Pathways through the Okavango
Written March 9, 2016
By Laurel Martinez (University of Vermont)
Photos by Ben Szydlowski.
Dumela from Botswana! The group has just moved from Camp Dibatana to a new campsite in the bush west of Sankuyo village. After a day of torrential rain we’re settled in and beginning three new herbivore transects and new bird transects. The region here has more woodland than the previous campsite, mostly filled with the iconic elephant ear shaped leaves of mopane trees. Nevertheless, we’ve had some fantastic encounters with new wildlife already, including roan antelope and eland.
My Round River experience in Botswana so far can be summarized by the roads we’ve traveled across. Much of our time is spend in our three trusty vehicles: Lucy, Francolin, and the recently repaired Uncle Duke. Whether we’re driving to a new campsite, into town, or on transects, we rely on roads and vehicles to take us where we need to go. Soon after driving in Botswana, you’ll notice that the roads here are very different from each other. I want to use the different kinds of roads I’ve noticed to guide you through the faces of Botswana we’ve seen so far.
When we arrived at the airport in Maun, the first kind of roads we drove down were well-maintained paved roads painted with yellow and white lines. These are the roads that take us to the grocery store and shops. Donkeys and cows line the dusty edges, sometimes wandering into the streets only to be ushered away by beeping horns. School children in uniforms walk past and wave to us as they head home after class. We don’t spend too much time in town and we soon leave for new places.
As we leave town, the paved road changes to dirt after about 45 minutes. These roads are used often and the ground is compact and dry. Other vehicles continue to pass us by, kicking up giant clouds of light brown dust and obscuring the view. The road is typically surrounded by trees and grasses, but sometimes we pass by open fields and savannah. Roads like these will take us in and around villages like Sankuyo where we visited the school, and to the homes of our instructor Sixteen and our community escort guides Innocent and KG. The people in Sankuyo are friendly with a great sense of humor, especially as we all try and use the Setswana phrases Sixteen has taught us. One woman sells us fried fish which has been my favorite meal so far, along with “fat cakes” which may be the best possible way to fry dough. After a day in Sankuyo the time comes for us to leave for the bush.
This leads us to next kind of road which is fully immersed in the wilderness. They typically begin as offshoots from the bigger dirt roads and consist of two parallel bare tracks in the sand where the tires of previous vehicles have passed. We drive through puddles of water and over fallen branches. The ride is much less smooth than the previous roads, but our three vehicles typically make it through with ease, although we have a few hiccups here and there. These roads are the ones that we usually drive for our wildlife transects and we become accustomed to the rough terrain quickly. From these roads, we see an astounding array of wildlife.
Towers of giraffes peer through canopies of acacia and elephants crash through trees almost as if oblivious that there was an obstacle there at all. Zebra scatter through the open savannah, sometimes with a wildebeest or two in their midst. We see buffalo, steenbok, impala, lechwe, kudu, hippos, and others. Each day brings a new almost unreal animal encounter. My personal favorites are the big cats which are hauntingly similar to housecats in their behavior, but with the capacity to take down animals many more times my size. We were lucky enough to find two beautiful male lions resting under an acacia tree. They eyed us lazily from their resting place, yawning to expose huge white canines. Gigantic paws folded over one another reminding me of the immense power these animals possess. Their golden eyes glow in the afternoon sunset.
The last kind of road we take is the proverbial “road less traveled.” These are the new transects we’re exploring in the northern region of this concession – NG 34. Our transects will often diverge into elephant paths blocked by fallen trees. We track our way through what looks to me like an empty field, but what our instructor Sixteen sees as an old overgrown hunting road. Heavy rainclouds loom above and soon the characteristic downpour of the wet season is upon us. Thunder crackles through charged air and lightning strikes nearby. After the rains a new world opens up along these near abandoned roads. Wetlands and watering holes that were once barren fill with water. This attracts herds of elephants and buffalo. When we’re finished counting herbivores along the transects, we head back to camp and fall asleep under a blanket of stars. Although getting stuck in the mud, caught in the rain, and bushwhacking through forests can be rough, taking the roads less traveled has made all the difference.