“What is your name?” I tentatively turned my head to ask the woman.
“Gladys,” she seemed to reply. To this day I’m not sure I heard it right, but Gladys is what we called her.
How she kept her balance standing in the stern, while poling us through the waterways, I’ve no idea. However, it didn’t take long for Mark and I to relax and begin to appreciate the remarkable surroundings in which we found ourselves. In the tranquilizing heat of midday, our slow passage through the papyrus reeds and placid waterways was mesmerising and peaceful. Nothing to do except sit back, enjoy the sunshine and warmth, reflect on our journey so far and anticipate further adventures. Could life ever be so good again?
We made two stops along the way which gave us a chance to stretch our legs, or use the bushes and I suspect, to give our polers a much earned break. I dreaded the stops, as I hated the necessity of clambering in and out of the mokoro. However each time I grew more confident.
Time seemed to stand still. It began to grow rather too hot and stifling, caught there among the tall reeds. Once we stopped in a larger pool and handed around soft drinks, offering some to our polers. They were still refreshingly cold, straight from the fresh ice in the esky.
The water looked extremely tempting, but we were all aware of contracting bilhazia – a disease prevalent in African waters. We could not prevent trailing our hands in the cool sparkling water. David went one step further and ducked his hat into the water and replaced it on his head. Water streamed down his face and he looked so cool. I wondered where all the hippo were, as we skittered across a broad deep pool, before grounding on the far bank, at our campsite. All hands were required to unload the mokoros and carry the gear up the soft peaty banks.
Our campsite was quite an oasis. Tall shady trees, looking like they must conceal leopard, surrounded a cool, deeply shaded flat area, ideal for our tents. We arranged the tents in a much tighter semi-circle than usual. Maybe we were all reluctant to camp off on our own. While we were busy setting up our tents, the polers built a campfire and kitchen area. Some men disappeared into the surrounding forest, to dig a pit for the toilet and craft a toilet seat out of cut branches. John demonstrated the ‘occupied’ sign – a pole with a plastic bag tied to the top, which would stand in a prominent position when the toilet was occupied, but which we should remember to lay down flat, when we were finished. After dark, we were advised to always go in a group.
We had eaten a packed picnic lunch along the way, so now there was time to
rest before our first game walk this afternoon. It was very peaceful here. Nothing stirred, except for a faint breeze in the tree tops and the occasional call of a bird or monkey, and the soft musical voices of the Africans, as they set about preparing our evening meal.
At four o’clock, those of us who were going on the game walk, gathered in front of our tents. Here John introduced us to Lefty. He was to be the chief guide throughout our stay in the Okavango Delta. He lived in a nearby village, our destination on this walk. Lefty was a San (what used to be called a Bushman). He was about my height with light brown skin, his head covered in the sparse tight whorls of hair, characteristic of his people. He warned us to follow exactly where he stepped, to avoid undue noise and not to talk for any reason. We were to walk in single file behind him. A young boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen, brought up the rear. We saw lots of dung. In fact the game walks we undertook here in the Delta, became known among us privately, as the “Shitty Tours”.
The ground was pitted with spring hare holes. While riding with Andre back in Antelope Park, he had explained that the spring hare was similar to the Australian kangaroo. It looked like it and hopped like it, but dug a burrow and lived underground.
Once, Lefty motioned to us to be still and quiet, explaining that an elephant was feeding in a nearby tree. We could see the top of the tree being shaken and pulled, and hear the sound of branches being torn. Naturally we did exactly as we were told! After watching alertly for some moments, Lefty finally indicated we could continue to a nearby tree line, as fast as possible. Cautiously, he checked around bushes for sleeping lions, before we passed each clump. For the most part the country was open and sandy, with low clumps of bushes. Trees lined the waterways of the delta and we kept clear of them, because of the elephant.