Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hippo Escape and Other Useful Lessons in Delta Survival

I could live with this view. Could you?
I am in love with the Okavango Delta. Everywhere that we've been fortunate enough to travel to so far had been absolutely beautiful (which I hope I have made clear in this blog!), but for me Maun and the Delta takes the cake. I can definitely see myself living there. Maun itself is a very touristy town, but my plan is to buy some property on one of the many channels running out of the Delta, build myself a house right on the water and only go into town for groceries. Slightly reclusive but perfectly happy. Chloe has said that Kubu Island and the Pans is her new happy place because it was so quiet and peaceful, and the Delta is my new happy place. There was something so serene about being surrounded by water. The crazy thing is that we only saw a tiny, tiny piece of it!

Fais and I left Francistown early on Friday morning (Thomas was in Kasane with Chloe and Lyndsay) and got on one of the most comfortable buses I've taken since being here. It was still a little 12 person Canadian mini bus but this time it only seated 22 instead of 27... major upgrade! Plus it had an in-trip entertainment system, a flip down flatscreen that played movies the whole 6 1/2 hour trip! This is as luxurious as transport gets over here. My favourite movie that we watched was "Crocodile", an 80s horror movie about a 50 foot croc on a rampage who was on a mission to kill every member of a group of partying teens who messed with her eggs. On the ride we passed a group of over twenty vultures feasting on a dead wildebeest and also had to stop for some ostriches that were standing in the middle of the road. Pretty neat :)

We were the first ones to get to Maun so we headed off to the site where Fais had booked us in. It was called Old Bridge Backpackers and was right on a bay called the Hippo Pool (but there aren't any hippos there anymore!) with the "Old Bridge" (a footbridge) spanning the bay. There was a bar, some picnic tables and couches, a couple reading chairs, a hammock, and big fire pit and even a small swimming pool! And then also a communal kitchen we could use to cook since we weren't allowed fires where we pitched our tent. It had a really cool vibe, a real backpackers with loads of young people and overall relaxed and friendly. Everywhere we've traveled so far we've been the only young people, usually with older couples or young families being the other people there, so some of us (read: Chloe and I) found ourselves a little awkward socializing.

View from my mokoro

On Saturday we went on a mokoro trip in the Delta with a guy we met at the backpackers (Koo from Korea). We had to take a boat for about 30 minutes to get to a small village called Boro where there is a community trust project that runs mokoro trips. QPID actually even talked with the trust when doing Project Identification here in Botswana last summer. A mokoro (also spelled makoro or mekoro) is a dugout canoe that is flat bottomed and rides really low in the water. Traditionally they are made out of sycamore fig trees but now a lot of people use fiberglass because sycamore fig trees take a 100 years to mature so aren't really sustainable. And instead of using paddles you stand at the back and pole yourself along, with any passengers sitting spaced throughout. There are 75 guides in Boro, all of whom were born in the village and rotate through guiding trips. Mokoros are basically the main form of transport through the delta, since motorboats can only use the deep passages and a lot of the Delta is really shallow channels or just shallow water in reeds. I was so excited to do it because it is the quintessential Delta experience, but also a little nervous because it can be pretty dangerous. The mokoros can be tippy and also there is danger from crocs and hippos who are known to ram or attack boats if they come into their territory. “Although hippos in Africa kill more people than lions or crocodiles do, they are only dangerous when they feel threatened or their space is invaded. Their agility and speed must never be underestimated...” Hundreds of people use mokoros every day so the odds were in our favour, and I felt very safe with our guide who said he had never been in trouble with a hippo.

The Dream Team (photo cred Thomas!)
We were doing a whole day trip, from 8 to about 4, so we were able to spend a good amount of time in the water. I was so happy to just sit in the mokoro and relax and think. I was in the front of ours and the only thing I had to focus on was not swallowing too many bugs, since we were carving a path right through the reeds and I was practically a windshield. We saw a lot of bird life, and a herd of zebras, but no crocs. And we did have a hippo encounter. That was the only time I was ever the least bit nervous throughout the day. That and when Fais decided he wanted to stand up and the boat became a lot less stable. Anyways we had been going through shallow water and channels (where there aren't hippos because they prefer deep water) and then our guides said that there was a hippo pool up ahead that we could check out. I think our guide was the most experienced, because we led the way in. I was literally the closest person to danger the whole time. Anyways we led the way in and were just getting to the edge of the pool when we heard this HUGE snort right beside us and our guide started pulling us backwards so fast. So we waited for a bit and then slowly started moving forward again until we were at the edge of the pool. There were four hippos that we could see, but they kept submerging and then resurfacing. The tensest was when they went under water since we had no idea where they would pop up again. They just kept getting closer and closer and then all of a sudden one popped up 15 feet in front of us. 
15 feet away from me
That's when the hippo safety lesson started! Our guides started telling us what to do in case the hippo was to attack. First of all, if the hippo starts swimming for the boat you are supposed to stay inside of it, not jump out into the water. This is because the boat gives you a modicum of safety. If the hippo actually does attack the boat and the boat tips, you are supposed to swim away from the boat as far as you can underwater. You should not surface because then the hippo will attack you right away. He didn't give any tips on what to do if the hippo actually catches up with you. I wonder why? Writing it out makes it all sounds super dangerous, but even though I was nervous I was never actually scared. I guess I just trusted my guide. Not sure whether that was smart or not, but it definitely made me more comfortable than Thomas, who kept nervous laughing and asking his guide to move their boat back. 

Fais was a natural
After the hippo pool we had lunch on a little island 20 metres away where we could still see the pool. After lunch we got a chance to pole the mokoros ourselves! It was a lot harder than it looks! Then we kept going for a little bit, tracking a zebra herd, and then came up on shore and continued the tracking on land. Our first game walk! We also got more safety lessons at this point. Apparently we had missed the memo to wear cameo, so first Sow (our guide) talked about how our clothes made us more noticeable to predators and big game. Then he talked about all the different escape methods. Elephants and buffalo like you to be downwind of them, and to be at least 50 metres away. If a leopard is too close you shouldn't look it in the eye or directly in its face. Stay still if you come across lions. Don't run at all from predators and run in zig-zags from big game like elephants and buffalo. Stay quiet and walk in single file. 

After we got back from our adventure in the Delta we went grocery shopping to continue Top Chef Botswana. The girls totally owned once again, although this time the boys refuse admit it. We made roasted veggies (zucchini, red pepper, onions, portebello mushrooms), eggplants and tomatoes with melted cheese, backed potatoes with melted cheese, garlic bread and steak. White wine was used throughout as a marinade/all purpose addition. We also provided a box of white wine and hot chocolate with brandy and carrot cake for dessert. Even without knowing the boy’s meal I think it’s clear that we won! During and after dinner we did work for QPID, as this weekend was our mid-summer retreat. It was mostly discussion about what we have thought so far, challenges we have faced, what’s been great, etc.  After our meeting we had a few beers with some fellow Canadians that we met, and Fais, Chloe and I stayed up late talking with some people by the fire.  

Baby monkey...
The next day (Sunday) we went on a 6am-6pm game drive in Moremi Game Reserve, which is partly in the Delta, although we didn't get to that part. It took about 2 hours to drive there from Old Bridge and it was FREEZING. We had all brought our sleeping bags as blankets, and Chloe even zipped herself up in it while in the moving car! Once we got to Moremi we had breakfast, including Nescafe instant coffee which tasted amazing since I haven’t had coffee in over a month. And then we started our trip. Over the day we did an 80km loop, driving for the most part on well used roads through the Park but also sometimes through water when it crossed our paths on the smaller tracks. At one point we even had to cross this one section where the road was flooded and we couldn't see how deep the water was! We started driving and the hood of the truck went under water and water started pouring in by our feet! And this is a kitted out Landcruiser safari truck....not exactly low riding! I don't swear a lot but it was fucking awesome. At that point Chloe and I dubbed the truck “El Jefe”, meaning the boss or chief in Spanish! At one point we tried to help another truck that was stuck in the sand, which resulted in our truck getting stuck in the sand. So while our guide Rex was working on getting us out we played a game of Ninja in the middle of the African Bush. We were Bush Ninjas...Binjas! One of the kids who was in the other truck (a Batswana family on vacation for the long weekend) even joined in with us, and I think he had a good time.  
Baby zebra...

A tsessebe...definitely not attractive
Of course we also saw some pretty cool game. Some stuff we had already seen before, like elephants and impala, zebra, baboons, wildebeest and warthogs. But we saw a lot of new really cool things too! Lots of different kinds of antelope; including a  Tsessebe, considered to be the fastest antelope in Africa, but really just looks like an over grown goat. Some cool bird species like the wattled crane which is super rare, bateleur eagles, and an eagle owl. We saw two hippos out of water, where they look even uglier. And then we saw some really rare things that made us very lucky and very happy. A caracal/desert lynx (“A sighting of caracal in the wild is always a special one”), a side-striped jackal (“they are not common in the southern African sub-region”) and an AFRICAN WILD DOG!!!! The Wild Dog is like the jackpot of all safaris! In Thomas’ game drive book it is rated five stars which means, and I quote, “Slam on the breaks and get excited!” Even though we didn't see any big cats the wild dog made it all worth it! Check out this link to learn more about them:

Fun fact: Wattled Cranes are monogamous and mate for life

An African Wild Dog heading to bed?
Getting back the boys made dinner of salad with a jambalaya type rice dish with chicken in it. It was really good, but I'm pretty sure the winners are clear. We also did more QPID discussion and retreat activities, including an exercise that Thomas had started the day before called the Rock Game. Basically there are two rocks that need to make their way around the group, one person at a time. When you have a rock you need to give it to someone else and tell them something that you admire or like about how they have been on the trip so far. So in the end you give four rocks and get four rocks. It was an early night after all the shenanigans the night before, so we all settled down to sleep pretty quickly. Actually Chloe and I had to be told to shut up by Thomas because “it’s bedtime” since we were laughing so much.

With my catch!

We decided to take the rare opportunity to sleep in the next morning and not set an alarm. I was actually so surprised at how long we slept! Usually when I'm camping even without an alarm the latest I can sleep is 7:00, 7:30. Especially since the latest I've slept since getting here is 7:15. But we all slept until 10:15!!! It was so nice. Thomas and I had planned to go horseback riding but since it was so late we decided to just take it easy for the day. I even got a chance to just lie under the hammock (Chloe was in it) and read. Around 2:00 we were going to go do a basket weaving workshop but Fais had gotten his hands on two fishing rods so I wanted to just stay on the old bridge and fish. Chloe decided to stay with me. So the boys went basket weaving and the girls went fishing! AND I CAUGHT TWO FISH :) They were Large Mouth Thin Bones, a predatory fish, of a good size! So Chloe and I brought them back to the kitchen, de-scaled and gutted them, and then fried them up. Nothing in the world tastes better than fish that you catch and prepare yourself! After the boys got back from basket weaving (they had 2 square inch disks to show for their hard work) we hung around, did some QPID stuff and then ordered dinner from the bar. I had a banana and bacon burger which was, for all you K-towners, almost as good as Harpers. 

We were up early the next morning to catch the bus back from Maun to Francistown, and the ride was much less enjoyable. It was very hot and every time I opened the window the person sitting beside me closed it right away. Gross, especially since I was also pretty dehydrated. Anyways, I got back to my house where Mma O was still away and I washed my sheets, cleaned my room, made some dinner and watched a movie. It was the first time I've been alone for more than two hours since leaving Toronto on June 7th and it was heavenly.

The past five days have been an unreal experience. The Delta is an amazing place. Everyone who reads this post needs to watch the Great Plains episode of Planet Earth, or at the very least search “Okavango Delta” on YouTube.

This week we will be picking up our finished Batswana traditional clothing from Bettina’s aunt, conducting interviews at the office to put together an organisational structure report, and sticking around Francistown for the weekend. Stay tuned!

Sala sentle!

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