In May this year Jana and I had the enormous privilege of returning to Botswana. It was a three-week expedition brim-full with countless safari highlights, but the centrepiece of our adventure was joining the Great Plains Conservation team for four nights and five days, out in the sticks, on their Selinda Adventure Trail.
The Selinda Spillway is a shallow, reedy, network of channels linking the Northern extremities of the Okavango Delta with the Linyati and Chobe Rivers (both tributaries flowing east to the mighty Zambezi). For three recent decades the spillway remained dry, unblessed by the amber waters of the Delta, until a combination of extraordinary rainfall and an ever so slight tectonic tilting, recast the topography allowing the waters to merge once more.
It’s worth highlighting here that Botswana is flat. Flatter than an undernourished Pancake Tortoise. So flat indeed, that throughout the whole square kilometres of Botswana’s famous inland delta, the total altitude change is barely 2m. It stands to reason, therefore, that the most marginal of earth movements will change the path or even the direction of these life giving waters. And this place is certainly tectonically active, being continuously relieved of pressure from the great rifting of this marvellous continent. Imagine a hot bowl of soup, balanced on the wobbly fingers of an untalented and inexperienced waiter, on his first day, heading towards his first customer, who, for the sake of the metaphor, may as well be a bad tempered politician in a white linen suit.
The Selinda Adventure Trail allows the visitor to trace the spillway some forty kilometres, under their own steam, on foot and in canoes. This was the immediate attraction for Jana and I. A chance to spend four nights journeying through this unspoilt wilderness, wild camping along the way, with nothing but the splash of our paddles and the trudge of our boots blemishing the sounds of the African bush. An all too rare experience in the luxury world of the modern safari.
14th May 2017, Day One, Kubu Camp
We arrive at the Selinda airstrip after a beautiful, low flight over a sizable chunk of the wettest part of the delta. The Great Plains team grab our bags, tell us to hold on to our cameras and we hop into a little four seat helicopter for a quick zip, 30 Km south-west, to our start point at Kubu Camp.
The flight offers a fantastic introduction to the ecosystem in which we will immerse ourselves over the next few days. The spillway is set within a flanking of Mopane woodland, punctuated with large pans of all shapes and sizes, rich in minerals and (at this time) still retaining water. It is dotted around these pans that we can see herds of Elephant, Giraffe and Zebra from our vantage point in this buzzing little mosquito.
We land on the southern side of the spillway just meters from the water and we’re greeted by Kane Motswana, our guide and trail leader, along with his team. We sit for a fine lunch with Kane and our five co-adventurers, getting to know one another over a cold beer while the final pegs on our home for the night are hammered into the ground.
Kane is confident and humorous from our very first encounter. He shares his stories from previous trails freely and gives an excellent introduction to camp life and the experiences that lay ahead of us. He is a proud son of the Bukakwe tribe, a branch of Botswana’s “River San” or “Water Bushman”, having grown up within a few kilometres of the spillway itself. We couldn’t have hoped for a more local insight into the biome.
The afternoon light sees us climb into our canoes and begin a crash course in steering these four meter beasts of burden. It’s a case of getting used to following the line of the head canoe while maintaining a cheerful, forgiving attitude towards your co-paddler even if their own idea of straight ahead seems to differ vastly to your own. This is the perfect honeymoon challenge for any budding marriage! Kane deliberately allows each pair to work it out for themselves for an hour before stopping to talk a little about technique.
In total we paddle for an hour and forty-five minutes upstream (though the current is barely noticeable), it is tougher than I’d initially expected and the sundowners at the end of this escapade are extremely welcome.
In parts the reeds are quite thick and you almost find yourself poling forward as if in a traditional dugout Mokoro or a Cambridge punt (each to their own). I ought to mention that there are Kite and Orb-Web spiders suspending their trapping webs between these reeds. These are completely harmless, small and actually rather beautiful if you are willing to give them a close inspection. They are also numerous to say the least and you collect a lot of them in the reedy patches, particularly in the front of the canoe. A good number of spiders is an excellent indicator of a pristine, healthy ecosystem but even a part time arachnaphobe may fail to see the positive side of this after such a baptism of fire.
We paddle our return to camp just as the last light of dusk leaves us, it feels great to have expended a bit of energy and all the more so to wash up with hot water before joining the rest of the team around the campfire before dinner.
15th May 2017, Day 2, Camp Phiri
It is a pretty gentle start by southern African standards: we wake up at 06h00 with hot water steaming in the chilly morning air in the canvas sinks outside our tent.
I’m delighted to find Open, our waiter, watching over a pot of coffee on the embers of last night’s final logs. It froths and steams as he pours it and it smells like everything you need for an early start out in the bush. We are encouraged to eat an early bowl of porridge and bump the energy reserves before climbing into the canoes to propel ourselves downstream.
Our pace is quick and purposeful, we have ground to cover today and this is not an ambling morning paddle to nowhere and back again. After two hours at the oars we pull off the channel and into the reeds surrounding a large island, born by an ancient termite colony beginning their metropolis here perhaps hundreds of years before.
We munch an apple and rehydrate before lacing up our boots and striking out into the Mopane trees towards a large water pan. We’re following the tracks and signs of a breeding herd of elephants, a matriarch leading her family to water and minerals in the pans. She has very little ones with her, looking at the tracks, and although Kane is walking at a fair clip, he insists on silence and caution as we make our way, single file, through the woods.
Our feet get wet, at one point we are wading across channel waters up to our knees. Kane smiles as folk begin unlacing shoes at the first hurdle “keep them on please guys. This is going to happen a lot today and we’ll dry them by the fire tonight so they can get good and wet again tomorrow!” We love this.
We pursue the tracks all the way to the edge of the pans but those elephants are so much faster than us and all we find is their dung, floating on the water in which they must have bathed away some of the late morning heat. Surprisingly this makes no difference whatsoever, the experience of tracking these creatures through the channels, reeds and woodland was tremendous and the whole group is thrilled.
When we return to our canoes, Kane hands us each a drink from the cooler and takes us for a wallow in the channel. We bob about in the tannin waters together, cooling off, with a cold beer in hand. It’s something beyond luxury. This pause is a brief one as we have another forty minutes to paddle and a date to keep, apparently, though none of us yet know what that means.
Sure enough in half an hour we round a bend in the spillway and find John the chef and Open the waiter standing next to a beautiful, floating lunch. This intrepid pair must have over taken us while we walked and decked out tables and chairs with a perfect little bar and a delicious spread with honey chicken salad and homemade bread rolls freshly baked on a morning campfire. We eat, drink and giggle with our bottoms just above the water and our toes dug into the delta sand, it is simply fabulous.
After lunch we have two more hours manning the canoes before we glide into the beach at our second camp and arrive for a welcome cup of tea. We all enjoy a hot bucket shower and a fresh change of clothes before we head to the water’s edge for sundowners at the fire.
to be continued darlings………get back to work!