The Boteti (or Botletle) River, Botswana

On Saturday 25 May 2013 we left the Island Safari Lodge at Maun, where we had stayed the previous two nights, and continued to follow some of the routes taken by Val’s great-great grandfather Fred Green.

GreenBaobab

Green’s Baobab, near Gweta, Botswana

When planning our trip we had looked at the possibility of going to Gweta on the road to Francistown, and trying to visit Green’s baobab, which is about 30 km south of the town. Two things made the possibility remote: first, there was no accommodation available in Gweta at the time we would be passing that way, and, secondly, we were told that the way to Green’s baobab lay along a sandy track, for which one needed a 4×4 vehicle and our little Toyota Yaris wouldn’t make it, so we had to make do with pictures found by Google. There is a video of it here.

Botswana cattle

Botswana cattle

In July 1858 Fred and Charles Green and George Bonfield left Hereroland with five wagons and went to Lake Ngami. Bonfield stayed there with one wagon while the Green brothers set off for Matabeleland with the other four wagons by way of the north side of the Makgadikgadi Pans, and at Gootsa Pan they carved on a baobab “Green’s Expedition 1858″. Apparently the inscription can still be read today, which is why we thought it might be interesting to see it. But it didn’t seem possible, so we tried to follow the course of the Boteti River instead.

Boteti River

Boteti River bridge at Makalamabedi, Botswana

After filling up with petrol we left Maun at 9:30 am, and drove east towards Francistown, and there were several herds of cattle crossing the road in single file, like the game in Etosha. We stopped to take photos of one lot, and those who had already crossed gathered and looked at us reproachfully, while those who had not yet crossed stopped, wondering when we would get out of the way, perhaps. We saw lots of people riding asses, usually in pairs, and they seemed to be cowboys, watching the herds.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

At 10:12, 67 km after leaving the Island Safari Lodge, we turned south, where a sign pointed to Makalamabedi. The road was narrower, and looked less travelled. After about 8 km we came to the main object of this part of our journey, the Boteti River bridge, so we stopped to take photos of it and the river. The river was surprisingly large, and full of water. When reading about Fred Green travelling along it, I had always pictured it like a Namibian river or like the Taokhe River we had seen a couple of days ago, dry, with water in it only after rain. But the Boteti (or Botletle, as some called it) was wide and beautiful, and though not as large as the Okavango farther north, was similar, as the outflow of the delta. No wonder the Green brothers spent so much time here. As Tabler (1973:45) puts it:

Shelly, Bushe and Green, going to Lake Ngami, were on the Botletle River in September 1851, when they met Livingstone. Shelley and Bushe returned to Kolobeng late in December, and Green was at Winburg, O.R.S. early in March 1852, just returned from Ngami and intending to start for the Lake again as soon as he could.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

Boteti River at Makalamabedi, looking upstream from the bridge

When travelling by ox wagon, drinking water for the oxen is always an important concern, and there was plenty of that in the Boteti River, at least at this point.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi, looking downstream from the bridge

Boteti River at Makalamabedi, looking downstream from the bridge

We drove on to Makalamabedi, and beyond the bridge the road was full of potholes of Albanian rather then Free State proportions, one drove into and out of them, and was lucky to be able to travel at 40 km an hour. The thought of driving all the way to Serowe on such roads was a bit daunting. Perhaps we should have been sensible and gone via Francistown instead.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

At Makalamabedi there was another foot-and-mouth disease control point, and we had to drive through a dip and stand on a mat again. Val asked the bloke there how he was, as one does, and he said he wasn’t well, or “good” as people say nowadays. He had a headache. Val said “We’ll pray for you”, and he and the woman with him said, rather incredulously, “You know how to pray?’ He then asked why we were travelling on this road, which we had begun to wonder ourselves, and he clearly thought we were nuts to do so. So we told him about Fred Green hunting elephants along the Boteti or Botletle river, and how we wanted to see where he had been.

Halfway through the town the potholed tar road changed to gravel, and then we were able to travel a bit faster, 65-70 km/hour, which gave us hopes of reaching Serowe before midnight. The river was visible in glimpses caught through the trees.

We came to a tarred road again, and were a bit confused, as the map seemed to differ quite a bit from the territory. Though not as bad as the earlier bit, this one was still potholed, though in Free State rather than Albanian fashion, so we were able to travel at about 70-80, in a zig-zag course to avoid the larger potholes. Some had been repaired, and others marked for repair. From the maps it seemed that the road had only been tarred fairly recently, but the contractors must have done a shoddy job, and cut corners.

Then  we joined another tarred road, which from the map appeared to be an older one, and was in better condition. It went due south, though the river was somewhere on our left, and according to the map, we were somewhere around Khumaga. At one point we stopped to take a picture of a sign which showed that we were pretty far from anywhere. The next place was Rakops, 66 km ahead, though we had been seeing signs from about 130 km mark.  We still had 415 km to go to Serowe, and we had only covered about 200 km.

A long way from anywhere, and still a long way to go

A long way from anywhere, and still a long way to go

There was bush at the sides of the road, and the verges had not been cleared as on other roads. Every now and again there were long skid marks on the light coloured tar, and I wondered if these were where someone travelling at high speed suddenly braked to avoid an animal coming out of the bush. One might just see a cow, but a goat or even a donkey could be hidden until it actually came out into the road.

A bit closer to Rakops the bush opened out, and there was a vast flat expanse stretching over to the west, with a line of trees about a kilometre away to the east, which we took to be the Boteti River still. It took a while before we realised that this must be a westward extension of the Makgadikgadi Pans.

A bit further along we came across a congregation of vultures gathered around the carcass of a donkey that must have been knocked down by a vehicle. It wasn’t, however, in one of the places where the bushes grew along the edge of the road, but rather along a stretch through the flat pan, where you could see for miles to the horizon. There must have been 50-60 vultures, with more circling overhead, and a few crows dropping in to join them. I’d read somewhere about “carrion crows” but this was the first time I had seen them. The only animal actually eating was a starving dog. The vultures seemed to be waiting for someone to say grace or something, and more kept arriving as we watched.

Stray animals knocked down on the road are soon cleared away

Stray animals knocked down on the road are soon cleared away

I suppose donkeys are the most vulnerable of domestic animals when it comes to being run over. Goats are the most intelligent, and think twice about crossing a road when they see a car coming. Cows cross the road regardless. Sheep mill around. But a silly ass will stand its ground in the middle of the road and simply ignore approaching vehicles. When the vehicle is a 26-wheeler with a sleepy driver on a dark night, the vultures have a good brunch the next day.

A vulture and a carrion crow

A vulture and a carrion crow

We eventually reached Rakops, 247 km from Maun, at about 1:15 pm. The main road by-passed Rakops, but we drove in to the town to try to see the river again, still marked by the line of trees in the flat pan. We came to a bridge and crossed it, and the river still had water in it there, and several animals grazing along its banks.

Bridge over the Boteti River at Rakops

Bridge over the Boteti River at Rakops

We drove back to the main road, and continued, now travelling south-eastwards, still with the river on the left, marked by the line of trees and a string of villages. Though the main road (now a good one, with no potholes) by-passed the villages, it still had lots of speed limits of 80 or 60 km/h.

The Boteti River at Rakops

The Boteti River at Rakops

About 40 kilometres from Rakops the road crossed the river again, still with water, and still fairly wide, though only about half the width it was when we first crossed it a couple of hundred kilometres upstream. According to the map the Boteti River flowed into Lake Xau, and there was a road going round the southern end of the lake, but we did not go that way, as it was getting quite late and we still had a long way to go to Serowe.

The Boteti River, just before it reaches Lake Xau

The Boteti River, just before it reaches Lake Xau

We drove around the end of the Mopipi Pan, about 60 km from Rakops. The Mopipi Pan is a kind of eastward extension of Lake Xau, and that seemed to be the end of it, where the mighty Okavango eventually ended up. It was also the end of the flat open country, and we were back in the land of mopani trees, looking golden in the afternoon sun.

Mopipi Pan

Mopipi Pan

We had covered only about half the distance to Serowe, but the road surface was better now, and we drove faster. We looked for a sitplekkie beside the road, but there were none. We passed the town of Letlhakane with its mine, and an enormous mine dump, and after passing that there were fences on either side of the road At sunset we reached a place called Paje, and tried to phone Lentswe Lodge in Serowe, where we were supposed to be staying. The booking paper we received gave detailled instructions on how to leave Gaborone, and thereafter gave exact kilometre measurements to the turn-off over 200 km further on, and where to turn off from there, giving distances, but no landmarks, which was of no use to people coming from a different direction.The cell phones didn’t seem to be working, just as the credit card machines didn’t seem to be working either.

We reached Serowe in the gathering dusk, and came to the road from Palapye, which had a big shopping mall on it, and it seemed that that was where we were supposed to turn up the road we had just come down, managed to work out the way to Lentswe Lodge from there, 600 km from Maun. It was fully dark when we arrived, and there was also a mix-up with our booking, and they were only expecting us on Monday. The guy at reception, who introduced himself as Geoffrey, said he had been on leave, and the people who had filled in for him had left a bit of a mess. But he managed to sort out a room for us, and led us to it along a rough path, with steps going up and down, and then, when we were settled there, we went back the path to the bar, and had fillet steak and eggs for supper, which was excellent. Geoffrey brought us a packed breakfast for the morning, and we went to bed, as we were tired after a long day’s driving. It was the last night of our holiday — we had seen everyhing we had come away to see, and the next day we would be homeward bound.

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

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.

Chasing Namibian families

Next week we hope to travel to Namibia to see friends and family, and do some historical research — family, church and general history. We’ll try to update our blogs with our progress if we have internet access: this one for family news and family history; Notes from underground for general observations, photos and chit-chat; and Khanya for general history, church history and more serious observations. It used to be possible to keep in touch with all of them by following Tumblr, but Tumblr doesn’t seem to work as a blog aggregator any more.

It’s more than 20 years since we last visited Namibia, and more than 40 years since I lived there, so we expect to see many changes. We plan to go first to Windhoek, where we hope to stay with Val’s cousins Enid and Justin Ellis. Enid is a cousin on the Pearson/Ellwood side of the family.

We also hope to see Mburumba Kerina, a more distant cousin on the Green side of the family. “Kerina” is the Herero form of  “Green” and Mburumba Kerina is descended from Val’s great great grandfather Fred Green through his second wife, Sarah Kaipukire (Val is descended from his third wife, Kate Stewardson). We also hope to find out something about Fred Green’s first wife, who was a Dixon, and died about 1860. We don’t even know her name. There’s more on this in the earlier article Gunning for the Dixons. On the Stewardson side of the family, there are several descendants in Namibia, mainly of the Lindholm, Dennewill and Jeske families. We don’t have any current addresses for them, but we may be able to make contact with some of them while we are there.

HiskiaUOne of the friends we hope to see is Hiskia Uanivi. When I lived in Windhoek he was a student at the Paulinum, the Lutheran theological seminary then based at Otjimbingue. In early 1971 my friend and colleage Dave de Beer and I went on a holiday trip to see friends and family in South Africa (rather like the trip we are planning now, but in reverse).

Hiskia had never been to South Africa, and the Paulinum was closed for the Christmas holidays, so he came with us, travelling via Keetmanshoop, Vanzylsrust, Hotazel and Kuruman to Johannesburg (about a 22-hour drive). There we were joined by my cousins Jenny and John Aitchison, and we travelled to Nqutu in Zululand, staying at the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital (then an Anglican church hospital), and then via KwaMagwaza and Mphumulo to Pietermaritzburg, where John and Jenny Aitchison lived. We left Hiskia at the Mapumulo Lutheran Seminary for a couple of days, as he was curious to see how it compared with the Paulinum, and one of the old Paulinum teachers, Dr Theo Sundermeier, was then teaching there.

We spent a couple of days with the Mnguni family in the foothills of the Drakensberg, helping them to erect a chicken run that would gather manure for fertilising the crops, and then went on to Umtata, Alice, Grahamstown and Cape Town, and from there back to Namibia. At that time there were Anglican theological colleges in Umtata, Alice and Grahamstown, and we visited them, so Hiskia was able to make more comparisons.

With the Mnguni family at Stepmore, near Himeville. Hiskia Univi on the left, Mr & Mrs Mnguni on the right, Chris Shabalala in the middle, flanked by Dave de Been and Steve Hayes, Jenny Aitchison in front, and other members and neighbours of the Mnguni household. 16 Feb 1971

With the Mnguni family at Stepmore, near Himeville. Hiskia Uanivi on the left, Mr & Mrs Mnguni on the right, Chris Shabalala in the middle, flanked by Dave de Beer and Steve Hayes, Jenny Aitchison in front, and other members and neighbours of the Mnguni household. 16 Feb 1971

Now we are planning, for the first time, to travel to Namibia via Botswana on the Trans-Kalahari route. Back then it was not possible, as one needed passports to cross Botswana, and the South African government, which then ruled Namibia, would not give passports to people it regarded as politically unreliable. We also hope to visit the Etosha Pan Game Reserve, and Ovamboland, and return via the Okavango and following the course of the Taokhe River to Lake Ngami, which in Fred Green’s day was navigable by boat, though getting a boat there by ox wagon must have been quite a feat.

So, if the opportunity arises, we hope to blog about our trip as we go. You’ll find the first instalment of our travelogue here.

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