Diving into the Delta

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Chris' place

Flag of Botswana  ,
Friday, October 1, 2010

We crossed the border into Botswana with ease and had such friendly customs staff that it set a great first impression. We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us from the Caprivi down to Maun, where Chris, one of Bryan's good schoolmates from Ireland lives. With the music blaring and not a care in the world we were looking forward to seeing a familiar face in a very unfamiliar place. After Anna and Jereon’s mechanical issues in Khaudom we were a little conscious of not driving too fast so we cruised through Bots at a leisurely 80kms. We didn’t mind at all though because we were gaining valuable skills in dodging the many donkeys, goats, mammoth bulls and pot holes on the road, so 80kms suited us just fine.

We were about 3 hours away from our destination when I noticed that Anna and Jereon’s car developed a drunken swagger. Knowing that Jereon hadn’t touched a drop since that morning (joke!), I asked Bryan if it really was swaying or if it was just my unreliable eyes. He confirmed that my eyes weren’t deceiving me and I began furiously flashing my lights at our travel companions to pull over. Unfortunately it was too little too late and we could only look on with horror as the wheels came off, literally. Their rear left wheel popped off the axle and rolled for about 200m off the side of the road, only being brought to a stop by a well positioned bush. The lack of wheel sent the rear corner of the Landy was crashing into the tarmac with the disc brake cutting a deep groove in the road and brake fluid spurting everywhere.

Luckily for us, if you’re around civilisation in Africa, there is usually someone close by that can help, sure enough a local Afrikaaner and his son pulled over within minutes and got straight to work. First, sealing the leaking brake line and then replacing the wheel. Upon closer inspection the wheel hub was fine and it turned out that the problem lay with the wheel nuts, which had come loose. Anna and Jereon had two theories as to how it could have happened. Theory one: their Mechanic in Johannesburg didn’t tighten them properly months before and they’d slowly loosened; and Theory two: someone had deliberately loosened the bolts when they were away from their car. Apparently this is a common practise for car highjackers, who will then follow you until you have to pull over, then they rob you. We were all hoping it was nothing quite that dramatic, but you just never know. T.I.A.

Our roadside pit team had the car sorted in no time and we were back on the road, not a minute too soon as we still had a long haul to make it to Maun before dark. Night driving in Africa is a nightmare with the animals, potholes and locals driving with no lights whatsoever, so we try to avoid this at all costs, sometimes stopping to camp if we’re not going to make our destination before nightfall. Luckily we pulled through after a long day and made it into Maun (the gateway to the Delta) just as darkness was falling. Chris was there to meet us and took us down the road to his Bush Pilot 'compound’ that we would call home for the next few days. A pool, a TV, a washing machine, a shower and a real kitchen. We were finally back in civilisation!

Chris and his Bush Pilot roomies welcomed us with open arms and let us take over their pad for a few days so we could stock up and recharge. They took us to the obligatory Friday night Pilot hangout, Sports Bar, where we feasted on pizza, our first time in a long time and also indulged in a couple of bottles of red. It didn’t take long to realise our camping lifestyle of early starts didn’t equip us with the stamina for a big night out and we were in bed by 1am (clean and well fed).

The next day Anna and Jereon, while their Landy was at the mechanics, visited the information centre to enquire about a music festival in Malawi and came out US$2000 lighter, having decided to splash out and take a holiday away from their holiday by chartering their own private plane deep into the Okavango Delta to a beautiful 5 star resort for 3 nights. Needless to say we were slightly jealous (and yes maybe a little bit more when they showed us their photos upon their return) but to soften the blow Chris whisked us away on our own private boat trip up into the Delta. He borrowed the boat he once owned from an Aussie Pilot mate of his, Tony, and took us further up river than he’d been by boat before. We stopped just after passing the Buffalo fence for a spot of fishing but when it came time to start up the engine again, the silence was deafening...it was completely dead. This was a little stressful at first since the only boats we’d seen that far up the river were Mokoros (dugout wooden canoes) which were not going to be able to tow us home. Chris immediately stripped off and was in the croc and hippo infested water trying to fix the problem. While he and Bry knew nothing about outboard engines, after a few reception-inhibited phone calls to Chris’ buddy, they were able to rewire the engine past the ignition, MacGuver-style, and we were back in business. The rest of our day was much smoother sailing, we pulled up onto the reeds for a picnic lunch and finally the boys managed to catch some fish, although unless we had possessed Jesus-like fishes-and-loaves skills, it was not going to be seafood for dinner.

Next on our itinerary was an overnight Mokoro trip, so bright and early the next morning we were back out on the water again. We jumped in the water taxi which took us to the Mokoro community where we would meet our poler. Unfortunately as we docked into the tiny village it was apparent that we had timed our arrival perfectly with that of a full overland bus. The idyllic isolation we had pictured in our minds evaporated, and the traditional hollowed-out timber mokoro’s were replaced by a row of fibreglass replicas, where was the justice? Then we met Justice, he was to be our poler!

This time there was no motor to rely on, only Justice pushing us up the delta with a 4 metre long stick. Bry took his seat at the bow, ready to intercept any massive orchid spiders that were coming my way (that’s why I love him!). It was a peaceful experience, with no sound apart from the pole rippling the water and the birds and frogs singing. We saw plenty of elephants but the hippos and crocs were proving to be elusive. We were enjoying the trip but were increasingly finding that spending every minute around Justice to be a draining experience. Whilst he possessed the poling skills of a Venetian and the English-speaking ability of the Queen, he also had the social skills of a brick....a brick on valium. The tranquil silence of the Okavango was becoming an uncomfortable silence in the company of our poler.

The day before the mokoro I had cut a bad gash in my toe so it ruled out any of the bushwalk activities of the trip, which we had warned Justice about as soon as we’d set off. He still insisted on taking us to a small island and setting up camp by midday and then instead of hoping back into the Mokoro for a paddle, Justice informed us we would be going nowhere until the temperature cooled down. We sat and read and dozed for 5 hours! Hmm, we were not sure what we were paying for. That night, just after we had gone to bed, it became clear exactly what we were paying him for when we heard an elephant wading through the reeds on a collision course with our camp. It got to within 5m of our tent before Justice bravely left his tent to build up the campfire, stopping the elephant dead in his tracks.

All in all, we couldn’t wait to get back to dry land and away from our not-so-social guide but in hindsight, it was a great way to see the delta (even if we did bring half of the spiders home with us!!). So our tip for anyone heading on a mokoro trip to the Delta – don’t go seeking Justice!

Anna and Jereon arrived back raving about their Delta experience, we just wish we had a spare Visa card lying around (don’t worry Peter, Bry wasn’t even tempted....well not too tempted), otherwise we would have been there with bells on! Oh well, hopefully we could find some more affordable luxury somewhere along our journey. Once we had done a food and fuel stop we plotted a course for Moremi Reserve, 150km north of Maun deep into the Delta. The drive in was pretty uneventful, that was until a huge giraffe stepped out in front of the car, luckily Bry saw it just in the nick of time to hit the brakes and stop it coming through the windscreen (or maybe the roof!). It was to act as a warning to us to be extra cautious around the huge elephant and hippo populations that lined the road as we delved deeper into Moremi.

Our sunset drive that evening is when things got really interesting! We drove across the rickety 3rd bridge and headed through the wetlands towards Xakanaxa. Almost immediately we were faced with our first deep water crossing of the trip, with no alternate way around. Jereon took the bull by the horns and expertly guided their Landy through. Bry went next and needless to say our hearts were in our mouths as the bow wave started to rise up Kwetu’s bumper and over the bonnet. But he showed that anything a Landy could do, he could do too and we made it safely to the opposite bank. The extent of the damage only became apparent 30 mins later when we tried to start up again after stopping at a waterhole. The engine barely turned over, but we eventually managed to get him started and made it all the way back through the water crossing into camp at 3rd Bridge. We knew something was badly wrong when the engine wouldn’t turn over and all our electrics appeared to be dead. Great time and place to break down, bang smack in the middle of the Okavango with Botswana’s 4-day Independence holidays looming. Public holidays were turning into something of a jinx for us given our experiences in Sossusvlei. Our spirits were somewhat lifted by the resident Hippo grazing through our campsite while we prepared dinner. To witness the biggest killer in Africa (after mozzies) at such close quarters was a humbling experience; he wasn’t so bothered by us though, not even batting an eyelid at our presence.

The following day we managed to jump start from Anna and Jereon to get going, but our rev counter, indicators and then eventually the engine died. We were hoping to get another jump off their Landy but then all of a sudden they came to a grinding halt in front of us. Their fan belt had been shredded and their alternator was ruined, the curse of Moremi had struck again. Needless to say they weren’t best pleased at the job their mechanic in Maun had done, but at least they were able to drive, albeit slowly.

We reasoned that our problems with the battery failing to charge lay with the alternator or battery, or both, being damaged by the water crossing. So after being jump-started by 3 different cars on route to camp, we decided it was time to swap onto our spare 3rd battery (we knew it would come it handy eventually, thanks Allan!) and limp back to 3rd bridge. Upon our return it didn’t take Bry long to find the culprit for Kwetu’s illness, a wire from the alternator had torn loose as we entered the water crossing. Bry set about stripping back the wire and managed to fix it back in place, however we would have to wait till daybreak to see if his bush-mechanic skills were up to scratch. We had bigger issues to focus on that night with a pack of lions and hyenas battling over a fresh kill within earshot of our camp. Predictably, the lions won the clash, leaving the hyena’s to stalk our campsite for the next few hours in search of scraps from our braai....or flip flops.

The following morning Anna and Jereon made their way slowly back to Maun to track down their rogue mechanic and with one final jump start from a Swiss couple at the camp, our problems seemed to be behind us, Kwetu was alive again! However, just as our car problems seemed to be resolved our laptop bit the dust. This felt like an even bigger problem than the car, with laptop recovery not being in the average bush mechanic’s skill set. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Devon, Chris’ housemate, for giving up his Saturday morning resuscitating our little Acer and even recovering all our photos that hadn’t yet been backed up. We had one final night back in Maun with the Bush Pilots and were ‘fortunate’ enough to witness the initiation ceremony of 3 new pilots, affectionately known as ‘The Omelette’. It involves chewing up a raw egg, shell and all, then chasing it down with liberal amounts of straight alcohol. We kept our distance, except Anna, who was brave enough to venture into the ‘blast zone’ to get up close to capture the event on camera.

From Maun our plan was to cross the endless pans of the Makgadikgadi , the world’s largest expanse of salt pans. Which were only successfully navigated end-to-end 5 years ago by the Top Gear team....would Kwetu emulate their heroics? There was only one way to find out!
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Rosana Vidal on

Absolutely love the writing, stories, and pictures!! Thanks so much for sharing!!! :) oxox

Thys on

Glad to hear you're having a good time. Loving your blog and we are kak envious of you! Enjoy it!!

Clala Ob on

Dumela Lani & Bryan

This intermingling of expectations you describe makes compelling reading ;) Intrepid Travellers one minute, Tourists the next. Punctuated by inevitable mechanical moments.

What talk of 5 star resorts and expecting your moneys worth from your guide? How was the Okavango golf course :)

Guests and hosts. Blocks and passages.

Your blogs make me smile. Thanks for all the luminous descriptions.
Lucky the hippos weren't hungry. Do you like their snorting sound?
Kwetu doesn't have a snorkel huh? You could both teach 4X4 mechanics, maintenance & navigation when you come back.

Tsamaya Sentle


Salt pans eh? Poor Kwetu :)

Waddle on

Was that Vlad the Impala ??

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