Drowning in the Okavango: in the steps (and wake) of the brothers Green

In 1855 the brothers Fred and Charles Green sailed up the Okavango River from Lake Ngami in Botswana, and thereafter hunted and traded along it for several years. On our holiday trip we tried to visit some of the places they would have seen along the river and its distributories. Story continued from Across northern Namibia | Notes from underground

After driving from Odibo in Ovamboland and spending the night at the Kaisosi River Lodge near Rundu, Val was up early on the morning of Tuesaday 22 May taking pictures of the sunrise, and the professional photographer we had seen the previous evening was at it again, filming the dugout canoes  crossing the Okavango river, so we got more pictures of boats crossing the river. But there were also some other boats, independent of the photographer.

Crossing the Okavango in a dugout canue, this time not for the photographer

Crossing the Okavango in a dugout canue, this time not for the photographer

There was a busload of German tourists staying at Kaisosi, and they went out on the river in a boat for breakfast.

View over the Okavango River from the dining room of Kaisosi River Lodge

View over the Okavango River from the dining room of Kaisosi River Lodge

The tourist breakfast on the river was a far cry from 160 years ago, when Val’s great great grandfather Fred Green and his brother Charles used to come here. In this part of our journey we were trying to visit some of the places the Green brothers passed through and stayed at back in the 1850s and 1860s. Charles Green was drowned in the Okavango river about 1862, so somewhere along this stretch of river his bones must lie in an unmarked grave.  Perhaps he was travelling in a dugout canoe similar to those in the photos.

Breakfast on the Okavango River

Breakfast on the Okavango River

Charles Green’s fate was perhaps better than that of George Bonfield, who was taken by a crocodile when Fred Green’s boat was overturned by a hippo in 1861, near Andara Island, about 120 km downstream from Rundu. No grave at all for him, marked or unmarked.

The Green brothers were born in Montreal, Canada; Charles was born in 1825, and Fred in 1829. The Green family moved to the Cape Colony when their father, William Green, who was in the commissartiat department of the British army, was transferred there some time in the 1840s. Henry Green, the older brother of Charles and Fred, became British Resident of the Orange River Sovereignty, and his borthers joined him there in about 1852-54. From there Charles and Fred set out on hunting expeditions to Lake Ngami travelling up the Boteti (or Botletle) River with their ox wagons (more about that in a later post).

In 1855 Fred Green (Charles had then gone to Australia) travelled up the Taokhe River from Lake Ngami to Andara with his future brother-in-law Oskar Lindholm and a couple of others. We were now travelling in the opposite direction, the one they took on their return journey

We left Kaisosi River Lodge on Tuesday 21 May 2013, and went into Rundu in search of petrol, and the first garage we tried had none, but a Total garage in the centre of town had some, and we filled up, and set out east for Mukwe.

Shebeen in Rundu

The Put More Fire Shebeen in Rundu

When I last travelled this road over 40 years ago in a Water Affairs Jeep, it was a sandy track, suitable only for four-wheel drive vehicles, and even LandRovers were not allowed to use it, as their track was too narrow, and they would mess them up for larger vehicles. Now it is a tarred highway from near Oshikango to Katima Mulilo, and even our little Toyota Yaris can use it. .

The road from Rundu to Mukwe in 1969, the previous time I travelled along it

The road from Rundu to Mukwe in 1969, the previous time I travelled along it

Here is how I described that earlier journey in my diary (9 September 1969). I was travelling with Reiner Iben, my immediate boss, and we were going round northern Namibia servicing the instruments that measured the watert level in various rivers.

We drove to Grootfontein, where we had a puncture repaired and had breakfast in a cafe. Then we went on to Runtu. At midway there was a “stock control post”, and the bloke there didn’t want to let me in because I didn’t have a permit. But Iben talked him into it [by telling him that I would have to stay with him if he didn't let me in], and we had coffee with him. We also noticed that one of the Jeep’s rear shock absorbers was hanging loose. On the way to Runtu one of the front ones also broke loose, so we had a very bouncy ride.

Runtu was hot, with a police station and a hospital, and that was about all. It was strange that there should be a police station, because it was supposed to be out of the police zone, but there it was. The Okavango river looked quite beautiful – it was nice to see an ever-flowing river for a change. We had lunch in a rest hut overlooking the river, and then went on to Mukwe, along the river further to the east. On the way we passed a lorry belonging to the roads department, which had broken down, and we called in at their camp, about twenty miles further on, to tell them about it, and we were offered tea. They had a radio, which they used to call for a spare fanbelt for the truck. Beyond the road camp the road deteriorated into a track, all sandy and rather bumpy, and so it was rather unpleasant going along with only two shock absorbers. The broken ones were both on the driver’s side, so Iben, as the senior, made me drive, so he sat in the passenger seat and had the smoother ride. We passed a letter-box, painted red, at the side of the track, looking most incongruous — not that the place was uninhabited, because we passed many grass huts, but it looked unchanged from the nineteenth or probably the eighteenth century, and the letter box seemed to be an anachronism.

The style of the houses was completely different from that in Natal. There is no mud, so they are built of sticks, and each family home has a maze built around its home, with the individual huts, and the kraal, inside the maze. Zulu homes usually have huts arranged in a semi-circle around the kraal, but here the kraal is at the side and everything is connected by passages. We stopped along the road to collect wood, because Iben said there was no wood at Mukwe.

We reached Mukwe at about sunset, and we installed a new instrument just as it was getting dark. The new instrument was an electrical one, which would only require attention every six months. Then we camped and washed in the river and had supper. The river here is even more beautiful than at Runtu, with lots of little islands, and the water is beautifully clear.

It was soon apparent that though the tarred road to the west of Rundu had been built closer to the river, on the east it had been built farther away than the original track, so we turned off and went along the gravel road shown on the map as closer to the river, though I think it was still further away than the original track.

The Kavango style of domestic architecture was similar to that in Ovamboland, but the walls and fences were often built of grass rather than sticks

The Kavango style of domestic architecture was similar to that in Ovamboland, but the walls and fences were often built of grass rather than sticks

We drove down to the Mukwe police station, and I recalled that the water gauging station had been behind it, but we did not get any closer to the river there. The map also showed a petrol station at Mukwe, but we saw no sign of it. There was a sign saying we had entered Andara, and we stopped to take a photo of what we thought was the island.

Andara Island (we think)

Andara Island (we think)

Edward C. Tabler, in his book Pioneers of South West Africa and Ngamiland: 1738-1880, describes Fred Green’s first visit here as follow:

Green fell ill at Walvis Bay, which delayed him there. Wahlberg had arrived at the Bay in April 1854, and he and Green (and perhaps Bonfield and Lindholm) travelled to Letsholathebe’s town by 31 May 1855, when J. Chapman and Edwards arrived there from the east. After the departure of Chapman and Edwards for Walvis Bay on 1 August, Green, Wahlberg, Wilson and Lindholm ascended the Taokhe River to Libebe’s, August to November, using Green’s boat and porters. They were forced to leave the boat at some distance below Andara Island because of rapids. They arrived at Libebe’s on 22 October buty had a bad reception, and therefore soon started away. Only Wahlberg visited Andara Island.

Though Tabler lists his sources, he did not say which one he used for this account, and it would be interesting to read the original. Letsholathebe was the ruler  of the Tawana people, who, according to this article, had come to the Lake about 1820, and subjugated the other people living there. Libebe was the ruler of the Hambukushu people who lived in the area in the mid-19th century.

A few kilometres further on we rejoined the we rejoined the tar road where it crossed the river on a bridge to West Caprivi. We saw a garage there, but it had no petrol.

Okavango River just below the Popa rapids

Okavango River just below the Popa rapids

We went on towards the Botswana border at Mohembo, and saw a sign pointing to the Popo falls, which had blocked Fred Green’s progress in his boat, but there was a newly-built gate there, and they would not let us in. They said they were busy upgrading the accommodation. We said we weren’t looking for accommodation, but just wanted to see the rapids, but historical interest must give way to private enterprise and commercialisation, and they would not let us in.

Drotsky's Cabins, near Shakawe in Botswana

Drotsky’s Cabins, near Shakawe in Botswana

A little further on was Divara Lodge, and we stopped there for a very expensive lunch of a toasted ham and cheese sandwich (N$190.00), but it was perhaps worth it for the view of the river. We drove on through a game park, where we saw three zebras, and reached the Namibian border at 3:00 pm, and crossed into Botswana, leaving the border post at 4:28 pm, since Botswana time is an hour ahead of Namibian time.

Okavango River at Drotsky's Cabins

Okavango River at Drotsky’s Cabins

At about 4:55 we reached Shakawe, and looked for petrol there too, but there was none, and we wondered if we might end up being
stranded in Botswana, We reached Drotsky’s Cabins at about 5:20, and checked in to cabin number 9. It was close to the river so we took some photos and went for a beer before supper. There was a dog there who, like our dog Samwise, was crazy about having balls thrown for her. Drotsky’s was very pleasant, but, though the facilities were no better than Kaisosi River Lodge, where we had spent the previous night, it was almost double the price.

Sunrise at Drotsky's Cabins

Sunrise at Drotsky’s Cabins

The next morning (Wednesday 22 May) we were up by 5:30. We took photos of the sun shining through the trees, and after breakfast went on a boat ride up the river. Our boatman was called Salvation, which seemed fairly auspicious, and he first took us a little way downstream to see a colony of bee-eaters nesting in the river bank. There were dozens of holes in the bank where they made their nests, and dozens of birds popping in and out of them, or perched on the branches outside.

Bee eaters

Bee eaters

He then took us close to the bank a little bit further up, to see a small crocodile basking in the sun. The steep bank, about 7-8 feet high, where the cabins were situated, with their thorn trees, turned out to be rather unusual, and soon there were low reed banks on both sides of the river. We mainly wanted to see what Fred Green would have seen when he came up here in a boat, to get a picture of what it was like, but Salvation also took us inshore at various places to see birds and animals, which Fred Green would no doubt also have seen.

Crocodile on the bank of the Okavango River

Crocodile on the bank of the Okavango River

At one point we saw a snake eagle, and then a couple of fish eagles, and Salvation threw a couple of pieces of fish in the water so we could see how they swooped down to scoop them up. I found it difficult to take photos with the digital camera, though, because it was impossible to see anything on the screen. Trying to take a photo of a bird on a branch was a hit or miss affair, because it was impossible to distinguish the branch from the reflection of the frame of my glasses on the screen. We used to have an older digital camera which also had an optical viewfinder, but the newer ones don’t seem to have that feature.

Fish eagle

Fish eagle

There was a monitor lizard lying against a tree trunk, amazingly well camouflaged. It was almost exactly the same colour as the bark. We would never have spotted it if Salvation had not pointed it out. He is probably so familiar with the animals and birds on this stretch of river that he knows their favourite haunts and habits, but even so, it must be remarkably difficult to see.

Shakawe, Botswana, from the Okavango River

Shakawe, Botswana, from the Okavango River

We passed Shakawe village, and went on upstream, seeing an adult hippo and a couple of young ones. The adult hippo ran into the water almost as soon as we saw it, and then surfaced about halfway between us and the shore. I wondered if history would repeat itself, and whether we might enjoy the fate of George Bonfield 160 years ago.

Darter, sometimes called a "snake bird", because its neck looks a bit like a snake

Darter, sometimes called a “snake bird”, because its neck looks a bit like a snake

We had booked the boat for an hour, but extended our trip because it was so pleasant on the water that we extended it, and must have gone about 15 kilometres up the river. As we went we wondered how Fred Green had fared on the river. Below the Popa rapids, as above, the river flows at the rate of about 1-1,5 metres a second. With an outboard motor it was easy, but it must be more difficult if one was rowing. And back in those days the only power boats were ones with steam engines. Fuel would be no problem, but carrying a steam boat by ox-wagon from Walvis Bay would be quite a schlepp.

Hippo on the Okavango

Hippo on the Okavango

We saw some of the same creatures on the way back, and explored some side channels of the river, going around the islands.

Fish eagle

Fish eagle

Salvation dropped us back at the landing stage, apparently an old pont, at lunch time. I asked what his surname was, but it was a Yei name, and utterly unfamiliar to me, and as I had nothing to write it down with, I’d forgotten how to spell it five minutes later.

Salvation at the wheel

Salvation at the wheel

We had a drink on the veranda before lunch, and there were a bunch of other people there, apparently having a business meeting, and the dog with the ball was carrying it around hopefully, hinting that it needed to be thrown. She brought it to us once and I threw it for her.

Ball-obsessed dog

Ball-obsessed dog

The web site had told us that “Drotsky’s Cabins is a family business, and since it has been here for a long time, its owners are extremely knowledgeable about the Shakawe area, as well as the flora and fauna in this part of the Okavango Delta in Botswana” and also that “The bar at Drotsky’s Cabins is also frequented by locals, apart from tourists, so you are guaranteed to hear some fascinating stories about the Shakawe region of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.” I was rather disappointed that the guarantee was not fulfilled. I had rather hoped we might find someone to ask if there were any stories extant about the Green brothers, though of course Salvation had been knowledgable enough about the fauna of the delta.

Drotsky's Cabins - bar, lounge and dining room

Drotsky’s Cabins – bar, lounge and dining room

We spent most of the afternoon reading and relaxing, in the comfortable cabin. Though we have been on holiday, it has been quite a busy time with things to do and people to see or travelling taking up a lot of the time.

The story of our journey continues here.

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2 Responses

  1. […] For anyone interested, the story of our journey down the Okavango continues at Drowning in the Okavango: in the steps (and wake) of the brothers Green | Hayes & Greene family … […]

  2. Like you we have enjoyed Drotsky’s cabins. I have both camped there as well as being in a cabin. Each occasion has been enjoyable and with my birding interest it has had a lot to offer me and whoever I was with at the time. Again I enjoyed your pics. The shebeen’s name that has struck me most (in Owambo) was called ‘Born to suffer’ also ‘Water is Life’ with the place being surrounded by water in a wet season. Nancy

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