Boating in Botswana
“This is the complete opposite of Addis” observed Chris, as the Chobe river gurgled gently past the sides of our electrically powered boat. The young woman who was our guide for the next two days, endearingly named Slodge (I once accidentally called her “Splodge”), was skilfully navigating us towards a distant herd of elephants walking along the river bank.
I looked around. To the south, the trees of Botswana’s Chobe National Park marched up the river bank and disappeared into the distance. To the north, the arid plains of Namibia stretched to the horizon, dotted only by occasional clumps of trees and herds of buffalo. The huge African sky arched over this uniformly flat landscape, with scattered white clouds and not a hint of a vapour trail. Disturbed only by the lapping of the water and the occasional call of a fish eagle, this was truly total peace and quiet. Botswana only has 2 million people in the entire country – Addis alone has more than twice that. Add in the clean, fresh-smelling air, the clear water, the lack of dust and diesel fumes, no barking dogs, and no call to prayer (neither Muslim nor Orthodox) – yes, Chris was right: this was the exact opposite of Addis.
Lions are possibly the cutest evil killing machines we’ve ever had the privilege of observing up close in the wild. Sometimes a bit too close. When the female lion lying in the road, a couple of metres from the open-sided vehicle I was in, yawned and showed me her teeth admiring her cuteness wasn’t high on my list of priorities. What I wanted to do most was undo my seatbelt. Running and screaming weren’t viable options really, despite the urge. “Don’t stand up!” whispered Slodge, having driven me into this rather nerve-rackingly vulnerable position. She took little interest in me (the lion, not Slodge) and was barely disturbed by the clicking of my camera, although she looked at me intently when Slodge fired up the engine and we drove away. We were off, I was intact, and we were now in search of a huge herd of buffalo.
There were an awful lot of buffaloes. They had made their way up from the river bank, and we drove into the middle of the herd. A line of them were walking out of the marshes next to the river, when we noticed that one of them looked rather different. He was covered - horn to hoof and nose to tail - in thick mud. Poor thing could hardly see. He stumbled over the road in front of us and walked into a bush, where he tried to rub the mud off his face. We heard later that another group had seen two lions chasing a buffalo who managed to escape by running towards the river – we presumed this was he. How he managed to get out of his mud bath will remain a mystery. Whilst others had muddy legs, none had succeeded in such a comprehensive mud coating.
We were next on a boat a couple of days later, on the waterways of the Okavango Delta - an amazing inland river delta. Our new guide – a tall guy called Cops who liked driving both 4x4s and boats pretty fast - was taking us round reed-lined channels edged with beautiful water lilies late in the afternoon, when another rather stranger looking boat motored towards us. It had an aluminium-framed superstructure 2 or 3 metres high to allow passengers an elevated view of the flat and waterlogged surroundings. Two people were up there, drinking wine and clearly thoroughly enjoying the view. We thought the whole thing looked pretty much like it could capsize at any moment. Waving happily, they motored off the way we had just come. Rounding another curve we were confronted with perhaps the strangest and most macabre thing we saw during our week’s holiday in Botswana – a dead hippo. It had obviously been dead a while, as decomposition gas had blown it up like a balloon, and it looked rather like a massive rubber inflatable. Probably the result of hippo internecine warfare (they are vicious things, hippos), the four of us in the boat watched slightly aghast as it floated on past. What an appropriate moment for Cops to initiate a conversation about what we would like to eat for breakfast the following morning. We followed the hippo for a bit, when it mysteriously took a left-hand turn into a blind-ending inlet. Our suspicions were never confirmed, but given that dead hippos don’t usually move by themselves we presumed a hungry crocodile was pulling it in, preparing to enjoy a meal perhaps. Woe betide the first animal to sink its teeth into this distended carcass though – it looked fit to explode.
Heading back the way we came and into a large open area of water where we would eventually be served a cold drink and some canapés as the sun went down, we spotted the superstructure boat, stationary in the middle of the water. As we drew up alongside, we could see they had the cover off their outboard engine which was stubbornly refusing to start. They were from a different camp, possibly an hour away from here, and their radio wouldn’t work. (Also, there are no mobile phone masts in the Okavango Delta.) The couple on the superstructure raised their glasses in greeting, and carried on enjoying their wine and the imminent sunset. Slightly disconcertingly for us, Cops jumped over into the other boat and examined the engine. “Has anyone got a Leatherman?” he called. No-one had, and I didn’t even have my Swiss Army knife in my stuff. (Just cameras. Lots of cameras). Undismayed, Cops leapt back into our boat, fudged around in his cool box, and produced a pair of ice tongs. A few minutes later, using the tongs, he managed to fix the engine. As it spluttered into life to cheers from both boats, the couple on the superstructure raised their glasses and bade us farewell as they motored off into the sunset. Using the tongs for their proper purpose Cops served us our sun-downers and canapés as we watched the sun going down in a blaze of fiery orange and red.
Whilst we love what we do in Ethiopia, when the school has a break we have the opportunity to enjoy some of the many other things Africa has to offer. A week’s rest and relaxation in Botswana did us the world of good. See here for some of the many pictures we took. A truly beautiful and memorable experience.