Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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Okavango Delta I
"There's something very having-it-all about driving through the southern Africa landscape listening to Limp Bizkit . . . really, really loud, on an entirely decent stereo system. It feels a little too fabulous to be legal."
        - Me

    The above was actually the best line from the last dispatch, which lamentably got omitted due to me writing, uploading, and publishing that edition in a single 45-minute stopover. (A new record, I believe.) Other miscues resulting from undue haste include: my callous and ignorant claim that corruption is the major killer in Africa, when it can't possibly hold a candle to AIDS, or even malaria; and my comments about why Botswana kicked out the Peace Corps, which were based on hearsay and which, moroever, lamentably probably gave offense to Peace Corps volunteers past, present, and future. All apologies. (*) But on to the Delta.

The Briefing
Our last night in the world, Paul sat us down before dinner, and gave us the scoop about the Delta. We wouldn't actually be camping open air (as I mistakenly believed when I wrote previously); but we would be bringing a radically reduced version of our gear along. Foremost among our cached items would be Sid – our beloved truck. Until we left it behind, the next morning, we would have no true appreciation for what a security blanket it truly had been. It kept us moving down the road (6000 kilometers on this half of the trip alone); it kept the sun and the rain off our heads – never mind the big cats; it uncomplainingly schlepped all of our voluminous gear; it even fed us, the bounty of the kitchen storage in back spilling onto the expandable side-mounted countertop. Now we'd be pushing on without it.

And into what? Well, after an amusing, chain-pulling routine on how to use a suitably frugal amount of toilet paper out in the bush (I'll spare your delicate sensibilities out in Internet Land), Paul got to the real meat of the briefing: how to avoid becoming meat for any of the local Delta denizens. Hippos: "We're not going to run into any, but if we do, it'll be in the boats. Stay in the boat – you've got a much better chance there than in the water." Lions: "Okay, we're not going to encounter a lion, either. It just doesn't happen. We are not part of their food chain. However, if we do, the main thing is to get into a tight circle – men on the outside, women on the inside, please. It may jump right over us, but it won't attack a group. It's trying to spread us apart – so whatever happens, don't panic and run." "And if we encounter it outside of the group?" "<sigh> Okay, first, do not run. Do not turn your back on a big cat. Move very, very slowly. Don't turn away, but avoid eye contact. It's all about showing respect. Can everyone whistle? Okay, if you can't, shout one time for help, so the group will know to come. And start backing very, very slowly away." General advice: "No one is ever alone. When you go out in the middle of the night for a crapper, one of you does your business, while the other one holds the torch." "I am responsible, and I have been doing this for a long time. Do not bother getting stressed out, until and unless you see me stressing. And absolutely do not run, unless you see me running. If you do, I will kick your ass for endangering the safety of the group."

Well, enough of the scare tactics! Into the bush!

The Insertion
We drove Sid to a dusty Botswanan village called Etsha, where we unloaded our daypacks, tents, sleeping bags – and carefully-planned-and-packed food crates. Then we got busy waiting for our ride. When it finally showed, an open-air military-style transport thingy, we piled ourselves and our gear onboard, and got busy bumping down the dusty trail. When the land ran out, we un/re-loaded the stuff into flat-bottom power boats. (At this rate, I thought, and it turned out that this rate would continue for three days, we're going to be buff!) We then raced through narrow, leafy waterways, into the heart of the Delta. Check it out:

We unloaded at "fly camp" (think of it as base camp); and it wasn't quite so rough as we'd been led to believe – as Mark emphasized by snortingly making reference to the pool table at the bar. Nonetheless, we set up tents, kitchen, and gear – and then Mark and I angled out for our inaugural walk in the Delta. We checked in with Paul regarding our vector and anticipated return time – at which point he gave us some additional safety advice, re: leopards (we'd later find out why). "Okay, basically, leopards are dealt with the same as lions. Don't turn your back, and don't run. You know how it is with a cat and a string? You pull it along and they follow? Same thing. But you're not going to see one."

Still, as we set out, it was pretty stimulating to think that we could be in legitimate swampland danger: out there somewhere were real leopards, crocs – and hippos. We almost immediately stumbled on some hippo dung; and Mark added, "I'm willing to bet these paths are not man-made . . . judging, for instance, by the large, round footprints." Unidentified chirping sounds surround us like the interior of Mission Control, and the flat, sandy terrain reminded of us Coastal Carolina, or Florida.

Mark: Though, that's not something you see everyday in Florida – the bones of a large animal bleaching in the sun.
Me: And I can't avoid getting the impression that we'll be the same if we're not back by nightfall. Now's when I really wouldn't mind having that Glock 30 in my bag . . .
Mark: Body parts are everywhere – no two the same. We could probably make something.
Me: Yep, we're on safari now, boy. Kind of hard to believe we're in the middle of Africa, alone – just walking upright on the Savannah.

We've seen some big termite mounds on this trip (lots of them, in fact), but here we followed a long, straight stretch of open ground to God's own termite mound. Mark had previously explained to me that there are upwards of a million termites under each of these – and the mound essentially serves as a chimney, dissipating heat. We caught sight of others of the group, following behind us. Actually, we heard them, about a half mile off. Based mainly on this factor, we undertook to lose them – ultimately getting a bit lost ourselves, wandering into a local village, and getting directions back to the camp site. We did make it by dusk – and a really lovely, lunatic one it was.

* * *

Morning, and we were woken by some of the scores of vervet monkeys with whom we share the island. Mark scoured the banks, and made a new friend: Mr. Monitor Lizard. Smile for the close up! Then, after breakfast – and caching more food and gear – it was back into the boats, for the last powered leg of our trip. On the way, we got a good look at a majestic African Fish Eagle. Then, to significant personal amazement, we hooked up with our guides/polers, and managed to pile everything into traditional (and narrow) makoro dugout canoes, beginning a 1.5 hour trip down tiny little murky waterways. They were nicely festooned, though, with pretty water lillies – and lilly pads solid enough to float Kermit on.

The Bush
Finally: Bush camp. This consisted of a wide spot in the forest, just off of where the mud meets the land. Once we had (once again) unloaded, and set up, Mark and I set off. (Later we were to learn we weren't actually supposed to do this.)

Mark: Tons of elephant dung around here.
Me: That's from elephants?
Mark: You know anything else with an anus that big?
Me: . . . Your mother?

We found a truly stellar elevated, wooded copse (with termite mound). I descended to scout around in the bush below; but when I heard something rustling in the leaves – and approaching – I felt a sudden, irrepressible desire to be back up at the higher elevation. "This is so evolutionarily hard-wired," I note to Mark. "We're Savannah primates, essentially slow, weak prey – and, habitat-wise, we like nothing better than a dense, elevated area that conceals us, but provides a good view out onto the plains. It's no coincidence that it feels really good here." A little later, back in camp, I would hold forth a bit about how, "these three days are almost certainly the closest any of us will ever come to our ancestral environment – the ole evolutionary crucible. Here we are, out on the African Savannah, totally in the wild; a small, nomadic, inter-dependent band – living, cooking, and surviving together. Ordinarily, we commute to work in rolling steel containers, and then sit in beige cubicles staring into electron guns for 10 hours a day. You think your brain – a product of 6 million years of primate evolution, virtually none of it anything like modernity – has any hardwiring to cope with that? No wonder we're all neurotic and on Prozac. And no wonder this all feels importantly different."

Speaking of surviving, Mark and I shortly ran out of water – and that right there was where we really put my ExStream 3-Filter Personal Water Purification System to the acid test. It's actually been a pain in the neck to tote around until now (when all the water has been fine to drink); but now it was going to pay for itself, and more. The two of us trekked down to the water's edge, where the makoros were parked. However, this being a delta – "where a river goes to die," as Mark put it – the water had no edge. What we did have was mud. I'd previously joked that I could drink light sweet crude through my purifiers, but when the rubber met the road, this was not cutting it. We finally figured out that we had to contract one of the polers to take us out a bit, where the water is rather more watery, to fill up. I enjoyed the duty, so I put myself on it, subsequently making several trips out for camp water.

On my return, I found Laura patiently, industriously weaving herself a hat (an adjustable one) out of grassy palm fronds. (Admittedly, it was probably because she lost her prior hat. I paused briefly to doublecheck her neck bolts – that lovely head would get snapped up off the ground pretty quickly around here, I figured.)

When the oppressive heat had dissipated a bit, the full group set out – with our guides in the front and rear – for the evening's highlight: our first game walk. And let me tell you, I pretty quickly figured out that a game walk is a whole different animal from a game drive. As I put it to Mark, "Well, it's definitely not Busch Gardens, anymore." The game viewing here certainly wasn't as stellar as Etosha (in fact, all we really saw our first night was a herd or two of red litchri, the indigenous water antelope). But being on foot made all the difference (for me, at any rate). To adapt a line from Pirsig: Through the windows of the truck, it's all just more television. Here we were in the scene – right out on the open ground with at least five types of animals (elephant, lion, leopard, hippo, croc) that could kill you dead, and forget the whole incident by moonrise. This fact was hammered home when we spotted fresh leopard tracks – and then lion tracks. It turned out the guides saw two lions together that morning. When I asked them which way they went . . . they pointed right toward our little elevated copse of trees. Yikes, Scooby!

Paucity of game aside (and but the next morning's game walk would prove to be much, much more fruitful), the walk was its own reward. Physical exertion, beautiful (if slightly over-stimulating) setting, air that's never tasted car exhaust. Also, we were gifted with a Delta rainbow. My only beef was that it kept getting prettier (and bigger) so I had to keep shooting it: Laura and the rainbow. Me and the rainbow. The landscape and the rainbow. A monkey and the rainbow. Finally, we ran out of rainbow fuel – sunlight (and this is another of those weird, stellar sunsets in the East) – and wandered back to our little primate clearing, for a communal dinner – and a short night of sleep tossed by rather a lot of rustlings in the nearby bushes.

Next: Okavango Delta ][, (everyone altogether now . . .) Electric Boogaloo

  evolutionary psychology     africa     camping     photography     gear     pitely     wildlife     danger  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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