Henry cashed in his dividends and purchased an exclusive package to an upmarket campsite deep in the African bush. He got all the gear, the khaki shirt and pants, the wide-brimmed hat and he was on his way. He knew exactly what was what. He’d read a guide book. Or at least, he’d looked at some of the pictures.
He arrived and was greeted warmly by his hosts. After the briefing, to which he paid limited attention, he decided to go for a walk, all by himself.
Caught short, he squatted by a Khaya tree. As he perched precariously, a long, sinuous tree snake with bright yellow eyes wound its way down the trunk. Clearly offended by what it saw, it opened its jaws and fastened onto Henry’s tender regions.
Henry howled. He jumped up. He ran for the camp, clutching his pants.
But the venom circulated rapidly. It spread throughout his bloodstream into the tissues and the nerves. Henry collapsed in front of his luxury tent.
Later he was flown home in a polished box made from Kanya wood. The irony would, no doubt, have been lost on the hapless Henry.
It’s a good two-hour drive from Maun to the entrance of the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta. Not that it’s particularly far, maybe 100km, but on the second half of the journey, the tar runs out and you’re on a so-called gravel road, which is actually more like sand, scree and boulders. But, heigh-ho, this is Africa, and we’re on holiday.
We set out on a bright winter morning, fuelled by a good breakfast at our lodge. We fill up the tank of our trusty hired 4×4 and proceed, on the watch for the donkeys, cattle and goats who all graze happily at the side of the road and might suddenly step out onto the highway seeking pastures new on the opposite verge.
At Shorobe, halfway distance-wise, the tar road runs out and a little further along, the warning signs for cattle on the road change to warning signs for wild animals.
Soon we spot an elephant splashing about in a small waterhole near the roadside. We stop and roll down the windows. The elephant looks at us. Somehow he seems wilder, being outside the reserve. But he’s not interested in us. He wanders off to conceal himself behind a bush. No paparazzi, please!
We spy a group of giraffes and wonder at how they can disappear behind the slenderest of trees. ‘Now you see me, now you don’t’. Next there are groups of docile bokkies, all big eyes and stumpy little tails.
At about eleven o’clock we arrive at the South Gate of the Reserve, shaken by the road but stirred by the sights. We have until about 4.30 if we are to avoid driving back in the dark (which is not recommended, given the state of the roads). I understand that the gates close at 5.30. We have plenty of time.
The map we are given when we sign in is short on information, but we spot a sign after the first waterhole and follow a narrower, sandier track which promises a lagoon. We nod to a handful of giraffes. We pass several dried up patches of mud, which may or may not have been part of the lagoon (it is the dry season after all). But we convince ourselves that lions are hiding in the long grass (they probably are). We see zebra and buffalo, lots of them! The track winds bumpily away, through a profusion of birds. Two hours in, we’ve no idea where we are, but never mind, we have plenty of time.
A little further on, we spot a lone hippo. We turn off the engine and listen to him grazing. We watch spellbound as he tucks into his lunch and will him to look up and pose for the camera, but he turns his back on us.
We move off and he gazes up at us; we get the photo. As we leave the open grassland behind and return to the bush we wonder where we might within this large expanse of wilderness.
We pass what we think is a familiar lump of splodged elephant dung by a fork in the road. Have been here before? Without any signs around, the map is not helpful to our dilemma.
We head off down the untried fork. As the afternoon shadows lengthen I have the feeling we are headed in the wrong direction. However, on the plus side, we are passing a series of shallow waterholes and there are animals everywhere.
Eventually we come to a battered wooden sign at another fork. The only name we can match to the map is ‘Third Bridge’; this is definitely the wrong direction. Another vehicle draws up containing a party of cheery people from Namibia, looking for their campsite and also lost. I pass them our map; we all decide that they are heading the right way.
We turn around again. I’m looking at the time. It’s doubtful that we will make it back to the Gate before 4:30, but never mind, we’re enjoying the animals, although not stopping anymore, unless said animal is blocking the road, like the big bull elephant, and the herd of buffalo.
An hour later we are back at the original fork. There is only one choice left. We follow. We reach a vehicle which is waiting for two others to pass. We tuck in behind and watch a honey badger shoot across the path of one of the on-coming safari trucks. The track widens out and vehicle in front stops; as we draw level, we see that it’s our Namibian friends. Clearly one of us is heading in the wrong direction. We shake our heads and decide to follow them for a bit. Maybe we’ll find a sign up ahead.
There is a sign: ‘First Bridge’ and a few yards on, there is the bridge. Now we know which of us is wrong. It’s us. On the plus side, we know exactly where we are, and we know that if we turn around we’ll get straight to the Gate. On the minus side, it’s about 40 km away, another hour.
Off we go again, bumping over the sandy track. This will be interesting. Pressing on through the narrow bush-lined tracks, we slow down only slightly for the evening-time animals, and we arrive at the Gate at little before 5:30. The sun is sinking fast, but what are headlights for? At least we’re not marooned in Moremi with only the thin walls of the 4×4 between us and marauding animals. Heigh-ho, this is Africa, and we’re on holiday!
Lake Ngami, discovered by Oswell, Murray & Livingstone – from David Livingstone: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years’ Residence in the Interior of Africa, and a Journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the West Coast, Thence Across the Continent, Down the River Zambesi, to the Eastern Ocean. London: John Murray, 1857.
Where David Livingstone had success, unfortunately we did not… a little bit of travelogue:
We had been searching for Lake Ngami the whole morning and were beginning to conclude that it had ceased to exist, despite it being an ‘Internationally Important Wetland,’ according to the sign which we’d found facing belly up at the roadside. It was, after all, the dry season.
We had driven across the eastern side of what, we assumed, had been the lake. The landscape was dry and desolate, populated only by a scattering of dead trees and the occasional hopeful-looking bird. We’d retraced our route.
Regaining the original road, we decided to go for one last try down the uneven track where we’d concluded the important-looking sign had pointed. After sometime driving on the worsening roadway, we passed several rondavels. I waved to a group of Herero women in their traditional costumes with their iconic cow horn-shaped headwear. We saw goats and chickens roaming around contentedly, and a bunch of small children who waved cheerily at us. We waved back. There was a lot of waving to be done.
But there was no sign of the lake.
We pressed on through the village; everyone looked puzzled but friendly, grinning at us with white-toothed smiles. I peered at the map; this couldn’t be right.
Defeated, we decided to turn around. The vehicle slid uncomfortably in the soft sand. The wheels turned, but we were going nowhere. The engine stalled. We started up again, but the rear wheels dug further into the sand. We stalled again.
My husband got out and circled the vehicle; I watched him in the side mirror staring at the back wheels, hands on hips. He disappeared from view and returned with a handful of twigs which he started to stuff under the wheels.
Another try and again the wheels failed to grip. The group of children which we waved at earlier appeared, attracted by the sound. An older youth with them approached and informed us in excellent English, that a spade would be fetched. We needed to ‘dig deep’. A smaller child disappeared in the direction of the nearest rondavel. Moments later he returned, armed with a small spade with a broken handle.
With great enthusiasm the little team of helpers gathered round my husband, all intent on assisting with the digging. Small boys burrowed under the vehicle and renewed attempts were made to drive out. But the wheels continued to sink into the sand. ‘We need to dig deeper’, came the cry.
An older man wandered over, an un-lit cigarette clamped between his lips. After a short conference with the helpers, two of them disappeared, reappearing with two large roof tiles. The tiles were positioned under the rear wheels; my husband gripped the steering wheel and started the car. There were crunching noises and an ominous burning smell. The afternoon shadows lengthened.
More digging, another attempt, the front of the car rose higher. From this an unusual angle a red and white-painted mast in the distance caught my eye.
I fished in my bag for my cell-phone and scrabbled for the receipt on which I’d written Carlton’s cell number. Just in case, I had said back in his little office, when we’d picked up the vehicle.
My cell-phone rang out. ‘Carlton?’ ‘Yes?’ I explained the problem. ‘Have you engaged the 4-wheel drive?’ I summoned my husband and relayed instructions relating to a small knob under the steering wheel. He complied, started the engine and pressed the accelerator. The car moved off. There was a cheer; they’d done it! Rewards were dispensed to our gallant team. We didn’t mention my phone call as we waved goodbye.
“It had all been going so well,” said the Lilac Breasted Roller to his mate. “Everyone thought we were the National Bird of Botswana. Even though there’d never actually been one.” The bright coloured little bird sighed heavily. “It was such a PR triumph just letting all those safari visitors think that.”
“I know,” replied the female. Her wings drooped.
“But now the Kori Bustard’s been given the title. It’s official.”
“That bird’s not nearly as pretty and charming as us,” she said flapping her bright turquoise wings.
The male sighed again. “You may as well close our Twitter account.”