Okavango From The Bottom Up and Top Down
A trip like no other?
This article is dedicated to the Walk For Rhinos 2017 and especially for Kane Motswana – ‘Kane the Bushman’ on Facebook. This walk is from Shakawe to Maun, some 300 miles – 500 km – around the north-eastern side of the Okavango.
Do, or should I say, did I know the Okavango? The Okavango Basin is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. I have traveled up, down and across the delta a few times, but to say I know the region would be a gross misrepresentation of facts. But I will share a part with you of the little I know.
It all must have started in the early seventies – because I don’t remember the sixties! It was a quiet, overcast sultry day in late summer, on the banks of the Jukskei River somewhere near Hartbeespoort Dam – which side, I can’t actually remember either.
While minding my own business, staring into the gently flowing water, I heard my name being called, some 400 meters into the bush, beyond the opposite bank. After answering, I waited for the mystery female voice to appear. The voice materialized into a young woman struggling through endless khaki weed, sporting a pink tracksuit now bedecked from ankles to shoulders with tiny, black sticky seeds. She resembled the Pink Panther, with a five-day old bad stubble. Recognizing my new visitor, I waded through the water to the other bank to help Kim, the wife of a friend, and long time African explorer.
Kim’s news was short, yet unbeknown to me, it was about to change my life in a major way. “National Geographic need you to guide them through the Kalahari, to the Okavango Delta and up to Angola to film Bushman.”
“You can’t go through the Bushman Kalahari territory in Botswana. And besides, there is a war on in Angola!” I replied, before explaining to her how futile her efforts were to remove the blackjacks from her tracksuit. “Leave them on until we get back to camp.”
“Thanks. We must hurry, they’re waiting,” was Kim’s quiet reminder.
Back at camp, I got the whole brief on the Geographic team’s plans and purposes. It came about that they had already received permission from the leader of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama.
That was amazing. The only group to get the same privilege in some thirty years was a French anthropological team, two years before.
The exclusivity of a trip with National Geographic was certainly significant. Especially since the expedition was to find, film and study the bushman. The resultant documentary was to be made about their general and sociable habits, as well as their hunting and food gathering methods.
The ‘main man’ in this expedition was a famous American anthropologist – proficient in the Khoisan culture. This man – and associates – had spent extensive time studying the Bushman some decades before and this trip would retrace his steps.
Our itinerary would take us from Johannesburg to Gaborone in Botswana, through the middle of the Kalahari to Ganzie. From there on, we would travel to Maun into the Okavango, up on to Shakawe – at the Caprivi Strip – by boat. Then by land to the Tsodilo Hills and from there, back to Johannesburg.
Having spent a fair amount of time with the Kalahari San, who have a passion to teach interested people how they function and live. This is quite in contrast to most isolated tribal peoples of the world. I was obviously asked where what and why I was there. I briefly mentioned the party was headed for the Delta to film the River Bushman – also a Khoisan people much like themselves. Suffice to say this stirred up a hornets nest of question and answer time for me
I had no knowledge there was even a people like the bushman living in a desert waterland, because I have always learned Bushman lived where there was no water at all. These people have lived on the islands of the Okavango delta, swamp land, for as long as they know their history. These were people I had to see for myself. San and their interaction with children is a priceless experience and another wonder were their folktales and dances.
In case you are wondering about the names used, here is a brief layout. The term Bushman, is often frowned upon. They are now known as the Khoi and San – or Khoisan – with only two tribes /Gwi and !Kung. Real tongue twisters for western cultures to pronounce correctly.
The convoy consisted of three, safari-ready Land Rovers prepared for expedition travele in Cape Town with overhead hatches and included in the bag was converted ex-military, 7 ton Bedford 4×4, beefed up a little. We traveled through the Kalahari spending time wherever we found occupied San camps. And, when our water supply – carried in the Bedford which I drove – started running low, we moved on to a San settlement called Tanaka’s borehole, established by the Japanese anthropologist of that name.
There was a hand pump at the borehole – also a small diesel engine that worked when diesel could be obtained – where two small tribes of San had settled and here we camped for some time, while script, filming and editing were done. Every move of the San were meticulously observed – including their hunting skills – for months and put on film until satisfied all was meticulously recorded, then we move on to the Okavango.
Arriving at Maun, the team split up into two parties. One went up the swamps with water-proof, 16mm French made Beaulieu Cameras in hand and two boats, to find and film the ‘River Bushman’ including the aquatic life surrounding them.
I took the other team, consisting of all the vehicles, drivers and support staff via Lake Ngami, on up the western boundary of the delta and waited for the river team to reach Shakawe.
When the anthropologist, producers, directors and camera crews arrived at Shakawe, the expedition moved on with the vehicles to the Tsodilo Hills. I wanted to find the River Bushman myself and left the National Geographic crew, choosing to go back with the two boats and their boatmen. The plan was to meet up again in Maun.
From Shakawe to Maun airport is a distance of 150 miles – 240 km – and by water it ends up at somewhat 350 miles – 560 km. That trip is one I will never forget! If you have never seen the delta, my suggestion is to put it on your bucket list immediately.
I found some of the swamp’s San people on Chiefs Island at a camp where they were spending the night, obviously living in perfect harmony with their abundant water. Unlike their cousins, the desert San, for whom water is a rare commodity.
We stopped for a week at a friend’s camp on Chiefs Island before going on to Croc Camp at Maun. One of the boats was our own – my father and I – and the other was mainly used for cargo and belonged to my friend from Croc Camp.
I met up with the team back in Maun for the next trip up to the Chobe River where a large amount of data was collected and recorded. Having spent a little over a week at Chobe Lodge we went back to Maun and on to Johannesburg.
Go find yourself an expert survivalist! A San man, who will teach you the things of the bush and I know you will never forget or regret it.
Get led through the natural bush by its natural people, the San. They will point out the ways they find their daily food in the bush, as well as many of their bush skill secrets. If you ask them, they will teach you how to track and what to look out for, when you next go wandering through the bush. Our senses are naturally highly tuned, but we need to know how to use them in the bush to better experience it’s secrets.
I hope you have as much fun as I did those many years ago. I have done everything from flying, fishing and pulling hair out of sleeping elephant’s tails and I still have not had enough of the swamps.
The San people have now formed a trust with the government where they live and take tourists as a means to survive, since they are no longer allowed to hunt. The guides will escort you through their land – in good English too and some speak Afrikaans as well.
As much as it is impossible to know the swamps, it is equally impossible to describe and the best offer is a video.
Video run time: 53:30 minutes.