(Note: Apologies for the poor image quality. All our old photos seemed to have deteriorated with age. Blame it on the tropics!)
Our abrupt departure from Mozambique (Nov/1986) was tough emotionally but, in the end, a huge release. Both Claire and I had been working with the International Red Cross assisting in the development of the national Red Cross Society. The country was in a drawn out, vicious civil war and was desperately poor. We faced endless challenges and tough working conditions complicated by the self-interest of our international ‘colleagues’. Fifteen months of frustration soon dissolved as we headed off into the unknown, with only the vaguest notion of where we were going and what to expect. We boarded the small plane for the short flight to Nelpruit, RSA with just our backpacks, camping equipment and ambitious plans, but almost no foreknowledge of our destinations. This was in the days before the Internet and there was no travel agency or related information available in Mozambique. Even placing a call to a neighboring country was a long, fraught process and, more often than not, unlikely to be of much help. Whatever……..we were up for an adventure!
In Nelspruit we rented a small car and headed west through the Drakensburg Mountains intending on traversing the small, mountainous kingdom of Lesotho. It is one of only three countries in the world, surrounded by another country (South Africa). It is poor, politically unstable and has minimal resources. However, a single ethnic group, the Basotho, and a single language, Sesotho, provides the social cohesion often lacking in sub-Saharan countries with borders arbitrarily defined by the colonial powers.
We entered Lesotho at a remote border crossing in the north-east and over the following five days , headed west, coming out at an even remoter border crossing (with no control whatsoever) into Transkei. Transkei was one of the so-called Bantustans, creations of the apartheid regime in Pretoria and unrecognized by the International community. They were ‘homelands’ for the blacks with very limited political power that effectively isolated the majority population from the resource rich lands held by the whites. The Bantustans disappeared with the dismantling of apartheid and the subsequent election of Nelson Mandela in the first ever vote with universal suffrage in 1994. It was the same year we left Africa and aid work behind us, after almost 10 years overseas.
Our crossing of Lesotho was a deep dive into rural Africa. We struggled at times with navigating and we were constantly on edge about our rented car breaking down but the Basotho people, though generally reserved, were welcoming. This was at a time when sanctions against South Africa were at a peak and race relations were understandably strained. As an independent country, Lesotho was not plagued with the tensions of apartheid South Africa. However, in our car with SA plates, we were seen as white South Africans and accordingly expected some level of wariness and even hostility from the locals. If at all, we experienced some coolness towards us in the capital, Maseru, but once back in the rural areas those tensions disappeared. One day we hired some of the famous Basotho ponies and did a ride into a waterfall. The ponies are famous for their stamina and sure-footedness. The ride into the fall was along a muddy, side hill trail with a long drop to a river below. Much to our consternation, our ponies insisted on walking the rocky, outside edge of the trail to avoid the slippery mud. It was hair raising but the ponies lived up to their reputation.
The obvious inequity of dirt poor Transkei with the much wealthier Durban and environs was dramatic and highlighted the hypocrisy and injustice of apartheid. From the coast we doubled back through Natal (home of the Zulu), then the Transvaal (home of the Boer) and finally onto Johannesburg. I can’t remember the actual sequence of events nor the reasons why, but our flight from Joburg to Maun in Botswana and then the on-going flight deep into the Okavango were all rushed, providing us very little time to get supplies or information.
The Okavango Delta is a geographic anomaly. The Okavango River drains the eastern Angolan Highlands and then heads south towards the Kalahari Desert where it runs into a tectonic trough, forms a vast delta, and then, through a combination of evaporation and transpiration, disappears into the desert sands. Later, when in the delta, in the channels with a good water flow, it was hard getting our head around the image of the abundant water just ‘disappearing’. Nonetheless, we had heard tales that the delta could be explored by dugout canoe and was an awesome place for bird watching. Little did we know.
We had some food with us and always planned on picking up more supplies at the proverbial ‘next stop’. As usual, things didn’t work out as planned and when we landed at Maun (the largest town and supply hub for the Delta) we heard that a small plane was flying into Oddballs Camp in the middle of the swamp and if we wanted a ride, we should hurry up and jump on board, which we did. Oddballs, as strange as it’s name, was a haphazard affair struggling to create a safari experience for guests, of which there were very few. They did have a tiny store where we bought some dried soups and where we learnt about travel by makoro (dugout canoe) and how to engage a local villager as our guide. Ben, our Batawana ‘guide’ and makoro paddler, had a vocabulary of less than a 60 words in English, most of which were names of animals. The following morning Ben pulled up in his makoro and we set off on our six day exploration of the delta, but first we needed to go to his village for him to stock up on supplies. Mielie pap (maize meal porridge) was almost all he ate.
After two days of poling through what appeared to be an endless swamp, interwoven by deeper, clearwater channels we camped on a much larger island (Chief Island) where Ben wanted to take us for a ‘walk’. Shortly after leaving the reed covered border of the channel, the landscape transformed. Much to our surprise, it looked like we were walking into the heart of the Serengeti. Before long, Ben would start pointing out animals in the distance, identifying both species and sex, things we had trouble defining with our binoculars. Like the remarkable tracking skills of San people (Bushmen) of the Kalahari desert, Ben had been a tracker for big game hunting outfits and the depth of his knowledge was self-evident.
An hour into our walk we had seen, and tried our best to approach, a pair of giraffe, a skittish herd of impala and a lone kudu. We had been on safaris before but to be on foot was a unique and exciting experience. In most game parks, visitors are not even allowed out of their vehicles and if so, only with a trained and armed guide. Our only weapon was my camera with a big 400 mm lens! Nevertheless, we continued on what we, only an hour earlier, had thought was going to be a bird watching tour. Though neither of us voiced the obvious, we were both thinking; if there are these prey animals everywhere there must also be predators. As our unspoken concerns grew, Ben suddenly stopped and pointed to some very large tracks in the sand and exclaimed “lion” followed shortly by “fresh”! Anxiety levels now through the roof, we insisted to Ben that we return directly to our camp. That walk back was the longest hour of our lives. Everywhere we looked was high, lion-coloured, grass hiding God knows what, broken only by unclimbable thorn trees! When we finally got back to camp, I demanded to know of Ben why he would take people on these presumably dangerous walks? His response, “money”. He was a man of few words. Ben’s inability to explain the ‘risk’ associated with walking, unarmed in an area populated by (we found out) lion, leopard, hyena, etc. was, if nothing else, disconcerting. Then again, we have no problem walking our wild areas of Canada populated by bear, cougar and wolves. Is there really any difference? Of course there is. Estimates are that approx. 500 people die from hippo attack alone, in Africa every year!
The following day we moved camp and Ben suggested another walk. Claire wisely refused to go and somehow I convinced myself that Ben must know what he was doing so, we left Claire in camp and once again headed off into the savanna. Note: Claire refutes the ‘wisdom’ of her decision. She thinks it was every bit as sketchy all alone.
When we returned to Oddballs, we lucked out as a small plane was returning to Maun that same day. The flight was taking a local man out who was clearly quite ill. His abdomen was all swollen and rock hard to the touch. Claire thinks he was in liver failure brought on by some sort of tropical infection and that he had left things too long, a very typical scenario for so much of the world’s poor.
From Maun we hitch-hiked our way to Zimbabwe. Our first ride, the 300 km stretch to Nata was on the back of a flat deck truck. We crossed the great salt flats of the Makgadikgadi Pans that, in the wet season, are home to enormous flocks of flamingos. Regrettably, it was the dry season and we were enveloped in a cloud of dust. Our subsequent lift from Nata to the Zimbabwean border in an over-crowded car was, in comparison, luxurious!
In Zimbabwe we rafted the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls then canoed the 100+ km stretch from Kariba Dam to Mana Pools followed by an unsuccessful climb of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Tales for our next post.
8 thoughts on “Tales from Africa: Dirt roads across Lesotho and the Okavango Delta by dugout”
Great memories for you two and enjoyable reading for others. Impressed to see the sweater I knitted you, Jim, made it into your travelogue!
I enjoyed that sweater for many years Alice. I’m impressed, your memory is as sharp as ever! Look forward to your comments on future posts.
Jim & Claire
Wonderful adventures. I enjoy every word and picture.
Van has told me of your safari adventures and so I was thinking of you guys when I posted. We spent 7 years in Africa so we have lots more tales. It has been fun recounting some of our stories and hope to do more (before we forget them!).
All the best
You are crazy buggers aren’t you? I like the choice of bad or worse when you’re on safari by foot. Wow.
There are more bad decisions to come. I ran into Reid yesterday and his comment was ‘Why did Claire stay with me?’
BTW, ice on the rock to wood switchback on Rupert is killer. Wiping out at the apex of the curve wasn’t fun.
Thank you for this. You two are amazing, and the writing is also impressive. Simply awesome. Again, thanks. I have shared this with Sean Peter.. Lorraine H
Fascinating reading and wonderful pictures! Just love getting a taste of your adventures and learning more about Africa at that time.