Punting & The Old Bridge

Today is a day of RnR and bike tinkering. The back wheel has been struggling and now has a bit of a wobble like it’s had one too many. I undertook a bike maintenance course before leaving the UK, but my attention span is somewhat like a sine curve and I’m not as clued up as I should be. It isn’t rocket science, but it is my first time turning a wheel. Unlike losing my virginity, it takes an age, but it is equally awkward, embarrassing and, in my fumblings, I spill some oil.

I’ve set up shop in the bar area of The Old Bridge in Maun, central Botswana. The thatched bar opens on to the river, with benches nestled beneath the canopy of a mature mochaba tree. A German, unfortunately not named Herman, sparks up conversation and gives a helping hand. Thomas is a fifty-something jolly German. You wouldn’t guess, looking at his comfortable physique, but he has almost ninety thousand kilometres to his name; back in the day he cycled through the likes of Siberia and North America before passing through this little town called Maun. Here he met a lady, and hasn’t ventured further. He proves to be somewhat of a distraction – bike maintenance turns to coffee and coffee to beer. It’s not gone 10am and we are propping up the bar. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Bike still in a state of disrepair, I find myself pinned between Thomas and David. David is the owner and sports a white goatee with a shaved head, which only expose his quite stark blue eyes. He grew up here and has run a number of campsites and guest houses throughout the region. But Thomas is certainly the catalyst and before midday he has ordered a Jägermeister or two. David stoically works on his laptop as we chat, clearly he has witnessed this scene before. Lunch-less I opt for a cheeky pack of pork scratchings, though they are more air than fat which is woefully disappointing; the sign of the perfect snack is a generous layer of crackling accompanied by the odd rouge hair.

They are a good bunch and with the likes of Bowie playing quietly in the background we whittle away the afternoon. It’s a great spot. David refers to his staff as family, a big family of 50 extended individuals, but I like that. He seems to genuinely enjoy running the place, but cares for the welfare of his team. Thomas is eventually chaperoned home by said lady and David heads home to, no doubt, be given the cold shoulder for an hour or two.

I’m on the edge of the Okavango Delta and take the opportunity to explore the water ways on a traditional dugout Mokoro canoe. Well, perhaps a not-so-traditional fibreglass Mokoro canoe; I suspect the skills have been lost to hand carve the boats, and the trees are more scarce. It is a pleasant morning being punted through the delta at the level of the water boatmen, a twitcher’s paradise. As we glide amongst the water lilies, brown Jesus birds or lily trotters walk on the green leaves as if they were stepping stones, taking flight as we approach. Their gangly long limbs look like frogs legs trailing behind them. Spur winged geese and egrets turn skyward in flurries as we meander down the waterways with grasses towering above our heads.

In full flood, this warren of grass lined river roads is submerged, as waters from Angola slowly percolate through the system, swelling the delta to three times it’s current size. These waters won’t arrive until peak season in April through to July. But with levels this low our guide, Lee, pulls up on a temporary island. We follow him as he trudges along like a sullen teenager dragging his feet as he goes. He’s tall, thin and not a particularly chatty fellow, though he has eyes like a hawk spotting ostrich and a giraffe in the distance, which could be a tree swaying in the wind for all I know. As we walk to a lagoon which is home to hippo, he points out game tracks from zebra and antelope. It’s a tranquil pursuit this punting and on our way back I take a wee siesta.

I had planned to stay just two days in Maun at the Old Bridge, to take in the Okavango, but four days later I find myself sipping tea by the river watching the kingfishers catch their breakfast. The water at a glance might suggest that it’s raining, again, but it’s just teaming with activity. Fish beneath ripple the surface. Yesterday I tagged along with David and few of his team out into the bush where he plans to set up a new campsite, deeper in the delta and on the edge of a lagoon. Just as the rains start, the guys set about clearing a path for the 4×4 to take. They make quick work of the Acacia.

We walk along the edge of a lagoon following a hippo trail, the snouts and eyes of a few crocodiles poke above the surface. I can picture how incredible it would be to wake up on the edge of the lagoon, with no need for an alarm, the huffs and puffs of the hippos your morning call. If David can pull it off, this site nestled in the delta on this small island amongst the trees will be quite something.

The white skeleton of an elephant rests half submerged at the waters edge, there was a feast here at some point. Elephants have left a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of large patties of digested grass and vegetation. Trees have been felled and the bark scraped off by these animals. They can decimate a patch of forest, which turns to tinder and catches in the heat, charring the surrounding area. At the far end of the lagoon a lone male hippo grunts, sending puffs of water in to the air. Spotting us, a wake subtly forms behind his great head. With his body submerged he makes for our direction, a lone male can be territorial; that’s our cue to leave.

It’s been a good few days at the Old Bridge, I will have to come back when the delta and the bar are in full flood. Rested and watered I point my wheels in the direction of Zimbabwe, but I must pass through the Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pan National Parks to get there.

There is one more snag…I find myself staying one extra extra night. Antwan and Rebecca have invited me for a curry. I’m ex-military and can’t resist the age old tradition of Thursday curry night, albeit lunch. Goat is on the menu and God it’s good. After my diet of tuna pasta, who am I to pass up such a feast. Rebecca is a Wolverhampton lass and Antwan a Saffa. They met in the Middle East, she a teacher and he contracting. It’s just a normal meal with a group of friends into which I’m embraced. Phil the doctor remembers when David but was a lad. It might not sound much but it’s these excursions that make this trip. I’ve passed up the opportunity to drive to a carnivorous research station in the north and a few days drive with a couple as I’ve been in a rush to reach Zim. But lunch with adopted friends should never be passed up.

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