Herero women, heedless of the heat, colour the khaki monochrome with their patchwork petticoats. A group of white-backed vultures dine on the carcass of a dead donkey beneath the blank, unblinking eye of the sky.
Once Maun stood at the headwaters of the Delta and villagers would take to their mokoros to fish and hunt down the waterways and exchange their haul for tea, sugar and maize meal in town. Now, the margins of the Delta are steadily receding in that timeless ebb and flow of water across the thirsty heartland of southern Africa.
The Okavango Delta covers an area of 18 000 square kilometres. It is fed by the Okavango River which originates in the Benguela Plateau of south-eastern Angola. Upon encounterinjg the flat and thirsty expanses of Botswana, the river spreads out into hundreds of snaking channels and flood plains, resulting in an emerald and silver patchwork of perennial and seasonal swamp.
Some three hundred kilometres by road from Maun, up the western panhandle of the Delta, dry woodland succumbs to savannah and grass covers the sand. The dust and the donkeys give way to reeds, water and loamy rich soil.
Even though anticipated, it still comes as a delightful surprise. We pitch camp that night on the edge of the Guma lagoon with the crystal waters of the Delta all but lapping at our tent pegs. Hippos grunt a nightly lullaby. As the sun goes down, the air is full of the lilting harmonies of hidden birds.
Dinner around the 'bush TV' is good sturdy camping fare: macaroni with beans and Callista the camp assistant's special sauce made from wine, vinegar and sugar. Most people went back for seconds. However, the hit of the night was his guava and chocolate pudding with vanilla custard all conjured up on an open fire.
Morning brings coffee and toast crisped on the resurrected coals of last night's fire before we take down camp and take to the waters in motor-boats and a flat-bottomed launch for our rendezvous with the mokoros.
The wide blue expanse of the morning lagoon soon narrows into papyrus-lined channels. As we putter along, the papyrus thins at one point and we glimpse two Red Lechwe, the aquatic antelope ubiquitous in the Delta. They, like the shy Sitatunga, are uniquely adapted to life amongst the lily-pads.
We meet up with our posse of polers and two to a boat, settle into the mokoros to be poled deep into the Delta. The fibre-glass mokoros are a recent innovation intended to save the sausage trees, (named for their heavy sausage-shaped fruit) from which they were traditionally hewn.
A Pied Kingfisher plunges into the water and a flock of Spurwing Geese take to the air in alarm at our passing. Our convoy of mokoros glides through channels as wide as the boat and just a little deeper. The hippos are the trailblazers through this watery jungle.
Hippo bones are strewn across the unnamed island on which we disembark. As we set up camp in the shade of an acacia thorn, a Fish Eagle welcomes us with his distinctive piercing cry. At our backs, a lily-gilded lake is disturbed only by the light-footed African Jacana hopping from green and gold to russet pad.
The tents go up and the long drop hole is dug, the wooden toilet seat set on its iron stand and privacy ensured by four canvas walls. There's nothing quite like star-gazing while nature takes its course.
To accompany dinner, Callista makes pot bread, but while putting wood on the fire is stung by a scorpion. While looking for the offending creature, he fails to notice that it has caught itself in his clothes and he is bitten again. We find it by torch-light.
A small luminously pale body the size of a matchbox belies the slow-acting poison contained in its tail. Its victim takes two pain-killers and retreats to his tent to assess the damage. Fortunately, by morning, Callista has successfully resisted the creeping poison and breakfast is served.
En route to our afternoon game walk, the rhythmic pull and push of the mokoro as it slides through the reeds is hypnotic. Within 30 minutes of landing, we sight elephant; two bulls in a thicket about 100 metres away. The one soon disappears into the shadows, while the other, clearly on the Bush Ways payroll, moves into the light where he stands motionless for several minutes, giving ample opportunity for photographs.
A big herd of red lechwe is strung across the grassy veld in front of the swollen trunk of a baobab. Coming back on the mokoros, the red disc of the sun sinks into the receding waters and the water-lilies are shutting up shop for the night.
We enjoy a bird's eye view of the Delta on our return to Maun in a 5-seater charter plane. As we take off from Guma's air strip, the land below us is stitched with the sere and silver of dry land and swamp. We rise above the lagoon, the snaking path we had followed by mokoro clearly visible.
It is soon swallowed up by the reed beds and palms. Flying above the fish-eagles, a herd of twenty elephant cross the lake below us, giraffe spread their legs and dip their necks to drink and a small family of hippo, frightened by the plane, race back into the safety of the water. Within an hour, the Kalahari is back.
Copyright © 2002 Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.