A new tour departing from Windhoek meant a new group with which to familiar myself. The U.S. Librarian and
Brenda, one of the Canadians were the only repeat offenders from the previous trip of northern Namibia. I therefore had to shake seven new hands and try to not immediately forget the seven new names that accompanied this process.
The new posse was comprised:
English newlyweds who, until recently, had been working in the British Embassy in Beijing.
A couple from South London
Two American guys who worked together in the production unit for Grey’s Anatomy
A German guy called Jürgen who worked as a bank manager somewhere in central Germany
Our new guides informed us that they were called Job and Tuhafeni. In the knowledge that we would fail miserably to pronounce his name, the latter suggested we call him “Mr. T.”
Day one, it was explained, would consist of driving. In between which there would be more driving. followed by some driving. They were true to their word. We had to complete 500+km to make camp over the border in Botswana. Interestingly, the camp for which we were headed was situated in the Kalahari desert and was owned and run entirely by the San people – Bushmen.
We arrived as the light was failing and a crepuscular gloom was enveloping the dusty earth and obdurate bushes surrounding the campsite. As we erected our tents, I couldn’t help but notice an addition to our group. A very thin manx incongruously dressed in a thick jacket and a loincloth, was quietly observing us with a benign smile. Tent set up, I went over to shake his hand and learned he was called Gowha and was one of the elders of the Naro tribe of the San people.
To educate us in the ways of the San, Gowha answered many questions about the traditional way of life then, as we sat around the camp fire, his expressive face illuminated by the flickering flames, he told us two fables from his culture: How the ostrich was tricked by his human friend into revealing that he was hiding a pouch which contained fire; how the sun’s parents had to leave her because she was too hot but then a jackal fell in love with her and tried to carry her over his back to his mother’s house (origin of the jackal’s black back – it got singed!)
Promising us he would return in the morning to take us for a bush walk, Gowha took his leave of us and we, in turn, took our leave of the day and turned in for the night.
True to his word, as we emerged from our tents, blinking in the crisp, early morning sunlight, there was Gowha, carrying a thin walking stick, a spear, a bow and arrow and several other implements in a bag made from the skin of a wildcat. He preceded to lead us through the bush, explaining which roots were edible, which were used for medicine, what a scorpion hole looked like, how to make fire from what nature provides. He read the natural world around him with the ease that a programmer reads code. It was truly fascinating.
From the Kalahari, we traveled next to the Okavanga Delta in northern Botswana. Guma Lagoon is a lodge located right on the shore of a beautiful and remote, inland lagoon within the delta. The price one has to pay for this seclusion is to be subjected to a 45min ride in a 4×4 truck through marshland, sands, and thick, thorny bush. Whilst a form of transport, the truck also served as a mobile torture chamber, jarring the bones and bruising the buttocks of its captives. In fact, so bumpy was it that we had to recruit someone to sit on our bags just to stop them from being bounced right out of the truck!
It was only after pitching camp and retiring to the verandah of the lodge for a sundowner that the pain-to-gain ratio showed itself to be firmly in our favour.
Peaceful evening gave way to serene night, punctuated very occasionally with the voluble snorts of nearby hippos, happily grazing on the moonlit grass before returning to the lake in the morning to escape the heat of the sun. Little did I suspect that I would have a closer encounter a few hours later.
The morning’s activity was a ride in a traditional makoro – a canoe made by hollering out the trunk of a large tree and propelled and steered, punting-style, by an poler standing at the rear of the boat. It was two people per makoro and I found myself sitting in front of Jurgen, our German companion who had an endearing habit of chuckling jovially and with great frequency.
The lagoon, although the main open space, was only part of a much bigger set of waterways and wetlands stretching for miles. Most of the waterways were very narrow and some, non-existent (the prow of the makoro would part the reeds and grasses in its path), so the makoro boats were the perfect form of transport.
The act of poling turned out to be an immense feat of balance. So much so that we feared to move in the boat lest we destabilise our poler and lose him to the crocodiles (of which, we were assured, there were several!)
We glided through forests of lush papyrus, spotting kingfisher and Egyptian geese, stopping only once to chew the peeled stem of a papyrus plant, as instructed by our poler (it’s was watery and sweet but I can’t see it hitting the supermarket shelves anytime soon…)
As we emerged from one watery corridor into a larger pool, we saw ahead of us a most unexpected sight: a lone bull elephant was wading in water up to his belly and was munching loudly and contentedly on the papyrus pastures. Our poler told us that sightings like this were very rare so we crept as close as we dared to level our Nikon, Cannon and Apple rifles at this magnificent pachyderm.
As, like thieves in the night, we snuck away with our photographic loot, we happened upon more hefty denizens of this Kevin Costner-free waterworld. Some 40m ahead of us we heard the unmistakable snort of a hippo, combined, not unreasonably, with the unmistakable sight of a hippo as it surfaced. After this has been repeated by six other hippopotam_____ (add your preferred plural ending) we realised we were in the presence of a sizeable pod.
Now, any pub quiz aficionado will tell you (whether asked or not) that, although they look comical and inoffensive, the hippo is the second most lethal creature in Africa, second only to the mosquito. So, as the head poler started his educational spiel on hippo behaviour to our assembled canoes, it was hard to take much in as this band of irascible menaces swam slowly towards us.
30m. 25m. 20m.
When our collective panic was almost tangible, or polers swiftly reversed the makoros and arrowed us away through the reeds. I was later to learn from my boat-mate, Jürgen, that, according to the German-language Namibian newspapers, a makoro poler had been killed by a hippo a mere fortnight ago. I thanked him for not mentioning this prior to our encounter and shook my head in wonder at the laid-back attitudes of this poor soul’s comrades.
The evening was filled with the vindictiveness, rapture, despair and revenge that are characteristic of all good card games, then we retired to our tents (not before a slightly sinister WC encounter!)
The following day I shall skip over, comprising, as it did, a crossing back in Namibia on the Caprivi Strip – an isthmus of Namibia, like an index finger pointing towards Victoria Falls – and a lot of driving.
Eat, sleep. Simples!