Get Wonderfully Lost

November23rd

Writing amongst the animals. Okavango Delta, Botswana

As I am sitting here overlooking the Okavango Delta from the lounge of Oddballs, a bittersweet feeling sits with me. I am incredibly appreciative of the opportunity I have had here and at the same time I am sad to leave this peaceful place. During the day, you hear the birds constantly chirping and the occasional plop of a frog into the Delta water. As you walk around, you hear your own footsteps, the wind blowing through the trees and grasses, and the sounds of the animals alerting each other of your presence. You become keenly aware that you are a visitor in their world and that your presence is tolerated as long as you are respectful.

Arriving at Oddballs

 
Arriving into Oddballs Camp, we are greeted by the manager, Joyce, and our guide, Information. Okavango Delta, Botswana

We were greeted by a very friendly staff and introduced to our personal guide, Information (whose real name in Bayei is Keletso, which means “desire”), and Joyce, the wonderful woman who manages the camp.

I was a bit skeptical at first as to how I would enjoy being in this type of camping condition – while I like the outdoors, I consider myself more of a city girl and spiders and snakes just don’t usually appeal to me. Nevertheless, I was pleased to find out that each elevated tent had its own outdoor bathroom, fit with warm and cold running water. (Read more about our time at Oddballs or visit Dumela Botswana to book your stay!) Meals are served in a communal outdoor dining hall, where you can meet the other guests who have been adventurous enough to explore this untouched part of Africa.

Oddballs Camp. Okavango Delta, Botswana

After settling in, we were introduced to Information’s mekoro, a boat dug out of the wood of the sausage tree and used by the people of the Delta as the main source of transportation. As we glided through the Delta, Information told us about the various flowers in the water – some used as necklaces and others as eye drops – the birds, and the land plants and animals. We went on a short walking safari on a nearby island and I left a bit disappointed as we had not seen any animals. I reminded myself that one should not expect to see animals and that I had been warned that we may not see animals at all.

First sunset over the Delta. Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

Elephants right outside our tent (only several feet away from Justin!) and a bat that joined us during dinner. Okavango Delta, Botswana

To my very pleasant surprise, we came back to the camp only to be greeted by a herd of elephants! What made this visit particularly special for me is that the herd had several juvenile elephants and one particularly small baby, likely born a couple months prior to our arrival. These elephants were frequent visitors to Oddballs, but I found myself feeling very privileged that they would share their young ones with us.

I had long wondered what the food would be like on safari, and I can certainly say that the staff here does an excellent job of preparing foods that reflect the local culture and are appealing to the variety of tourists that come to the Delta. This evening we had braised oxtail with mash (which has the consistency and appearance of mashed potatoes but the taste of cream-of-wheat) and couscous and salad. Breakfasts consisted of a variety of cereals, fruit, and yogurt, accompanied by a hearty selection of eggs, sausage, bacon, and other meats.

During the main course of our dinner, a hippo wandered through the camp. His presence would have been unbeknown to us if it wasn’t for Joyce who pointed him out. As an aside, I learned a great deal about the spectrum of hippo vocalizing, from bubbling to grunts to trumpet sounds to a noise that sounds like a deep Santa-Claus laugh. They are quite active animals, leaving the water only to use the “facilities” as their skin is extremely delicate and prone to sun damage.

In the Bushcamp

 

A baboon watches us as we set up our camp in the Moremi Game Reserve. Okavango Delta, Botswana

It is only our second day at Oddballs, and we are already packing up to go camping out in the Delta. I am utterly impressed by the load this mekoro is able to carry: two tents, sleeping bags and belongings for ourselves and Information, a small table, portable shower and toilet seat, cooking and eating utensils, several liters of water, and food for a village! We traveled in the mekoro to another small island and set up our camp for the next two and a half days.

Impala, elephants, red lechwe, and white stork. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

After setting up camp, we hopped back in the mekoro for an afternoon walk on yet another island. While navigating through the Delta’s reeds, I found myself relaxing more and more into the rhythm of this place. Rather than pushing the reeds out of the way, I let them brush up against my arms, leaving behind tiny seeds. I watched the dragonflies go from lily to lily while the only sounds were of the birds and sound of the reeds brushing the underside of the mekoro as Information pushed it through.

Sunset over the Moremi Game Reserve. Okavango Delta, Botswana

This afternoon, as we walked through the island, we spotted red lechwe, many impala, and some elephants. I kept waiting to see fences or some remnant of a road or an established trail – all pieces of the city mindset creeping in. I felt a certain peace when I realized that there were no fences or roads or trails other than the ones the game use – we were truly in the wild and we were guests. We could see the sun setting , and knowing that this is the time that lions begin their hunt, I began feeling anxious about our return walk. We began walking back to the mekoro and the sun kept descending into the horizon. Whether there were any lions or not, our walk back to the mekoro taught me what it means to be at the bottom of the food chain. Further, Information gained my trust that day: we were back at the mekoro within 30 seconds of the time he said we would be … coming from a different direction … with some water in our way. This man truly knew this Delta and I was privileged to have him as my guide.

The sunset this evening was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. The mist and dust in the air tints the sky with oranges and purples as the sun glows bright red. Equally stunning is the reflection of the sun in the Delta water, amongst the grasses and lily pads.

Settling for the night. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

We arrived back at camp and promptly made ourselves a dinner of pasta, baked beans, green beans, and corned beef. Canned food never tasted so good. As we enjoyed our meal, we hear the crushing of branches and grunting in the outcropping of trees just behind our tents: elephants! While I normally would be elated to see elephants so close, Information’s response to them told me that another reaction was more appropriate. Throughout the night, the elephants attempted to approach the camp, and Information scared them away with loud sounds and the flashlight. Our conversations focused on Information’s life in Botswana. He is originally from a smaller village deep in the Delta; he has two children and now lives in a village 30 minutes outside of Oddballs. He is the youngest child of 7 and goes home to visit his family a few times a month. [Insert elephant noises here. Information goes to scare them away.] We then move to discuss the differences and similarities between American and Botswanan politics… it turns out that politics are really the same everywhere. The party in charge wants to stay in charge and will do and say whatever they think the people want in order to maintain their power.

Information tells us that the reason the elephants are near our campsite is because we are directly in their path to crossing into another island. Elephants are probably the only animal that are not frightened by humans. Their eyesight is poor and a confused elephant can be dangerous, particularly if they have babies with them. Eventually the elephants are about 50 feet from the campsite – a bit too close for me. The loud-noise scare tactic does not work with one of the elephants, who became a bit upset with our presence and begins to head directly for the campsite. Information throws a large branch and the elephants began running … for such a large animal, the elephant is a fast runner. The elephants’ presence near our camp would be a regular occurrence that night, and Information was awake several times scaring them away.

Bloody jaw, fresh lion prints, and bones from past meals. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

The next morning, we wake with the sunrise and head to one of the large islands in the Moremi Game Reserve. We walked for what seemed like several hours, and the deeper we got into the island, the more evidence of lions we found: several old kills (only bones are left behind – and few at that), one relatively fresh kill (probably from the previous day), and fresh paw prints. Again, I was reminded that we are guests here.

Giraffe. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

After traversing much grassland and through several outcroppings of trees, we arrived at a small prairie that was dotted with impala, zebra, and giraffes! As we moved around to position ourselves for photos, I noticed not only the communication between animals of the same species but also between the different species. Impalas are known for their “bright eyes” and zebras associate themselves with the impalas for their excellent warning system. Grunts that sound like deep, dry coughs signal potential danger. Giraffes also have excellent eyesight and have the luxury of scoping out the area because of their immense height. We ate some fresh fruit and marveled at the beauty of these creatures.

Zebra. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana
 

Impala. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

As we headed back to our mekoro, we came upon a small group of elephants, also with babies. As we waited for them to pass so that we could continue our journey, I watched one of the babies that was about two years old. He hadn’t spotted us and since we were downwind, he couldn’t smell us either – he was completely unaware of our existence. His little trunk wrapped around the grasses as he searched for the best food. Occasionally, he would raise it to smell the air… all good… back to eating. His eyes were so big and bright. I wondered what his future would be. Most elephants live to be about 80; perhaps he and I would meet again one day…

Baby elephant. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

Giraffe, zebra, impala, and tssessebe. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

The elephants pass us and we move along to our mekoro and arrive back at the campsite. After a small rest and some lunch, we explore the very island we were camping on. While this island was relatively small, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of animals that allowed us to stay here. We saw the rare tsetsebe, the second fastest animal on earth (besides the cheetah), fraternizing with a large group of impalas. Like many of the other animals we’d seen, the tsetsebe uses the impala’s excellent eyesight to help him evade predators. I wonder what happened to the rest of his clan – usually found in small groups, tsetsebe is sometimes solitary if he has been separated or if the rest of the family was killed off. We see zebra and, to my enjoyment, a family of giraffes: one large male, four females, and one baby. Ironically, the baby is about 9 feet tall.

Second sunset in the bush. Information looks for a new route back to camp. Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana

We head back to the campsite and enjoy a lighter dinner. Botswana celebrates its Independence Holiday this weekend, and we share stories of Botswanan and American independence and the history of our respective countries. Botswana gained independence in 1965 and modeled its government after the British and American systems. It seems that the people of Botswana are incredibly proud of their country, as they should be: the people are friendly and welcoming with a rich history that they are eager to share. Moreover, the land of Botswana is beautiful and full of life; the respect for life and nature that these people have is exemplary. Information made a poignant statement that in Botswana everything truly is the circle of life; nothing is in excess; nothing is wasted. Everything moves at the pace of the Delta and ultimately everything moves forward.

That night, we were not visited by any curious elephants. We fell asleep under the stars serenaded by the “blink-click” chirping of the painted frogs that abound in the Delta. The moon’s absence this dark night made the stars in the sky and the fireflies around the camp brighter than I had ever seen. The roar of lions on the hunt rumbled in the distance as I laid in my sleeping bag thinking how amazing it is that I am here.

Back to Oddballs and Exploring Sedibana

     
Charlie, the Lily Frog, impala, hippo in the main channel, and squirrel relocating her family. Back at Oddballs, Okavango Delta, Botswana

The next day, we have an early breakfast and another short walk on our bushcamp island. As it is going to be a hot day and the water level is slowly dropping, we pack up the camp and load the mekoro to head back to Oddballs. On the way, we saw hippos in the Main Channel near Oddballs. I also made a new friend named Charlie, a tiny Lily Frog that is the size of my finger nail. He rode with me on the mekoro until he undoubtedly found something more interesting for a frog to do and jumped back into the reeds.

We were greeted back at Oddballs by Joyce and the rest of the staff. We promptly settled in to our new tent, took showers, and had a wonderful lunch of meat stew and salad with the new arrivals at Oddballs. A part of me was envious that our journey at Oddballs was coming to a close while theirs was just getting started. As we lounged near the Delta waters, we spotted one of the camp squirrels moving her home to safer place in the trees. One by one, she gingerly carried her babies into a new nest. I was reminded of Information’s statement about the circle of life: all animals here seek only peace and survival.

Entering the village of Sedibana, we see the various building materials of the home. Sedibana, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Information meets us later in the afternoon for a tour of the village he lives in: Sedibana, Saweto for “water well”. The Bayei people are originally from Zambia, and it is they who brought the tradition of mekoro making and riding to the Delta; they create circular homes out of the termite clay, which contains a sticky resin that makes this an excellent material for walls. Aluminum cans are stacked neatly throughout the clay for added stability and a thatched roof made of Delta reeds and hippo grass is fitted nicely on top. The village has several markets, selling all that is necessary for survival and comfort. There is also a court for settling disputes, a community area for celebrations and gatherings, and two churches, one Christian and one for the local religion. Information explains to us that many houses in the village are vacant as people have moved to the closest large city, Maun, for better opportunity. People are friendly in Sedibana, greeting us with the typical “dumela” welcome. On the one hand, I feel at ease, knowing that they welcome visitors and want to show their village to others. On the other hand, part of me feels as though I have intruded. I want them to know that my interest lies in a desire to gain a greater understanding of the Delta People and an appreciation for their culture, and not as a mere spectator.

Village of Sedibana. Okavango Delta, Botswana

Prior to the Bayei’s arrival into the Delta, Bushmen were the only occupants of the Okavango. These nomadic people would follow the rise and fall of the water and the migration of the animals. You can still find Bushmen in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, but they have since vanished from the Delta due to new government regulations on hunting wildlife. Now there are only two villages in the Delta, both occupied by the Bayei.

Information shows us his home, which has a yard surrounded by a fence. He lives there with his girlfriend and two children, one of which is away at school in Maun. Being a guide in Botswana is a prestigious position, and Information tells us that he is currently studying first aid to broaden his versatility and to be able to work in other camps. I wish him well in his endeavors, and I have no doubt that he will succeed.

Last sunset over the Delta. Okavango Delta, Botswana

On our way back to Oddballs, we discuss family dynamics and relationships in Botswana and in America. Marrying in Botswana is expensive, as the man must pay for the marriage license, transport to Maun where the ceremony takes place, and a hefty dowry to the woman’s family. Many young people do what Information and his girlfriend have done: start a family in the absence of a piece of paper. They have been committed to each other for 13 years, a feat which I have to admit is rare in the US.

Dinner that evening was lively and joyful. There were eight new faces, the two of us, and Joyce telling stories around the dining table. Being the “veterans” of the group, Justin and I regaled the group with our stories of the baboons in Cape Town, and overpowering the elephant while on bushcamp. We listened eagerly to the others who shared their stories of Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya – we all had stories to tell, memories that would stay with us for a lifetime. I think that is why people continue to come back to Africa (one of the couples at the table had returned to Oddballs for the past 17 years!): every trip, every day, a new story is being created. Your life is richer for being here.

A Bittersweet Departure

    
Enjoying our last morning in the Delta. Okavango Delta, Botswana

The next morning, we woke to the natural alarm clock of the Delta: a bird the makes a low “doo-doo-do-do” sound. We sat down to eat breakfast with Information as we watched the next group of bushcampers load their mekoros.

I took some time to sign the guestbook, but words truly could not describe my feeling towards this place. I felt incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity to stay at Oddballs and have Information as our guide. Not in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned experiences as rich and powerful as those I have encountered here at Oddballs.

Beautiful sights from the air as we fly across the Delta. Okavango Delta, Botswana

I kept hoping for some mechanical problem to occur with our plane, forcing us to stay at Oddballs longer, but there was no such luck. Promptly at 8:45am, our plane arrived to take us on the next leg of our journey in Africa. As we flew off into the Delta, we waved our “see you laters”, as I knew this was not a goodbye, to Joyce and Information. I already have some ideas of where I want to go next in Africa and Oddballs in definitely on there!

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