Monday 7 July 2008 - Monday 7 July 2008
We got up very early on Tuesday morning to leave for a 2-day trip to the Okavango Delta. The Okavango is the world's largest inland delta. Over 10,000 years ago it used to be encompassed by Lake Makgadikgadi (where we visited the salt pans a few nights before), but since the lake has dried up the delta is one of the few bodies of water that remains from that system. Today the waters of the delta empty directly into the sands of the Kalihari and are one of the few sources of water in what is otherwise a very arid region. Living within the delta is very difficult as the area floods frequently, causing some islands to disappear in a matter of days. Likewise, the extraordinarily fast rate of evaporation during the hot summer months (so fast, in fact, that the water levels are actually much lower during the wet season) leaves large salt deposits behind, making many areas incapable of supporting vegetation. Nonetheless, people have managed to survive and even thrive here. Those that do so live primarily off of the land by growing sorghum, foraging, hunting and fishing (apparently Tilapia is plentiful in the delta). And, more recently, tourism has been added to this list. Those villages that have recognized and accepted the opportunity to make money allow visitors to enter their land at a small fee. Many individuals within the villages also work as guides to escort tourists throughout the delta (thankfully as attempting to traverse the delta without a guide would be suicide).
We were picked up by a small boat with a trolling motor off the dock directly at our lodge. It took us around an hour of winding through reeds and river channels before we arrived at the edge of the actual delta. During that time we were able to get acquainted with our new Norwegian friends, Meta and Henrietta, two middle aged women who were traveling through Africa in hopes of starting a business of arranging Norwegian guided tours into Botswana. Interestingly, Henrietta had lived in Botswana 18 years ago with her husband who was a doctor. Before meeting up with us she had visited the village where she used to live and work. She told us that when she showed up nearly half of the 60 women whom she had previously worked and lived with came out to greet her. Pretty amazing after nearly two decades of being away.
Before we were able to enter the delta to meet our guide we had to stop at the gateway to the village of Boro, whose land we would be visiting, to receive permission to enter. We were greeted by one of the village elders who controlled the flow of traffic on and off the village land. We had arranged for a visit through our lodge in Maun well before arriving to Botswana; however, apparently the arrangements were never made (not surprising, considering the condition of our hosts the previous night). For this reason, our driver and the elder went back and forth for nearly 20 minutes (speaking Tswana) before reaching an agreement to let us pass. We proceeded on to the next beach to be dropped off and to meet our guide. Once we arrived the woman controlling the assignment of guides was swarmed with people, nearly 15-20 prospective guides crowded around her, presumably to vie for the opportunity to make some money by escorting us. We soon met our guide Matthew and were off.
Those that live in or near the delta get around primarily using Makoro boats. These are long, thin wooden canoes that are carved out of the trees that grow in the delta. They are propelled along using a long wooden pole similar to how it is done by gondoliers in Venice (though substantially less fancy... and with hippos), with the poler standing in the back of the boat and propelling it along by pushing against the bottom of the river bed. This design allows the boats to traverse the shallow waters, reeds, and narrow channels of the delta that typical boats with oars and motors could not tolerate. The boats are quite thin and light, so we needed two to carry the four of us plus our food and camping equipment. The second boat was poled by Last, a middle aged woman who also lives in Boro and speaks little English. We loaded up our things and made our way through the delta following the narrow channels that have been carved out over the years of running water. My first impressions were of how unsteady the makoro felt. You'd be surprised at how fast it can go considering the mechanics involved in moving it. The boat that Corrie and I rode in was hand carved by our guide Matthew and, while it was entirely impressive that he had constructed it by hand, it was a bit gnarled and curved slightly to the left meaning the boat rocked anytime a slight move was made. As we drifted along, snapping through reeds and admiring the water lilies, all I could think about were the stories that Crystal had told us earlier about hippo vs. makoro attacks. Apparently, the hippo almost always comes out ahead. I started to plan my exit strategy, figuring that Matthew had the clear advantage but if I could at least swim faster than Corrie I would be safe (sorry Corrie )
We poled along for about 2-3 hours before reaching our destination for the night, Madikhudu Island (Tortoise Island in English). This island is where the women in the village come to cut down reeds for their huts. It also supplies some of the trees that are used to make the makoros, although we were told that all the good trees had already been cut down and the villagers are having to go further and further into the delta to find materials. Once we arrived we unloaded our things, set up camp for the night, had lunch and rested. A few hours later Matthew offered to teach us how to pole the makoro, sounded like an interesting and fun thing to do. Corrie was given instructions on the shore and I headed out in a makoro with Matthew. I guess it wasn't surprising to find out that poling a makoro through the okavango delta is a lot harder than it looks. The boats wobble... a lot. Particularly when the person driving lacks balance and coordination. And Matthew, being the shy and stoic African that he is, gave minimal instruction... "and to the right, now use your strong... now to the left, use your strong...". I tried to tell him that because of my cushioned American life I have no 'strong', but he didn't seem to understand. He also was not amused when the wobbling brought me to my knees and I had to crawl through the makoro to grab the pole. I, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious. Finally I started to get the hang of it and managed to pole down the channel a little ways from the beach. Because it took me literally 20 minutes just to turn the boat around, I decided to try to make conversation. Matthew is 30, has lived his whole life in Boro, has many brothers and sisters (some of which also work as guides), his favorite animal is a lion, he does a pretty good elephant impression, and he has a small boy. He's not married and seemed very curious about the fact that I am 28 and also not married. He then told me we wants to marry a white woman. I tried to probe a bit further about this, 'why do you want to marry a white woman?'. But he just kept repeating "I want to marry a white". After he had repeated this 4-5 times I decided to find Corrie. Her Makoro was stuck in the reeds a bit further down the channel. Luckily, neither of us were eaten by hippos.