Dumela. My name is Faisal Bakhteyar and for summer 2011, I will be interning at True Men Trust, an organization targeting HIV/AIDS issues in Francistown, Botswana. Through this travel blog, I hope to share with you my thoughts, experiences, and adventures in the most unadulterated manner.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Midsummer Retreat at the Okavango Delta

For the long weekend of July 15th-19th, the QPID Bots team met up for our midsummer retreat at the touristy town of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The purpose of the midsummer retreat was to discuss the successes and shortcomings of the QPID Projects and refocus us for the second half of the project.  This was done through execution of well thought out discussions led by our site-director Thomas and a number of team development exercises. Because of the long weekend, we also had ample time to do touristy things on a “shoestring” budget and just relax. I just also want to add that this post was so delayed in its creation because I’ve found it incredibly difficult to put into words the overwhelming beauty that was witnessed. I know that’s very soft of me, but for real, I’m getting the jitters writing this post. It’s like trying to reflect on one of those days where your left speechless except this was 4 of those days in a row. Ill try my best to describe the sensory experiences of the trip but this post will do no justice to the memories created at the Okavango Delta.

First, here is a little geography lesson on the Okavango Delta. It is the world’s largest inland river delta and what that means is that instead of emptying into the ocean like most rivers, the Cubango (Kovango) River just fans out and forms a massive flood plain in Northwestern Botswana. Considering that 80% of Botswana is covered by the arid Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta forms a one-of-a-kind 18,000 km2 oasis with lush vegetation attracting animals from neighboring countries. Like the animals that make the annual migration, the water itself makes one hell of a journey, which starts in the Angolan highlands where it rains down from December to March. This water then makes its way through Namibia and starts flooding the Northwestern Plains in May and the process continues throughout the winter. At its peak-in July and August- the floodplain covers 3 times more land than in the summer. For you water cycle geeks, the massive surface area to volume ratio means a crazy rate of evaporation and transpiration and about 11 cubic kilometers of water is lost by September.
Just wanted to give a sense of the vastness. Shot by Adrien Bailey (http://roadmedia.co.za/swamp-troop/the-okavango-delta/)
In the winter months (right now), the Okavango Delta holds spectacle to one of the largest congregations of wildlife anywhere on earth with about 260,000 migrant game animals. There are 5 ethnic groups that have historically depended- and still depend- on the swampland of the Okavango Delta. Sadly enough, there are also a number of concessions smack dab in the middle of the floodplains belonging to extremely wealthy landowners that have established luxury lodges catering to the rich of the rich with weekend getaways in the bush costing upwards of $10,000. These places are so remote that the only realistic way of getting to them is by chartered planes that land on private airstrips. Then, there is Chief’s Island, the largest island in the Okavango Delta that was the personal hunting grounds of the Great Chief Moremi. It boasts some of the greatest densities of large predators anywhere on earth and is as wild as it gets. But enough of me trying to describe the Okavango Delta. For those of you who have watched the BBC Planet Earth Series, rewatch the Pole to Pole episode or the Great Plains episode where there is some really incredible footage of the Okavango Delta. For those of you who haven’t, watch them. Here are some links that’ll help you understand this place:

As for our journey, Is and I left Francistown at 7AM on Friday July 15th and reached Maun at 2PM after using what was the most comfortable public transportation yet. The bus, which would have accommodated 27 passengers on any other route and 15 in Canada, only had 22 seats and so unlike in our travels to Kasane, we weren’t squished up against anyone. The entertainment system was also pretty boss in the sense that there was a hanging 24-inch screen supported by a sound system with serious bass. Our country music loving Rastafarian driver had quite the collection of movies and we were able to watch “Crocodile” (well suited for our trip to the Okavango), “Cop Out”, and “Cellular” for the duration of the trip. About 4 or 5 times, while passing through the Makgadikgadi Pans, we had to slow down or come to a complete stop, as there were ostriches on the highway. Everywhere else you have dangerous drivers that are the problem; here we have an 8 foot tall birds that refuse to move. The most exciting  (and unfortunate) part of our journey was seeing about 20 white-backed vultures feeding on a fresh road-kill wildebeest. All along the way, whenever we saw wildlife, Is and I would be the foreign idiots and get all excited while the rest of the passengers wouldn’t even turn to look. It was quite frustrating not being able to share our excitement.

For accommodation for our 4-day trip, our goal was to find something cheap to fit the QPID budget but still enjoyable and I think we found the perfect place to stay with the Old Bridge Backpackers (http://www.maun-backpackers.com/). Located 10 km out of Maun on an island type land mass with Delta water all around, the place caters to young travellers and backpackers. The only way to get to it is by either an old foot bridge (hence the name “Old Bridge”) across the Thamalakane River or a dirt road that is maybe 3 inches higher than the water on either side. The place itself has a very laid back and relaxed atmosphere with very friendly staff and no formalities. Our tent, pitched under a large fruitful sycamore fig tree, was literally half a meter from a section of the Thamalakane River that used to be a Hippo Pool (my parents will be glad to know that the hippos no longer reside there). Most lodges and companies have some sort of large symbolic animal like an elephant or leopard on their logos but Old Bridge has a bat on theirs. Foreshadowing.
The Hippo Pool and fireplace at the Old Bridge Backpackers
The first night was spent meeting other travellers and discussing our projects.  Entertainment was provided by a retired British army officer with some serious opinions, and a Norwegian traveller using only public transport to get from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to RSA and all the way back. Amanda, the Peace Corps volunteer we had met while in search of the Chief of Bobonong (see earlier post) was also there with about 6 other Peace Corps and WUSC people and so there were a number of young people there. That night, while in the tent, we heard sounds above our tent and things falling on our tent. Too exhausted to really care, we went to bed.
Our camping neighbors' tent. Ours fared a little bit better than theirs.
On Saturday, at 7AM, we woke up to discover that our tent had been covered in bat guano as well as the partially eaten sticky figs that they had been feasting on. For our daily activity, we had planned a mokoro daytrip to the Okavango Delta, something that any traveller to the area must do to experience the Delta. A mokoro or makoro (pl. mekoro) is a traditional wooden dugout canoe used by the local people to travel through the shallow floodplains. It is the only viable method of transportation as it sits probably 2 or 3 inches below the water level, and has no carbon footprint. Other motorboats are used but only in the main waterways but these don’t penetrate very deep and so mokoros are necessary. Propulsion comes from manually pushing the mokoro ahead with a very long pole. The sycamore fig, sausage, or ebony trees used for mekoro take about 100 years to mature and so most people these days use fiberglass mekoro for the sake of sustainability. After about 45 minutes on a motorboat travelling up the Thamalakane River to the Okavango River and floodplain, we arrived at the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust base in Boro village in the NG32 concession. With 2 in each mokoro, we headed out as a convoy of 4 into the Okavango Delta.
One of the main waterways

Sow, our guide and poler, was probably the most knowledgeable of them all and had been doing this for 18 years. The mokoro itself is not very stable and we were required to sit for the whole time while our guide stood behind us propelling us through the reeds while smoking and drinking a coke (he was talented). We rode past a hut where there was some meat being smoked. Sow told us that a foreigner had come and hunted and elephant and these guys were smoking the elephant meat for consumption. Half of the elephant was left on the land for the animals to eat. Sow made it clear to us that people still come from abroad and hunt for trophies here in Botswana and he didn’t agree with the practice at all.
All that stringy stuff is elephant meat.
After about half an hour, we had pulled away from the main waterway and there was absolutely no man-made sound. It was bliss. It took a while to realize it but, in utter awe, none of us made a sound and neither did the guides, knowing full well that we were immersed in the serenity of it all. The poles entered the water with such grace and technique that there was no splash that would have snapped us out of our dream-state. Occasionally we would find ourselves surrounded by thick reed carving our way through what seemed like unchartered territory. There was no sound of snapping twigs or the destruction of reeds, only the gentle buzz of friction as they were brushed aside by the mokoro. Above us was the consistency of a cloudless sky. Below us was a tempting underwater world of spiraling water lily roots and fresh water flora, protected from us by the crystal glass that was water, and our fear of everything wild. We would hear the flight of frogs into the water as they perceived danger but we never saw them. Occasionally, and unexpectedly, a flock of white-faced ducks would take flight from a distant patch of reeds only to settle in our undetermined path where they would be disturbed again. I was at complete peace.
Enough said about the peacefulness

We cautiously approached a “hippo pool” where hippos were known to reside. Hippos are Africa’s most dangerous animals and are responsible for more human deaths than lions or elephants. They look fat, and lethargic, but are incredibly fast on land and, with their voluptuous bodies and unstoppable momentum, can own anything that ventures too close into their water territories. We had already received hippo land safety training when we were in Kasane standing on the banks of the Chobe, but here, we were surrounded by shallow water that a hippo could have easily plowed through.  As we approached an opening in the reeds, we heard what sounded like a whale surfacing for air. It was obviously a hippo and the guides backed us out as fast as they could. We then got our hippo water safety training, which was even more terrifying. Basically, there have been incidents where hippos have tipped mekoro over and proceeded to kill people. We were advised to stay in our Mokoro and not jump into the water and were we to be knocked into the water, to swim as far away underwater before surfacing. We approached with caution and in the distance, saw 4 hippos visibly alert of our presence. We admired them while they were above the water but as they went under, uneasiness prevailed. One hippo went under, and surfaced maybe 15 feet from us and this is where the guides got really alert. The beast was looking straight at us obviously acknowledging our presence. Thomas’ guide joked about going closer but our site-director was about to have a cow and so we stayed put. We backed up about 20 meters to the closest land mass and proceeded to have lunch still with the surfacing hippos in sight.
15 feet away watching us intently
After lunch, we all took turns trying to pole a mokoro just by the hippo pool and it was prettyyyy difficult. Imagine standing on a flat bottom canoe using a large pole to maneuver yourself. Turning was especially difficult.  After, we tracked a herd of zebras while they were grazing in the shallow waters. I made the mistake of stepping on Isabelle’s seat as I was getting out of the mokoro that made a loud crackle that scared away the herd. We then proceeded to track them on land and that’s where we got more safety lessons in dealing with lions, buffalo, elephants, and leopards. Sow was a pretty awesome tracker and after about 20 minutes, we found the herd in some bush intently watching our every move. After all our game drives and safaris, I would say that they were more interested in us than we were in them but it was a completely different experience being on foot in the wild bush.
Zebras in the distance
Me being a poler. Photo credit: Isabelle Jones (cooperant partner)

Our mokoro daytrip ended with Thomas trying to flip me while I was practicing my poling back at NG32, and a very enjoyable motorboat trip from Boro village back to the lodge where we had left in the morning. We had covered roughly 5 km in a mokoro and had seen only the smallest bit of the 18,000 km2 Okavango Delta but had be left wordless. Saturday night consisted of a lot of socializing with travellers and sitting around the fire with professional guides and discussing their awesome lives. I decided to sleep outside near the fire and after about 3 hours of sleep, woke up at 5:30 AM to prepare for our daytrip to the legendary Moremi Game Reserve.

On an absolutely freezing morning, at 6AM, in the back of an wall-less safari car, we made our way along the 142km route to Moremi Game Reserve. Imagine sitting on top of a car in 3 degrees Celsius weather going 80km on a dirt road. It was excruciatingly painful on the face and extremities and by the end, I was told by the others that I looked like an old cross-dresser with my wind-burned lips and dirt coated skin….. The reserve itself is partly located in the Okavango Delta (about 20% of it), used to belong to Chief Moremi, and is host to some spectacular wildlife. It has been the setting many wildlife documentaries and hosts about 30% of the world remaining wild dogs.
A very confident Red-billed Hornbill inquisitive of our breakfast
The start up, as we drove through endless bush, was slow to say the least but then it picked up and we saw the usual safari game. The elephants were smaller in comparison to the specimens in Kasane and our guide Rex attributed it to the fact that the habitat here was much easier to plow through then the dense bush of Chobe National Park and hence the difference in size. Around midday, we ended up helping a vehicle that had gotten stuck in deep sand for about an hour. It’s an unspoken rule that if another safari goer needs your help, you help them or else when you’re stuck, karma will bite you in the ass. The karma rule worked well for us because after lunch, we spotted a pair of caracals, side-striped jackals, and endangered Wattled Cranes. The monogamous cranes were a highlight seeing as there are only 8,000 of them left in the wild. Facts for the day are that they pair for life, mate once every four years, and are the second largest crane species after the sarcus crane. The rest of the day was spent traversing the reserve in search of lions and leopards but none were to be found.
Male zebra trying to show his dominance
Semi-aquatic red lechwe
A pair of Wattled Cranes
At about 6PM, when the sun had already set and our eyes were painfully dry, out of nowhere came a single African Wild Dog. Let me just put into perspective how epic this sighting was. There are about 100,000 leopards and 20,000 lions in the wild and on our 4 game excursions, we have caught only 1 glimpse of a lion. There are only 5,000 African Wild Dogs left in the wild with the average pack range of 600 km2 and one just so happened to be crossing our path just as we were leaving the unfenced reserve. In the low-light, a good picture was impossible, especially since the agile canine kept leaping up in the air in search of another dog that we didn’t see. Here is another fun statistic for you today: Most large predators like lions, leopards, and cheetahs, have a hunt success rate of about 20-30%. African Wild Dogs succeed in a hunt 80% of the time. In the end, we were all left speechless. But that’s just how Mother Africa is. Like Is said: you go out in search of some creature but will only see it once you stop looking. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see an African Wild Dog. My midsummer retreat was more than complete.
The fleeting glimpse of an African Wild Dog jumping in search of others
Sunday was spent sleeping in until 10AM, the latest anyone of us has slept in since being in Botswana. After a relaxing morning that the team spent reading by the river banks, I acquired 2 fishing rods and we set off to the old foot bridge to do some fishing. Thomas and I ditched the girls and went for a basket-weaving workshop. Funny how the girls stayed back and went fishing while the guys went for a basket-weaving workshop. Behind a small shop surrounded by housing, we sat with an incredible lady by the name of Thitaku Kushonya. Under the shadow of the shop, she mentored us on the art of basket weaving and told us about her life. Turns out, she is not just some ordinary basket weaver who had set up a business to get some income from the tourism industry. The lady sitting next to me, guiding my every move, was THE Thitaku Kushonya: MASTER Basket Weaver of Botswana. She is the NUMBER ONE basket weaver in all of Botswana and her baskets have taken her across the globe from the 1994 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia to Toronto, to Disney World. We, average joe cheap student travellers, we getting lessons from the lady that established the basket weaving industry in Botswana. On an annual basis, Mma Kushonya weaves 25 baskets for sale and 6 baskets that she enters into competitions. She showed us one competition basket she had recently finished and it was a piece of art like no other. Hidden in her office desk, out of the sites of the public, she made it clear that this basket was going nowhere but to the competition and rightly so. The afternoon turned out to be a personal and very enjoyable experience and I’m incredibly thankful to Thitaku Kushonya for her dedicating her time to what she believes in and giving us her time and support.
Mma Kushonya's competition basket. Enlarge for detail
Mma Kushonya and the boys in her cooperative shop
Upon our return to the campsite, we discovered that the girls had successfully caught, descaled, gutted, and cooked 2 decently sized fish. The girls were covered in scales but the meal was impressive to say the least. That night was spent finishing up our discussions on the project and what needs to change for the second half of our placement here in Botswana. The night brought to close what for me was the most enjoyable and memorable adventure on this trip. Okavango Delta, I will be back. Inshallah.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you had a lot of fun.
    basket weaving is the last thing id expect u to do xD