In the middle of wilderness: Botswana, The Okavango Delta

Before we finish our breakfast, the 4x4 truck which is set to take us to the point where we will get on the mokoros (a type of canoe) arrives.

 Article: Dr. Cüneyt BAŞBUĞU

It seems absolutely impossible to load twenty two people with their bags packed for two days, as well as all the food, kitchen utensils, tents, mats and chairs, into this truck. Our driver is a stern man. As soon as he parks the truck, he starts giving instructions. In the meantime, representatives from the company who organised the delta tour collects our health insurance information, names of our relatives and phone numbers. When we ask why, they say, “Anything can happen in the delta.” Half an hour later, we understand that our concerns were unfounded. After loading the truck, we sit on the benches in the middle. After we sit down they put our bags and cameras on our laps; it is impossible to move. The worst part is that we cannot cover our heads nor put on some heavy clothes against the morning chill.


We follow the asphalt road for a while. Just as we start to think that the 4x4 truck was unnecessary, we veer into a forested area. From then on, our journey becomes a veritable adventure. We pass through unstable roads, puddles, rambling bridges. During the two-hour journey, we are literally shattered. Finally, the area where we will get on the mokoros appear. A group of Africans meet us; it is a group of 15 men and women who will accompany us during our two-day stay here. We meet their chief. He tells us about the programme for the upcoming two days. I cannot concentrate; my eyes and mind are on the mokoros which we will soon get on and that will carry us to the camp area. Mokoro is a kind of canoe used by natives. It is made by digging out the trunk of a large straight tree and is propelled through the shallow waters of the delta by standing in the stern and pushing with a pole, in the same manner as punting. It seems very unstable from afar. 


Journey through the Okavango Delta with mokoros

They carefully put the mokoros on the water. Two people get on each mokoro. Before, they give us a short briefing. They tell us about the mokoros’ sensitive balance. They are guided by body movements and long poles. Therefore, we should avoid sudden movements. They warn us about water spiders that could suddenly jump in front of us. They say: “Don’t panic and try to run, they are harmless.”


Just as everybody get settled and we are about to move, a hippopotamus appears 50 metres ahead. This is the first hippopotamus that we see in the delta; later we will see many more up close. For a while it wanders around by sinking and surfacing in the water, then disappears. Even though they are herbivores, hippopotamus are the most dangerous and deadly animals in Africa. They are especially aggressive if you meet them in the water. 


Passing through water lilies, morasses and different plants, move towards our camp area in a single line. The water has a clear, yellow-greenish colour. When thirsty, natives drink this water by handfuls. We were warned not to drink. We have 6 litres of water for each person. Although there is no risk of any contagious diseases, since we are not used to this water, it can have an adverse effect on our digestive system.


Walking safari among zebras, giraffes

The journey to the camp area takes around two hours. We build a camp that is not only the most primitive of this trip, but my life. We jam our tents on a narrow surface. The group that welcomed us will accompany us during the camp. They help us to put up our tents. They dig a hole in an area behind us, next to the trees; now we have toilets. Albert hangs a roll of toilet paper on a branch of the tree in front of the toilet and explains the system: Since the person using the toilet will take the paper, others will know if it is occupied or not. A meal has been prepared while we settle down. There is always hot water for tea and coffee. The only problem is that they use water from the delta for the meals and tea; to us it taste a little different but there is nothing to do about it. 


It is forbidden to go outside unannounced the forested area that surrounds the camp. In the river, we can only swim in a limited area they show us. These restrictions are for protection against wild animals that could appear anytime. The water looks attractive; however it becomes muddy as soon as we step into it. The bottom is muddy. It is impossible to swim or get into the water properly. We think of taking showers with the dish pan; it is very fun. While we laugh and have fun, I feel pain on my foot. When they take me out of the water, I see that a giant leech has been clinging on my foot. After much struggle, the leech decides to leave me. This ruins the fun of the water for me. In the afternoon they take us for a stroll in three groups. This is a different safari than before; we will observe our surrounding and the animals while walking, not from inside a car. We come across giraffes and herds of zebras. We can approach them until they catch our scent; they move away when they notice us. We also see birds whose names we learn with difficulty and forget instantly. During the walk, we are not allowed to talk loudly. Also we are not allowed to wear clothes in colours that do not exist in nature. We return to camp before sunset; the tour will continue next morning. In the camp, darkness brings a mosquito attack. Since the beginning of our journey, we regularly take malaria medicine. We put on long sleeved clothes and put on mosquito repellent on uncovered areas of our body. We eat our dinner in the light of our forehead lamps. Since I do not like the taste of the water, I do not feel like drinking tea. The others disagree. 


Nose to nose with hippopotamus

In the morning, we rise before sunrise and get on the road. The best time to observe wildlife is in early morning when the animals try to reach water. We walk about four hours in a background specific to the delta and Africa. Our guide starts the day by showing us the footprints of a leopard. He says that the animal should have been walking in this area last night. Later we see hordes of baboons, antelopes, zebras and aurochs on the road. Another ordinary day starts in Africa. After a late breakfast, we spend the rest of the day resting. Since Cape Town, it is the first day when we did not race around from one place to another. The only activity of the day is the “sunset” trip which we will make with mokoros on the river. Some of the participants take advantage of our break and learn –or try to learn- how to use a mokoro. 


Late afternoon we get on the mokoros once more. Before we can make 50 metres, a hippopotamus appear next to us. It approaches the group, poking its head and showing its teeth. Natives panic a little; when it comes too close, they steer the canoes toward the shore. The hippopotamus comes as close as 10 metres; it watches us for a while we are watching it in frightened silence, unmoving. It bares its teeth making horrible noises. Then it leaves the stage as an artist who have done his turn; none of us want an encore. We enjoy the sunset on the island that we land. The evening offers us an indescribable show of colours. We try to watch and photograph every moment. Our hosts who spend their lives here watch us with interest.


Before dinner, the group leader approaches me and says that they want to sing a little after dinner. This is a great suggestion in this dark, hot place infested with mosquitos. I say we would be happy to listen. I wish that I had chosen a different word than happy. While we expect them to sing one or two songs, the whole group starts singing as if accompanied by a large orchestra. Their performance is hard to describe with words. Soon they include dancing to their songs which tells about their daily lives. Under the light of the campfire, Africa with all her beauty is on stage. We join in the last song: “Africa beautiful Africa”…


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