Wilderness camping

A small town called Maun boasts to be the gateway of the Okavango. This was our first stop in Botswana. We needed supplies, fuel, and a new tent to brave wilderness camping in the delta.

After the long drive we were early to bed, following dinner in Maun’s top restaurant: “Pizza, Pub, Coffee and Curries”.  Quite a wordy name for a restaurant, I would say, but there you go.

In the morning we were in action mode – we needed meat, snacks, water and beer for us, diesel for Beast, and a tent capable of withstanding the fabled Okavango rainy season storms.

All our supplies on board, we set off to Moremi Game Reserve, where we would be camping at a demarcated camp in the wild for 2 nights.  By camp, I mean the bush was cleared, there is a toilet and wash facility, and braai/bbq pits. No electricity, no shops, no drinking water, no fences. The most daring of our camping undertakings yet.

Having pitched our very complicated rented tent, Tom was approached by the only other campers there – two middle-aged German men, touring southern Africa in a deluxe camper van.

They were off on a boat trip in the delta. Could we come too? We asked. Brilliant, they said, very brilliant. So off set the oddest group of friends – me, Tom, greying pot-bellied utterly friendly Hubert, and beige-clad lion hunter apparel wearing silent Peter – to meet Luke, our boatman for the afternoon.

The Okavango delta is simply stunning, and no words could possibly suffice. Water channels and reeds as far as the eye can see. Water so clear and still the sky is reflected perfectly, dizzyingly.

We were all silent, taken aback by the sheer beauty of the place, snapping pictures in every direction. And of each other. Hubert was making a small video.

Soon we approached a group of hippos. Looking mischievous, Luke announced: “Get your cameras ready”. Speeding up, he tore around in circles around the hippos, giggling at his joke.

The hippos didn’t get it, and got mad instead. The big male decided enough was enough, and launched himself after our boat. Strangely, there’s nothing else I could describe the scene as, than a hippo swimming the butterfly stroke. Launching in and out of the water the angry hippo chased after us bearing his fangs in threat, but our motorboat was just too fast, he couldn’t quite catch us. “Photo photo photo photo” Luke screeched throughout, then dissolved into laughter.

Albeit amused, I think we all breathed a sigh of relief to be out of range of the hippo.

Sun set over the delta, and our boat trip was over. Thanking Luke, we disembarked, and our German friends insisted on paying for the majority of the trip: “We’re older anyway!” Hubert joked.

We never did trade contact details. Funny to think of these sudden friends for an afternoon, who paid for the most phenomenal boat trip, in whose home-video we star.

Back at the campsite, I hastily gathered firewood and set a campfire, and Tom started digging our food out for our braai.

But then tragedy struck!!

In the depths of the Okavango delta Beast’s fridge had given up service. ALL of our supplies had gone off in the 35C heat in the car. In our putrefied-smelling car, all we had left was 6 bread cobs, 4 corn cobs, some mushrooms, and 3 packs of crisps.

I baked our corn in the fire, and suddenly remembered a tin of sardines we had left over in Cape Town, which I had stowed in the car. And so our first wilderness dinner was fire-toasted cobs and sardines, fire-roasted corn, and hot beer.

We withdrew to our tent, ready for an early morning game drive. Opening the darkening flaps so we slept only under a mosquito net, I lay watching the stars, listening to the animals busy in the pitch black around us.

In the morning we set out at 6am in track of animals. We were rewarded with every variation of deer, warthogs, giraffes, zebras, and elephants – all with their babies.

We then decided on a mukoro trip – a locally used dugout canoe, propelled by pole. We spent a lovely hour on the water, our guide working our way through the maze of water channels among the reeds and waterlilies.

Afternoon was spent game-driving, during which we startled a mother-elephant and baby standing in the road. Slamming on the brakes, we sat in silence, watching. Suddenly, mummy had had enough, trumpeting loudly, flapping her ears, she was coming for us.

Engine back on, elephant tearing towards us, we sped away, leaving mummy and baby safely in the rearview mirrors.

We made our way back to camp, ready to light the campfire of the century, and boil some pasta we found in our Cape Town leftovers to go with our corn.

But the closer to camp we got, the darker it seemed, the more threatening the clouds looked, and the windier it got. By the time we reached our tent a storm was afoot – gale winds, lightening, and thunder.

What initially seemed to be one storm, turned out to be four surround-storms, we were completely surrounded by immense lightening on all sides.

Not wanting to sit under the trees in such a storm, we retreated to the only covered area there was – the ladies toilets. With a thatched roof sticking out about a metre beyond the actual building, we set up our camp chairs outside, under the protruding thatch, and watched the storm.

It was quite the experience, to be sat in what seemed to be a relatively calm middle point, the sky flashing and thundering on all sides around us.

Our campfire of the century plans well and truly thwarted, we drank our stash of red wine and ate our remaining crisps, huddling from the storm.

By 11pm it had subsided enough that we braved it back to our tent, and slept for the night, before upping camp and gamedriving the day back to Maun. We had survived phase one of the wilderness.

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Goodbye Namibia

Our last stop in Namibia was Popa Falls, some 40 kilometres from the border with Botswana.

We arrived mid-afternoon to our accommodation, to find we were the only visitors – for let’s just say, a while. The staff were suitably excited.

We were less so, given the approaching dark clouds, and the thought of the night ahead in our non-waterproof tent. “It’s definitely going to rain,” the receptionist informed us cheerily. 5 years in Africa later, it’s still difficult to feign sufficient enthusiasm about that sentence, which is inevitably seen as a piece of good news over here.

Popa Falls is a series of smaller cascades, creating a white-water rapids effect as the Kavango rushes towards Botswana and the delta.

Not having much to do – the boatman had clocked off early – we pitched our tent (glaring threateningly at the clouds), and then sat and drank a beer as the sun set over the rapids, before a surprisingly good steak at the “restaurant” which probably hasn’t ever seen a paying customer before.

The clouds seemed to be holding, and we retreated for a night in the tent. We woke up DRY!!! And headed straight out for our early-morning boat trip.

Our guide Lawrence took his job seriously, and promising us a great river safari we set off down the river in search of birds, hippos, and crocs.

Before long he had found us a family of hippos, peering out from the water. Not content for us to only see their ears and eyes, Lawrence drove towards them. “Don’t worry, they can’t overturn a boat this big!!” he said gleefully, ploughing onwards.

The hippos scarpered. In a tumult of spray and splashing and grunting, the huge hippos were climbing over each other – stepping on each others’ heads, to get to open water. Great viewing, great photos. A bit mean.

Giggling, we moved onwards, and startled a crocodile – about 3 metres long, which immediately took to the water and dived under our boat. Less funny…

We spent an hour and a half enjoying the safari, and saw hippos and crocs galore, as well as numerous lovely birds.

Another half hour was dedicated to viewing the cascades themselves, although, looking crestfallen, Lawrence informed us “the boat can’t go there”. (Not sure a river barge is suited to white-water rafting anyway, Lawrence).

After a quick breakfast sandwich, we set off for the Botswanan border, excited for the real adventure part of our trip – 2 weeks of camping in the Okavango delta, and the Kalahari!

Worms at the Okavango

From Etosha, we drove north to the top of the country where the Kavango river divides Namibia from Angola.  We would be following the river as it winds its way through the north of Namibia into Botswana, and down into the Okavango delta.

Arriving in Rundu, we checked into a cute little guest-house on the shores of the river, and were given a chalet in luscious gardens of tall African trees and flowers, with a view of the river below. The staff quickly handed us a menu, informing us we had to pre-order any evening meals.

It was an easy enough decision – with every type of river fish listed on the menu; we picked a grilled whole local bream. However, Tom couldn’t resist the mopani worms to start…

So at dinner out came a bowl of 1-2 inch fat worms, deep-fried, with a bowl of honey to dip them in. Tom tucked in, daring me to taste a couple. Luckily it was dark, so gathering my bravery I caved – hand me one. Dubious, I squeezed it. Too soft! Swap it for a very, very crispy one, I said. Digging out the crispest of the lot, there was nothing else for it…!

No real texture – just crispy, and as for taste… a mild bitterness but otherwise unoffensive. OK, I took another to try with the honey. Better than without the honey, but still not much more than “not bad”. I won’t be eating any again, but surprisingly not really a traumatic dining experience.

After the excitement of the worms, we sat and ate our lovely fish with our hands, drinking lovely chilled rose, and sat chatting deep into the night while the bats flew around in the trees above our heads.

In a very tech-addicted moment, in the morning we moved to a different lodge due to the first one having no Wi-Fi… we really wanted to speak to our mums after 4 days offline!

Our new accommodation seemed even lovelier, with little chalets nestled right on the water’s edge, and the river much much wider at this point.

We worked online all afternoon, then ran back to our room to shower in time for dinner. Fresh and ready to eat, something caught my eye on the bed. I moved closer… a tiny maggot. I flicked it off. But then there was another, and for that matter, another… and another. Ripping back the sheets I found our bed was full of tiny maggots, hundreds of them.

Marching over to the reception to ask to be moved rooms, we were shown to a different room.  Also with worms in the bed. “It’s because of the thatch roofs”, we were told. As if I cared why I was going to have to sleep with worms.

We made the most of dinner and sunset on the deck over the river, and in the dark resigned ourselves to the idea of sleeping with worms.

I woke up constantly, flicked as many worms as I could away, and went back to sleep.

So there you have it, our first two days at the Okavango – eating worms and then sleeping with them.