August 5, 2011
This morning the whole camp woke up early, well before dark. We broke down the tents pretty quickly, and boarded the safari trucks with the others headed to the Delta. Since I am alone, I initially thought it might be nice to be in a larger group of people on this trip. After seeing the size of some of these tours, however, I’m glad to be in such a small group. We move more quickly, have nice, quiet conversation, and are far less drunk. (Wow, the Germans…) I think this will definitely be an asset when we head out on game walks.
We drove back through Maun on our way to the Delta, and we couldn’t have been more conspicuous if we tried – thirty white people on a huge safari truck, sitting on benches faced outward. The adults just watched us pass, but the children all waved. Maun is a nice village full of traditional huts and tiny concrete homes, swept yards of sand, corrals of goats. There doesn’t seem to be much destitution here (though maybe I’m just oblivious). Even so, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious and privileged, driving through people’s lives in a large truck, facing outward as if we were looking at museum exhibits. Maybe this is all projection, though… maybe the people of Maun don’t really care about us. Or maybe they actually like tourism, as it provides so many jobs. I don’t know.
After driving through the main village, we left the road and went into the bush. Very sandy and bumpy and dusty. It took about an hour to get to the mokoro launch, and we passed several tiny villages along the way, likely occupied by the mokoro polers and their families.
After a period of (apparently) organized chaos, all of the people and camping supplies were sorted into the boats, and we set off into the Delta, each mokoro with two seated passengers and one standing poler. I shared a boat with David, our trip guide, and Thuso, our safari guide. Thuso gently pushed us through the dense vegetation and grasses, and we drifted silently, the water varying in depth from less than a foot to about fifteen feet. The channels widened out at some points, but were mostly rather narrow (or, sometimes, nonexistent). Every so often, a few mokoros would land on an island and unload small groups of people, but our three boats continued on.
At one point, I heard a noise that sounded like a large bullfrog, a deep swallowed bellow. Thuso and David started talking in Setswana, but I heard the familiar English word “hippo” in the mix. “Er… hippo?” I said. “Yeah,” Thuso said. I laughed nervously and said to David in a forced-casual kind of way, “I thought you said hippos slept during the day.” To which David responded, “Oh, yeah, he’s probably just talking in his sleep.”
We eventually pulled up on shore and began to set up camp. Our site overlooks a larger expanse of water frequented by hippos at night. It is in a scrubby bush area, full of fig trees and iron wood, the ground sandy and grassy.
As we were setting up our tents, Thuso called us over to look at a tree on the side of our campsite. There were bones high in the branches and a dried animal skin resting in the V of the trunk. “Leopard,” he said, pointing vaguely upward. Then, pointing to the skin: “Impala.”
We ate lunch, and now everyone but me is sleeping through the heat of the day. We’re going on our first game walk at 4:30. We may see elephants (there’s poop everywhere), zebras, hippos, lions, or we may see nothing. Who knows.
I am surprisingly not terrified. I thought I would be by now. But it is all so calm and peaceful – doves cooing, insects chirruping, frogs croaking, water lapping onto the sand, sun-dappled shade… There was one moment when I thought I heard a hippo and my heart started to pound, my eyesight suddenly very acute. When I realized it was actually just David snoring, however, I felt a bit foolish and returned to my seat in the shade.
We got back from our first game walk just as the sun set.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the idea of game walks… you know those safaris that utilize land rovers and armed guides to view wildlife? This is basically the same thing, only without vehicles or guns. Just four people walking through the bush, looking for animals.
Before we left, Thuso gave us a brief tutorial on what to do in the event of a charging elephant, lion, hippo, or leopard. I spent the first hour of the walk thinking things like, “What was I thinking?” and “I’m not sure this is a good idea.” As we walked, however, I calmed down a bit. The Delta is pretty flooded right now, so there’s a chance we might not see anything, I told myself. Also, companies like this would not be in business if they frequently lost patrons to hippos. Also, our guide grew up here, and knows this area better than anyone. Also, for the most part, I could see my surroundings, so I knew I would likely have some warning in the event of wildlife.
Reminding myself of these things helped my heart rate slow to a leisurely 270 or so.
In the end, we did not in fact see many animals. Many beautiful birds and a reed buck and the skull of a cape buffalo. We did, however, see lots of poop – elephant, zebra, and hippo being the most common. I know this might sound strange, but it was actually pretty exciting to see wild zebra poop. I mean, it was a first for me, you know?
If we don’t wind up seeing any big game during the walking portion of this safari, it would actually be OK because:
1) it would be very, very scary
2) we’re spending a lot of time learning about the flora of the area, and seeing it at close range, which is not something that is easy to do from a land rover
There are two more game walks tomorrow, and one the next day. Also, on our last day at the Delta we’re taking a game flight, and then we’ll be in land rovers in Kruger National Park, so I imagine I’ll see some animals on this trip sometime.
Dinner was ready when we arrived back at camp, and we ate around the fire while talking about Mugabe and all of the problems in Zimbabwe. I’m getting such a good education … It’s remarkable how little I knew about African politics before I came here.
I’m in my tent now, and I’m way too scared to go outside to pee, so I’m going to go to bed and pray that I make it til morning. The sound of the Delta at night is spectacular – an epic chorus of frogs and insects, singing me to sleep.