Xudum in Okavango

(A re-post with added pictures, as I throw out paper photo albums after copying and uploading. Major un-cluttering happening as I prepare my home for the past sixteen years for sale. Next chapter about to begin!)

Another trip to the Delta!

Aitch and I flew from Maun to Xudum in August 2001 when Janet & Duncan were helping Landela Safaris run their show. We landed on the nearby bush strip. We had been before, in January 2000. This post has pictures from both trips.

– . . . in the Xudum area, east of the Sandveldt Tongue –
Xudum airstrip (2)
– Xudum landing strip in high water – a 2020 picture –

After a few days in camp they had business in Maun and we accompanied them on the drive out of the Delta to Maun in the Land Cruiser. Rickety bridges, deep water crossings with water washing over the bonnet onto the windscreen.

Xudum drift

On the drive back to camp after the day in the big smoke of the metropolis of Maun we entered a Tamboti grove and saw two leopard cubs in the road. They split and ran off to left and right, then ran alongside of us on either side for a minute calling to each other before we moved off and let them be.

We enjoyed mekoro trips, game drives & walks and afternoon boat trips stretching into evenings watching the sunset from the boat while fishing for silver catfish or silvertooth barbel – I forget what they called them. Later, wading in thigh-deep water sorting out the pumps, earning my keep as a guest of the lodge managers. Only afterwards did I think hmm, crocs.

Xudum (5)

Visited Rann’s camp for lunch where Keith and Angie Rowles were our hosts. That’s where we first heard the now-common salute before starting a meal: “Born Up a Tree.”

Janet moved us from camp to camp as guests arrive, filling in where there were gaps in other camps. We transferred by boat, mekoro or 4X4 vehicle. One night we stayed in a tree house in Little Xudum camp.

Okavango Xudum Camp

Lazy days in camp drinking G&T’s

Here’s Trish’s paper album – photographed and discarded:

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Later Xudum was taken over by super-luxury company ‘&Beyond.’ OTT luxury, and R15 000 per person per night! Very different to the lovely rustic – but still luxurious – tented camp it was when we were there. Should ‘conservationists’ really be using miles of glass and wooden decking and flooring in the bush!? Methinks rich spoilt children are doing the designing for Daddy’s company and perspective has flown out the canvas-zip window and crashed into the plate glass floor-length picture window.

In May 2019 it burnt down. Had it been canvas there’d have been less pollution from the fire and the re-build.

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Okavango Delta – the 2020 flood

Last year Maun received none of the floodwaters that usually arrive in winter. The summer rains in Angola 1000km to the north had been poor, and the flood just didn’t get right through the Okavango Delta to Maun; Well below average summer rainfall added to the drought. Rainy season is December to March in Angola and Botswana. So this winter, as word got out that the highlands in Angola had had good summer rain, and knowing that local rainfall had been above average, filling the pans and raising the underground water table, word got out that the flood was a big one and there was a lot of excitement in town.

Everybody who’s like me (!) followed the progress of the water flowing south with great interest. The levels are monitored as the mighty Okavango leaves Namibia and enters Botswana and spreads out into its beautiful delta in the Kalahari desert.

The highlands in central Angola is where the water is coming from – 1000km north as the crow flies. Rain that fell in January and February is reaching Maun in May. It travels the first 700km in about a month, then slows down as it spreads out in a fan in its dryland delta on the sands of the Kalahari.

– Maun is left (west) of the number 1 below the B of Botswana –

The focus of the townspeople of Maun was when the floodwaters would reach Old Bridge. My main focus was when it would reach little sis Janet’s home 13km further downstream. We started getting updates when the headwaters of the flood reached the Boro river, which flows into the Thamalakane.

– there’s Maun and its airstrip – the flood is about 21km from the Tamalakhane river confluence –

Monitoring the incoming flood was Hennie Rawlinson, a neighbour two doors down from Janet in Tsanakona ward. Janet’s lovely cottage on the river is the feature pic above. Hennie had the inspired idea to turn the event into a fundraiser for WoMen Against Rape and the Polokong center by allowing people to follow him daily as he tracked the headwaters. On average the flood moves about 2km per day, but that’s a huge variable, depending on the terrain, the foliage and the water table, the porousness of the sand its moving over, how much its channeled or spread out at that point, etc. Even in a river bed, where it moves quicker, it will reach a pool and have to fill that up before overflowing and moving on. So there can be long hours of ‘no progress’ – no forward progress, that is.

– watch the waters flowing steadily South Eastward in the Boro river towards the Tamalakhane river which flows South Westward towards Maun –

Hennie traveled into the Delta fringe to find the headwaters. Here’s one of his videos:

Then the water reached the confluence of the Boro and the Thamalakane! Great day! But wait! It headed NORTH East! It had to fill up a few pools and only then did it push South East towards Maun.

– 8 May and the headwaters reach the confluence of the Boro with the Tamalakhane – that was quicker, mostly in a riverbed now –

Much excitement as the water past under the high new bridge across the Thamalakane and approached Old Bridge, a historic landmark with a backpackers and pub just downstream of it on the left bank; and the site Hennie had chosen for his ‘Finish Marker.’ Other denizens of Maun also awaited the flood:

Finally the time came when the pool before Old Bridge started filling up and Hennie decided the flood would flow under it that night. He and a few others got permits to be up all night on the bridge as Maun was under corona virus stay-at-home orders like most places.

– the late night vigil with friends and crocodiles –

They waited all night, along with a crocodile or two. The water took a couple hours longer, and arrived in the wee hours of the next morning:

The fundraiser: The Rawlinsons tallied up all the donations and announced: The final amount we have raised is: P50 511 – We will be handing the money over to WoMen Against Rape and the Polokong center this week. The winner who guessed the time the water would arrive was James Stenner and that couldn’t have been luckier, as he had pledged the prize – a chopper flight over the Delta – to three deserving people of his choice who are involved in research on the delta but have never flown over it! What a mensch! He runs luxury mobile safaris – have a look at his website.

– a few days after arrival, the pools above and below Old Bridge are filling up –
– the pool below Old Bridge even better –

Meantime, further downstream, here’s what the dry river bed looked like outside Janet’s front gate:

– the road and the river outside Janet’s front gate –

We had started our own little competition: When will Janet’s size three clogs get wet? So she went out in them to show us how dry the riverbed was . .

and then when the water started seeping into the grass, showed us the first time her clogs could get wet in many months – a year!

From the air you could see more: the flood was approaching. That’s ‘Wilmot Island’ in the riverbed in the distance – dry – water arriving – water filling up. Over the course of just three days. Janet’s home is in the lower left corner just out of picture.

Wilmot Island – Thamalakane river

On the ground her view changed from the one above to:

One of her neighbours in Tsanakona ward made a collage of the view from his gate:

In dry times the river is a road and many streets cross straight across it. When the flood arrives you have to cross at the three big bridges:

And so Maun celebrates and heaves a huge sigh of relief. Residents flocked to the waters, welcoming it and scooping up some from the very front of the headwaters to take home. Pula!! The waters have arrived!

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Of course the water doesnt stop till it has evaporated, sunk into the Kalahari sand or been pumped out and used by us humans. It carries on! Onward towards the Boteti and Nhabe rivers, with their endpoints in Lake Xau and Lake Ngami respectively. There it does stop. Those are lowpoints and there’s nowhere else to go.

I may post on that. The headwaters have already reached the split where the Boteti flows SE and the Nhabe SW.

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More:

Okavango Research Institute

Read how the Okavango may just be the site where humankind originated! Latest mitochondrial research moves the probable origin site of the direct ancestors of people alive today. Fascinating work by an Aussie scientist.

Africa’s Great Wild Places

When I left Specsavers in 2000 the lovely team I worked with gave me a perfect farewell gift: A book by Chris and Tilde Stuart: ‘Africa’s Great Wild Places.’ Right up my alley. If the Stuarts think these places are special you can bet they are. They have been all over Africa and they don’t flit in and out; when they go somewhere, they stay a while!

I had been to seven of the fifteen places they chose for the book and immediately set about getting to the eighth:

Luangwa in Zambia

LuangwaWithKids (26)
Watched eles crossing the Luangwa as we ate. Little ones submerged except for their trunks!

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Okavango in Botswana

Okavango book June Kay (1)

We had this book at home growing up and I loved it. It describes the Okavango in 1958; Moremi and Chobe weren’t parks yet, but the story about two crazy loons driving a great lumbering gas-guzzling, wartime D.U.K.W amphibious monstrosity led to a fascination and – years later – many trips there starting in 1985. The latest trip was in March 2018. While there I read her new book Starlings Laughing, under her new name June Vendall Clark. I’m pleased to report that exactly fifty years later the Okavango is still the amazing paradise June Kay loved so much.

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Tsavo in Kenya

here

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Kruger National Park in South Africa

First visit in 1968 – a school tour.

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The Kalahari – Gemsbok Park in SA and Makgadikgadi Pans Botswana

1969 school tour and 1996 with Aitch; In 2010 with Janet we saw the Green Kalahari!

Kayak Kalahari Ngami (28 small)

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Etosha in Namibia

Okakuejo camp
Okakuejo camp

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Hwange in Zimbabwe

Probably my favourite. In 1997 we went to Makalolo and in 2010 to Somalisa

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The Namib

Namibia Balloon (4)

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Western Tanzania

This was one area I thought it unlikely we’d get to visit. Then Mike Lello got to go! His son Chris worked in wildlife safaris in Tanzania and arranged a fly-in trip. And lately, wonderful news: My bro-in-law Jeff and nephew Robbie have bought a farm near Iringa. I may not get all the way west, but I’d love to go to the Selous and Ruaha National Park! Time will tell!

More to see:

Uganda, the Serengeti, the Soda Lakes, the Great Selous

Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge

Getting into Botswana’s Okavango Delta can be awfully expensive.

A cheaper way is to fly in to Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge, get on a mokoro and disappear off into the wild with a guide who knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. In 1993 Aitch and I did just that, spending a night at Oddballs, where you are given a little dome tent to pitch on the hard-baked earth.

You get visitors:

The name is ironic, see (“contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this” – I made a quick check; don’t want to get ‘ironic’ wrong). While in camp you stock up on the meagre supplies available in their shop, like potatoes and onions; a tent, a braai grid; add it to the 10kg you’re allowed to bring in on the high-wing Cessna 206’s and you’re away! 10kg doesn’t go far when you’re a books, binocs and telescope junkie!

The next morning we pushed off in our gentles S-shaped tree trunk mokoro to enjoy six nights out on the water in the care of a wonderful man named Thaba Kamanakao. He rigged up the seats so they were really comfy, the backrests enabling you to fall asleep at times!

Thaba said we could choose where we wanted to camp – anywhere. Soon after lunch we saw a magnificent jackalberry tree on an island and said ‘there!’ – my guess is he knew that! We set up camp – our tent and two deckchairs and a ready-made campfire spot which he’d likely used many times before. The rest if the day was given to lurking, loafing, listening, lazing. Thaba set his gill nets, gathered firewood, pitched his smaller tent and set his chair at the fire. We were all quiet most of the time, listening and loving as night fell. After we’d eaten we sat talking and listening some more. Then Thaba played his mbira – his ‘thumb harp’ – and sang to us; I’ll never forget his introduction as we switched on our tape recorder: ‘My name is Thaba; Thaba Kamanakao; Kamanakao is surname;

– shady jackalberry camp –

We chose not to move camp each day, electing to sleep three nights under a jackalberry and three nights under a mangosteen, both giving welcome shade and birdlife. We had little food, but Thaba provided us with the fish he caught in his gill net each night.

I ate the barbel and he and Aitch the bream. Lucky me, it was delicious! He also loved barbel, but his lifestyle advisor – a sangoma? a shaman? a nutritionist? – had told him he wasn’t allowed it! So a myth robbed a man of a useful source of protein. The first night we were joined by newly-qualified Pommy doctors Louise and Richard and their guide “BT.”

When we moved camp from the camp Aitch named Jackalberry Camp, to her new chosen Mangosteen or Squirrel Camp, we decided we needed a bath on the way, so Thaba took us to a stunning clear lagoon, carefully checked for big things that could bite and then stood guard on the mokoro while we swam and rinsed – no soap, please! Anyone going to this beautiful inland delta: Pack some small swimming goggles and an underwater camera if you can. The clarity of that water is awesome.

Beautiful underwater pic by David Doubilet – to show the clarity.

OddballsOkavango Camp

Squirrel Camp nights were again spent cooking and sitting around the fire; talking and listening to Thaba playing his mbira and singing;

Days were spent birding the camp, hiking the island and an daily foray in the mokoro. Once we we were ‘moved off’ by an impatient ele, Aitch getting mildly reprimanded for turning round to get a fuzzy picture as we retreated. Another time Thaba – scouting ahead – spooked a herd of buffalo, who thundered in a tight mass towards us. We climbed the nearby termite mound – Thaba had told us to stay next to or on it – and they thundered all around us;

– our ‘buffalo hide’ termite mound –

We would sally out daily on short mokoro trips,

– colourful dragonflies, lilies and reed frogs at eye level –

Back before the sun got too high so we could loaf in our shady camp, where the squirrels and birds kept us entertained for hours. Six lazy, wonderful, awesome days.

One night a herd of eles moved in and we lay listening to their tummy rumbles. We kept dead quiet and just peered at them in the moonlight through the tent flap, as they had a little baby with them and we didn’t want to upset mama.

Botswana Oddballs Savuti (2 small)
– still life with Sausage Tree flowers & leaves – Aitch saw the beauty at her feet –

Then we headed back reluctantly for a last night at Oddballs. Warm showers under the open sky; cold beer & gin’n’tonics on the deck, ice tinkling in the glass; watching spotted-necked otters in the lagoon, lounging in comfy chairs. Topped off that evening by a big hearty hot meal prepared for us and plonked onto a table on the deck. We ate watching the sunset turn the water .

And suddenly it dawned on us that, even though we did have to pitch our own tent again, Oddballs really IS a Luxury Lodge!

Oddballs (5)
– chandeliers of sausage tree flowers hang over the lagoon –

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Oddballs is fancier nowadays.

mokoro – dugout canoe; one mokoro, two mekoro

sangoma – shaman? traditional healer? medicine man? says he communes with the ancestors

mbira – thumb piano or thumb harp musical instrument

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postscript 2018: This post was found by Thaba’s son, who informed me in the comments below that Thaba the legend had passed away. Damn!

R.I.P Thaba Kamanakao; You made our trip unforgettable.

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Read an account of another 1993 trip to the Okavango Delta – Delta Camp right next to Oddballs) by Bill Keller, a US journalist for the NY Times based in Joburg.

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(Here’s Trish’s 1993 photo album. I have copied, posted it here and discarded the album in my downsizinfg while selling our home in 2021)