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.

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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