As Emma Gregg discovers, some of the best experiences on safari can happen when you are getting your own hands dirty.
A good safari game drive is hard to beat. But what if you find yourself longing for something more hands-on, and perhaps more challenging? At Baines Camp in the Okavango Delta the staff had come up with an activity programme that puts you in the driving seat, literally, by teaching you some essential bush skills. Eager for adventure, I decided to give it a try.
Step 1 Start with a stiff drink
Our team had an impressive safari pedigree and our guide, Tuelo Kgathego, was a local who knew the territory inside out. Nonetheless, to everyone’s surprise, our bush skills course began with a bit of a glitch.
Tuelo’s plan had been to show us how to tap a palm tree for naturally fermented palm wine – a brilliant ice-breaker, or so we all thought. Before we arrived he had made a neat incision in a young palm then rigged up a bottle to collect the sugary sap. It only takes a day for this to turn into wine with an unmistakable kick.
But when he led us over to his tree, his face fell. An elephant had clearly made a night of it, and demolished the lot.
It was a hiccup, but he explained the whole process in detail anyway. And there was an upside: at least we could proceed to the next task with a clear head.
Step 2 Forage for food
A group of women from the camp staff had arranged to meet us in a lily pond. Not near, or beside, but in. We squelched our way through the reeds and then waded, gingerly, across the dark, shallow water. Every few steps, someone let out a yelp as an unseen hole claimed their boot and the water sloshed up over their knees.
Our mission was to gather waterlily rhizomes, which, our patient tutors assured us, are highly nutritious. To do this, we had to reach into the murky depths and yank out whole plants, roots and all. Out of the water, they looked like purple-tentacled sea creatures.
Next, we had to hack off the roots and stems with a kitchen knife, assured that the rhizomes, called tswii, would go very nicely in a slow-cooked stew. That evening, we tested this out. They had an earthy, gritty flavour and texture, but they weren’t bad at all.
Step 3 Set a trap
Hunting for sport is illegal in Botswana, so Tuelo had to be rather circumspect about our next task. On a bushwalk through a shady woodland, he told us we were going to learn how to trap a wild guineafowl, just in case we ever found ourselves in the kind of situation where this would be necessary and acceptable.
The raw materials couldn’t have been simpler – a thin cord of rubber peeled from a tyre, some bits of thorn bush and a whippy sapling. Together, they made a spring-loaded trap that would catch the hapless guineafowl in a noose, ready to be finished off and barbecued with a wild thyme garnish.
Needless to say, no guineafowl were harmed during this lesson.
Step 4 Weave a basket
Not a crucial survival skill, you might think. But we were going to need something to carry the fruits of our foraging and a proper, traditionally woven, basket has a lot more going for it than a sling made from an old T-shirt. For this task, we were back with the women from the camp, who showed us a selection of palm frond baskets at various stages of completion and gave us a demo. They then handed us a bradawl and some fronds and encouraged us to have a bash ourselves.
Clearly there is something hilariously funny about a bunch of novices trying to weave baskets. As we struggled to get the knack of it, our tutors dissolved in fits of giggles so infectious that before long we were all helpless with laughter. Probably best to stick with a sling for now, we decided.
Step 5 Take the wheel
When, halfway through a game drive, Tuelo asked us who wanted to take over, we thought he was joking. The tracks we’d been following were mostly sandy, but were punctuated with flood pools, which looked big enough to swallow a double decker bus. And none of us had driven a 4WD safari vehicle before.
Steeling ourselves for the challenge, we took it in turns to slam the vehicle into low gear and steer through a few of these monster-sized puddles. Dark Okavango water gushed over the wheel arches, surged over the bonnet and flooded into the back. But we all made it through to the other side, cheering victoriously.
Step 6 Pick up a pole
It was time to get to grips with another mode of transport. Gliding through the flood channels in a mokoro – the simple canoe that’s Okavango’s answer to a Venetian gondola or an Oxbridge punt – is a quintessential delta experience. While most visitors simply sit back and enjoy the scenery while somebody else does the poling, we were going to learn how to pilot like a pro.
Each standing confidently at the back of our mokoro, feet slightly apart, we learned how to angle the heavy pole to propel our craft smoothly across the shallow, glossy water. Inevitably, we crashed into the reeds, bumped into each other like dodgem-drivers or simply lost our balance and tumbled in for a soaking. But eventually, it got easier. Another triumph.
Step 7 Get tracking
On our final morning we squeezed in one last task. After breakfast we jumped into the vehicle and headed off in search of lions, with Tuelo scanning the sandy road for clues. Soon enough, he braked to point out fresh paw prints.
What followed was a tracking masterclass. Tuelo’s experienced eyes could pick up traces of tracks that we could barely see, and his confident driving took us across rough, marshy terrain that would have left us floundering. Eventually we were rewarded with a magnificent sighting of two lions on the move, their pelts golden in the morning light.
Plan your trip
There are no direct flights from the UK; Johannesburg is the best gateway and offers good connections to Maun with Air Botswana (www.airbotswana.co.bw).
When to visit
Baines Camp and the Bush Skills Adventure are both options year-round.
Most visitors do not require a visa to visit Botswana.
Proof of a yellow fever vaccination may be required when entering the country from elsewhere in Africa. Malaria is present in most parts of Botswana and prophylactic drugs are strongly recommended.
Find out more
Baines Camp, Botswana http://www.sanctuaryretreats.com/botswana-camps-baines
First published in Travel Africa edition 63, Summer 2013
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