By the time you read this the Tracks of Giants Team will be cycling their way down Zimbabwe, having walked through Chobe in Botswana, cycled across the Caprivi and kayaked on the Zambesi to Livingstone. Our son Anton on the back-up crew said: “Dr Ian commented that although we are over half way don’t think it is downhill from here!” From the exciting four page letter Anton sent us – by far the longest letter ever written by our alphabet adverse son – it is clear that the team’s experiences during their 3 week 300km plus mokoro and kayak trip through the `Okavango Swamps’ is a highlight.
Extracts from his letter reveal a wonderful mixture of an Africa unconquered and awe inspiring:
” For me this part of the Tracks of Giants has been the biggest adventure of my life.”
“We set out on the 4th June in 5 mokoros. Mine was a proper traditional dugout canoe made by hand axe from a purple pod albisia….. It was very relaxing as all we had to do was sit while the poler steered us through hundreds of narrow channels through thick papyrus beds. Even though they had seats, the mokoros proved a bum breaker and we were also polled through thick sword grass which cuts your knees. But the beauty of the environment made up multiple times for these discomforts and although the height of the reeds meant that we saw very little, the light on the water with all the lilies and plants is truly beautiful. So in the mornings we would set out around 9:00 and stop for breaks on an interesting looking island and go for walks to check out birds, animals and plants. We paired up for supper duties and had competitions to see who can make the best supper but every night was rated 10/10. I baked bread every evening for the next day’s lunch. “
After 4 days the team said goodbye to their polers and the mokoros and packed all their kit into stubby, canary yellow tsunami 125 kayaks.
” I soon realized that paddling through a swamp was not as easy as expected. Picture yourself sitting in a kayak in a field of grass and reeds all over a meter tall. `A’ you can’t see where you are going and `B’ every stroke is a flipping mission as you are permanently snagging stuff. Believe me there was some filthy language mainly at the reeds but also at the paddle, boat and / or anyone near enough to hear. Every so often we would break out of the vegetation into a narrow fast flowing hippo channel, but these only lasted a couple of 100ms.
Hippo Wake-up Call
At the end of the 7th day while paddling down a particularly long and wide channel we encountered our first croc. Even though he was relatively small we all paddled like mad only to come around the next bend and see a monster 4 to 5 m croc slip into the water. I have never seen 9 yellow kayaks reverse so quickly!! We decided to take some back channels to avoid it. Murray McCallum (Dr. Ian’s son) and I were in front just behind our guides John and Jeff paddling in a 4 meter channel when we saw something large and badly cut and scarred bobbing in the water in front of us. A dead hippo!! As Murray and I got to it, it suddenly was no longer so dead. It bellowed and sprang straight at us.
In all croc and hippo encounters like this it is everyman for himself. The hippo dived under our kayaks. We paddled like mad. Luckily it stayed submerged so that none of the other kayakers were hit or bumped. Johnny, this being his first time in a kayak, was struggling to control his boat and he went right over the hippo!! The water around him was boiling with bubbles blown by the hippo. In hindsight we were all very lucky to come out of that unscathed. Both John and Jeff admitted that they had never had such a close call. It appeared to have been an old bull that had been badly beaten up and rejected by his pod, which we came across later in a large lake. “
“That night we set up camp on a small island behind hippo lake. Supper was organised much the same as on the mokoro leg. We prepared beef stew on pap, wolfed it down and went to bed. The night was so cold that everything was covered in a layer of sparkling frost when we woke.” The photo above shows an overnight stop – beds on the ground under mosquito nets. The one below, is of Murray McCallum enjoying the simplicity of `home’ in the outdoors.
The following days were much the same but without the bad croc and hippo encounters. The water is crystal clear so whenever you feel thirsty you simply dunk your cap in the water and drink. We did an awful lot of dragging our kayaks over papyrus and reeds or islands to get to open channels. At some stages we were walking our kayaks more than paddling them. We called it `taking your kayak for a walk’ , `dryyakking’ or simply `what a drag’. While in the Delta we would be `paddling’ the whole day but only manage 15-20km.
On the 14th Johnny’s birthday I made him a chocolate cake. It was also significant because we crossed the buffalo fence and officially left the Delta behind us. See the link at the end of this article to Ian Michler’s account of the conservation issues in this part of Botswana and the impact of the buffalo fence for conservation of game. From here on we paddled through the Selinder spillway a nice wide fast flowing stretch of water. We encountered many more hippo but thankfully not many crocs. We managed to paddle around the hippo by hugging the banks but if it looked too risky we got out and dragged our kayaks around. We all enjoyed being able to paddle in fast flowing open water without battling through dense vegetation.
Gradually as we progressed down the Selinder spillway the water got more muddy as we left the clean sandy bottom for a black muddy riverbed. As long as you ignore the colour, it tastes fine. We started to see more game – vast herds of elephant, impala, buffalo and a whole range of other animals. On the night of the 16th and our last night on the spillway we all had our usual wash in the river, enjoyed a good supper and went to bed at about 20:30 – can you believe that I go to bed so early?
Harassed Hippos Again.
At about 1:00 in the morning two bull hippos had a bit of a `who’s your father’ and after shouting at each other about 50m from our camp, the larger one chased the other right through our camp. The chased hippo, mad with fear clipped and almost fell over our woodpile as it thundered between where Johnny and Dr. Ian were sleeping. We don’t sleep in tents but string up a line onto which we tie our mosquito nets. Fortunately the line was high enough for the two hippos to storm under. I was sleeping at the base of a large leadwood tree by the fire. Even though I was safe having a very large tree and a few massive tree remnants around me, when the hippos stomped through the camp, I pulled myself into a ball, into the fetal position waiting for an impact which thank goodness never came. Besides the loud snorting and squealing, the sound of their feet and the vibrations of their passing were terrifying. We admitted over breakfast that it had been the single most terrifying experience of our lives. After this experience we set up an hourly nightwatch so that there would always be someone on guard!!!
The next day we left the Selinder Spillway and entered the Linyanti System. After a long day of getting horribly lost we found our way to Dumetau Lodge at about 17:00. We were expecting to camp here, but were warmly received by the entire management and given rooms and meals for two days on the house. Three big cheers to Wilderness Safaris at Dumatau Lodge. We were treated like royalty.
Over the three days prior to reaching the Lodge I had a terrible sore throat, but at the lodge it progressed to a full cold and I managed to get myself really sick. But life goes on and with positive attitude and berocca overdose I got over the worst of it in 2 days! Although the Savuti Channel proved to be a hippo nightmare and we had to portage around large herds, I have never seen so many animals, mainly Eli’s in my life. It was truly magical.”
A big thank-you to John Sandenbergh and Jeff Gush from Kayaktive Adventure Safaris for their safe but adventurous guiding.
Click here for blog by Ian Michler’s regarding the conservation issues in Botswana and the impact of the buffalo fence for conservation of game as well as the concessions for hunting.
For background info about the Tracks of Giants Expedition go to: http://scenicsouth.co.za//2012/05/tracks-of-giants-the-first-1000kms/