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Thursday some time in April.... (no exact date recorded) 1983
At last I have begun sketching and it is wonderful. I seem to be transfixed by palm trees of which I want to do numerous studies. Jim provided a good life subject, staring into the middle distance with a tough facade, like a real white hunter. He seemed happy with the result. We stopped at the river for a dip on the way back to camp which enabled me to do more sketching. Jim read me his account of the trip so far which was very sweet, I thought he would be too shy .
Not yet having got into the swing of an afternoon siesta, I walked out of the baboon camp to sketch a particularly fascinating termite hill. The surroundings seem so friendly and fantastically beautiful, inspiration will always be with me as long as I am here. Chris seems to like my sketches but I am not confident enough to show them to all and sundry (not much opportunity for that here anyway!).
I really enjoy going shooting with Chris in the evening. Yesterday we came across two reedbuck on our way to the sandbank.... such graceful beasts. It's comforting to know such animals exist and even survive in such a deceptively peaceful place. Lions roar every night, and sometimes sound so close, but Chris knows exactly how far away they are with all his years of working with them. This of course can serve to calm or panic!
After lying on the river bank, ensconced by reeds and clutching the air gun to my bosom for at least an hour, we finally zapped a pigeon. Or at least we thought we did, we couldn’t find it so surmised it had been tricking us. Sometimes green pigeons fall out of trees from sheer fright apparently, they are very nervous, but time does not allow for the wait, hoping for a particularly nervous specimen to fall into our arms. Another bright and fiery sunset. That evening we ate 'out' at baboon camp. Jim was relieved, I think the 'cuisine' is depressing him somewhat. I must admit spagetti bolognaise tasted like nectar after our fish and mussel routine.
On Good Friday, we spotted a prolific amount of mokorro's (dug out canoes) laden down with languid pink tourii pass by. One was poled by Morotsi, that infamous character Chris had arranged to employ for our own trip to his village and beyond. Being easter, all the mokorro's in the area were in use, so our plans were to change accordingly. How impossible it is to make plans in this wonderful unplanned country! Chris' main concern seemed to be with a shotgun that he had left with a fellow named 'Ndoway' who lived in a village 20km away. Once back to it's rightful owner, we would be able to walk to Morotsi's village with adequate protection. Chris at this point felt responsible for the wait we had to endure, but Mike was happy, as indeed were we all, just where we were for a few days.
At last the time had come for action so the 3 McNeils set off in pursuit of the rifle. It would be a long walk, so they took supplies enough to last a couple of days. I remained behind, it gave me a good opportunity to practice being alone - a state I must adapt to.
I painted in the morning, only a small oil of distant palms and acacia's but I was pleased with it, it was so good and exciting to paint in such a veritable paradise. Tom, one of the students, has been so kind in letting us all stay on his island, I made a sketch of baboon camp for him, which he seemed to appreciate.
After a brief siesta, I walked down to the pigeon shooting, fish catching sandbank. Walking alone in the bush..... ( whilst writing this, I have just moved with amazing agility on spotting an enormous black mamba scoot like grease lightening around the termite mound not six yds away from me!!!) is an experience to enjoy and savour, not one to build imaginings on, as it is so easy to do, esp. when one is alone. Upon arrival at my sandbank, clutching my fishing rod, book of english prose and a sketch book, I met Erna driving back from Xaxaba camp. We swam together and I enjoyed her company, she seemed to me a real Californian girl, with a cheerful, happy disposition and brilliant blond hair. (Writing this today in 2011, I am happy to report that Erna and I are still close friends and call eachother regularly!)
Erna returned to camp and I enjoyed the quiet peace of the hot and still afternoon. Chris, with his ceaseless supply of Shakespearean quotes, gave me inspiration to read the prose again of such as Thomas Overbury (The milkmaid) and Samuel Pepys. It is important to keep the mind active when absent from any kind of intellectual stimulation, and I feel myself already missing the company of my peers. Chris and Mike leave me far behind in many of their ecological discussions.
I was not alone for long as Sue appeared, another American, very quiet but interesting to talk to. She had been in Kenya the same time as I had so we talked until 5pm. My attempts at fishing were futile, which did not depress me too much as Sue and Erna had invited me to supper since the three 'musketeers' would probably not return until the next day, at least. When I ambled back to camp, pondering my last night in 'civilisation', a cheerful whistling rang out from the direction of our tents, followed by vociferous zulu singing... The three m's had returned! I noticed that I was very happy to see them, but felt guilty that I had not procurred our supper. Their trip had been successful, they had met Abraham, a cheerful, rotund game scout on their way who had given them a lift by boat to the village where the gun was reclaimed after long disputes over arrears in wages. Organization is not one of Chris' strong points, altho' in Africa one learns to expect nothing. Abraham brought them back by vehicle, so they had made good time. Chris was overjoyed at recovering his lost shotgun and saw it as the opening up of Africa for us. We would leave tomorrow. Perhaps.
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Wednesday, 29th April, 1983
The Okavango, Baboon Camp
Today was a full and valuable day. The 3 McNeil's and I spent most of the morning fishing. The landscape was as breath-taking as I remember it, and I grow impatient to capture it all on canvas. After catching enough bream for ourselves and the three visitors we had invited for supper, Chris took Jim and I to be 'blooded'. We were to shoot some green pigeons......in theory. The nearest collection of trees which looked a likely habitat for our supper lay half a km from the channel. Marching closely behing our leader, we trapsed across the open savannah. On arrival at the kopje, a large quantity of green pigeon's were spotted in a fig tree. We took it in turns to aim at the unsuspecting birds, but succeeded only in creating a wild raucous, with much squacking and flapping of wings. A hoopoe flew past us, causing Chris to identify it. Jim had not heard too well and believed it to be a cuckoo! "I thought they only lived in cuckoo clocks" was his learned retort, upon which Chris and I burst into uncontrollable laughter. The three of us were too distracting for the birds, so Chris went on ahead. Vociferous calling from an obviously concerned francolin met our ears, altho' we could see nothing. Then a shot rang out, a bird flew from the trees, only to plummet to the ground with a 'thump'. The francolin lived no more, and while I would have normally cried and cried over the demise of such a beautiful bird, I was so hungry that I actually began salivating. I plucked it while it was still warm (my turkey plucking jobs at xmas time in Harwell came in useful here) causing it to shrink visibly in size. That was all we had shot that morning.... we still needed more practice.
On returning to camp, Chris showed me how to cook the heart and liver, which, despite my natural recoil from eating such delicacies actually tasted extremely good. The rest was chopped up and cooked with gravy. I made some mealie meal, which was rolled into small balls and dunked in the mixture. Again my tummy was full. In the afternoon, Chris and I gutted and filleted the fish, placing them in vinegar to flavour and preserve it.
At 4pm after a 'nice cup of tea', Jim, Chris and I went shooting again. This time we would lie in wait by the sand bank until such time as a sand grouse or pigeon would appear for a drink. Then, whizz, bang, pop Hallelujah! On the other side of the river we concealed ourselves as best we could in the long reeds. Jim felt decidedly uncomfortable and could not accept the fact that we were going through all this just for a lousy pigeon! Suddenly one landed about 3 ft away. Chris shot it imediately, leaped up and whisked it back to our hidey hole, whereupon he took off its head and tossed it in the river. Jim had not noticed this as he was now in charge of the weapon and his eyes searched keenly for any sign of life. It was then he spotted the head bobbing down the river. "what's that'?!! he cried, bursting with intrepidation. He took aim instantly, at which point Chris told him exactly what his quarry was. Laughter followed, we could not stop!
From the other side of the bank we had little success, altho' to watch the sun set so magnificently behind the trees made up for our lack of birds. The frogs started up, darkness fell and the moon rose slowly in the sky. We ran back to camp. Mike was back from his day with Erna amongst the baboons, so we all sat down in camp and had another 'nice cup of tea'. Mussels (from the river, prepared by Mike) and fish were prepared and the pigeon hung up as proof of our success. The visitors arrived. Tom, Erna and Sue, all Yanks, but pretty good ones all the same. They are students from Davis California, doing research on the troop of baboons that occupy the area. They brought a salad and stories of their encounters with wild and deadly beasts. This did little for my confidence, living alone was going to be one heck of a challenge.
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March 30th 1983 Okavango River Lodge campsite, Botswana
In the morning, the 3 McNeils and I ventured into the town of Maun, a half hour journey through deep sand which Jim's little car struggled with. Donkeys too were a problem, often hobbled at the feet they were not quick to move off the road and so one always had to slow down, thus losing momentum which is what's needed in this terrain.
Spiro is a Greek fellow who has a huge warehouse/shop that stocks everything from saddles to lipstick. His place is an emporium, and I love going in there to explore the many chambers of various delights. It's like the Harrods of Botswana, altho' the ambiance is somewhat different. Jim performed his 'hardware boogie' , causing tins of tomato sauce to clatter loudly to the floor whilst trying to obtain a certain flowery kettle for me on an upper shelf. "Talk amongst yourselves' he muttered to a highly amused audience as we set about putting the whole lot back. Chris advised me on all the supplies I would require and gave me confidence despite my all too frequent doubts about this whole journey.
Tom and Erna the two researchers at a baboon research camp in the delta have offered us all a lift there in their landrover so we are setting off tomorrow afternoon.
We set off for the swamps this morning, laden down with milie-meal, fishing rods, kettles, sugar, sunflower oil, and a snake bite kit (fills me with confidence!). An abortive attempt unfortunately as two consecutive punctures ensured our return to Maun for the night.
Mike and Jim have an increbible knack for amusing the Botswana people. Jim in his broad Liverpuddlian accent greets them with a booming 'Dumela Ma" or "Ra" as the case may be, which sends the adults into hysterics, whilst Mike, who is proving to be a man of many parts, plays his harmonica, to which the children laugh uncontrollably. How I wish I spoke their language, they are such beautiful people.
Our second attempt at departing for the Okavango proved successful, so we ventured forth once more. The trip to Baboon camp was a bumpy, light-hearted affair with five of us sitting in the back perched precariously on top of all our posessions. Mike was captivated by everything. He collected some Kudu horns along the way and avidly photographed all he saw. At the Kiri river, we stopped for a quick dip, so welcoming and refreshing, especially since my skin was now glowing pink!
Inspiration gathere momentum as we moved further into the dry swamps. Drifts of palm trees puncuated the horizon, hartebeeste and zebra wandered through the heat haze as though through a dream. I was back in paradise.
We arrived at the camp just before dark and arranged our posessions around a huge fig tree supporting ubiquitous aerial roots which obtain all they need from the air. Time to catch some food. Chris put together my rod and I set off to secure (hopefully) some supper. I had forgotten which path led to the river, so I leaped across an eternity of dry, awkward grass to reach my destination. After 30 minutes of futile fishing in the glorious waters of the Okavango, Chris and Mike arrived to point out where the fish were likely to be.... tucked into the deep waters which existed normally after sand beds. We crossed the river and were blessed with success.... a catch of 8 bream! Chris showed me how to kill them and Mike how to scale, gut and cook them. The menu was perfect. We sat around the fire and gorged ourselves on bream, boiled eggs, and the 'piece de la resistance' fried mussels which Mike had discovered in the sand bed whilst we were fishing. A full belly and a lot of Irish whisky ensured a good nights sleep, even the yipping of six wild dogs and alarm call of a kudu didnt wake me, which was a shame as I was so looking forward to hearing the sounds of the Okavango again. Still, there would be many more nights for hearing the symphony of the swamps.
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27th March 1983 Road to Maun, Botswana
Our journey was interrupted by persistent punctures, the first, after our departure from Gaberone. The car, a VW estate belonged to the 'Penny slot machine repairer' Jim, who was inextricably attatched to a khaki safari shirt and matching 'Van de Merv' hat. His first big African adventure! I dosed off in the back, half listening to the fascinating conversation between Mike and Chris. At dawn we stopped for tea, cooked on a little fire by the side of the road.
The 'Wagon Wheel' in Francistown was the venue for lunch along with more exciting revelations and dicourses from Mike. He is one of the most articulate, knowledgeable people I have ever met, yet with great humility. Mike researches brown bears in Homer, Alaska where he lives. The book Chris wants to write will draw a parallel between the bears lifestyle and that of the lion (Chris' speciality).
On the road to Maun, a young zebra came through the window. A large herd was crossing the road when the car met them. An encounter was unavoidable and the side window shattered over Jim's head. The zebra galloped off unpeturbed. We looked for signs of blood on the now dented door, yet all we could find was that which is expelled from the body in times like this, ie shit. I believe the penny slot was rather proud of this conversation piece his vehicle had now acquired.
The sun was setting amid flaming clouds, filling the whole with fantastic warmth. Wilderbeeste grunted in the background, enveloping the muffled sound of departing zebra. At the time the incident was alarming, but jokes upon the subject soon transcended all our fear. I proposed a zebra-crossing system for the highway while Chris analyzed his vision of Jim as being that of a bride covered in confetti. On we went, the car loaded down with our posessions, yet still it struggled on, and we met or destination at approx 9pm. Mixed feelings gripped me as we drove through Maun. So many times had this journey filled my mind, and the town my illusions. Everything was as I had left it over a year ago with the exception of the newly constructed abbatoir.
Okavango River Lodge had not changed, except for the barman, and we celebrated our arrival with some cold beer. Chris proposed that I should go into the Okavango delta with them to meet the bushmen family with whom he once lived. At first the prospect seemed bizarre yet interesting. Now my ideas are gathering momentum and this project sounds exciting. I feel this is the right thing to do. There is something inside me which must manifest itself here in Africa. My spirit was supressed in England - only here can I be me. A whole new experience awaits me, an experience detached from all others. I will be changed by it.
March 30th 1983
Last night I visited Crocodile camp where I spent so much time when I was last here. There were Win and Lin, who had been like parents to me, it was good to see them again, and so many other familiar faces. It was wonderful to be back with these whacky characters!
This morning I awakened to the sound of those glorious blacksmith plovers and donkey bells (always donkeys in Maun!). I felt wonderful having slept in a tent under the stars. In the afternoon I learned to shoot an air gun with Mike, Chris and Jim in the campsite. I seemed extremely dexterous at the sport and peppered a castle beer can with holes. Jim decided that the Holiday Inn folk would be most impressed should he display a holey battle scarred hat, so this, with its tawdry display of fake leopard skin became the target. Much Joy! Chris pointed out the value of the weapon in the bush, which I listened to with interest since I had now decided to join the three McNeils on their excursion into the swamps. I would go as far as Morotsi's village where I would remain alone for a month or so to paint, live and understand this veritable paradise. This thought spurred me on, I was excited to live completely alone for a while. Fear of course enters into this whole procedure, yet it is this that must propel me.
And so I leave Maun with so much more than I had entered it with. My expectations of a relationship here have not worked out, the other party did not want what I thought I wanted. Yet it turned out that I really didn't want that either, and now I feel free from anxiety, doubt and indecision. I am ready for a wild ride through the Okavango Swamps!
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This is the first blog I have ever done. I have decided to travel back in time and revisit my diaries written when I lived in Botswana, Africa. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent. I will try and enter more on a weekly basis.
My Botswana residence permit has arrived! I could not get to the travel agents quickly enough, jumping on my trusty 200cc motorbike I zoomed into Didcot to book my ticket. Almost a year and I am ready to go back, to a country with no tv, little electricity, two million cows and only a million people. Am I mad? Is this what I have worked so hard for, is this where I truly want to live? Yes please.
My paints, sketchbooks, easel and a few clothes are all I am taking, 21kg of my life in one small bag. Can't wait to escape the dreary weather and pallid people of England!
March 15th (Ides of...)
Back in Africa!
Gaborone, the capital of Botswana is not the prettiest of cities, but this is where I have to begin my journey back to the Okavango swamps, 1000km to the north. 'Gabs' is what the locals call it and I have to spend a few days here while my permits are finalized.
Today while walking on the Gaborone Mall, I met a character that I found fascinating. As I neared the Post Office, I caught sight of a tall, thin, bearded figure easing his way across the road directly towards me. I was forced to stop as he almost hurled himself directly into my path. It soon became evident that he had a stutter...'Good affffternoon" was his opening remark. "I h..h...hear you are going up to the swamps. Well, I am heading that way mysssself.... would you like to join me for some tea?" His approach seemed so bizarre that I found myself accepting his invitation and following his lanky form up the steps of the President Hotel. Despite his very British accent, it transpired he was from South Africa and had been living for the past 3 years in Northern Botswana, studying lions which was also the subject of his thrid book. I felt like an under-achiever in comparison but comforted myself with the fact he has to be at least 40 and had been around 18 years longer than I. Whilst in the process of polite conversation and the drinking of tea, he produced a rather shabby looking pipe from his jacket pocket and proceeded to puff away diligently. The stutter fascinated me and his wild eyes showed both compassion and mystique. A very interesting character to say the least. I am delighted to learn that he will be travelling to the Swamps with two other fellows, also named 'McNeil', a friend from Alaska, Mike and another from Liverpool, Jim. Mike and Jim had met while both at the Holiday Inn, Jim is a penny slot machine repair man working there and Mike is a lodge owner/ photographer preparing to team up with Chris and visit the Okavango. They had both answered a tanoy request for 'Mr. McNeil to go to reception'. There they had met and became fast friends. Jim had always wanted to go up to the swamps and even had a vehicle. Very handy.
I was at the Park restaurant tonight, best pizza in Gabs in my opinion. And who should be there but the three McNeils. Mike and Chris had just been reunited so a great deal of merry making, frivolous banter, insults, flattery and general slanderous behaviour was taking place. They seem insistent that I join them on their trip North and I have to say I accept with both excitement and not a little trepidation.
At 2am on a cool March night we ventured forth in Jim's 'dream machine'. The three 'Mcneils' plus one. Am I insane? Accepting a two day ride through mostly wilderness in a car with three older men??? WHAT would my Mother say??