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Tuesday, 01 September 2020

Poling the Okavango, Botswana

Written by Richard Taylor
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The Old Bridge Backpacker’s Lodge has a cool, bohemian wayfarer air; a shrinking anomaly in Botswana, where the tourist mandarins are phasing out the backpacker crowd and phasing in the high rollers (flights into the bush and want-for-nothing lodges at two thousand dollars a night). But the packers were certainly here today, sitting at the outdoor tables, chatting and smoking and having breakfast, so Botswana hadn’t purged them yet. And it was a lovely spot to boot, with a pond and a creek and water birds and the rickety bridge from which, I suppose, the lodge took its name.

There was also a sign near the pond: BEWARE OF CROCODILES

So the reported sighting yesterday may have been legit. While I’d been arranging for the Okavango trip at the tour office in Maun, one of the other clerks burst through the doors.

“They saw a big crocodile at the Old Bridge yesterday.”

“I don’t believe it,” said the lady sliding my credit card.

“They said it was at least five meters long.”

There’s an urge to say “What a croc” at such claims, but one just never knows. I’d been on two safaris already and it’s the kind of thing one doesn’t say out loud, along with “Bite me” and “I’m game.”

In the morning, my taxi driver Rose had dropped me at the lodge, gave the desk man her card, told me to call her when the tour was done and drove back to Maun, about thirty kilometers away and the jump off for trips to the Okavango Delta. I’d arrived in Maun the night before via the Francistown bus and, as usual, various antelope, ostrich and wart hog were bunched along the highway. This had always seemed odd to me and I’d asked the driver about it.

“Three reasons,” he said. “They prefer the grass by the roadside. The rains run off the road so it is always greener. They also do it for protection. In about thirty minutes you will see a lot a zebra because the lions are attacking now.”

The zebra had shown up on cue; also impala and giraffes and elephants. It was a thrilling night safari, served up gratis.

What was the third reason they liked the highway? What had the driver said? I couldn’t recall, which bugged me.

Maun itself is a dusty, quiet little cow town and the bovines go as they please, walking the curbs, blocking the morning traffic as they head to pasture and snarling it again on their evening return. This gives Maun an air of the subcontinent and as in India, the cattle are precious, although in Botswana, this is grounded more in economics than spirituality. The cattle industry is vital, so much so that border crossings, whether by foot or vehicle, include a wetting of shoe sole or car tire in a liquid disinfectant, a precaution against hoof and mouth disease.

In much of Africa, solo tours are hard to come by, not being financially attractive to dealers. But today the required minimum was filled by Paul and Samantha, engineer and teacher respectively, up from South Africa and ‘vagabonding’ as long as their money lasted. They joined me for a two hour drive to the grassy port and we met our guides and polers, a young man named Doctor and an older woman named Flora, who’d been poling for thirty years.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 September 2020

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