Okavango

We reached our destination that had taken the best part of two days of hard travel. Guma Lodge is a stylish retreat set on a spectacular large lagoon on the edge of the Okavango Delta, where the handle meets the pan. Here the Angolan waters that come down the widening Kavango river  spill into the thousands and thousands of square kilometres of the delta, before reaching out, drying out, fading out, like a man dying in the desert, as they stretch south to the Kalahari.

The campsite was set invitingly on lush grass under willows and water berry.

‘It looks like golf.’

Despite the opportunity to camp on what appeared to Sam to be a golf course, he was, predictably, not keen. Fortunately, a room was available. We were told that the retreat has a pet owl that was very sociable and liked to gently brush his wings on you while swooping you for fun. Sam loved the idea, and christened the owl Hedwig, from Harry Potter, of course.

Guma Lodge was set up by a couple, Beverley and Guy (pronounced Ghee) from Johannesburg 15 years ago. Apart from their two sons and an owl, they are also the owners of three dogs, all which have a job to do. Two of them are Australian blue cattle dogs, and help out on the farm work. The third, Diesel, is a Botswanan retriever, a breed I had never heard of. Bred to run down antelope, they are long-legged and athletic, with a blonde coat, long thin tail and honey coloured eyes.

Diesel turned out to be a hoot, and Sam warmed to him. But Diesel had a special job to do; he has to chase away hippos. Hippos, and crocodiles for that matter, are real risks here and we were instructed to take care at night. I asked Guy what ‘care’ meant.

‘Keep an eye out, and if you see one, just head in the other direction; you should be fine. Just don’t shine your torch in his eyes, they really hate that.’

I certainly didn’t want to piss off a hippo; mental note taken re: torch. I never got around to asking about the crocs. Same principles, I supposed.

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Sam was paranoid about hippos as he had read about their apparently richly deserved reputation. They kill more people in Africa than any other animal, if you exclude mosquitoes, microbes and man.

Sitting on the broad veranda of the retreat, with panoramic views of the large lagoon rimmed with reeds and papyrus, the group relaxed and drank in the atmosphere. The reeds across the lagoon looked like giant clipped hedges, lit orange by the dying light. A silhouette of the nostrils and brow of a croc glided by, fifty metres away. Sam returned from the toilet where to his surprise and joy Hedwig had visited him.

As sunset came and went, the wetlands filled with sound. Millions of insects and thousands of birds competed for the attention of their potential mates. Rhythms would sometimes merge into each other before parting again. Like a poorly tuned xylophone, the notes would jar at times, before getting back into sync, then the symphony would continue, unconducted and unrelenting.

Beverley and Guy had done well with the retreat, and it was a smooth operation. They had many local employees, but also sponsored a local primary school, supplying simple machines and supplies, such as a photocopier, staplers and paper. Was this the school I had seen earlier in the day, with the kids looking and waving at us through the wire fence? I asked them about any special needs kids in the school and how they coped. In this environment this also included relatively minor learning difficulties.

‘You see, without this equipment and supplies, the teacher used to have to read exam questions out loud. The simple fact a student with dyslexia or perhaps auditory processing issues can have a printed exam paper sitting on his desk can make the world of difference.’

With these simple measures, the pass rate at the school had risen from 32% to 75% in one year. Now all the families from nearby villages want to send their children to the school, so the school didn’t  have enough teachers. I suppose fixing the world is like eating an elephant.

Later at the bar I overheard the Botswanan driver from the retreat talking to Tuhafeni. They ribbed each other about how inept the armed forces of their respective countries were, given they hadn’t needed to fight for a long time, which is, of course, a very fortunate circumstance.

‘If war came, your soldiers would not need to be worried about the Namibian soldiers, because they can’t shoot straight.’

‘Well, I can guarantee you that the Botswanan soldiers would shoot first, because they would be so frightened!’

The banter became more serious as the topic switched to poaching.

‘What are you doing over there in Namibia? Why don’t you get tougher? Do you want to give them a tap on the back or something?’

‘You know it is getting much worse now. So far this year, there have been sixty rhinos shot in Etosha alone. And it is only May.’

‘Sixty?’

‘Six, zero.’

‘Oh my God, that is terrible. You know, there were three poachers shot dead near here just yesterday.’

‘Dead?’

‘Yes. Shoot on sight. That is what you guys need to do.’

‘Perhaps.’

That night, through the chorus of the wetlands, I heard a stomping sound underneath our hut, which was situated on stilts over the water’s edge. The unmistakable honk of a hippo came through the boards. Yikes! I hoped hippos couldn’t climb stairs. Where the Hell was Diesel?

Unaccosted by hippos, we emerged in the morning with enough insect repellent on to cause some serious neurological consequences. The plan was to boat out to the wetlands and get on some dugout canoes through the reeds to an island in the delta. Well, that was the official plan; it wasn’t Sam’s plan.

‘No, I don’t want to get on the boat.’

‘Sam, you have to get on, it’s already organised and everyone is going.’

‘No, there are hippos. I don’t want to die!’

‘You won’t die. It is safe. They know what they are doing, they will look after us.’

He took off and refused to go back to the ramp. I pleaded with him for five minutes as the rest of the group boarded. He wouldn’t budge. I thought laterally.

‘How about I give you a reward if you go?’

‘What?’

‘I’ll give you an 8 out of 10 for the day.’

He got onto the boat straight away.

Dodgy life jackets, a fast speed boat and slightly nervous passengers. These were dangerous waters. The boat zoomed across the lagoon, and then down the entrance of a water passageway between seemingly impenetrable walls of papyrus, its heads nodding to us.  A spur winged goose escorted us like a fighter jet down the winding passage.

The passage narrowed as it snaked along. Like a giant organic maze, the wetlands were criss-crossed with passage ways through the thickets. Occasionally, the islands jutting above the waterline gave home to majestic towering hardwoods –  jackal berry, strangler fig, marula and water berry – their  heads peeped above the thick papyrus walls as we swung past in serpentine arcs.

The passages narrowed as we approached our destination and our driver slowed to a crawl. I was reminded of Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen, struggling through the reeds.

‘You can do it Charlie, I know you can!’

Landing smooth on the island, we met our pole men. They would use long poles to push us, two passengers to a canoe, through the reeds, passages and ponds to another island, ninety minutes hard work each way. Long and lanky with muscular arms, they were built for purpose. Our chief pole man was Royal, and Sam and I were to be his charges; they had been told the teenager who didn’t look you in the eye needed to be watched.

The transfer point, shaded on an island under the vines and branches of the old trees, reminded Sam of the home of the elves in Lord of the Rings, Rivendell. In the canoes, we pushed off the mud and sand and glided away; like the Fellowship, we were off, a motley crew down a river.

Royal stood at the back, long pole in hand. He had been on these waters all his life, and it showed. The peace of being on the water, gliding through nature, quiet, still and tranquil. Day water lilies were everywhere. Lily pads, maroon, lime and spotted pumpkin, sat upon the long stems descending through the crystal clear waters.

Our bow cut through the reeds, grasses, lilies and papyrus like a scythe, with the four canoes in Indian file. There was no way to orientate; I just sat there feeling small. A hippo honked off in nearby reeds and anxious looks were exchanged between the tourists.

We rounded the head of an island. From behind a thicket of trees one hundred metres away an emormous bull elephant, its long slashes of ivory iridescent against his grey body was unveiled. He spied us, checked us out with a glare, and headed back onto the spine of the island, making huge splashes with his legs as he exited the shallows. If we felt small before, gazing up to a bull elephant certainly accentuated that sensation.

We landed on our island destination with a crunch of sand under the canoe. Belonging in a book by Robert Louis Stevenson, the white sand of the island was sprinkled with lime green grasses, dotted with candle-thorn and aromatic kuntze shrubs, and punctuated by grand trees. A sausage tree, with its metre long fruit hanging perpendicularly, was not a good tree to camp under. A large and ancient baobab tree crowned the small peak of the island, its bark stripped to ten metres by elephants. Elala palms, their sour tennis ball sized fruit a staple of elephants, soared above.

The air was pungent from the large elephant droppings combined with the acrid kuntze. Walking, Indian file again to reduce the snake bite risk, we toured around the small island before settling in the shade to drink from our water bottles and eat our packed lunch. Nobody spoke. It just seemed right to be silent.

The group reluctantly headed back, prompted out of our torpor by Royal. Above and around the canoes, African jacana, white fronted bee eaters and squacca heron were spotted. Blacksmith plummers darted from stem to stem of the papyrus. I was so glad I had been able to get Sam on the boat, I would not have wanted him to miss such an experience, but it had cost me eight points.

That night I awoke to a ruckus coming off the water. An elephant was very cross about something, and the hippos were joining in. Tossing and turning, thinking about the trip and Sam’s progress, I couldn’t sleep. Tink, tink, tink, tink-a-link, honk honk, cheep cheep. Thoughts tumbled. The anxiety of earlier in the trip had passed, but then I started to get anxious that I wasn’t anxious enough, when maybe I should have been. Shut up James. Just get on with it.

Tink-a-link, tink-a-link, tink-tink-tink. Cheep-cheep. Tink-tink-tink, tink-a-link. Honk-honk-honk. Tink-a-link. Cheep-cheep-cheep. Tink-tink-hink. Honk-honk. Woof.

Dawn broke over the clipped hedges. The lagoon was a palate, an orchestra. When he awoke, Sam was excited to officially receive his eight.

‘How can I get eight easily again on other days?’ The bugger had out-thought me.

Sam said goodbye to Hedwig and Diesel. We headed north up the handle and into the arms of Namibia again.