From Shakawe to Maun via Lake Ngami

This is the continuation of the story of our holiday journey down the Okavango river, tracing some of the places followed by Val’s ancestor Fred Green some 160 years ago. It continues from Drowning in the Okavango: in the steps (and wake) of the brothers Green | Hayes & Greene family history, and you can see an index to all these posts of our travelogue of Namibia and Botswana here.

We left Drotsky’s Cabins at Shakawe in Botswana at about 8:45 am, after a good breakfast. It was a good place to stay, and the staff were very friendly and welcoming. The only drawback was the price. Though the facilities were no better than those at the Kaisosi River Lodge at Rundu in Namibia, it cost nearly twice as much to stay there.

Parts of Namibia and Botswana we travelled through 21-25 May 2013

Parts of Namibia and Botswana we travelled through 21-25 May 2013

The map shows where we travelled these few days, from Rundu to Maun via Shakawe and Sehitua. It also shows where Fred Green and his brother Charles travelled. Initially they travelled to Lake Ngami from Bloemfontein, where their brother Henry was British Resident of the Orange River Sovereignty, approaching it from the east. They would leave some of their cattle with their friend Sechele, the chief of the Bakwena, who lived in the vicinity of the present-day Gaborone. In 1852, however, a group of Boers from the Transvaal raided the Bakwena, and stole a lot of cattle, including those belonging to the Green brothers and the missionary David Livingstone. Soon afterwards the Orange River Sovereignty became an independent Boer republic, and the Green brothers stopped using that route, and approached Lake Ngami from the west, via Walvis Bay. Sometimes they would take the direct route via Gobabis, but people living in the Gobabis area were known to rob travellers, and it was also difficult to find water to trek oxen, so they also used the more circuitous route via the Omurambo Womataka — which is shown on the map as joining the Okavango between Rundu and Bagani. The lower reaches of it may be the mysterious Shoshongo Dum. They would then probably have followed more or less the route we took now.

Roadside trees on the road south from Shakawe

Roadside trees on the road south from Shakawe

We drove south through Nxamasere and Sepupa, but though the river was supposed to be somewhere over on the left, we did not catch another glimpse of it. We passed a turn-off to Etsha, and I half thought of going to look at it, as it was the site of Ronald Wynne’s missionary labours among Mbukushu refugees from Angola, described in his book The pool that never dries up. It was therefore of some missiological interest, but time was not on our side, and we were still uncertain about whether we would be able to get enough petrol to get to Maun, so we drove on.

At Gumare, about 130 km from Shakawe, as we had been told, petrol was available, so our fears of being stranded in Botswana were groundless, and we filled up for the first time since Rundu, though we had actually used surprisingly little, and might actually have made it to Maun if we needed to. We also bought some Botswana cellphone SIM cards for Mascom, which seemed to give the usual problems when trying to install them, of asking for information, such as one’s identity number, when one was not sure what exactlywas being asked for.

We reached Nokaneng at noon, 170 km from Shakawe. The map showed that it was closer to the river, and also that there was a gravel
road running down the river bank, so we turned off into the village to see if we could find it, but we drove in a fairly wide circle without seeing either river or road along it, and returned to the main road.

About 20 km beyond Nokaneng we stopped to take photos of a scarecrow — at least that’s what it looked like. We had seen several such things along the road, and wondered what they signified. This one had the figure of a man carrying a plastic bucket and a couple of other things, and a couple of ox skulls nailed to a post, and festooned with old tire treads.

A scarecrow, or something else? Seen about 20 km south of Nokaneng on the road to Sehitwa

A scarecrow, or something else? Seen about 20 km south of Nokaneng on the road to Sehitwa

At Tsau, according to the map, the road crossed the Taokhe River, up which Fred Green was said to have travelled by boat in 1855. He certainly couldn’t have done so today, as there was no sign of water in it. The Taokhe is a distributory of the Okavango — though I’m not sure what to call it. A tributary is a smaller river that adds its flow to a bigger one, but the Okavango works in reverse — it’s a big river that splits up into a lot of smaller ones where it flows into the Kalahari desert and sinks into the sand, so I refer to the smaller rivers as “distributories” for want of a better word.

The bridge over Taokhe River at Tsau -- it may have been navigable in 1855, but not today

The bridge over Taokhe River at Tsau — it may have been navigable in 1855, but not today

The amount of water in these rivers and lakes varies tremendously. In Fred Green’s time, in the early 1850s, Lake Ngami was a fairly large body of water, so that he thought it worthwhile to take a boat there, presumably from Walvis Bay. But after a few years of drought it shrinks a great deal. Our visit seems to have fallen somewhere in between. The Taokhe River was dry as dust, and one couldn’t imagine it being navigable , ever. But when we reached Lake Ngami, it seemed that the level of water in it was higher than it had been for some time past.

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa, 23 May 2013

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa, 23 May 2013

We reached Lake Ngami at Sehitwa, a town on the shore, and there we could drive down to the lake and see it. There were fishing boats and nets and fishermen mending their nets. But there were a lot of dead trees sticking up out of the water. Clearly they had grown there when the level of the water was much lower than it is now. One sometimes sees that when a dam is built. As the water level in the dam rises, it drowns existing vegetation, and the trees die. But Lake Ngami is not a human construction, but a natural lake, and obviously the water level fluctuates a great deal.

Lake Ngami, 23 May 2013

Lake Ngami, 23 May 2013

The dead trees were Kalahari thorn trees, and must have established themselves on the shore of the lake over a number of years before the water level rose again to swallow them up. So perhaps the level of water in the lake is now higher than it has been for 30 years or more, but it seems unlikely that it will rise again to what it was in Fred Green’s time, though, as everywhere we had been in northern Namibia people had been speaking of a drought with crop failures.

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa

We left Sehitwa heading for Maun, and a little way out of town passed a sign that said “Lake Ngami 2 km”. As we had come all this way to see it, we turned back, and rounding a bush suddenly found ourselves on a sandy track like the old road between Rundu and Mukwe (see photo in previous entry). That proved to be to much for our little Toyota Yaris with its small wheels and we got stuck. It proved difficult even to reverse out, as the front bumper was scooping up sand like a shovel, and we enlisted the help of a couple of passers-by to help us get out. At the other end of the lake wass the village of Toteng, and we drove into it to see if there was a view of the lake from there, but could not see anything. The Green brothers, and most of the other foreign traders and tourists of the 1850s, seemed to make for Letsholathebe’s Town, and we wondered whether that was at Toteng, or Sehitwa, or somewhere in between.

A couple of times, when we made excursions into towns and villages, when we got back to the main road there was no speed limit sign, and we were stopped by traffic cops for going too fast.

We reached Maun at about 4:30 pm, about 400 km from Shakawe and were surprised to see how big it was. It was much bigger than Gobabis and Rundu, which had grown enormously in the 40 years since I had last seen them. Neither of us had ever seen Maun before, but from reading descriptions in books we had got the impression that it was a small place, with a couple of general dealer stores, a garage, a post office, and not much else. On maps it had seemed remote, far from anywhere, the last place anyone would go to. But if it was like that 30-40 years ago, it is certainly no longer like that. Not it is a hub, a centre, a crossroads on major trade routes. It is at least 20 km across, to judge from the street lights as measuring the urban area.

Maun, Botswana. May 2013

Maun, Botswana. May 2013

I suspect that this may be the result of the completion of the tarred road between Gobabis and Francistown, which puts Maun on the crossroads of trade routes between Zimbabwe and Zambia and the port at Walvis Bay. There has been talk of extending the railway line from Gobabis to Francistown as well.

Island Safari Lodge, Maun, Botswana

Island Safari Lodge, Maun, Botswana

And that puts me in mind of the idea of an Orthodox theological seminary for southern Africa, following Bishop Shihala Hamupembe’s comments on the difficulties of sending foreign students to South Africa. Maun might be a good central place for such an institution, accessible from South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I wonder how friendly Botswana is to international educational institutions? Perhaps more so than South Africa. It’s a thought for the future, anyway.

Cattle crossing the river in the evening

Cattle crossing the river in the evening

We stayed at the Island Safari Lodge, on the north-eastern side of Maun, about 12 km from the centre of town. It overlooks one of the distributories of the Okavango River, quite high on a bank. It’s not as posh as Kaisosi or Drotsky’s, but comfortable enough, and the staff are equally welcoming and friendly. I wondered if they had all been trained at the same school for the hospitality industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.  It also had free Wi-Fi that worked, at least until the electricity went off. The lights came on again after a few seconds, but the Wi-Fi stayed off till we left.

We sat on the terrace and and watched the cattle grazing on the island opposite. At one point a group of them swam across the river to the other side, presumably it was miling time. I sampled the local beer, which had the unlikely name of St Louis, but it wasn’t as good as Windhoek beer. There were boats going up and down the river, much narrower and slower-flowing here than at Shakawe or Rundu, so they punted the boats with poles rather than using paddles.

A boat being punted past the Island Safari Lodge, Maun

A boat being punted past the Island Safari Lodge, Maun

This was followed by a day in Maun, and another boat ride to see a spectacular sunset and moonrise over the Okavango Delta.

You can see an index to all these posts of our travelogue of Namibia and Botswana here.

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