Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Canoeing for children of the sun

What happens when an adventurous bunch of safari guides in Botswana experience a lock-down and hence downtime during an exceptional high Okavango flood? Corlize Viljoen shares their adventure.

Stuck at home in Botswana during lock-down, we decided it’s a good a time as any to give something back to the community we live and work in. As such, we decided to research and find a worthy cause, procure five Canadian Mountain canoes and take on a 335km stretch from Maun down the Boteti River on an unforgettable expedition. The seasonally flowing Boteti River in the north of Botswana is an extension of the Okavango River system that stretches from Central Angola, through Namibia to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in the Kalahari Desert. The water very seldom reaches its final destination, yet the 2020 flood has made the pans and Lake Xdau past Rakops a worthy target to aim for. The Go Fund Me initiative with the aim of raising £10 000 for the Bana Ba Letsatsi NGO based in Maun was initiated by James Stenner who is renowned for his crazy ideas. So we knew we were in for an adventure of a lifetime!

And it starts early morning on the first day, paddlers arrive at Roger’s house on the Tamalakane River in Tsanakona, downstream from Maun’s Central Business District. The plan is to pack the four canoes and make it to the T-junction, some 20km further down where the Tamalakane becomes the Boteti (left) and the Nhabe (right). Roger is familiar with canoe expeditions and David’s experience extends to having supported his son Daniel’s last legs of a 1 500km trip from Angola down the same river in 2015. The rest of us are casual paddlers with limited to no river experience – never mind knowing how to navigate all the hippo pods and river crocs awaiting us! A couple of large visible pangas coupled with a short and helpful paddle lesson by the experienced Roger goes some way in easing our fears. Willing and maybe not so able, we all take the first paddle of what will turn into about 4 000 paddles each day, over the next week and a half. An unplanned stop at a local fresh produce market to purchase two huge and healthy-looking cabbage heads, as well as a lunch stop at John’s to collect the fifth canoe and seventh member of our crew sets a slow and comfortable start. After our first hippo charge and with some blisters already showing, we make it to the junction and find a suitable place on the banks of the Boteti to set up our first night’s camp as the sun beautifully sets on a fruitful and fun first day.

Day 2 Our first morning on the river, we rise with the sun. We’re a little worse for wear, yet the smell of coffee and realising that two of the canoes with double paddlers in had been paddling the wrong way round the first day, gives us hope for the stretch to Chanoga. After a repack and another slow start we realise how wide the river has become and how the vegetation has changed from the Tamalakane stretch that pretty much still resembled the Delta. The banks are now covered with acacia and leadwood trees. We spot a pair of crowned cranes, a unique sighting as there are apparently only 200 left in Botswana. We get to the Drifters Camp at Chanoga with sunset and pitch camp on their lawn. That evening we have the last and only sit-down meal on the journey – from here on out, our bush cooking and survival skills would be put to the test.

Day 3 An hour into our third-day paddle we pull over to get some drone footage at a particularly wide stretch of river. Unfortunately, Kyle lands the drone in the top of a tall acacia tree and after a two-hour struggle to recover it, we could finally hit the water again. At the Samedupi Bridge, we have to carry the canoes across, with locals eager to lend a hand. Next stop is Makalamabedi where we pull in after 11 hours on the water.

Day 4 Morning routine has now become standard and our bodies have amazingly adapted to the long sitting sessions and various paddling actions. We cross the border fence between Ngamiland and the Boteti District on the water as a wind starts to pick up. On the other side of Makalamabedi the river widens into a lagoon fit for David to attempt a first-ever kite surf on the Boteti. Unfortunately, the wind is too gusty and after 30 minutes in the water, a croc attack also becomes a reality, so we abandon the attempt.

Day 5 The river from Makalamabedi to Motopi is truly majestic. Lined with high, sandy banks and pristine camelthorn and leadwood forest, we encounter interesting rapids. The wildlife and elephant population drastically increases from here on out although we are still quite far from the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP). The camp outside of Moreomaoto is one of the best on the trip. We set up in a natural amphitheatre for the night and listen to the boisterous play from the elephants in the river. For a moment, we worry that our canoes may dislodge and float downstream.

Day 6 The stretch towards the Park is remarkably bendy and the desert on both sides are now a clear contrast to the lush bush we have been admiring before. Late afternoon a typical African storm gives us our first taste of paddling into challenging headwinds. We are awaited by a kid goat who got separated from his herd when we finally go on land. As the Park now lines the left bank, we will stay on the right-hand side.

Day 7 After a half-a-day of strenuous paddling, we reach Moela, a couple of kilometres outside of the village of Khumaga around lunchtime for a much-needed rest day. This is David’s new safari venture and we spend the afternoon resting and admiring the handiwork of the community of Khumaga, who is assisting with the construction of this unique lodge. Our paths unexpectedly cross with those of another expedition on horseback, many of them friends of ours. David’s daughter and grandson drive out from Maun to replenish diminishing supplies. The stories around the fire last long into the starry night, accompanied by the welcoming roars of lions.

Day 8 We paddle past Khumaga and find a spectacular spot on a small island to set up camp by sunset. By now we have all settled into a good routine of setting up camp, starting a fire and taking turns at showing off our bush culinary skills. Shortly after sunrise the following day, we are packed and ready to go, leaving only footprints.

Day 9 The days heat up and we experience up to 40°C on the water. The river is now filled with the statues of old full-grown trees that died during the flood in 2007. We are so into the motion by now that a form of meditative paddling sets in. In one of the many channels David, paddling in front hits a submerged stump only for it to turn into a big burst of water and sound. He has just paddled over a hippo! The hippo gracefully disappears, underlining our group’s opinion that the aggressive behaviour of these often mistrusted animals could likely be put down to all the motorised boats in the Delta and on the Tamalakane. Finally, “boredom” gives inspiration to establishing the Boteti Yacht club. James, David, Roger and Kyle fashions canoe sails out of umbrellas and tents and compete to see who can sail their canoes the fastest to the lagoons where the trees have disappeared.

Day 10 As we get closer to Rakops, wildlife gives way to livestock again and we navigate numerous kraals in the river. We sail into Rakops to find some locals who have come out to meet us. They have been following our expedition on social media and share the news that we were already very close to our fundraising target.

Day 11 After 10 days of mostly perfect weather and wind in our favour, filling the homemade ‘canoe sails’, our worst fear comes in the middle of the night. The Makgadikgadi salt pans are famous for dust storms in the rainy summer season and winds of up to 30 knots are common. It was virtually impossible to paddle into the wind and we are forced to jump out of the canoes and drag them onwards into the salty talcum-like dust fog. We were rewarded though. Herds of bull elephants appeared out of the dusty landscape to drink and bathe along the river bank as if to cheer us on to the finish line, just one more day away.

Day 12 The last morning we leave an hour earlier than usual. As the sun appears, the wind increases drastically and again we fight through strong headwinds. The only thing motivating us to keep going is the knowledge that we only had 23km left until we would reach our final stop at the bridge at Mopipi. Everyone paddles at their own pace, and we wait for each other during breaks. We all paddle together to the finish, raising our paddles in a cheer, celebrating the end of this amazing expedition. We drive back to Maun through the Botswana desert, only four hours by road. The canoes are now high and dry, at the back of a vehicle on a trailer. Yes, we are tired but oh so thankful. The Boteti has been an oasis… A never-ending and fragile river in the middle of one of the biggest salt deserts in the world. A river we called home for the past 12 days. A river that now holds memories to last us a lifetime.

A basic list of kit per paddler:

  1. • Canoe (we used Mad River Canadian Mountain canoes)
  2. • Set of 2 canoe paddles
  3. • Kayak paddle • Canoe seat
  4. • Sponge • Food box
  5. • Coolbox
  6. • Bedroll
  7. • Small tent/Moz net
  8. • Headtorch
  9. • Torch
  10. • Solar light/charging station
  11. • Fisherman’s chair
  12. • Drybags
  13. • Hat
  14. • 2 kikois
  15. • Long sleeve shirts
  16. • Zinc sun cream
  17. • Ovital Maps App for calculating distances & navigation

This was the basic list guiding us, but after being on the river, most of us used our bedrolls behind the seats instead of the canoe seat. It is important to sit on something soft as 11 hours sitting and paddling takes a toll on the backside. It was also pretty plain sailing, so to speak, and therefore we didn’t need the extra paddles as we never tipped or lost paddles on the journey. Supplies can readily be replenished from villages on the way, and apart from a couple of places with dead animals in the water, most of us drank from the river or got water from local dug wells on the side. The bottom of the river is hard on bare feet. Take a decent pair of river sandals/shoes for the rocky parts and for thorns. The people living on the river are special and part of the allure of the Boteti. Be respectful

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