It occurred to me at the time – I actually had the thought – that the situation we were in reminded me of one of those crazy African travel blog entries I’d read online. Dropped off in the middle of nowhere, not really knowing where we were, where we were going, or how we were going to get there. I had the sense that we were in the middle of a great story, but at the time all I wanted to know was how it was going to end.
A large man in a military uniform was the last person to step off the bus. Because he stopped to purchase something from the roadside stand, he was soon the only other passenger still around. As he passed by us on the way down the road, Oksana asked if he knew where the river was.
He gestured across the countryside, “I’m not sure,” he said. “But I think it’s three or four kilometers that way.” His accent was thick, but perfectly understandable.
Both Oksana and I looked the way he indicated. It looked no different than any other direction.
“Do you… um,” I began. “Do you know how we can get there?”
“I would wave at the first car you see,” he replied. Oksana and I looked up and down the dirt road. There were no cars.
As he continued on his way, I helped Oksana into her packs before hefting mine. We walked over to the kiosk and I bought a warm Coca Light as an excuse to ask the owner some questions. When she handed me my change, I asked “How far is the river from here?”
She pointed to a sandy dirt track a couple hundred meters from where we were standing. I looked up and down the main road again before turning back to her. “No taxis?” I smiled.
She smiled back. “No. No taxis.”
Oksana and I thanked her and started to walk to where the track intersected with the road. It only took us a few minutes to reach the juncture, but we were drenched with sweat when we arrived. There was no way we could to carry our packs over sand for four kilometers. We decided to set them down and wait. I cracked open the Diet Coke and we passed it back and forth until it was gone.
Twenty minutes went by without a single vehicle passing. No car, no bicycle, not even a person walked by. We could see the people back at the kiosk stealing looks at us every now and again. I got tired of standing and sat on my backpack.
Finally, we spied a small pickup truck rumbling its way up the sandy tire tracks, coming from the direction of the river. Neither Oksana nor I wanted to be the one to flag it down, but I reluctantly stood up and waved when the truck drew near.
When the truck eased to a stop alongside me, I could see that the driver was a young woman. The passenger seat was empty, but her three-year-old son was standing alone in the pickup’s bed. She looked at me and waited.
“Um, hello,” I looked back the way she had just come. A long trail of dust was settling back to earth. “We were wondering if this is the road to the river…?”
“Yes.” No expression on her face.
“And it’s about four kilometers away?” I asked.
I sighed. She wasn’t making this any easier for me. I gave her a sheepish smile. “I… could you possibly give us a ride to the river?”
She looked over at Oksana and the backpacks, then at her rear view mirror. She turned back to me and said, “Yes.”
“Really? Thank you!” I started to walk around to get our bags.
Oksana hopped up and as we lifted up our bags, the woman got out and warned us that the back of the truck was dirty. “I work on a farm; some of the dirt might be manure.”
We couldn’t have cared less and assured her we didn’t mind. She introduced us to her son – “He loves to ride in the back!” – as we propped our packs upright against the cab window. Oksana and I climbed in and sat on the edge.
The drive took longer than I expected. While we bumped along the sandy tire ruts, Oksana and I tried to engage the little boy in conversation. He understood us, but other than a shy nod or shake of his head, he only smiled and chewed on his fingers.
As we approached the river, the vegetation began to change. Taller, greener trees appeared as we passed through another cluster of houses. Some kids playing by the roadside noticed us riding along and started yelling and waving. We smiled and waved back from our precarious perch. Delighted, they chased after us, picking up more children along the way. By the end, there must have been at least 10 kids behind the truck, running and laughing and screaming, before they finally ran out of steam and fell behind.
The road eventually led into a thicket of trees, cutting off our view of the surrounding terrain. We coasted to a stop on a sandy field. Tire tracks from other vehicles drew big loops in the sand. Ahead, t The twin ruts that made up our road disappeared beneath murky, mineral-brown water.
Our driver cut her engine as I hopped over the side. I walked up to the edge of the water and peered in. “Is this the river?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “The river is farther. On the other side.” Indeed, I could see tire tracks emerging on the far bank, about 50 meters away.
“What is this, if it’s not the river? Is it flooding?”
“Yes. Too much water this year.” I looked at Oksana, then looked back across the pond. I tried to think what to do.
Our driver was the first to break the silence, “How are you planning to cross?”
I laughed. Laughed right out loud. “I have no idea! None at all!” The water looked to be no more than waist deep. I thought I could perhaps wade the bags across, one at a time, but there were hippos and crocodiles in the Okavango River. Would they swim up the flooded road? Finally, I asked, “Do you have a suggestion?”
“Do you have a phone number to call?” she asked.
“No.” I chuckled again. “We don’t even have a phone.”
She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe I can call someone.”
“Do you mind? We would be very thankful. We would be happy to pay you for your minutes, too.”
She placed three calls, apologizing between them for not being able to drive us across the flooded road. “We use the truck on our farm.” I told her we completely understood.
Eventually, she hung up the phone and told us that she called a campground, called the Swamp Stop, on the other side of the flooding. They were sending someone to ferry us across the pond. While we waited, Oksana dug out some cash to pay the woman back for her generosity. We were both so thankful for her help.
Five or ten minutes later, we heard a rough engine chugging along behind the trees on the opposite bank. A young man rode into view on a tractor, hitched to what looked to be a flat, wooden boat trailer. He killed the engine and walked down to the water. From behind a bush, he pulled a long slim canoe, or mokoro, down to the water’s edge and slid it in. We watched as his poled his way across.
Our Swamp Stop employee introduced himself as Geoffrey and helped us load our packs into the middle of the skinny boat. As we climbed into the canoe, we waved goodbye to our savior in the pickup truck.
Our boatman stood in the back of the mokoro and slowly poled us across the pond. With all our laptops and camera gear between our legs, I was terrified we would capsize (especially with him standing in the back), but the boat was remarkable stable. Peering over the side, I didn’t see any crocodiles, but my assumptions about the depth had been correct.
Geoffrey asked us where we were going and we told him about the riverboat that anchored in Seronga. “I am from Seronga!” he said with a big smile. Great! We were on the right track!
He looked pensive or a moment, then said “But why are you going to Swamp Stop?” Uh-oh. Geoffrey went on to explain that Swamp Stop was just a campground along the River. The road went nowhere else and there was no ferry from there to Seronga. “It is okay,” he shrugged it off. “You can use the phone to arrange a transfer.”
Once safely docked on the other bank, I helped Geoffrey haul the moroko all the way out of the water. We climbed up onto the flat wooden trailer and enjoyed the ride as the tractor pulled us over to the campground. He cut the motor and then led through the landscaped grounds, over to the reception office.
Reception was just a small, glassed-in room attached to a two-story restaurant. The receptionist behind the desk was surprised to see us. We soon learned that the entire campground was closed for repairs after the recent flooding. That explained the green swimming pools teeming with frogs and tadpoles…
We told her our story, emphasizing that we were hopelessly lost and confused. Back in Sepupa, we thought asking how to get to the river was the best way to cross it, but now crossing back over the flooded section of road would be difficult. Obviously there would be no car waiting to take us back to the main road.
I dug the printed copies of the Ngwesi River Boat’s website out of my backpack and told the receptionist we were trying to reach Seronga. She gave me a doubtful look, “I don’t think that riverboat doesn’t docks there.”
“Well, okay, but that’s the information we have,” I said. “Would it be okay if we borrowed your mobile phone to call the owners? They’re expecting us today.” It was getting late in the afternoon.
“Well…” she hemmed and hawed. “I’m not supposed to let anyone use the phone…”
“Please?” I asked. “We just traveled all the way up from Maun. We don’t have a phone and I don’t know any other way to reach them. We don’t mind paying!”
Grudgingly, she gave in. “Okay. But you’ll have to be quick.” Her eyes scanned the campgrounds behind us, searching for her boss. “Give me the phone number.”
I handed the paper over and pointed to the contact number. She frowned and said, “I don’t think that’s the right one. I’m going to call another.”
I thought better about arguing and just said, “Okay. Thank you.” She dialed the number and immediately handed me the phone.
A man with a South African accent answered. “Hello,” I said. “I’m trying to reach Wanda.”
“Nobody here by that name. Wanda who?” I briefly explained our situation and told him we were trying to reach the Ngwesi River Boat. “Oh, sure. I know who you mean. Let me get her phone number for you.” I wrote it in the margins of my printout. It matched the number I’d given to the receptionist.
I thanked him and hung up, then asked the receptionist to if I could make another call. She sighed, but motioned me to go ahead.
I didn’t get a hold of Wanda with the next call, either, but it was the correct number. Her husband answered and, once I’d identified myself, he promised me she would call us back soon.
I told the receptionist – who was none too happy – and asked if there was a place we could wait. She pointed us toward the restaurant. We dragged our bags in and sat at the bar. Another employee, an older woman, was watching a show on TV, but she switched over to a BBC World News broadcast for us. I felt guilty and ordered a beer while we waited.
Half an hour later, the phone finally rang. The receptionist handed it to me and Wanda was finally on the line.
“Hello!” I said. “So happy to finally get in touch with you!”
“Where are you?” She asked. “We’re still in Maun.”
I wanted to thump my head on the bar.
Long story short, Wanda had a family emergency back in South Africa and was trying to arrange a flight home. They had tried to call us at the Okavango River Lodge, even showed up while we were in our room (an employee supposedly knocked on our door and got no answer.) She tried to apologize for the confusion, but I wouldn’t let her because the fault was all our own. If only we’d checked our email before leaving!
Wanda told me that we were more than welcome to spend the night on the riverboat; the captain was expecting us. I explained that we were essentially stuck at an isolated campground between rivers with no mobile phone.
We talked it over and decided the best course of action would be to wait for Adriaan, her husband. He would be driving back from Maun the following day and he could pick us up at the campground. I put the phone against my shoulder and asked the receptionist if it was possible for us to rent a room or a tent for just one night. She did that nodding-shrugging thing that says, “I guess so.”
Before hanging up, Wanda asked, “By the way, why were you trying to go to Seronga?”
“Because that’s where the website said the riverboat was docked.” I said.
“Oh,” she replied. “No, no. It’s in Shakawe now.” What?! “You must have been looking at the old website. We moved the boat when we took it over from the previous owners.” I sighed.
We made plans for Adriaan to call the following day to let us know when he’d arrive. I hung up and handed the phone back to the receptionist. We counted out some coins to pay for the minutes we’d used and handed that to her, as well, before asking about the room rates. We decided the air-conditioned chalets were far too expensive for our budget. A huge safari tent with cots, sheets, and blankets was $30; we took one of those.
The next day – Oksana’s birthday, actually – we spent near the restaurant (the older woman offered to cook for us from a limited menu; “Do you want a hamburger or fish?”) and on its second-floor balcony. The view of the Okavango Panhandle from that balcony was spectacular. A narrow channel of the river snaked its way in front of us and on the opposite bank, tall reeds grew seemingly all the way to the horizon.
We celebrated Oksana’s birthday by reading on the deck, petting some of the campground’s dozen or so friendly cats, and only looking up for the occasional colorful bird or river otter. We talked to Adriaan again in the morning and he told us he would meet us at 4pm. Later, however, he called again to tell us that he needed to see Wanda off and wouldn’t be able to pick us up until the following morning. We didn’t have to worry about not having reservations for another night in the tent; we never did see another traveler while we were at the Swamp Stop.
Those two days at the campground were actually quite relaxing. We had been going pretty much non-stop for six weeks and it was nice to have a couple days without anything to do. We might well have needed the recovery time after the adventure of getting there, too.
At any rate, Adriaan picked us up on the second day and drove us to the riverboat in Shakawe. Oksana and I spent the next four days on the river – just us and the riverboat’s two crew members – enjoying the sights and sounds of the Okavango Panhandle. But that’s another story…
Ngwesi Houseboat website
If you want to read more about us trying to find our way in Africa, I’ve already written about the next leg of this journey (when we left the riverboat, bound for Zambia) in my Thoughts on Namibia post.