I shall never forget
I'll always look back on my time in Botswana with very warm, familial feeling. Simultaneously, I started to interact more with local people from small rural communities and became a lot closer with the people accompanying me on safari. I celebrated my 25th birthday at a campsite near a diamond mine with shepherd's pie, South African Merlot, a sweet card and gift from my new friends, and a respite from camping for the night in a heated room. As we traveled north through the country, you can see why the colonialists didn't think to bother with Botswana because they believed it to be nothing but desert. Indeed, water is scarce and their monetary unit it the pula, the Tswana word for water. The dearth of colonial attention means Botswana is one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, has many thriving industries and natural resources, and a relatively high quality of life for its people. The landscape may have been dry and flat but the drive was anything but boring; Botswana is elephant country and we routinely had to brake for elephant, warthog, and zebra crossing the roads.
From the town of Maun, we took a short drive to the edge of the Okavango River to take a mykoro (wooden canoe) driven by the polers (locals who stand and use a long pole to push the canoe). For about an hour, Dain and I laid black in the canoe, surrounded by tall grass and lily pads, hearing nothing but the soft gurgle of the water, the hiss of the boat gliding through the coarse grass, and the occasional murmur of the polers as we slowly crept through to our island campsite. Once we were settled, our poler took the group on a long walk around a large island in the delta to spot animals. We didn't see much except for some far-off elephants and giraffes and I have no idea how that man spotted them kilometers away, hidden in the trees, without binoculars.
The highlight of the hike was when we came to a small watering hole, and evidently got a little too close because in the tall grass perhaps ten feet away two hippos growled loudly at us. I have to say I was a little frightened because I couldn't see them, meaning I couldn't know how far away they were exactly or see their body language to determine how mad they were! We hurried over to a small hill and observed some bathing hippos in the water, including a shy baby hippo who kept popping to the surface to take a look at us and quickly swimming back under. It was here we learned that when hippos open their mouths, they aren't yawning, they're showing us their big teeth as a warning. After about ten minutes we heeded their requests and headed back to camp.
After dinner, we were treated to a series of Tswana songs and dances by the local people living in the Delta. People from Botswana are typically very reserved and it takes a while for them to open up and have a long conversation, but when they do, they are some of the warmest people I've ever known. The evening started with us gathered around a roaring campfire and the locals standing and singing on the opposite side. Having picked up a few words here and there, I could tell the first song, where they repeated "dumela" over and over, was the traditional welcome song. You'll hear it in the video below, it's soft and sweet and a lovely sentiment indicative of their long tradition of receiving visitors with open arms. Gradually, the songs became more and more lively; one was "borroso," a rowdy bar song about 'sausage,' and the one I recorded is the "chuda chuda" song. This song is a joyous song sung when one hears the sound of frogs signifying rain has finally come. The locals pulled Dain out of his seat to perform the frog dance with them around the fire, and he did so with such gusto! The final song you'll hear is an English song called "I Shall Never Forget," and has been stuck in my head for the past month.
After the performance, the group of about ten locals gathered around to share some riddles and word games with us. Our group had been on a huge riddle kick to pass the time on long wifi-less drives and really enjoyed trading riddles as much as the language barrier allowed. When most of the group turned in for bed, a couple people including myself stayed by the fire to continue chatting. I pulled out my s'mores supplies and shared marshmallows with the group, many of whom were eating them for the first time. After a while, I could tell the locals felt much more comfortable with us and became a lot more verbose than they'd been the whole day. I loved being able to have more intimate conversation with the Botswanans and stayed up until my frequent yawns betrayed by tiredness.
In addition to beautiful scenery, the delta is known for its incredible stargazing. I'd been trying to get my bearing in the Southern night sky for the past week and could now easily spot the Southern Cross, Polaris, and Scorpio. Before the full moon rose too high in the sky, Dain and I walked away from camp towards the water to get a good look at the sky. When I finally looked up, it was like pulling back a curtain and seeing the most dazzling, diamond-studded sky. I might as well have had telescopes for eyes because I could see every celestial detail with newfound clarity. The Milky Way in its vivid entirely stretched across the expansive sky like space and time were splitting open before me. As Dain started snapping long-exposure shots with his camera, I couldn't help but strain my neck in giddy wonder as I tried to lose myself in the palpable universe before me.
We woke up at around 6 a.m. to lion tracks across out campsite and eggs cooking over a small fire. The group set out for a short walk to watch the sun rise over the grassy delta. In my opinion, nothing could compare to last evening's night sky. Before we knew it came time to pack up and head back to Maun. During our mykoro ride, our poler spotted a herd of zebra grazing in what appeared to be the middle of the water but they were on a small shallow island. The zebras were a great way to end my first big adventure in Botswana.