitors from visiting at this time of year.
The virtually non-existent rains during our summer saw us going into the dry winter months with minimal grass cover and thin vegetation. Midway through winter the bush is already desiccated, the outlying pans devoid of water, and game concentrations on the permanent water-sources that much more intense. Coupled with the improved visibility due to the poor cover of vegetation, game viewing has been outstanding. While this is good news for our guests, it is discouraging for the environment. We’ve been through it all before, and worse, and have hopes of a better season of rains this coming summer.
One of our elephants succumbed to old age and died close to Delta Camp, on the river’s edge. Predator activity has been amazing – some very large crocodiles have been sighted, and lion and hyaena too have been at the carcass. In particular the night-time squabbles of these two species has been extraordinary, particularly the frustrated giggling of the hyena, one of the archetypal though seldom-heard sounds of the African bush, and barely believable even to the initiated.
It is of course elephant season, and they are in and around the camps in great profusion, calmly and systematically trampling what’s left of the undergrowth, rattling the palms and feasting on the nuts that cascade from the crowns, and delighting us.
Matsaudi is a close member of the Delta Camp family, having been with the company since his teens – which makes it about 25 years, now. Originally from Beetsha, on a finger of the Selinda Spillway, it was Matsaudi’s uncle, the legendary Kamanga Etanga, who was taken by a crocodile in 1997, who brought him to us at a time when the BaYei of the Okavango still made their annual pilgrimage though the swamps by mokoro, the fabled dug-out canoes by which means the people explored and colonised central Africa’s waterways.
From the outset it was Matsaudi’s shy smile, that rises from his countenance as the sun rises in the East, that made the impression. His willingness to turn his hand to any task, and to accept any challenge, reinforced the impression that the boy, as he then was, was someone special.
And so it has turned out. Since that time he has lived, with us, through every triumph and crisis, a steady and dependable presence in every circumstance. After a stint as groundsman, followed by a transfer to our maintenance department and a lengthy spell as maintenance manager (during which time he was intimately involved in the construction of Delta Camp’s iconic Tree House, and constructed our Sunset Deck), Matsaudi finally found his true métier as a professional guide. A sponge for knowledge of all kinds, acutely observant and thoughtful, with an easy manner and genuine affability accompanied by an excellent command of English, Matsaudi has delighted, and still delights, guests from all over the world with his heart-felt passion for his birthplace, the Okavango, in all its many manifestations.
Today Matsaudi stands in as camp manager when the need arises, but always a little reluctantly. His love is guiding and being out in the bush, gently easing his guests in his mokoro through the waterways, quietly pointing out the tiny frogs that cling to the papyrus stems, calmly circumnavigating hippos, and walking the islands of the Okavango in search of life, large and small.
Matsaudi Noga is a natural gentleman, and it is our privilege that he is one of us.
The Tree House
Featured in many books and magazines, and the memories of countless guests, Delta Camp’s Tree House is perhaps the Okavango’s most famous lodging.
Built high in the branches of a magnificent, sturdy Mukuchumo tree (Diospyros mespiliformis) in about 1988 by Chris Filmer, a young man who spent some time tending bar for us before putting his impressive academic qualifications to work in the ‘real’ world, and ably assisted by Matsaudi, guide extraordinaire, with us to this day but then a teen-aged stripling, the Tree House is a romantic wonder on three levels – bedroom, bathroom and deck. The bedroom, which is the original level, can be opened on three sides, and offers one of the most spectacular wakening experiences, with unrivalled views and a plethora of bird-life at eye level. Some years later we added the bathroom, to alleviate the long climb down in the middle of the night, and some years later the deck, to expand the bedroom and afford space for seating and the hammock that swings high above the Okavango.
On a visit, it is more probable than possible that hippos will graze beneath you during the night, or that an elephant will doze and mud-bathe before your very eyes. Genets like it up there too, and many a guest has woken in the night to find one of these beautiful, harmless creatures sitting on the railing in the moonlight. Birds react to humans differently when we are high in the trees with them, and it is fascinating to experience the variety life that goes on up there.
Whether it’s due to waking to the dawn chorus of birds and the call of the Fish Eagle high above you, tucking into the cosy bed while the moonlight streams into your eyrie, taking a shower with an elephant’s back visible between your feet, drifting into a book in the hammock, or watching the golden light of the Okavango’s late afternoon descend over the lagoon, of one thing you may be sure of your stay in the Tree House – you are unlikely to forget it.
The weather here is notoriously fickle, the effect of which is exacerbated by the fact that it is very predictable in its phases. This year summer has come upon us suddenly, early, and completely without warning. One day we were shivering in biting cold, taking hot water bottles to bed with us, sleeping with our socks on…the next day it warmed up nicely, and the next day it was blistering. Overnight the bird calls changed, the sky changed, the trees entered into accelerated summer-mode. Extraordinary. We now have the unusual phenomenon of the Mopani leaves still turning and falling, whilst the Kigelia lost their leaves overnight, started flowering profusely, and are already bedecked with delicate greens, while the Diospyros is still turning. The bush is desiccated – places that were thick bush a few weeks ago are barren wasteland, dry, trampled by the ubiquitous elephant. Quite alarming if one didn’t know that the rains will once again transform the landscape, and within a few short months the bush will once again be thick. Game viewing in the interim is spectacular.
Fear In The Bush
Of all the emotions, fear is surely the most debilitating. Fear banishes enjoyment, it crowds reason from the mind, it asserts itself in the central cortex like Neptune upon the waves, it demands attention to the exclusion of all else. It talks to you constantly, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes urgently, sometimes with an insistence that deprives one of one’s wits. Fear, in short, is no fun, and we don’t like our guests to be frightened. A certain caution is not amiss – you are, after all, in a strange environment, and strange environments call for a little more circumspection than we accord our normal to-ings and fro-ings. Fear, on the other hand, is unnecessary, unhelpful, and can be dangerous when it interferes with one’s judgment.
It saddens us to see people frightened. Recently a party of four sat their mekoro while a breeding herd of elephant crossed the water before them, a peaceful procession of animals, the babies with their trunks up for air, the adults chivvying them along, the setting sun throwing them into gorgeous relief - a scene from the Garden of Eden, from a time before the earth creaked from the demands put upon it. But for one of the party it was a nightmare, a trap, the ineluctable end-result of a series of fatally bad decisions that had conspired to rob her of her life in this raw and blood-curdling place. As another guest many years ago wrote, after a elephant had spent some time browsing peacefully near his room, “We were undeniably close to death.” In vain did we try to reassure his that being undeniably close to an elephant was a privilege that had nothing whatsoever to do with his final exit. Fear had deprived him of his reason.
We exist to reward people for the effort and expense of coming here. it saddens us when we fail, and when fear makes our purpose impossible to achieve.
September Is Spring
It’s September, and the first week of September is spring, the first flush of summer, when the Mopani leaves turn. This is a largely unsung event, as it’s short and subtle, so much subtler than the garish wonder of the northern hemisphere’s autumnal blaze, but as spectacular nevertheless. After the fall the deep russet leaves lie in windswept heaps on the purple sand, under stark, resinous branches sweating their sticky essence in the gathering heat. As the temperatures build in October to hellish proportions, and whether the rains come or not, there is a sudden bursting of the most delicate leaflets, elfin green against the baked-black branches, unfurling rapidly so deep shade gives the sand respite. Then the cicadas break into their frenzied song, ringing the bells that herald the wet season until one becomes disoriented with the sound. And all the time the great wet clouds build in the limitless sky, until one afternoon they break in terrifying swirls of dust and come crashing to earth, slaking the deep Kalahari sand and banishing the memory of what has been endured.
Some find the early Okavango summers a challenge. I am invigorated by their onset and the explosion of life that accompanies it.
Lethaka - Reed of the Okavango
We have a fresh stand of Phragmites australis in front of Delta Camp. This common reed, or lethaka as we know it here, is our building staple. We use it for our walls, bound onto a wire stretched between two poles, and it matures into a beautiful, natural, yellow-brown colour that takes its hue from the ambient light. Indoors it lasts many years, but exposed to the elements its life is attenuated. This is not its only use however – the women crack the reed and bind it to form sleeping mats (mabinda), which can also be used to make ceilings and partitions. The kids use the reed to make arrows and fishing spears. The hollowed reed is also used as a tube through which to fan the embers of a fire, and the dried leaves ignite readily.
Being hollow, and compartmented, the reed is also an excellent home and refuge to a number of insects, most notably the Carpenter Bee, who bores a hole into the reed wall to access his home. the reed grows often in thick stands on the edge of flowing water, and these reed beds become home to thousand upon thousand birds – weavers in the main, and at dusk they are alive with birdsong and talk. The large reed beds also perform an essential water purifying function, through a process known as phytoremediation. Biological action on the surface of the submerged root removes impurities from the water – just one of the reasons the Okavango’s waters are so pure and clear, and perfect for unadulterated drinking.
Aesthetically our lethaka beds, with their erect form and fully-fronded tips, alive in the breeze, are a delightful sight, and a reminder of the utility of so many of the Okavango’s most beautiful natural features.
Okavango mekoro – the Real Thing vs The Replica
Mokoro (s), mekoro (pl)
Delta Camp and Oddballs’ are the only commercial tourism operations in the Okavango that still offer their guests the opportunity to experience the genuine, traditional wooden dug-out canoe – the archetypal mokoro of the Okavango, the means by which the Delta was settled in ancient times. The fiberglass replicas of mekoro are easily bought, replaced and owned, carry consistent loads, and completely impervious to moisture. The current mania for ‘saving trees’ creates a rich seam of environmental concern to be tapped for marketing purposes. We don’t we follow suit?
Wood is a natural and renewable resource. Trees grow. Whichever god you give the nod to put trees on earth for us to use – to climb for the view, to burn for warmth, to cut for protection, to club our prey with, to hollow out for vessels of every description….for every purpose we can find. There are plenty of large trees left in the Okavango. If we allow that to change, the ancient art of mokoro-making, which we are helping to preserve, will die out. Once the trees have grown again to a suitable size, which they will of course do in a blink of cosmic time, a traditional craft will have sadly been lost.
In 1986, when replicas were unavailable, we commissioned the first (and only) ever report on the impact of tree-felling for mekoro on the trees of the Okavango – Ecosurv, a prominent and respected ecological consultancy, conducted the study on our behalf. Their conclusion was that at the current rate of off-take at that time (and at that time we alone were putting 60-70 mekoro on the water every day, in contrast to a maximum of 30 now that we are alone), the off-take was sustainable. They also made the interesting point that for a tree to be suitable it needs to be relatively straight; trees usually only grow straight when they have to compete with surrounding vegetation for light. Ergo trees are generally only felled for purpose when they grow in thickly wooded areas – those standing alone are seldom suitable. Size is not the only determinant of suitability – shape plays a big part in the selection process. The report also highlighted the fact that proper maintenance greatly extends the life of a natural mokoro, and we therefore assist our guides, who own their own mekoro, in maintaining them.
We accept that given the tremendous increase in demand for the ‘mokoro experience’, it is a good thing that all other operators in the Okavango use a replica. And we think it a good thing that we don’t. They get to polish their haloes while enjoying the expedient of a) not being beholden to the owner/manufacturer of the genuine article, and b) being able to guarantee their clientele a dry bottom, while we get to sooth our souls through the nourishment of an ancient craft and life-style, and by feeling and touching real wood.
And the fiberglass replicas carry their own environmental baggage. There are environmental consequences to the manufacture and use of fibreglass resin, of the paint in which they’re coated, of glass fibre itself, of transporting them from the factory. More important, perhaps, is the question of what happens to a dead (excuse the oxymoron) fiberglass mokoro? The real things is wood, and only wood; its useful life does not cease when it loses its ability to float – it transforms itself into something else - a natural and aesthetically-pleasing ornament (saving the import of some other ornament) perhaps; an architectural feature; a shelf; a bar counter. And the unusable bits remain biodegrade. Not so our fiberglass replica, which will lie for perhaps a 100 years or more, defacing the Okavango and slowly leaking its toxic constituents into the environment.
Okavango Summer - A Birder’s Paradise
I share my first Delta Camp dinner in 2012 with – appropriately enough – 12 Swedish birdwatchers. 220 species they’ve ‘bagged’ so far, and counting. How can one help but love people who dine with their binoculars hanging from their necks?
A storm of Brobdingnagnian proportions raged throughout. For two hours we were not for one second free of the sound of rolling, crashing thunder. Sometimes it seemed we would be consumed; sometimes it appeared to be rumbling into the distance before the next strike reminded us we were still in the thick of it. the candle flames fleeing downwind in desperation, cutlery rattling, lightning flashing near and far. One sturdy burger enquired if I thought ‘the building would still be here in the morning’, to which I answered, truthfully, that I had absolutely no idea. This response seemed to bemuse him. In the lightning-light we could see rain lashing down not half a mile away, but we remained miraculously untouched throughout, and in the eerie silence following the last receding peal, hyaenas gave vent in the distance. Then at 9.05 pm, having allowed some extra time for levity, their leader (“Delta Camp is my favourite camp in the Okavango”, god bless him) announced bedtime they all dutifully filed off, leaving me to revel in the dramatic African night, in solitude.
Pachyderms and Manners
I blush to think of the arrogance and sheer philistinism with which we greeted the arrival of the elephants. We had been operating for about 5 years without seeing a single elephant, and then suddenly they were everywhere. We were happy to see them but not in 'our' camp, pushing over 'our' trees, scaring our guests and ourselves witless with their insouciance. There began a banging of pots and pans, a cacophony of explosive flares and fire-crackers, a spurting of high-powered pump-action water pistols filled with ammonia, vast expenditure on electric fencing, a tooting of air-horns...followed by the deep, echoing thump of falling palms, and the occasional trumpet-blast and desperate, heart-failing and headlong flight as their patience finally snapped. But it was all in good fun, on their part anyway, and I was only once charged with intent, and I like to imagine that that elephant is still amused when he thinks of the alacrity with which I abandoned my dignity and took to my heals. Because if there is one thing of which I am convinced it is that elephants have a sense of humour, and what greater bond can there be between two beings than to find the same thing funny? How else does one explain the behavior of one bull who, seeing the late elephant researcher Alistair Torr squatting on his haunches, diligently recording every mouthful consumed by a small group of his comrades, walked silently - as only an elephant can - up behind him, and placing the tip of his trunk under Alistair's bottom, gently but firmly flipped him over?
An angry elephant is without doubt one of the most dangerous and terrifying things one can come across, but ours are luckily used to us and in the main totally comfortable in our presence. Bygones are bygones and now, 20 years later, we have been living happily together in mutual respect. Every year, amongst the new elephants we see, are some we have known for a long time, and I believe that they know us as we know them; I greet the ones I know with genuine warmth and I like to think that the way they come up to me, swaying their bodies, sniffing the surrounding air and waving their ears, constitutes a form of greeting on their part too. It has, after all, been the better part of a year, and we are all of an age now at which we no longer buy green bananas.
Coming back to my house after an absence recently, an absence during which the annual influx of elephants had taken place, I found what I like to think is a calling card etched onto the tree trunk at my front entrance. If this betrays an unseemly sentimentality on my part, I nevertheless believe it betrays a shameful lack of sensibility in some humans that they will travel vast distances, at great expense, and achieve an abiding sense of satisfaction because they have succeeded, with the assistance of a professional hunter and a modern, high powered firearm, to reduce one of these magnificent creatures to a hulk of rotting, uneaten meat. Shame on them.
TIGER RELOCATION AT DELTA CAMP!
In what is being billed as a first for the Okavango, a Tiger has been positively identified at Lodges of Botswana’s Delta Camp and Oddballs’ in the last week. Walkers needn’t fear however (although our guides are all agog), as the Tiger in question is the nick-name of Louise Mortimer, who kicks off our massage therapy program at the camps. Professionally qualified with a Diploma in Remedial Massage, which includes Swedish/Relaxation Massage, Sports and Deep Tissue Massage, Trigger Point Therapy, Lymphatic Drainage and Myofascial Release, and at home in the bush, we can’t think of a better person to get our treatment program going.
Both Delta Camp and Oddballs’ feature brand new therapy rooms, tucked under the trees and built in our inimitable style, fully kitted out with professional massage beds and everything needed to complement your stay with a truly spectacular massage.
I have personally been hunting down the perfect massage the world over for the last 30 years, and Tiger, latterly of Aspen, Colorado, and London, England, tops the pops. She is highly trained, dedicated, empathetic, and has made the therapeutic treatment of others’ discomfort her life’s object. The world would be a better place with more Tigers. We are delighted to have her at our camps.
Local Beauty, Pinotage, Lightening, Python - A Perfect Visit
Just a quick overnight at Delta Camp, with our local beauty queen to remind the boys what boys are for. Mozzarella with tomato and basil pesto to start, the finest Botswana beef fillet with crispy roast potatoes and seared mixed vegetables to follow, finished off with a fresh baked apple and chocolate, the whole washed down with a bottle of Hartenberg’s Pinotage. Then a deep sleep, with hyaena in the distance, and woken only once, by lion.
Trees featured in the conversation – first, one fell down at the neighboring Enclave, frightening the guests and staff alike, but doing no damage and creating a bonanza for the resident elephant who immediately set about the tender top shoots that couldn’t be reached before, and creating the perfect perch for the kingfishers who will colonize it – now that this year’s flood has arrived (I’m not allowed to talk about the flood AGAIN, but it’s a big one and it’s here).
Then Lena told us that a couple of nights ago, after he had gone to bed, lighting struck very close by, and he came out to investigate, fearing the radio mast had been hit. As he walked down to check it a strong smell of burning assailed him. He stopped a while to try to discern where it came from, without success, and as he stepped forward again he tripped over something – a dead monkey, a chance victim of Thor’s casually thrown bolt.
And the third tree is the enormous sausage tree that grows through our deck, at the very top of which, pointed out to us by a frantic squirrel, lay a python, curled up, a spring waiting for the squirrel to cross that invisible line between life and instant death. By the time I’d left this morning the squirrel’s judgment had not (yet) lapsed.
The Flood of a Generation
The greatest flood in a generation has peaked in the Okavango, and the gradually receding waters are leaving behind them a rich feeding ground for birds of all sorts. It’s what passes for spring here, so the leaves are falling from the trees, and in the first week of September the sand will turn purple and themophane leaves will turn a rich, resinous myriad of browns and reds, calling to mind the ‘psychedelic safaris’ of our youthful fantasies.
Meanwhile there remains water aplenty for extended mokoro safaris, and we have indeed been full to capacity throughout August, with September looking only slightly less busy. If we are any sort of barometer at all, the recession recedes. Back in our area after a long absence are buffalo, which will in turn dissuade the lion from straying too far. Game has been good although giraffe have been a little thin on the ground, but that too will no doubt change as the summer draws in and we are relishing the reprieve after some bitter winter weather.
We were proud to have been given the double thumbs-up by the team conducting the pilot project for the new Ecotourism standards. Although the programmes is not yet implemented and we have not been formally assessed, the international team reckoned we would in all probability score in the highest category of ‘greenness’, Yippee!
Apart from that it’s business as usual – camps full of elephants, the occasional ‘babbon’ raid (see the complaint on TripAdvisor!), glorious days and nights, Delta Camp frequently coming up on the feedback forms as ‘best food on safari’ (go Collen and Beauty!) and happy faces around the dinner table.
Santawani Lodge Hosts Royal Entourage
The royal princes Prince William and Prince Harry, on a well-publicised official visit to southern Africa, are in Botswana’s Okavango Delta where they are attending an event in support of Coaching for Conservation. There was excitement at Santawani Lodge yesterday as the mystery booking made by the Botswana Department of Tourism turned out to be for the royal entourage. The princes were staying at the adjacent Botswana Predator Conservation Project, which has been based in the Santawani area since its inception in the 1980s. ther BPCP conducts ground-breaking research into spotted hyaena, leopard, cheetah and Cape Hunting Dogs in this predator-rich area, with special emphasis on scent analysis and replication as a method of controlling the movement of predators.
Prince William and especially prince Harry are well-known private visitors to the Okavango, but this is their first official visit. Santawani Lodge, Lodges of Botswana and the community of Sankuyo are proud to be associated with their visit.
Children Love The Okavango!
Children love the Okavango! The vibrancy, the freedom, the obvious rawness of the natural environment throbbing with life is very often closer to the child-state than it is to adulthood. The view that ‘they’re still too young to appreciate it’ could not be further from the truth. We believe it especially important, in this day and age, that kids have access to the natural world, and to be in an environment in which they are forced to direct their attention to the wider world, and away from hand-held electronic devices and computer screens – to stretch their eyes to the distance, to experience smells other than fried fumes and fumes, to experience the heightened sense of awareness that comes with the knowledge of life and death around you, to let their imaginations take wing, to consider possibilities unconsidered. And we love children. African societies place enormous store in children as a measure of the future’s possibilities, and our guides are no exception. They revel in the readiness of children to embrace new experiences and to learn, and they revel in the opportunity to be a conduit of knowledge. Our policy at Delta Camp and Oddballs’ of having a maximum of two guests per guide affords unrivalled opportunities for families and children to interact with the fantastical, very real world we live in and love. Bring them on!
Super Flood 2010
Living in the Okavango one accepts the vagaries of nature – if one were not prepared to do so this would not be the place to live. As challenging as it is not to be able to control one’s environment, it is also a pleasure and an increasingly rare privilege to live close to nature, to experience her whims and her cycles of renewal and regeneration and, of course, the death and decay that precede them. Living close to the earth is nourishment for the soul.
Inextricably linked to this existence are the seminal events – the once-in-a-lifetime occurrences that are a stark reminder that Mother Nature marches to her own drum. The world seems to have had a spate of these in recent years – earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions that have challenged our belief in our ‘right’ to employ our technology as we see fit, lashing storms….and the great Okavango flood of 2010. We had a big on in 1984, but this is shaping up to be more like the flood of 1956, the flood that drowned Harry Riley and Harold de Kock, two of the Okavango’s pioneers, submerged the only bridge between Maun and the rest of the world, and caused mayhem to the few people that then lived here.
What is different today is that the Okavango plays host to an economically important tourism industry, and Maun has grown beyond all recognition into the commercial and administrative centre for the vast north west of Botswana. Airstrips that serve lodges are daily being submerged. Lodges themselves are becoming unusable and many houses in and around Maun are under threat. What is good news for the ecology is turning out to be bad news for the economy. I’m not convinced that this is not as it should be - a reality check in our modern world of acquisitiveness and ‘return’. I’ll show you a turn, and it’s in the weather. In fact maybe you should come here and see it for yourself. One vast oasis of crystal clear, uncontaminated water, fresh from the Angolan highlands, soaking into the Kalahari desert sands, pouring nutrients into arid soils, creating secure environments for all manner of living things, and taking the breath with its sheer beauty. The Okavango in flood, again and properly at last. It’s been a long wait.
To See A Pels Fishing Owl
It always amazes me how serendipitous sightings are, how very easy it is to miss – or catch - the most dramatic wildlife action by the merest chance. The most dramatic example of this I have experienced was watching eight lionesses, under cover of 10pm darkness, stalk, kill and eat a reedbuck ram not 50 yards from where 30 revellers were celebrating a birthday. Although they passéd within a few feet of us before the kill the entire episode, which we watched by spotlight, would have gone entirely unnoticed had someone not seen a movement next to her and had a torch to hand with which to pick up a lioness moving rapidly through the grass. The reedbuck was so totally consumed and the evidence of the incident so slight that even the following morning we would have had no idea whatsoever what had transpired.
I was reminded of this a few evenings ago as I sat with Darcie Carr, a tour operator from Colorado, in the Delta Camp sitting room. She was talking about her new-found interest in birds and her hopes of seeing a Pels Fishing Owl before she left the Okavango. As she was talking her eyes rose above my shoulder and popped – in silent majesty her Pels had alighted on a branch not 15 feet behind me. Ten seconds later, and equally silently, it was gone. Had we been looking at a picture of one in a book during those few seconds, neither of us would have seen it.
Thomas Friedman on “The Land of NO Service”
Putting aside the prolific wildlife, the breathtaking landscapes and the gentle proud people, one of the most important aspects of the safari experience here in Botswana is that you have to "disconnect". These days, as a fully wired member of contemporary society, it is hard to imagine what it is or was like to live without all of your gadgets, cell phones, email or all of the above. While many of us revel in the unforeseen freedoms of modern technology and are thankful that we are always connected and can work from anywhere, the price we pay is, ironically, that we no longer have to be anywhere. We have lost our ability to be present in the moment and to be conscious of where we are when we are there. Thomas Freidman of the New York Times wrote an Op Ed piece on visiting Botswana and what he witnessed as a result of being "disconnected". Whilst in Botswana, in the bush on safari, you have no choice but to be HERE and to be present because this is the 'Land of NO Service', like it or lump it, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/opinion/16friedman.html?_r=2.
The annual pulse of Angolan floodwaters is the principal annual recurrence here, on which absolutely everything depends. The timing and the extent of the flooding means everything to us – what areas become accessible by mekoro, the dug-out canoes that are our traditional means of transport, where the game will move, what the extremes of temperature are likely to be, and what sort of breeding season the fish, on which so much other life depends, will enjoy. News of the flood is, as you may imagine, eagerly awaited if skeptically received. Somehow one never knows what the reports portend for one’s own patch of swamp – will the water flow this year to the East? The West? Will it be evenly distributed or will some unheralded event – a minor shift in the earth’s temperamental crust, or the creation of a new hippo path, direct and divert the flow in unpredictable directions? Are the water-flow meters maintained by the Dept of Water Affairs accurate? Are they being read properly? Can we believe the anecdotal reports of famously mischievous local characters? The proof, as always, is in the pudding.
This year delivered what all reports were indicating – the biggest flood in 20 years. It is at times like these that being old-timers works to our advantage – our camps and our airstrip were built when floodwaters were characteristically much higher than they have been in the past couple of decades – decades which have also seen a massive increase in the numbers of camps and airstrips, many of which are now under water. Whilst sympathizing with our colleagues, we are rejoicing in the high water, which is providing a badly needed flush of the Okavango system, inundating old river-courses and floodplains long colonized by acacias, pushing water into ancient fish-breeding areas, raising the water table far inland, replenishing aquifers and constricting the reach of the annual fires that sweep the country during the dry winter months.
In particular, our activities in the central Okavango centre around the use of traditional mekoro, and high water opens vast areas to us for safe use, allowing us to utilize shallow floodplains where hippo can’t surprise us, and giving us ready access to areas we haven’t visited, but on foot, for many years. Our camping trails are getting into pristine areas, and we are looking forward to an explosion in the fish and water-fowl populations later in the year. As the waters recede from late-August onwards we expect wonderful game and bird sightings on the fringes of the floodplains and forests. With any luck we are entering a new cycle of high water, the very raison d’ etre of the Okavango swamps.