Moremi Game Reserve in
's Okavango Delta is a wild place, and a very hot place in October. There are a few lodges in the north-western part of this 4 872 square kilometre wilderness but most visitors depend on camping, mainly using rooftop tents. This is exclusively 4x4 territory and even if you fly in to Xakanaxa airstrip, the rest of the trip will either be in boats or off-road vehicles. Botswana
On the way to Moremi: Philip goes about his
ablutions. On the table are priority provisions.
“Oh my God,” I said. “I’m so sorry,” imagining darkly that I must be the only fool on the sub-continent that could get stuck so easily.
The others were silent as we surveyed the situation. It was heading for sundown and I wondered how I would handle the emotional burden of being responsible for landing us in the middle of nowhere in Big Five territory for the night. My son Alex and his friend Brett emerged from Alex's short-wheelbase Defender in front and attached the incredibly strong hand-made “snap strap” around its axle in order to tow us out.
“Never around the tow bar knob,” instructed Philip. “I was told the other day about one that snapped off. It came straight through the windscreen like a bullet and killed the driver of the vehicle being towed.”
With that dire warning we were soon on our way, only to go through the whole process again twice – with my brother again driving his own vehicle.
As dusk was gathering and the kilometres to
diminishing rather slowly, we went down for the fourth time, and this time the Defender faltered. Brett was up on the roof rack in a flash, unfastening the sand tracks. With the loud roaring of both motors the short wheelbase literally bounced the Discovery out of the sand, burying the tracks about a foot underground in the process. As the non-drivers were putting in some sweat and blood pushing from the rear, a giraffe glided by serenely, looking at us with some disbelief. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the thought of being stuck in a place like this after dark, mainly because pitching the tent attached to the camping trailer would have been impractical at this spot. Third Bridge
In the wild: our camp at Third Bridge.
The birdlife in Moremi is phenomenal. A dominant call is the whining sound of the ubiquitous grey loerie, an inescapable part of any African bush experience. Apart from the main waterways, in the dry season the water is found in pans and pools scattered throughout the reserve. Though we were unsighted by reeds, we could hear hippos splashing and snorting not far from the camp. On game drives the pools make good places to stop and watch the hippos, as well the occasional crocodile and often the elegant red lechwe antelope, always found near water. One afternoon we were literally stopped in our tracks by a herd of about a hundred elephants, from the largest imaginable bull to little chaps tugging at twigs as they went by at a leisurely pace.
We swiftly became aware that there was a downside to the idyllic
– Third Bridge Africa’s most talented scavengers, hyenas and baboons. On our second night in camp we asked for it by leaving a gas refrigerator outside on the ground when we went to bed, because the trailer didn’t provide enough ventilation for it. In a raid by a hyena, the fridge's lid was ripped clean off by an animal with the most powerful jaws in the world. The hyena’s activity caused his large, tough body to bump and thump the trailer violently and Philip and his wife Cathy awoke to a sensation they had never experienced before. Cathy looked down through the ventilation hatch beside their bed on top of the trailer and screamed. There he was (maybe it was a she), staring back at her, silky coat and bright eyes, like a naughty puppy.
“Philip! He’s here, right here.”
Philip lunged at the hatch. “It’s a bloody hyena! Hey, hey, fuck off, fuck off!
These were the words to which I (in the same tent, down on the ground) awoke. But it was all over. Having ravaged the tomatoes, destroyed the feta cheese and punctured some cans of beer, the hyena made off.
Breakfast with Brett: firewood at Third Bridge
burns all night.
Then came the baboons.
A big troupe had earlier invaded a neighbouring campsite, on which occasion we rushed over to try to pile some of the ammo boxes containing groceries into the absentee campers’ tent and then tried to drive off the infuriating animals with loud curses and the odd missile, which they ignored completely. It seems they will yield to nothing, bar perhaps rifle fire, though I doubt it.
Leaving soon after for a game drive, we secured our groceries and zipped up our tents. On our return we found chaos. The baboons had demolished Alex and Brett’s free-standing tent, collapsed our gazebo and trampled a camping table, though gaining nothing from their raid. At nightfall the primates took to the trees, with much barking and scuffling right overhead in the tall sausage trees, as we made supper.
The next morning Philip discovered that he had received just retribution for his bad verbal treatment of the animals the previous day. Two large loads of shit covered the windscreen on the driver’s side of the Discovery. Retching, he set about cleaning up the mess.
While the baboons were resting in the trees, another type of invasion occurred. Three identical
double-cab 4x4s arrived, each carrying four middle-aged German-speaking men. The leader was a fit looking, wiry fellow with a large hunting knife on his belt and no shirt. Within 15 minutes they had put up a central gas lamp, erected their double roof tents on each vehicle, put down the ladders, put out their equipment and set about preparing supper, each apparently with a predetermined duty. A scribe sat updating the journal. Without messing about with making a fire, the German gents cooked supper on gas in the time it took to drink two Toyota lagers, ate their food and went to bed as one man. They were up at first light and ready to roll at sun-up. “Go, go, go,” shouted the leader with enthusiasm, and off they went. We were out on our morning game drive sometime later when the convoy passed us at speed, perfectly spaced, with a small German flag flapping proudly on the cab of the lead vehicle. Windhoek North Africa, 1941?
When the Germans and another English couple had left their camp sites and we had gone off sightseeing (first collapsing the small tent and taking other precautions) the baboons disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.
On the second last day we chartered a flat-bottomed boat with canopy to take the five of us on Xakanaxa Lagoon to see something of the famous waterways of the Okavango Delta. The water here is warm, crystal clear and deep, and it was really just a bird watching outing with a very knowledgeable guide named John, though our first sighting was not of a bird but an extremely rare sitatunga – skilfully spotted by John – an antelope which has adapted to living permanently in water, with elongated hooves, for feeding on reeds and other aquatic plants in swampy areas. When alarmed, it will submerge itself, with only its nose sticking out of the water.
The most impressive bird was the enormous marabou stork on its nest of large twigs in a bush not far above the water. It was shading its squawking chicks from the blistering sun with huge outstretched wings, waiting for its mate to return with lunch from some far-off kill. After all the tranquillity, John delighted in giving us a parting thrill by racing the boat at top speed along the narrow channels through the reeds.
No further: Reading the fine print I discover that October
in Moremi is "Africa at its harshest".
A huge lioness strolled past the ablution block the next morning while we were showering and we had no sooner hung up our towels back at camp when she showed up again – ambling right though the camp, without even glancing at us, and off into the bush.
That’s the joy of Moremi. Anything can happen.
This story appeared in Weekend Argus Travel.