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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A night in the Okavango Delta

So the following morning, I got up bright and early and had a taxi come and get me at 6:15AM; due to some miscommunication, the driver, 'Small', went to the place that he was supposed to drop me! Good thing that I had him come early…he ended up coming to get me at 6:40AM instead and we went back to the Okavango Delta Lodge so that I could start my tour on the Delta.

Back in Windhoek, I had met up with two Kiwis and they had just come from Botswana and were very kind to give me a lot of detailed information. They told me how I could go about organizing my own Makoro trip on the Delta. The only challenge with their advice though was that I would need to find my own transportation to the Buffalo Fence which is located on another island out in the Delta. The only way that I could get there they recommended, was by way of 4 wheel drive. I later found out though that an alternative option would have been via boat. However, since I couldn't figure out how to get there and being pressed for time, I just ended up joining a tour. Either way, I think I would have only saved $20 which is a lot of money but not worth all the work that would have come with trying to organize it on my own.

I ended up getting paired up with another lady who reminded me a lot of my University buddy, Tess. She was an older lady (60?) and traveled every year for 4 months out of the year. She was older but a bit crazy, freaky, wild…if you know my friend Tess then you'll know what I mean…I am at a lack of words in trying to describe Tess' wild and entertaining energy when you're around her…crazy, freaky wild is the best I can come up with (all in a GOOD way, of course)! Anyway, it was a nice surprise to be paired up with an American. We were equally cheap and resourceful so she really gave me a run for my money! She told me a story about how she had managed to get a free ride on a tour bus and recommended a good restaurant to them and then relayed to the owner of her success in bringing this big group over and that she deserved a free pizza. She got it! I have never tried that one! I was actually learning some new tricks! And I'm usually the one dishing out the advice!

We were going to be going on a Mokoro which is a hand-carved wooden canoe that is used to get around through the Delta. I didn't really know what to expect only that many people that I had consulted strongly encouraged me to make a trip out here. It was good that I was paired up with Arlene because obviously she had done her homework and being the outspoken American that she was, she made sure that they didn't give us a fiberglass boat (which is how many of the Makoros are made out of nowadays) and that we had the best guide that would give us a good tour. Thank goodness she was there to sort us out otherwise, I would have probably been quick to jump in a fiberglass Makoro, not knowing the difference, and being happy with just a quick ride around.

This here is a web catches all the spider webs....

The boat ride was awesome; incredibly relaxing! I got to sit in the Makoro barefoot, stretched out with my feet hanging over the edge, soaking in the sunshine as we maneuvered through the reeds in the Delta. It was a nice relief because up until then, I had many cold days in South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia. Our poler/guide, Julius, navigated us around the Delta with remarkable ease. We stopped at one of the islands and had our lunch there. Camilo had actually taken me to a take-out place the day before and it was a good serving of local Botswana food…not to my surprise, the restaurant was run by Chinese! Since I couldn't finish my food the day before, I brought along the leftovers with me and ate it for my lunch…it was still good the next day!

My Botswana lunch: Mashed butternut (orange), chicken, braised beef (really good! Texture similar to kalua pig but beef), cabbage, (slightly) spicy macaroni, and beans...all for $3! 

After our leisurely lunch, we went back on the Makoro and got to see some wildlife along the way. Arlene was really keen on seeing elephants so Julius made sure we saw them. We got incredibly close to them at one point, about 20 feet away. It was surreal to observe these animals so closely in the wild. It actually was frightening for a moment because one of the three elephants that we had found stared us dead cold. I really thought that the elephant was going to charge us and I was going to die right there in the Okavango Delta. I had been recording the whole scene unfold even as my battery kept blinking on low with one bar left (I charged it the night before!). I got so scared though that out of impulse, I stopped recording and hid behind Julius. I wish I kept the camera rolling because seconds later, Julius pulled a move that locals must typically practice and chased this enormous animal away. Thank God the elephant went away; I really didn't want to die there in Botswana.

That night we settled upon another island and set up camp there. After we set up our tent, we went back out for a sunset cruise and were in the water very close to a few hippopotamuses. After the elephant incident, I was very afraid of getting too close. Julius warned that we couldn't get any closer (Arlene always wanting to push our limits) because the hippopotamuses move quickly in the water. I also later learned that they are known for turning over many Makoros! Thankfully Julius was experienced and we escaped unharmed. The only other annoying part of the sunset ride was that we were tasty meat for mosquitos. Mosquitos swarm out at dusk so they were flying all around us! Not a good thing when Botswana is known to have malaria infected mosquitos! Luckily I had my spray and had taken my malarone (malaria medication) but that didn't prevent me from getting attacked! Arlene actually told me that when she was in Mali earlier that month, she had been diagnosed with malaria. At first she just thought it was a head cold (which is not a common symptom) but decided to get herself checked out. Luckily she did because she was in the early stages! Hearing her story started to make me out to be a hypochondriac, later always worrying whether or not I had caught it at any small signs of discomfort.

Sleeping that night was actually the first time in Africa that I was in the complete wilderness, sleeping under the vast African sky and its beautiful stars. Maybe I'll sound like an idiot now but I didn't realize until that night that looking at the stars from the Southern Hemisphere is completely different from observing the stars from the North! Did you know that?

For dinner that night, I shared my hamburger patties which I had prepared the night before at Camilo's house. The tour which cost us about $100 for the 2 day, 1 night adventure didn't include any meals so we had to prepare everything on our own. It was good that it was only one night. Arlene had actually been interested in doing 2 nights but because I was trying to race back to Johannesburg, didn't have enough time to do the 2 nights.

The following morning, we went out again and saw more elephants, possibly the same ones that we saw the day before. I learned from Julius that the elephants that had only one tusk were usually the more aggressive ones so I was quick to hide behind Julius anytime we got close to 1 horned elephants. We also saw some other wildlife including a herd of zebras, some wilderbeests and some impala.

The trip in all was amazing! It was such a surreal experience to have been able to experience and see all that we did! The elephants, the relaxing ride in the Delta, the silence…it was great! The other new experience that I had was that when I had to do my business, I had to dig a hole! So now, I know what to do if I am ever stuck in the wilderness and nature calls.

We got back to Buffalo Fence at about 4PM the next day and the boat from our lodge was there and had ice cold beers waiting for us! Nice! We got back to the lodge about 30 minutes later and then I needed to find my way back into the town (10km) away so that I could withdraw more money for my bus ride to Gaborone early (5:30) the next morning. I also wanted to try and get connected to the internet since Camilo had told me where the free wi-fi hot spots were. The lunch from the Chinese owned Botswanan restaurant was still playing in my mind so I was also hoping that I could find it and go back there. It was already 6PM and slowly starting to get dark but I wanted it! I found out that it was 3km (almost 2 miles) but I was determinted to walk there. Different from the other African cities that I had visited previously, I felt pretty safe in Botswana and decided to take my chances for food! Surprise?! I found the restaurant within 20 minutes or so and got 'my usual'. Then, I went and checked out the bus stop to see if I could get any more details on my early bus ride the following morning. It turned out that I found the driver of my bus and I told him to save me a good seat! Although Arlene was able to find someone to give her a free ride (I don't know how she was able to manage that one!), I found the minibus and got on for BP2.7 ($0.40) to get back to the lodge. I was getting a little nervous because during our drive it started to get dark. Luckily Botswanans who are known to be very nice and helpful, didn't have me too worried and I trusted that I would get back safely.

Finally got back to the lodge around 8PM and started to make preparations for my departure back to Joburg. Luckily Arlene had a Lonely Planet guidebook so I went through it to try to get information on seeing if I'd be able to get back to South Africa the following night or if I'd have to spend the night in Gaborone before leaving the following morning. I read that buses leave from the morning so I wrote down places that I could stay in Gaborone. It was already Tuesday night and I would spend all of Wednesday getting to Gaborone; the ride took 10 hours. I was hoping to sleep by 10PM that night but I didn't get to bed until midnight. I made arrangements for Small (the same guy that took me to the Lodge a couple of days earlier) to come and get me at 4:45AM so that I could be at the bus station at 5:00AM.

I had spent my final remaining minutes on my cell phone trying to call Karen, the lady who I met in Bloemfontein, now 2 months earlier. We had kept in touch and throughout my trip she had kept tabs on me and was kind enough to offer me a place to stay if and when I got to Joburg. Since it was an international call, I didn't have much time to sort everything out. I did get to make connection with her though, which was the first time that I spoke to her in weeks. But, since I ran out of minutes on my phone I had no way of calling Small the next day so hopefully he would show! It was really early so I was worried because no one at the Lodge would be up and I would imagine no taxis would be roaming the streets at that hour!

Fortunately Small came as promised and actually a little early! I quickly packed up my tent and made sure I had everything…it was so hard to see since it was pitch black! I arrived at the bus depot shortly after 5AM and the bus was already starting to fill up. Luckily since I had already become friends with the driver the night before, he helped me in making sure that my bags were nicely packed away in the bus; he also had me sit up at the single chair up front which was nice….10 hours to Gaborone! Besides the constant stops at foot-and-mouth control stops, I slept most of the way and arrived in Gaborone early!

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