Back in the Delta

Our morning elephants. Images by Chris Boyes

This is a post by Pieter Hugo from the field on a National Geographic supported expedition to explore the Okavango River system from source to sand. 120 days, 1,500 miles, 3 countries, 2 rivers, 31 adventurers, 100% open data. Join us in real-time as we explore the beating heart of our planet. IntoTheOkavango.org

We turn off the cloudy green water of the river we have been traversing for days and enter into a small side channel and suddenly we are in the Delta. The water changes, in the course of a few meters, from milky green to the crystalline clarity, slightly tinged with brown, that is so characteristic of the Okavango. It’s amazing to be back, the clean water, the electric greens and yellows of the aquatic vegetation, the reds and purples and violets of the lily pads and floating leaves. We paddle upstream for a short while and turn off the big channel, into a small path between the reeds. The paddles are put away with what are, almost, audible sighs of relief, and ngashes are produced from the depths of the mokoros, where they have been lying untouched these many months. We enter onto a floodplain, an area of shallow grassy water with clumps of reeds and papyrus, and dotted with the white and purple flowers of waterlilies. Stretches of water are completely covered with white lily flowers and with the multi-coloured floating leaves of waterlily plants. We are back in the Delta.

We spend the rest of the day in the small village of Seronga, a remote outpost on the end of the Panhandle and the gateway into the vast alluvial fan of the Delta. We reset our gear, fix what is broken, do laundry, and clean and repack boxes. We’re a huge group now, 17 people, and we will need to carry food and supplies for all of us for the next 18 days. It all translates to a lot of thinking, calculating, planning and packing. In the evening we have a big party, for which the entire village seems to pitch up, and we eat stewed pudi (goat meat), with salad and pap (mealie meal porridge). Perhaps we drink a little bit of whisky, too.

The next morning all is abustle as we organise boats and gear and make arrangements and set dates for the next few weeks. `We are not sure about what the water is doing further down in the Delta. All indications seem to be that it will be very low, and that we will, like in 2013, have a pretty tough time of it to get through the no-man’s land that separates us from, firstly, the abandoned island of Madinari (the mother of buffaloes) and then from Mombo, wonderland.

We leave Seronga to a chorus of farewells and head out over the floodplains. It’s such a different rhythm, poling versus paddling. In contrast to the frenetic noise of paddles splashing and steering, now there is only the soft plash as the ngashe enters the water, and perhaps the sound of soft sand crunching under the forked tip. Soft banter between the polers and the occasional call ahead, or back, as routes are chosen and direction discussed. It’s so, so good to be back in the Delta, familiar territory, this miraculous watery wilderness in the middle of the desert, the whole reason why we have attempted this whole crazy journey in the first place.

But in some ways the signs for this crossing are a bit ominous. The water is low, lower than we have seen it here before, and the paths are tangled and choked with grass. Before long we are out of the boats and pulling them through the grass and sedge. We see quite a few leeches, sinuously swimming through the shallow water, but no-one gets one on them. It’s probably only a matter of time, though. And finally, around 5pm, we arrive at Ntsatsa Island, our goal for the evening. It’s a beautiful island, on the edge of the big open Kavango River, although we approach it from the floodplains on the other side. Even here the water is significantly lower than the last time we were here, in 2012. But we drag the boats out of the muck (for easier offloading) and then it’s the usual hustle and bustle as boxes and gear are offloaded, the fire made, kettle put on, production tents pitched, and personal slices of paradise chosen for the night. The island is a typical Delta one, open in the middle, and fringed with big trees. On a sandy patch in the middle are the inevitable hippo and elephant tracks but also, a bit more interestingly, the day-old tracks of a big leopard, the outlines of the pads neatly etched into the soft white sand.

It’s a warm night but we make a big fire nonetheless, a little bit because of the presence of the leopard, but also just because there’s a lot of firewood around and it’s pleasant to have a big fire for our big group to sit around and talk rubbish. As always the quiet of the night is punctuated by loud bursts of laughter. We’re a pretty tight crew now, after so many months and so any hardships faced and overcome together, and I am constantly amazed at how much laughter there is around camp. We seem to be laughing, at something or another, all the time. We rustle up a pretty tasty meal of lentils and spaghetti and kale, and then when the dishes are done and the last cups of tea and coffee and ginger tea drunk we pack away the food and square away everything in camp. We’re getting into hyena territory now and although this island is probably pretty safe it’s good to get into the rhythm again. And then we head to bed.

Earlier at my tent I had thought that I had heard elephants moving around in the palms, not too far away, and now it becomes abundantly clear that there are quite a few milling around. It’s great to be back in the wilderness, camping on a beautiful island with signs of leopard, with hippo grunting in the channel, and with elephants wandering about. This morning, while I was in the middle of writing this, the temptation became too much and we walked out into the floodplain to find the ellies, feeding peacefully about 100m from amp and not at all concerned about our presence. We stood there in the morning light and looked at them from maybe 20m away and as always I was overcome with this amazing feeling of calm, and beauty, and peace. This place. It’s taken so much effort, and danger, and hardship, to get here. And it’s moments like this that make it all worth while. Every second of it, every paddle stroke, every ounce f blood and sweat and tears I look at the elephants, and I think: It’s great to have something make your day in the first hour of the morning. Back in the Delta. Awesome.

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