Sliding over the calm, clear shallows of the Okavango Delta with the regular sound of the pole gently splashing and propelling you smoothly forward, the calls of fish eagle, kingfishers and bee-eaters, the warm sun lighting up the reeds and jackal-berry trees, and the deep blue sky overhead... It’s hard to choose words that don’t make this sound like syrupy marketing spin but there’s no avoiding the fact that that travelling through the Okavango in a mokoro is really quite idyllic. Mokoros are long, sturdy canoes traditionally hewn from hardwood trees such as ebony and bleached a pale grey by the sun and water over time. The “River Bushmen”, amongst other tribes, still use the canoes for transport and fishing. However, with the influx of tourism into the Delta, some of these seasoned fishermen have turned their skills to guiding and what better way to undertake this unique experience than in the capable hands of a local? The core of the Delta remains water-logged all year round, but the seasonal inundation fills out a vast swathe of channels and lagoons between March and June, swelling the Delta to more than three times its permanent size. The water that rises in Angola gradually creeps down hippo “highways”, creating seasonal islands and enriching reed-beds. Annual migrations bring an influx of elephant, buffalo and antelope into the area along with hundreds of birds as the Kalahari loses its green mantle to winter. For this reason, the period between July and the end of October is the best time of year to visit the Delta for the quantity and variety of wildlife. Travelling by mokoro allows you access to areas otherwise impossible by motorboat or vehicle and the quiet is very much part of the appeal. It allows you to enjoy the sounds as much as the sights and gives you the opportunity to cruise quietly up to animals without disturbing them with noisy engines. It goes without saying that the view of an elephant is quite different from a few feet off the surface of the water and many animals are surprisingly relaxed in the presence of water-borne humans. Many camps and lodges in the perennial Delta offer mokoro trips as part of the day’s activities while other camps which benefit from seasonal flood-waters will do so if the water is high enough, so you do need to choose your area carefully depending on the time of year. For those that wish to experience full immersion (not literally) in the Delta, there are safaris solely dedicated to exploring on foot or by mokoro in the old ways of the local people. Look at ideas for safaris in the Okavango. What are the main areas to visit in Botswana? When's the best time to visit Botswana? I want to see birds in Botswana!
Just by way of an aside, you may notice that I started this Zambian blog with a reference to the day...but this has since fallen by the way side. This is simply because I no longer know what day, date or time it is anymore...a lovely side-effect of being on safari! My guide at Nsolo Bushcamp in South Luangwa, Lawrence, is a passionate ecologist. He doesn’t give you a single titbit about the bush without explaining how it relates to the bigger picture. It’s like watching a giant jigsaw puzzle being put together and it gives you a real sense of how critical each piece is to the effective functioning of the whole. This morning’s walk though the tall elephant grass and back along the banks of the Luwi River, gave me a real insight into the area. Did you know, for example, that baboons often use termitaria (anthills) as lookout posts? Well, while they are doing this, they sometimes leave droppings which contain tamarind fruit from earlier foraging elsewhere. The seeds germinate here because the termite mound is moist and built of soil made fertile by bringing nutrients up to the surface. Rather than killing the invasive tree, the termites foster it because it provides shade which helps maintain a lower temperature in the mound. Lawrence pointed out a couple of hollows where elephants habitually come for a dust bath. Dust is scooped up with their trunks and thrown over their bodies, helping to protect against parasites. The hollows fill up with water in the rains and provide a drinking place for many different species and sometimes a refuge for hippo. The elusive aardvark is a very effective digger of holes but they move around and often leave holes abandoned. These cosy homes in turn provide refuge for warthog, snakes and other creatures. Humans have their place in nature too, at Nsolo Bushcamp, the honey badgers have taken to raiding the camp kitchen at night. They’ve clearly worked out that the camp cook produces a fine menu. Small but vicious and incredibly destructive, they dig under the fence and raid the supplies night after night, much to the consternation of the staff. Further up river, at Luwi Bushcamp, two honey badgers were found on their backs one morning, four paws in the air, apparently dead. Roused with a bit of prod, they blearily made their way out of camp. Further investigation showed that they had broken into the bar and consumed a disproportionate amount of cellar cask wine. Now a honey badger with a hangover is something to take a wide berth around.
After my micro-light flight of yesterday, I packed a small backpack and crossed the Luangwa River in a large canoe to begin my trek on foot to my next destination. Batwell, the game scout accompanied me to make sure that I didn’t get flattened by any animals and they remained safe from any stupidity on my part. Impressively equipped with some very sturdy boots and a rifle, his calm demeanour and eagle eyes gave me confidence that he would live up to the task. My guide, Isaac, is a 35 year veteran of the Luangwa Valley and his vintage makes him one of the most experienced here. Our little crocodile-formation was brought up by Justin the tea-bearer (they really are called that!) who was really the most important member of the group. We set off a little later than usual and so walked through a fairly warm part of the day. Nevertheless, I was surprised and pleased by the amount we saw. Teak and mahogany lined riverbeds gave onto open vleis and thicker bush, the constantly changing habitats always providing something interesting to ponder on. The bush is quiet but never silent and bird calls, the sharp alarm of puku and honk of hippopotamus was audible all around. We picked our way along routes established by elephant and other animals...literally walking in their footsteps. Walking is just such a pleasure and sights that may be banal from a vehicle take on a new substance when you’re on your own two pegs. Just off the boat, we came across an enormous monitor lizard with fresh injuries caused by a leopard. Later on we startled a small herd of zebra which abruptly fled in panic and suddenly our eyes, ears and noses were filled with pounding hooves, dust and a confusion of stripes as they galloped within a few metres of us. An aroused male puku almost ran us over, so intent was he on the shapely backside of the female he was pursuing, shying wide at the last minute. We had the pleasure of walking quietly onto a young bull elephant drinking in the shade, thrillingly unaware of our presence. Kingfishers, saddle-billed storks, wood-hoopoes, a martial eagle and spoonbills were amongst a true cocktail of birds. With a stop-off for a welcome cup of tea, our walk to the Chikoko Bushcamp took around four hours. The walking is easy and the pace gentle so you don’t have to be a marathon-runner to enjoy it, just reasonably fit with comfortable shoes and a passion for the outdoors. It is a completely different experience from driving, as I am reminded every time I go bipedal, and the best calories ever spent! Click here for a little video tour of my room at the Chikoko Bushcamp.
Travelling to a country for the first time is often a bit of a prickly time, regardless of how much of a globe trotter you are. Having negotiated the packing (generally a rather hit and miss affair because I don’t usually have much idea what the weather will be like and choosing three out of twenty pairs of shoes is always irksome), and made it through the ever lengthening airport security rigmarole, time spent flying constitutes a welcome bit of downtime in a usually stressful process. Upon arrival, getting from the plane to the terminal is a bit like a lucky dip...I never know whether I will have to walk up a tunnel, get onto a bus that resembles the London tube in rush hour or walk across the steamy tarmac apron, sweating and hauling my usually prolific hand-luggage feeling like a bit of a refugee, surrounded by the roar of engines and getting inadvertently high on aviation fuel. Airport buildings in Africa are not famous for their sophistication or choice shopping. Some time in the latter half of last century, the architecture ceased being charming and stately and commenced being intimidating and dull, adopting a style best described as colonial-gothic. More recently re-vamped airports like Harare and those in South Africa are really quite lovely; calm spaces of tranquillity. Next there are the innocuous immigration declarations to complete. More often than not, they are written in such small lettering it’s hard to decipher. I have visions of stacks of dusty immigration forms held together by old rubber bands lining some poor clerk’s office from floor to ceiling awaiting processing. Sometimes the officials are a bit bored and disinterested, sometimes pretty cheery...it just depends which side of bed they tumbled out of. Hmmm....luggage carousels. Well, these things in Africa tend to have a life of their own and there are several things that you can never depend on: that the carousel with be working, that your luggage will appear on the designated carousel, or that there will be a carousel at all (it may be evident by the heaps of carousel components at one end of the baggage hall). I just keep an open mind, adjust my expectations accordingly and leave my luggage-related sense of entitlement out of sight. As I emerge from the airport, with all the above safely packed away in a box marked “experience”, what a pleasure it is to find my very own name on a board with a smiling face hovering above it, offering to take my bag. I now don’t have to fret about how I will get to my hotel, where I can change currency without being fleeced or how I will negotiate a city completely devoid of street signs. It’s just all taken care of...and suddenly I’m on holiday and I can appreciate my new surroundings as if I were a local. Amanda is currently out and about exploring Zambia for the greater good...keep tabs on her experiences here.
The arid region of northern Kenya experiences frequent drought but even in the “good years” the dry season leads people and animals to go to extraordinary lengths in search of water. The Matthews Range forms a jagged natural amphitheatre, the floor of which is covered with acacia scrub, weathered rock kopjes and sand rivers which seldom flow anymore. In this harsh landscape, the pastoralist Samburu tribe eke out a living herding their cows and goats from one patch of meagre grazing to another. They are semi-nomadic and their simple, smoky shelters of curved saplings plastered with mud and cow dung will be reconstructed in a new spot when the forage becomes too scarce. This is one of the few places left in Africa where people still coexist alongside abundant wildlife without the artificial boundaries of national parks and reserves. This is not to say that there are not frequent incursions by wildlife into human territory or vice versa but somehow they muddle along. This area is home to elephant, wild dog, leopard and hyena in addition to a variety of other herbivores and small mammals. A bushwalk from Sarara Camp in the Matthews Range took us up an old riverbed in the height of the dry season. From some distance away, the sounds of livestock could be heard, their bleating and beaten iron bells echoing from the hills. The herds were milling impatiently with their child-shepherds around a narrow metal trough. From a broad shaft dug roughly down into the sand, perhaps 25 feet deep, came the sound of men singing. The voices belonged to a chain of four or five young warani (warriors), red shukas over lean, muscular torsos, elaborately accessorized with strings of multi-coloured beads looping around their necks, across their ochred foreheads and swinging from their ear-lobes. A series of funky vintage vegetable oil tins filled with water were passed up to the top of the shaft where a particularly statuesque young man tossed it expertly into the trough for the thirsty animals. All the while, the singing reverberated from deep within the sand river, the harmony of deep voices carrying across the heads of lowing cattle to the grey hills in the distance.