The Okavango Delta in Botswana is an immense inland delta, among the largest in world. It is listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and while Worldkid was there, the Delta was proclaimed the 1000th UNESCO World Heritage site. Talk about timing. If you have never been there, it is a bit difficult to imagine. Think Florida Everglades, but with elephants, hippos, crocs and a black mamba or two thrown in for good measure. Replace high-speed, noisy air boats with the elegant mekoro, traditional dugout canoes that are propelled silently through the water with hand poles. Consider a drip-from-the-heavens starscape that, due to the lack of large surrounding metro populations, has no light pollution. Mix all of that good gumbo together and that is the Okavango Delta. This Botswanan treasure is also home to some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammals including cheetahs, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dogs and lions. Need I say more?
Well actually, yes. I must explain how the place where I stayed got its peculiar name. It is called Oddballs. The lodge sits on the water’s edge of Chief’s Island, deep in the heart of the Delta. The camp is accessible only by light aircraft, a bush plane 20-minute flight from the expedition town of Maun. The accommodations are dome tents set on elevated wooden decks along with en-suite toilets and showers sans roof. I was told that the camp got its name from the owner’s South African cousin who was, by all accounts, quite an oddball. Hmmm. I just might fit in here.As our first adventure beyond the base camp begins, we travelers are safely tucked into narrow mekoro, dugout canoes hand made in the Delta. It is late afternoon, time when the wild animals become active again. Our guide, FNB (called First National Bank by his buddies) sports a cap that says Black Rebel on the front. That hat declaration belies his friendly smile and engaging eyes. FNB begins his speech while we ply through the dark, clear water. “There are lions here. If we meet one or more while walking, here is what to do. Face the lion and keep constant eye contact with it. If the lion steps toward you, hold your ground. If he retreats, you slowly retreat. Whatever you do, don’t run!”
As I digest this new information, my mind wanders back to African jungle movies of my youth. Most were black & white Saturday matinee flicks. I remember the great white hunter constantly being referred to as ‘bwana’. This towering, macho man always had a blond on his arm and a pistol in hand to thwart off aggressive animal attacks of which there were a disproportionate amount during the 60-minute film. I look at FNB. He is only armed with a small stick, his Black Rebel hat, and that warm, friendly smile. “Are there any questions? asks the young guide upon concluding his speech “Yes,” I quickly answer. “Do you happen to have a rifle?” “No need. If you follow my instructions, you will be fine.” I look around at our group of fellow travelers. Most are in disbelief. Our only option is to immediately return to camp, but no one opts for that. We have driven half of southern Africa, flew in on a bush plane, and paid our dear pula (Botswana’s currency) to be here. It is time to game on. We are all suddenly becoming oddballs deep in the Delta. That same kind safari moxie rears its head again on our return to camp after several long hikes on isolated delta islands. The late afternoon sun is now very low and our mekoro glide silently through waterways—gaps in the thick swamp grass made by hippos moments earlier. I think about the story I heard at camp the night before. Two Canadians had just arrived at Oddballs a few days earlier. Upon their first hour at the lodge, they witnessed four dripping tourist and two guides running back through the black water in panic. A hippo had just broke one of their mekoro in two and capsized the other. All six people ended up in the drink along with cameras, binoculars and passports. Luckily there were no injuries other than pride for that bunch of wide-eyed, angst-filled humans. And just about as we near the lodge, we spot a lone bull elephant on shore about 50 yards from us. Our guide, Bally, tells us to remain quiet as he and the other guides pole on. The elephant is tense, ears full out and in a defiant stance. He is trying to determine if we are a threat. I can hear the pachyderm breathing with fight. This is no Walt Disney elephant. It is not even a San Diego Zoo variety. He is wild and in pure violent survival mode. I await the impending charge but it never comes. The mokoro polers just keep on calmly pushing the boats through the narrow channel with a jungle verve that would make Tarzan green with envy. He would probably call these skilled boatmen oddballs too.
Three days later we prepare to leave the camp. We never see the lions, but fresh tracks and scat are pointed out everywhere on our walks. I always feel unseen eyes following us. That sixth sense is disturbing, but one that allowed homo sapiens to survive through the millennia. Hippos and elephants are seen frequently but we follow our guides’ instructions to the T. Upon walking on a boardwalk to the dirt airstrip for our return, I notice that three planks are busted through. I ask Bally what happened. “Last night. Elephant walks here.”Before I know it, the bush pilot for our flight to Maun asks me if I would like the copilot seat. I jump in the front in a Botswana heart beat. “This is a short runway,” says Pilot Ned to the group. “We will be just clearing those trees there at the end. They will look a lot closer than they really are, but no worries”. No worries?!! I look back at my mates awaiting takeoff. Gone is the look of shock and despair that they had when FNB described how to handle a lion encounter just days before. This group is now somehow different, slightly hardened. I think we, to some extent, have become oddballs deep in the Delta.Pilot Ned speeds down the hardened mud runway in a cloud of dust. Twenty-five yards before the trees we rise off the ground, bank hard right, and are quickly airborne over the magical Okavango. The noise of the motor takes over as I watch a herd of giraffe waltz below. If these people who we spent the last three days with are Oddballs, I want to be one. They seem to have a deep respect and understanding of their natural world, one in which they are totally comfortable. The macho bwana dude is no longer needed here. The folks here appear to blend well with the environment and understand that without it, they have no livelihood.
Even our Zimbabwe expedition truck driver, the Captain, exhibits these qualities. He tells us a story of when he walked with the lion. “I went to a lion park back home where the owner allows you to walk with a lion. You are given a long, pointed stick and told if the lion looks at you, point the stick at him. Then he will not harm you”. “Did that work for you, Captain?” “Oh, yes,” says our truck driver. “Every time. But when I returned months later, the owner had lost his right arm to the lion. I did not try it again”. I guess even oddballs have their bad days.