This is a three part series on Kayaking in Maun, while I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana. My experiences and thoughts are my own and do not represent the governments of The United States or Botswana.
At the end of April in 2014, a few of my friends and I headed up north for a bit of kayaking. As with any Peace Corps trip, sometimes you just have to go with the flow in regards to even the most perfect of plans falling through. At the Old Backpackers Inn (maybe the coolest hostel ever), they accidentally booked us for the night after we came back from our trip, not the night before it.
Luckily, that solved itself pretty easily. The hostel room we stayed in had ten beds, with thin foam for mattresses, and mosquito netting for windows. It was very clean, and I hope to stay there again.
We ordered a bit of dinner, and dessert because VACATION, and hung out around the campfire. When I first came to Botswana, I experienced a slightly embarrassing phenomenon; when the sun set, so did I. I absolutely could not keep myself up after the sun went down. My host family thought I was incomparably lazy, and it was hard to assure them that it was only an Alaskan habit that wouldn’t go away. Back home, during the summer I’d stay up until 2 am, idling on the computer, or watching TV, unaware that I should have been asleep hours before. During the winter, I could barely make it out the door from work before crashing at home for the night.
What I discovered on this trip is what I thought only affected me, in reality affected all of us. By 8:30 we were ready to call it a night.
The next morning, we grabbed our bags and headed down to the water where a boat and two super awesome (as we came to find out) women were waiting for us. Our tour guide, John was busy loading up the boat with a couple of helpers so we sat around and had breakfast before taking off.
One of the girls, works for a bike tour company and led bike enthusiasts from Sudan all the way to Cape Town, South Africa. The three days she spent with us were her days off, before meeting up with her people and finishing the route. (Can I just gush and say that she has basically the coolest job ever, and if I could ever imagine a world where riding my bike through 10 or so African countries seemed like a reasonable goal, I’d want to be her!)
The first couple of hours the first day were spent on the boat, rushing up through the narrow channels created by the reeds. On our way we saw an elephant, and a couple of those super rare cranes that I can’t remember the name of. Finally, we reached our starting point and hopped out of the boat. Waiting for us were 6 kayaks. We had some snacks, and then hopped into our yellow floaty things and started paddling.
I immediately paddled myself into the reeds and got stuck. For most of our first day, I spent a lot of time in the reeds. It occurred to me that while this wasn’t my first time with an oar, it was surely my first time kayaking. And of course it was in hippo, elephant, and crocodile infested waters.
Somewhere between that thought, and crashing into the reeds again, John signaled to our boat who was trailing behind to come quick. There was a hippo nearby grunting in warning that we were getting too close. The boat sped up and started to churn the water, scaring the hippo away.
When you’re sitting in the kayak, and the thicket of reeds create little roads and pathways in the water, eventually your mind starts to wonder what it can’t see. The water below was dark but clear, lots of plant life and fish swimming about beneath you. Some of the water looked clearly deep enough for a hippo to chill in.
After paddling 12.5km, we finally pulled over to our camp spot. After camp was set up and John started to cook dinner, Cedric (our boat guy and Motswana tour guide assistant) took us on a hike through the open fields of the Moremi Game Reserve.
It was magical. It felt like walking into the real life world of The Lion King, and after 9 months in Botswana, it finally felt as though we were in Africa.
Walking around in grass that comes up to your waist leaves one in a kind of vulnerable state. I will again refer to The Lion King when Nala hides in the grass, about to pounce on Pumba. Even with superpower animal eyes you would probably miss seeing the lioness getting ready to tackle you to the ground as she rips your throat out.
Luckily, nothing like that happened to us. Though Cedric did share a story of a couple he had taken on a walk similar to the one we were on, and he missed that a lioness had just taken out an antelope and the lioness fake charged at the group, stopping just a couple of inches from where he stood. As we walked back to camp, we watched in amazement the sun setting at the same time the full moon rose into the sky.
That night we had delicious chicken and pumpkin for dinner. It was truly excellent, most likely because of braii. Barbeque makes everything taste better. It was a long day, and it didn’t take long for most of us to call it a night.
My First Night Camping…. Ever
Just when we thought we could relax though, there was splashing in the water. Upon closer inspection, a hippo could be seen playing in the water. A couple of hours went by and the humans started into a restless night.
So here’s another embarrassing thing I’ve got going for me; I have a thing about toilets. I do not use pit latrines here, unless it is my only option. (deep dark secret right here, and here is how you know I’m a PCV cause I’m totally going to talk about this on my blog… sorry for the TMI: I didn’t poop for 4 days during PST once, even though I had diarrhea because the water was out. I did eventually go use a pit latrine because the water still hadn’t come back on and holding your poo for 4 days is pretty painful and not recommended. I couldn’t do it again after I let it out. My body refused to suffer that kind of torture.) Camping on the edge of the river, there was no regular western toilet. Just a hold dug into the ground. I mean, John was very considerate and brought a portable toilet seat so it kind of felt like a regular toilet, but when your ass is exposed to the elements, even a portable toilet seat isn’t going to settle you down right on the inside (if you’re me, I mean. Most people probably don’t have this same issue).
I thought I could just refuse to use it like before or only use it in the morning. If nothing else, as the darkness set in, and I was afraid to venture very far from camp, I figured I could just hold it until morning.
I was wrong. The birds did not sleep through the night, nor did the hippos, hyenas, or wild dogs. According to my ipod (which I pulled out of my bag and slammed my earbuds in as tightly as I could) around 12:25am, my bladder was cramping so badly, I couldn’t take it anymore. More than a few times I cursed myself for not being dehydrated. Listening carefully, I quickly unzipped my tent and poked my head out. With my headlamp (Thank you ever so much Rachel, it sure comes in handy now!)
I swung around once, twice, checking the corners, hoping and not hoping to see the refracted light of animal eyes wandering around our camp. I crawled out of my tent, and then walked as quickly as the dark, my shoes and my bladder would allow me to the portable toilet seat, just outside of the main camp where my face stared at the thicket of trees and reeds next to the river and my back faced an open plain with tall grass and trees in the horizon. It felt like I was out there forever. Any moment, something could have padded up behind me and ripped my throat out before I could build up a good scream. Constantly on the lookout for the refracted light, I rushed back to my tent, unzipped, then zipped myself back in and nearly cried with relief. I made it back safe.