When flooded turn back please

“When flooded turn back please” should have been the sign to greet us at the border when we crossed into Botswana… more than that, we should have listened. Old signs at the different accommodation stages that stated “Botswana is mostly a dry country going through a drought, please use water carefully” haven’t bothered to update humanity about the overwhelming amount of water that has fallen during the current and the last rainy season (although I believe establishment should remind customers that just because they are on holiday, doesn’t mean the water comes from thin air).

When my life had more Ocean in it, Fabia would always say “Rosso di sera, buon tempo si spera” (or the English version which I don’t find as nice to say: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight). Although I love water, I do not love rain. In fact, I hate it. It saddens me to the point of melancholy and it makes me ponder about everything I have ever done in my life and what could have been done differently. Because of this trait, during this trip I forced my optimism to see that tiny little tinge of red in the sky every sunset as a good omen, in hopes that it would be dry the next day… The optimism would last until sunrise upon being greeted with a stunning red sky, and then vanish as soon as the counterpart to Fabia’s saying came to mind: “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning”.

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Rosso di sera

Enthralled by the saying of older ages, we came to the conclusion that this was probably the best way to predict the weather. Sailors lives depend on the weather and rain patterns so it stands to reason that they probably know a thing or two about semi-predicting the weather (which I do not consider a science, as more often than not it’s wrong). The satellite map we were looking at was clearly wrong. In addition to these sayings we took to predicting approaching rain with the Coucal’s song. This is a bird known also as the “rain bird” and in many local communities it’s believed it only sings when the rain is coming – in our experience, they were always right.

Now that I think about it, the alternative name of this post should have been “Shut up Coucal” – Perhaps a bit more of dramatic flare there.

The deluge arrived on our second day, our game drive was cut short as we weren’t certain we would make it back to camp without getting stuck in the muddy tracks of the Delta. Upon our return, it was clear the rain would not subside so we took to one of the oldest “plans” ever made by campers in these areas: we took life to the ablution block. The bathroom area, being the only solid construction, provided our only escape to the rain. We moved our trusted camping kitchen underneath the safety of a thatched roof and we proceeded make a mean breakfast because, when you are sad and wet, what better cure than a hot cup of coffee and bacon and eggs wraps?!

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Breakfast is served

Seeing life still felt miserable and hours later the sky didn’t show any will to become blue, we decided (in what felt like a very grown up moment) to go all out and “upgrade” to the newly built, raised, tented accommodation. A tent where we could stand in seemed like a luxury and made us feel infinitely better of the prospect of being stuck in the camp indefinitely. We moved in as we were just settling in, the sun shone brighter than ever before… After all that fuss, the storm did eventually pass. What an unwanted life analogy we received. We took it with laughter, happy that we could at least go out and look for the lions, my new Spanish neighbour had seen that morning. In the end, we didn’t find the lions or much else that afternoon, but we had a very unexpected sighting that sent us home with a huge smile.

Maybe we were just saving our luck for this, because few other animals would have had more meaning for us.

Although the rain put a damper on our plans (pun intended), we had the most beautifully dramatic sunrise and sunsets – for a dramatic Italian hart like mine, well.. it was a natural reflection of how I felt.

 

 

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Treinta Cuatros de Marzo

When they say age is just a number, they are right. W;hat we attached to that big number and big milestone is entirely up to us. When I was younger I thought that when I reached this age I would have a settled married life, I would be travelling the world on occasion and probably be getting ready to have kids. Whenever people spoke of their 30th birthday, all ever came to mind was my aunt’s 30th. She had a party at the loyal Astral, invited a bunch of people I don’t recall seeing again, and all I can seem to remember from her event is her running upstairs when little Tati would start crying. There’s never been emotion attached to this memory, just a raw feeling of what life really is like.

As I approached this milestone, instead of feeling sorry for myself for not having what I always though I would by this age, I felt relieved. The fact that my life hadn’t turned out according to plan was the biggest gift, as I was given the opportunity to explore, travel, keep growing and always rebel against societies’ routine parameters.

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My 30th birthday started in a clouded morning in Maun, and in style with the random reality of the life I lead, it started with a bit of magic and superstition attached to it. A black cat was the first being to greet me into the outside world. I have always believe they bring good luck, although Maximo swears the contrary. This cat wasn’t particularly friendly, we stared at each other, and in those early moments after waking up where everything is a blur, I believe the cat blessed our tyres for the journey ahead by inspecting all of them. Later, coffee cup in hand, we set out to Moremi’s South Gate. As we left civilization behind, more puddles appeared, fewer cows were seen and more trees started taking over the scenery. Before reaching the gate we had already been able to spot a cheetah with a kill and a herd of elephants. They day looked promising as the sunshine fought the ominous clouds in the horizon.

“Where are you going?”
“Third bridge”

The world goes silent as the gate lady stares us down.

“Will we get there?”
“Bodamatau is flowing, you have to go around the Xanaka side otherwise you won’t make it”

Optimistically we though “what’s an extra 20km to get there if we can actually make it?”. Our hearts sank 5km into the reserve where we were met by a giant crater filled with water that promised to make the good old Fizz a submarine. Although we got through that, and every other massive pothole afterwards, we braced for impact the entire way. It was a mix of “remember to breathe, I hate Mopanes, it’s beautiful here, Ricky would’ve loved this” as we travelled thru the heart of Moremi.

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4th bridge

Reaching 4th bridge was a breath of fresh air as we had finally reached a more open portion of the Delta – not far from where were our tent would live for the next 3 nights. As wonderful as the 4th bridge was, as horrible it was to try and cross the 3rd bridge (“bridge” being an optimistic word for this infrastructure), however we managed to survive every attempt. Little after arriving and wit camp logistics have even put into place and finished, we set out to explore our surroundings in one of the most northern points of the great Okavango Delta. Not feeling too confident about the lack of visitors, and about serious amount of water overflowing from all channels, lagoons and life in general, we decided to keep our explorations on the safe side of the dry roads.

When I was little, the one thing that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams was that I would ever take up an interest in birds. I still struggle with them and I truly believe my eyes cannot grasp shape and color as some other people do… but! Things change, and no more clearly than what happened as we found the most beautiful lagoon in the Delta.

“Stop!” – arm slams across Tristan’s chest.
“Stop stop stop. Oh my God”
“What? What?”
“Can you see it there? Is that really a skimmer?”

We approach the shore slowly.

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“IT’S
A
SKIMMER”.

Car tilts from side to side as we scramble to get a camera and snap a shot the one bird I’ve been looking for the last 5 years. In the most unexpected place, at the most unexpected time, the most unexpected person finally got to tick it off her list.

Ironically, part of the reason why I had wanted to visit this area was that I wanted to fly with the carmine bee-eaters once again. These creatures are stunning bright pink birds that have realized that a big car cruising through the long grass is just as good as any elephant. Big things tend to make small insects fly, making the colorful predators fly at arms length from our windows. This was something I experienced years before and to this day it has been one of the most precious aerial dances I have ever been a part of. It is a small act that fills my heart by being one where wildlife and humans can coexist without fear.

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I had a wonderful video of them but my Gopro crashed – if you know of any great recovery software please feel free to share them!

As the afternoon draw to its end, we had a celebratory sundowner to cherish the fact that despite all we had survived.

“I hope we had seen a lion for your birthday, I know how much you like them”
“Give them time, they’ve only just been told  I’m here”

As we finished our drive for the afternoon, the approaching storm reminded us that things were only going to become more interesting during the evening. We changed plans and because we forgot to bring a pan, we cooked sausages in our kettle, made two-minute noodles and had a fine dining experience under the stars before diving into our tent.

In the distance we heard lions roaring later that night

Tristan smiled “they always come to you, don’t they?”

With that, I fell asleep. Life may not have turned up the way I though it would but I’m grateful for the journey that it’s been so far.

Tumelo

During our Botswana adventure our first mishappening was having a flat tyre, although not a real issue in itself,  it became a source of concern as it didn’t seem that we would be able to have it fixed in the ghost town that Maun becomes after 12pm on a Saturday; we didn’t want to risk heading into the wilderness without the safety of a spare tyre should anything go wrong and Maun was proving to be a difficult town to apease our worries.

We tried all the possible shops, garages and petrol stations, we could find, however no one was willing to extend their Saturday working hours for 2 tourists traveling through.

As Tristan’s temper (and perhaps some of his words about the situation) became increasingly colourful, I held onto the maxim that has ruled (and saved) my life on many occasions: “someone has to know someone”. After too many first hand experiences, I have come to grasp that this is the way most establishments, industries, organizations and humans work. Qualifications, degrees, positions, etc. really mean little in the practical grown-up world because it all generally boils down to talking to someone that will unlock a magical world of solutions with the words: “I know someone that can help you”.

Following this principle (and the general rule that boys will never for directions or help to strangers), I kept asking anyone we encountered if they knew of a place that would still be open. After an unfruitful hour of checking every establishment, we decided to cut our losses and head to the backpackers where we planned on staying for the night just in case they were fully booked.

As we arrived to the backpackers, ready to spend a weekend in Maun while we waited for the beginning of the week to fix our problems, we asked the ladies at reception if maybe she had any contacts into the world of fixing tires. One of them wasn’t particularly helpful… the second though one, she said the magic words we’ve been dreaming to hear “I know some guys that can maybe help you”

“Which road did you come in from?”
“The fourway stop”
“Go back onto that road, carry on straight on the second robot, turn right and then on the side of the road you will find some guys that have a tin roof office, they also have tires outside the office, they fix tyres”
“THANK YOU”

We left as quickly as we heard her instructions, forgoing our second meal of the day in hope of being able to leave civilization the next morning and not have to delay our trip a second night, we only prayed that our hanger battle wouldn’t be in vain.

“Office” was perhaps a bit optimistic for what we encountered. More like a shack and few tires on the side of the road but who needs formality when you’re given some hope in the face of adversity?

After what felt like forever and with the use of a lot of hand signs, a man came running after seeing his wife wave from across the road.

“Hi, sorry man can you help us fix this tyre?”
“Yes, no problem, I can do it for you”

(Celestial music playing in the background)

“No, you leave it here. You are my client I will do it”
“It’s fine I don’t mind helping you”
“You are a client, I will do it. My name is Tumelo. Tumelo means Faith in Khwai”
“Nice to meet you Tumelo, my name is Ali”
“Nice to meet you, Tumelo means faith in Khwai”

Holding onto dear faith we were in the hopes that even if Tumelo had been indulging in alcohol, he would still be able to fix our problem. Tumelo and our faith worked together, and 15min after we found him, we felt a million times lighter – both because we had been ripped off for what we had been charged, and because our worries for the day had been lifted off of our shoulders.

“Take a photo of me with me son. My name is Tumelo, it means faith”

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When we past through Maun again, he recognized our car and waved at us frantically. Online banking and customer care centers should learn a bit more about Tumelo’s disposition to treat “clients”, after all, they both overcharge us dearly, the difference was that Tumelo got the job done.

Prelude

All great adventure stories normally start with that particular moment when that defining “idea” was conceived, when somehow all comes together to make things happen, when then plan has been set into motion and suddenly you are there, living the dream.

My story should have started like this. For my birthday I wanted an adventure, for a wandering soul I had been stuck in one place too long and my body was aching to get lost in a wild place, breathe under the stars, go back to basics. I should have been careful what I was wishing for because the Universe and I have a relationship based on our mutual sense of humor.

The adventure started from the very beginning. The signs were there, we just chose to ignore them.

“How is Moremi?”
“Should be dry, rains haven’t arrived yet”

“Can you please advise on road conditions from Khwai to Savute?”
“Please see attached your invoice for above mentioned dates”

“Is it possible to get to Third Bridge?”
“We have availability, rather arrive to Maun and enquire at the offices”

“Did you see Gweta flooded?”

All great adventure stories seem to leave one very important thing out: the struggle to get to the adventure. Ours came with emails parts not being answered, reports from friends living in the area and a general anxiety due to the real possibility of “not making it”.
I wanted to go with the flow (something I’ve been working on) but the safari operator in my heart had tough time going with it and not having a set plan, and in the name of self help we took the plunge and decided the best course of action was to “wing it”. I have always wanted to experience the freedom of going on a trip with no reservations, no set plans and letting ourselves go as far as the Universe (or more in this case, the rain) will dictate.

Leaving South Africa was easy, getting in Botswana was fine… initially. We left our first stop over with a shining sun and with high hopes headed towards Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.

 

Next birthday: better video camera

One hour into the drive I started reminiscing about some the previous time I had been on that road. I saw my first stone chat (a black boring bird) in that rocky outcrop, there wasn’t a gas station here before and we had a flat tire here when I came with my mom. As if meant to be.. clonk clonk clonk..  To make matters easier our flat happened right in the middle of a very wet section of the road where trying to get the jack to work was a waste of time. The ground was still to wet so the jack just kept digging itself in, we eventually had to park by a close ridge like crazy people, unpack half of the car (under the seat may not be the easiest spot to access things Toyota!) and wasted about an hour of our time trying to get back on the road.

Upon reaching Maun we realized that our hope of continuing straight onto Moremi was pretty much impossible if we wanted to be cautious people and fix our tyre before carrying on. Why? Because, dear fellow travellers, after 12pm on a Saturday, Maun becomes a ghost town.

“Operation hours are:
Mon – Fri 7am-4pm
Sat 7am – 12pm”

That sign received us at every turn, at every shop. As much as I love not ever knowing days of the week, this time it came costly as we didn’t realize that in the real world, where the rest of humanity not living in the hospitality industry lives, it was 120pm on a Saturday. All of Maun was closed and there was no hope for assistance. By some seer luck we got to the offices of the Xomae camps and the lady was willing to help us book our accommodation even after hours. A small victory for such a day!

Preparing ourselves mentally that perhaps we would have to stay in Maun an extra day, I decided to do what all girls do, that all boys refuse to do: ask for directions. In the infinite wisdom that is not being scared of talking to the locals, the lady at the backpackers sent us to a roadside “shop” where our tyre got fixed by Tumelo who, although very helpful, was not sober at all.

We thanked him, paid him more than we would have ever considered appropriate for the job and headed back for our first meal of the day: real bacon cheeseburger. It made us happy, it made us full and it helped us get through the storm that was about to unleash on our heads.

Finally we were ready to head into the Okavango Delta.