Land of the delta greens
Well, the adventure is over. We got home last night after 27 hours of driving, flying and composting in airports. My underwear, however, is still happily circling the world because South African Airlines lost my suitcase. In fact, most of my clothes, clean and dirty, are still tootling about. I really hope they find it, because my favourite pair of 'laccy boots is in that bag. Last time they lost Bloke's bag, it went to Tokyo, so who knows where the hell it is.
Mr Furpants was ecstatic to see us. To my surprise, I've only been bitten once and he spent most of the night trying to sneak up onto my pillow instead of curling into the crook of my knee as usual. Big Sister had busted him out of gaol on Sunday morning, so he was waiting for us when we got home. There was a lot of miaowing and purring. Poor little guy. I suppose the biting will start tomorrow.
The Poo-Boot Tour of Africa was a resounding success. I added Cape buffalo, hippo, warthog and some more unidentified antelope to the already rather busy tread of my hiking boots and I put my hand in monkey shit. A gecko made a habit of crapping on my bed every night in Kasane and I forgot to mention that the baby boa constrictor at Palm Haven shat on me. So, quite a craptastic tally, really.
When I left off last time, we were still in Kasane, about to fly out to the Okavango Delta. We left on Thursday, the 15th. The only problem with this was the small plane factor. I have no problem with airliners, but anything smaller gives me the heebies. It's like grabbing a bogong moth in each hand and jumping off a cliff. The pilot turned out to be a nice Kiwi lad with the rather disconcerting habit of taxiing with his door open. At least he shut it before he took off. All the passengers commented on his excellent landing but I'm not nearly that fussy. As far as I'm concerned, any small plane landing that you walk away from is an excellent landing.
From the air, the delta looks like the stretched skin of a giant tree snake. It's cut through with rivers and dotted with waterholes. The excellent landing was made on a grassy airstrip in the middle of what appeared to be a rolling plain, but was actually an island.
We were staying at Xugana (pronounced Kugahna) Island Lodge and one of the staff, Keesie, was waiting to collect us. Keesie is a nickname from his school days. As a San Bushman, his real name is all clicks of the tongue of which most people just aren't capable. His San name translates as One Alone because almost all of his family had died before he was born.
I was expecting the ubiquitous safari car to take us to the lodge, but instead Keesie led us to a little alumnium power boat tied up to the bank. He kicked over the engine and we took off along channels that were bordered on both sides with a raft of tall papyrus that leaned in to slap you in the face in the narrow spots and waterlilies that ranged from creamy white to a pure blue.
The water was a mirror for the sky. Pretty as it was, I always get that Heart of Darkness feeling when I travel on close tropical waterways.
The lodge sits on the edge of a wide lagoon. As we pulled in to the little dock, we could see several people waiting for us and waving. This seems to be a bit of a trademark at Xugana. The only way to get anywhere is by water and every time you leave or come back, there are at least two people to greet or farewell you with a wave and a smile.
Weaver bird nests hanging from a palm
near the Xugana main deck
Another Xugana trademark is the lodge lawnmower - a hippo named Cassidy. What, you expected them to have a ride-on Victor? Come on - this is Botswana! Cassidy comes crashing of the water after dark to graze, so no-one is allowed to walk around alone at night. One of the staff walks with you, armed with a torch and a pen-sized siren. I'm not sure how much use either of those things would be against 3000kg of hippo, but we didn't have to find out. Cassidy is usually heard and not seen. We were told that he spent some time banging around behind our cottage on the first night, but we were out to it and didn't hear a thing. (Did I mention I could probably sleep through a tornado?)
Our cottage overlooked the lagoon. It was made from a mix of reeds, wood and concrete and had the tradtional thatched roof with no ceiling. There was no glass in the windows or sliding door, which were open to the night air apart from some sturdy fly mesh. Twin beds were pushed together under a gauzy mosquito net and a slow-turning ceiling fan. Even the bathroom overlooked the lagoon (does that make it a loo with a view?), with half the shower wall taken up with a window. A verandah set with weathered wood and leather directors' chairs looked onto the papyrus and when darkness fell, tiny bats zoomed near the light, snatching insects from the warm air.
Once we'd settled in, three of the guides took a group of us out in mokoros, which are long, thin gondola-like canoes that have poles rather than paddles. I'd seen some tourism pictures of whiteys swanning around in mokoros paddled by tall black men in loin cloths, but happily our guides were wearing the usual khaki uniform that most Botswanan lodge staff seem to wear.
The view from our verandah
The mokoros themselves were another matter entirely. They felt horribly unstable and rocked every time the pole hit the water bottom. I spent the first 20 minutes making pathetic little whimpering noises and clutching the sides every time the boat rocked. (Water is my phobia, remember.) Once I'd got over the fear of going head first into the channel and guilt at having someone else paddling while I sat there like a bump on a bloody log, it was actually quite pleasant. I settled into my best Lady of Shallot impression. Not that easy to achieve in grotty jeans and hiking boots, but I did my best. Well, I trailed my hand in the water occasionally, anyway.
It was close to sunset when we got back in the powerboat to return to the lodge. The guide, Kitso, had packed an esky for us to have a sundowner drink on the water. He pulled up in a lagoon and we sat and sipped white wine and G and Ts while the sky and the river turned to fire.
I thought the delta would be absolutely crammed with birds, but there weren't as many as I had expected. The most memorable birdy inhabitant was the red-eyed dove, mainly because it drove us spare with its damned cooing. It looked like any ordinary old dove, but it never shut up. The locals claim it's saying, "Red eyes, drink too much. Red eyes, drink too much," but it just sounded like "poo-coo, coo-coo-coo, poo-coo, coo-coo-coo" to me. If it had been pretty, I might have forgiven it, but it just didn't have the looks to carry its obnoxious personality.
Every damned bird in Botswana seems to be "saying" something. The Chobe guides reckon the turtle dove's call is saying somehing different depending on the day of the week. On weekdays, it's saying, "Work harder, work harder", but on weekends, it says, "Drink lager, drink lager". The weekend turtle dove is my kind of bird. During the week, it can get together with the whiny bloody red-eyed dove and its hangover and bugger off. Maybe they can go halves on an economy-sized box of Beroccas or something.
At dawn the next morning, Kitso took us out again. We went out by boat as usual and were whisking along the channels, enjoying the cool of the morning when we hit something big under the water. It was the ultimate "oh shit" moment. The boat reared into the air and while it was airborne, everyone looked at each other with white showing all around their irises, waiting for it to roll and throw us all out. Instead, we hit the water again with a judder and a bang and someone said, "What the fuck was that?"
We thought we'd hit a log, but Kitso looked over his shoulder and said, "Hippo." I thought he was joking and looked back. Sure enough, there was an extremely pissed off-looking hippo standing in some aquatic grass. It was big, too - about 3m long and not exactly thin.
It must have been submerged in the middle of the channel. Luckily, it didn't seem to be damaged or to associate us with the cause of its newly-acquired headache, so it just lumbered off, looking a bit dazed and confused. Kitso had stopped and backed up for a closer look, but he took off once it submerged again. Bloke started making jokes about never having been closer to a hippo. Fair call, too - I'm not sure how thick the bottom of a boat is, but I wouldn't think it would be more than a few milimetres. That's close enough for this little black duck.
Sorry it's a bit blurry. That's it in the red oval.
I'm a useless photographer under pressure.
We made it to nearby Palm Island without hitting anything else. We were going out on foot to look for game. There was Bloke, me and an Indian guy named Ranjit, with Kitso walking point and a tracker as the rearguard. Seeing the animals in Chobe was amazing, but being in a safari car makes you feel too safe, even when there are elephants within a few metres. Walking along animal tracks through elbow-high grass and knowing that there could be a lion two feet from you or a cobra crossing your path at any moment is something else entirely. It made me feel like a old-style adventurer. We didn't see nearly as many animals as we did in Chobe, but it was exhilarating just to be on the ground.
Kitso and the tracker were following the trail of a herd of Cape buffalo. (Yes, "trail" equals "increasingly fresh crap".) Hunters say that with a buffalo, you have one shot. If you don't kill it, that shot will be your last. They're powerful, they're fast and they have massive horns. One of Richard's friends had buffalo on his property and was trying to move a cow. The pen was made from tree trunks as thick as a goal post, but she got a bit antsy and locked her horns around one of the logs and twisted. It snapped it like a toothpick.
Follow the hippo shuffle marks...
As we walked, the trail got fresher. Naturally, I stepped in quite a lot of that "trail". As you would expect from me. I also stepped in a fair slab of hippo poop simply because there was no way to walk around it. We knew were close when we passed an area of flattened grass where the herd had spent the previous night.
Kitso told us that where there are buffalo, there will be lions as well, waiting in the shade.
Finally, we saw the herd, grazing on the other side of a waterhole. There was also a herd of red lechwe, a type of antelope now only found on the delta. They used to be in Chobe as well, but Keesie said the Namibians ate them all. No-one seems to like Namibians - they seem to be like the Albanians in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
Just like impala, but not.
Four big male buffalos appeared in the trees a few hundred metres from us. They were watching us carefully, guarding their cows. We crept closer, keeping an eye on them. Ranjit and I were giving our cameras a good workout. We probably got within about 100m of the males, but Kitso decided it was time to move when the bulls started to give us the eye. They followed us a little way, crossing the waterhole, but lost interest fairly quickly.
We kept walking, but didn't see anything more than a lone warthog running across the path. We walked about 10km all up and I would have loved to have gone out again in the evening despite the heat. The evening group saw elephants and a giraffe, the lucky sods, but no buffalo.
Despite the morning's close enounter, we hadn't had enough of hippos yet, so Kitso took us to the Hippo Pool in the evening. It was about an hour away by boat and true to its name, was full of hippos. We must have seen four of five dozen of them and I got some great photos. The noise they make sounds a deep, satanic laugh and it echoes across the water. Mostly, all you'll see of them is their ears and eyes and once they peg you, it's all front and centre.
Occasionally one will yawn and you can see how they kill. They have huge, pointed teeth way back in their mouths. Kitso got us quite close so some of the groups, so I got some great photos. As soon as one disappeared under the water and we saw the wake coming our way, he'd gun the engine.
Pretty big mouth, eh?
Everyone in Africa loves to tell you that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. I'd have thought that mozzies would have done for more people through malaria, but I suppose insects aren't as sexy as 3000kg beasties. One of the Chobe guides told us a story about being in a boat that accidentally got between a female hippo and her calf. She knocked it over and it rolled two-and-a-half-times.
We skimmed back to camp in the twilight, stopping for another sundowner. The insects had come out in force and we had to keep our mouths shut while the boat was moving to avoid our tongues being crumbed with gnats and midges.
Evenings at Xugana are beautiful. The lodge has an under-cover bar and dining room, with al fresco dining and lounging areas overlooking the lagoon. A fire is lit every night in the middle of the lounge area, giving a bit of a Survivor feeling, though no-one gets voted off this island. Invisible insects hum and sing in the warm dark and hippo laughs echo across the still water.
Any staff who aren't on duty get into their civvies to share dinner and drinks with the guests, which was really nice. At the Chobe Safari Lodge, there was a clear distinction and the staff weren't even allowed to come to the dining room for breakfast until 10, when the guests were presumably off chasing animals or lolling in the shade somewhere.
The second night we were there, it was a full house. A thunder storm forced us under cover, but it was a fun night. There were a couple of Poms, a Minnesotan couple, some Germans, a few Saffies and a pair of Yankee gay boys, who were hilarious. The younger one was a dead ringer for Mr Slave from South Park (minus the leathers, of course - such things aren't ideal in the tropics). Wine and bullshit flowed freely all evening.
We left the next morning, which was Saturday. The plane that arrived to take us back to Kasane was even smaller than the first, if possible, and the pilot was a surly prick. The inside looked as though it was held together with duct tape, which didn't really inspire confidence. Surly prick or not, he managed to get us there in once piece. Low requirements, low requirements.
Back in Kasane, we collected the car and hit the road again, Jack. We had 1200km to drive in two and a half days: Kasane to Francistown, Francistown to Polokwane (Pietersburg) and Polokwane to Johannesburg to catch a plane to Cape Town. The trip back was relatively uneventful. The same watery mirage lead the way down the road. We had several more close enounters with hawks and eagles, taking the number of raptors nearly hit to six. One landed directly in front of the car, causing Bloke to swerve alarmingly, but the others were either swooping across the road or pulling strips off sun-dried roadkill.
We crossed our legs as we passed the Dead Goat Motel.
On Sunday, we had to stop in Makhado to collect some biltong to take to our hosts in Cape Town. It turned out that Oom Jaco was in Alldays, though, so he had left the package with Richard.
Returning to Palm Haven was like coming home after our long road trip. We rattled down the red driveway, past the sign warning that trespassers would be eaten and were buzzed through the electric gate. Richard greeted us with hugs and Angela and Bloke's workmates were sitting in the shade of the stoop while the girls swam in the pool. Jorgi had pride of place in the middle of the table, curled up on a stack of beach towels and all four dogs were lolling on the floor.
I love Palm Haven. The company is second to none, the bar is always open and there's always a game of pool to be had. We meant only to stay for a little while, but we were still sitting there when twilight fell and I was sorry to have to leave.
And can you blame me?
Here endeth the third instalment. I'll finish up with Cape Town and some random stuff in the next couple of days.