A view of Mochudi, a suburb of Gaborone

A view of Mochudi, a suburb of Gaborone
A suburb of Gaborone in July, 2008

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Episode 13: The Okavango Delta and the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve

“Stay in your tent!  There are lions in the camp!”  It’s very early in the morning and most of us were awakened by that stage whisper.  I think, “Oh, yeah, right.  What kind of dupes do they take us for, we’re not that kind of gullible tourist.  They probably do this to all the tourist groups, gives the tourists a thrill, gives the guides a laugh.”  Roll eyes, roll over, go back to sleep.

“Quick, get in the truck, we will follow them.”  What if they’re not kidding?! What if I can’t get my pants on fast enough to get out of the tent and into the truck?!?  Where are my shoes?  How many zippers are there on this damn tent?!?  Why am I running TOWARD lions?!?!

About twelve of us managed to race to the safari truck and heave ourselves in without benefit of a ladder, and there they were, in the early morning starshine and, when possible, the headlights of the truck.  The whole family we had watched yesterday evening was there:  two adult females, four young lions, and one giant male lion, holding himself back in the shadows.  They were as curious about us as we were about them.  We found some canvas, which the guards had said had covered the camp’s meat supply on the first day, dragged into the bush where the youngest lions had apparently been playing with it.  We tracked them for about a half an hour before they melted away into a landscape that even our giant safari truck couldn’t penetrate.   The guard then showed us where some of the lions had rested – immediately adjacent to two students’ tent.  They had thought someone was playing a fast one, brushing up against the tent like that!  But no, we had heard the lions all night because they followed the road back to our camp.  We could only hope that they found us as entertaining as we found them!
That morning, for me, was the highlight of our week-long safari in the Okavango Delta and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. [I have put many links relevant to this text at the end of this blog entry.]

In fact, turning our attention to non-human animals was an antidote to some of the inevitable culture shock.  The trip did not disappoint.

We flew Air Botswana to the Maun airport, near the world’s largest inland delta, the Okavango.  We were blessed to have been prepared for the trip by Jon Titus, a Fulbright Scholar and biologist who spoke to us about the geology and ecology of Botswana and surrounding countries, with a special emphasis on the Okavango as he know that we would visit there soon after his talk.

We moved in to Audi Base Camp, into “tents” that characterize the low end of high-end Botswana tourism.  Mine had two twin beds, a small dresser, a bookshelf, and electricity.  We arrived early enough for five of us to walk to the airport to hire a 5-passenger airplane, which flew us low over the Delta for an hour and a half.  It was the best $100 USD I have spent in Botswana.  The Delta was a vast Dr. Seuss landscape with blobs that resolved themselves into hippos (so many hippos!), ostriches, giraffes.  We could see the white islands of salt, whose presence and relative scarcity, remain one of the world’s great scientific puzzles.  How can all that water enter the world’s larges inland delta, evaporates leaving behind tons of salts, and yet also create a gigantic freshwater ecosystem?

After an afternoon of napping for the students and reading for me, we had a wonderful evening meal and went to bed in our luxury tents.  The next morning, the students departed for the launch point for mokoro trips.  Mokoros (mekoro is the more correct plural for mokoro/makoro) are dug out canoes indigenous to the peoples of the Delta (many of who are not Setswana speaking).  While local people use them for transportation across the shifting landscape, they also take tourists along shallow shores, to show us the landscape close-up, the opposite of the bird’s eye view from yesterday.  They saw hippos and water birds very close up indeed.  After establishing base camp on an island, small groups went with individual trackers, and found creatures such as elephants and even water buffalo, in addition to the ubiquitous zebras, giraffes, ostriches, and various creatures that appear to be a fugue of variation on the theme of “antelope.”

The next trip was a long drive to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  We were a bit uneasy, as we had been fortunate to speak with a Fulbright scholar, Pat Coy, who is here working at the Centre for San Studies.  He introduced us to two San UB students, who spoke with us about the challenges of all the discrimination they and their peoples have faced, and about the critical problem of the coerced removal of peoples who once lived on that land and now live in unhealthy, desperate relocation villages outside the CKGR.  But the trip had been planned before we had properly educated ourselves, so we talked about our unease but also tried to make the best of it while resolving to encourage future groups to go to Chobe or some other less fraught destination for game viewing.

After the uncomfortable trip down rutted “roads” in the back of open safari trucks (with roof, but no walls), we were glad to arrive and help establish base camp.  This time the tents were tents, but we still had a sleeping cot and a bed roll, not to mention three meals a day including a magnificent evening supper complete with three courses and dessert.  It was not the time of year for the best game viewing, as it was wet and there was no need for large groups of mammals to congregate.  We mainly saw springbok, ostriches, and Kori bustards, though we did see one vulture (hurray) and of course on the second day we watched the lions for about 1.5 hours before dusk.  It was obvious that the animals were quite accustomed to being in the presence of large vehicles full of primates; the guides insisted that even lions will not attack a group of people in a truck, because a “truck” is somehow different from “a potentially delicious gigantic slow primate” haplessly walking in the actual Kgalagadi.

The Kgalagadi is somewhat mis-named “desert” in much the same way that my home state Nebraska was once mis-named as part of the “Great American Desert.”  It is no “desert” matching the American imagination with its dunes and camels.  Rather, it is a dry grassland, but grassland nevertheless, and this prairie girl’s heart sang just to see the open space and so much grass, grass, grass.  If only Amy Clampitt had seen the Kgalagadi, what poetry would that have begat?  If only I were a poet and could tell you about it more completely. 

is much less rain in the Kgalagadi than in Nebraska, and the grass when we visited was only ankle-high in places.  There were stands of acacia interrupting the grass, but mainly, it was grass. We did see one of the great, flat salt pans that annually fill with water and become otherworldly shallow but wide, so wide, “lakes,” producing the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen (in photographs taken by friends who were in the Delta when the pans had water).

In between morning and evening game drives, there wasn’t a lot to do in the midday heat.  Some tried sleeping but generally is was too hot for most of us, and while we had a few books with us, we restless Americans quickly ran out of activities.  Much to my amusement, a ball of string a student had purchased to repair his shoelaces became all the rage.  Can you imagine more than a dozen college students playing cat’s cradle, braiding, making friendship bracelets – all with one ball of shared white string?  I did find several people who like to play cards, and learned to play euchre all over again.  One of these days I will even remember how to play.

But the night times, my friends, the night times!  Have you ever seen the Milky Way so thick that you could touch it?  The Southern Cross was just one of the sky’s marvels. 

Taking care of necessities at night did become amusing, however.  The first night, before seeing the lions, individuals would leave their tents and go five or so yards away to pee.  By the last night, however, plenty of people practically peed on the tents rather than encounter any more lions!
After breaking camp on the last day, we left reluctant to leave behind the peace but also eager to find showers and electricity.  We had one last thrill, as driving away we came across a slinky black mamba sunning itself across at least 1.5 lanes of the road, bringing the number of snakes some had seen on the trip to two (I myself had missed out on the spitting cobra near the edge of camp, but I’m okay with that). The adventure concluded with our departure from the Maun airport, carried off without a hitch despite the complete lack of electricity in the town, and our arrival at and dispersion from the Gabs airport.  Sadly, I may never again see a semi-wild lion 8 feet away, or reach out to touch the Milky Way.  But then again, we all have much to reflect upon whether tourism works out to be a net benefit for either the average Motswana or the non-human animals, let alone the plants and other components of the ecosystems here.

To see a film that captures our reluctance to encourage others to go to the CKGR, we recommend “A Place Without People,”  a film about the Masai and the Serengeti in Tanzania.  We saw it at the marvelous Ditshwanelo Human Rights Film Festival, and cannot recommend it more highly.   The situation is Botswana is remarkably parallel.  There are many different peoples who lived in the Kalahari, and the word “San” is not how they describe themselves, preferring to use their individual tribes’ names and languages, or if they must use a collective term, then often “Bushmen:”  we don’t even have a proper vocabulary to talk about the situation.   We had definitely “consumed” the CKGR while local peoples had only recently been forcibly removed, quickly leaving many of their descendants insufficiently knowledgeable to return to the CKGR, even if they wanted to and if the Botswana government would tolerate their presence.  In addition to everything else, the only primary education available in the relocation villages is in Setswana (not their native tongue; all primary education here is in Setswana even though many Batswana citizens do not speak Setswana at home). a One has to read no further than a history of the “Indian Schools” in the 19th and 20th century U.S. to get an idea of the devastating results of such intentional and total cultural obliteration.  Had we been knowledgeable in the first place, we would never have gone to the CKGR.  We hope that future ACM students will be more responsible than we were!  (Isn’t that the hope of every generation when it speaks to the next?)

No one can say how long the animals we saw will survive in the midst of veterinary fences that cut off migration yet do not really stem the spread of infectious diseases, global climate change, and increased competition between humans and animals for scarce land resources.  Will my student’s grandchildren even have the option of viewing innumerable hippos from the co-pilot’s side of a small plane?
Without a doubt, the trip was one of the highlights of our brief stay in Botswana, and certainly helped us see why the nation is so justifiably proud of its magnificent natural resources. 

Here is a list of most of the animals I am sure that I have seen in Botswana:

Blue Wildebeest
Water buffalo
Cape hare
Rock hyrax (dassie)
Ground squirrel
White rhino
Black rhino
Black mamba
Water monitor
Sacred Ibis
Egyptian Goose
Great white egret
Wood sandpiper
Cattle egret
Common sandpiper
Crowned plover
Lappetfaced vulture
Secretary bird
Kori bustard
Crested francolin
Helmeted guineafowl
Morning dover
Redfaced mousebird
Laughing dove
Swallowtail bee-eater
Yellowbilled hornbill
Pied crow
Blue flycatcher
Longtailed shrike
Burchell’s starling
Redbilled quela
Paradise wydah
Pintailed wydah
...and of course plenty of H. sapiens sapiens.

LINKS related to the blog:

Kalahari:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalahari_Desert and http://www.amazon.com/Voices-San-Living-Southern-Africa/dp/0795701926

San Research Centre: http://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?id=28&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=70571&no_cache=1 and http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a936392861~frm=abslink

A Place Without People:  http://www.anemon.gr/place.html

Ditshwanelo (link has been down a lot lately):  http://www.ditswhanelo.org.bw

Peoples of the Kalahari: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12300290 and http://www.ethicaltraveler.org/2011/02/botswanas-bushmen-win-fight-for-the-right-to-water/ and http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/decapua-wikileaks-bushmen-21jan11-114351914.html

Use of relocation and "education" in the genocide of American Indian peoples:  American Indian Higher Education Consortium:  http://www.aihec.org/

Center for Applied Conflict Management at Kent State: www.kent.edu/cacm/index.cfm