Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Drifting with the swish of the water

   Marjorie and I leaned back into the mokoro we were drifting in. Oscar casually pushed us along with his long pole pushing through the still waters. Occasionally he would stop and point to a distant moving dot on the horizon and whisper “Look impala!” or “Wildebeest”. I was constantly amazed by all of our guides keen vision. They could spot an animal large as an elephant or small as a jackal from seemingly miles away. The words we did not want to hear were the warnings of “Hippo!”, as their dangers had been spelt out to us from Karel on the drive in to our meeting spot with the polers. A hippopotamus caused more deaths to humans than any other animal, due to their massive size and weight. The belief that their weight would slow them down would not save you if you were to get between a hippo on land and its route back to the water. Those stubby little legs could reach speeds of 30 km/hr and leave one trampled to death in its wake. Being in the mokoro was no safer, as they could easily tip the little canoes and leave you vulnerable in the water. Although vegetarian, their large teeth were deadly. Thankfully the grey and pink submarines were spied from a safe enough distance away to satiate our curiosity, but not tempt safety.

   So as the sun shone down upon us, we soaked up the serenity of the Okavengo Delta. I relaxed into the sense of security that I chose to envision. Personally, I needed the peace. We had spent another night over-imbibing on the local brew. The morning had certainly been a rough start. The night previous, we had welcomed Marjory into our travelling group with gusto. Friendships were forming fast, as stories flew around the bar stools. Smiles of anticipation had splayed across everyone’s faces. An abused body and hazy brain were the resulting trauma of the night, but reaching a battered cup into the clear waters of the Okavengo River smoothed even the roughest edges. Now we had nothing to do, but watch the world glide by from the safety of our mokoros. Lunch was the largest issue that we would have to tackle until reaching the campsite.

   As Marjorie and I rounded a bend in the stream, we saw the lead boats pulled up to a shallow area. Tristan and Sassa were stepping out of their mokoro and wading into a sand bar. We had reached our lunch destination. It was one of few spots we had seen that looked solid enough to even stand on, let alone set up table and chairs. Oscar pushed us hard into the shallows and jammed us into the soft bottom of this Botswana super highway. Freedom was ours as Marjorie and I gratefully jumped into the warm waters of the Okavengo. Leaving shoes behind, we waded towards the little group that was forming on the shore. Food hampers, stools and folding tables emerged from the boats that had sped ahead to set up our lunch siesta. As the last of our straggling crew joined us, we all tucked into sandwiches ravenously. The fresh air created appetites apparently unrelated to the activities we had partaken of during our morning paddle. Anon, the food disappeared along with the beverages on offer. After the crumbs were licked off of seeking fingers, we were allotted a measure of free time to splash in the comparatively safe shallows of our nook. Bath time was ours to splash like preschoolers at a water park in glee. And splash we did. The warm water washed away the last of the previous night’s cobwebs and sighs of ecstasy were the loudest roars to be heard in our vicinity.

   Alas, this was not the last stop of the day. After packing up our lunch debris, we stepped back into the mokoros to continue our course. We were headed towards a bit of land in the middle of the swamp. It would be considered home for the next few nights. We would be sleeping in our canvas tents and cooking over a roaring fire. The scorpions that Karel had warned us about had not materialized yet, but were definitely around, he intoned. Bigger threats now though were the animals that surrounded us in the wilds. We had left the security of civilization behind. We were now in their home. Stories of crocodiles and lions were the ghost stories that would fill the late night campfire banter later. The illusion of safety in daylight was our companion as lechwe leaped off in the distance of our sublime climes.

   By mid-afternoon our polers had maneuvered us to the spot of land we would take over for the next few days. Again we poured out of our trusty mokoros, but leisure would not be attained until earned. I re-joined my tent mate Eric to erect our domicile and roll out our beds. Lucky Marjorie got a tent to herself, as she was last to join our band of merry men. I was not heart-broken about sharing a tent with this 1.93m blonde haired, blue eyed man though. Thoughts of home were buried in the far reaches of my mind. I was in Africa and the wilds were embraced. I refused to question what I did or did not do, only pulling back as safety beckoned. The smile that lived on my face was the thrill of adventure being lived in this incredibly exciting time.

   With tents erected and homes laid out to our specifications, we re-emerged to the group. Rocks were gathered for a fire pit. Brush was dragged into the clearing to be hacked away with machetes into sizeable pieces for the fire. Lines were strung for laundry. This work was done by Karel, Masters and some of the polers, but people from our group joined in to help as well. We were paying members of this troupe, but expected to help out as necessary. That meant that we all took turns at helping out with dinner prep. We all washed and put away dishes. We were on this adventure to be exposed to the beauty of Africa and were expected to leave behind nothing to mar its beauty. Everything brought in, must be carried back out again. The only exclusion was when it came time to using the toilet. As we had already been exposed to, there were no water closets in our domain. Karel was adamant about reducing the footprint of our journey. This was as much for our safety as for the enjoyment of the pristine beauty for others. In order not to attract wild animals with our scent, we needed to lesson it. That meant that when we had to relieve ourselves we went to a dedicated spot and took a shovel with, if necessary. Modesty still existed, but handing off the shovel to a squirming face was done with knowing eyes and the mirth of roughing it to the extreme. Having camped in the past, I was not adverse to squatting in the bush, but this proved to break down any last vestiges of reserve that existed between us.

   The busyness of setting up camp slowed as the sun made its way across the horizon. A simple meal was created and we settled in with relish. I took my turn as dish washer, thrilled to be dwelling in the bush, if only for a time. We discussed plans for the following day, then settled in to enjoy a campfire and the stars in a sky unmarred by city lights. The occasional cry of lions in the distance reminded us that we were not alone at our circle of light. Vulnerability lay in the dark beyond the fire’s glow. As our troops slowly melted into weary beds, we went with the knowledge that a small measure of security was afoot. The many polers that had sailed us into the Delta would play babysitter and guard for us as the hours grew long. They had set up a camp a short distance apart from ours, but close enough for comfort’s sake. Insurance aside, it would not look good on the adventure brochures to have a tally of deaths en route. Turns would be taken for someone to guard the perimeter throughout the night, ensuring that safety of all was maintained.

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