Sometimes on the move, you meet people who intrigue you. You find yourself wondering what their lives are like. Where they came from. How they got to where you meet them. What they dream about at night just before they fall a sleep. This curiosity about people’s lives is part of the fun of travelling. Even if every once in a while the curiosity turns into a slight short obsession.
For me, obsessions usually arise around people who live very different lives from mine. It can be the tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok. Hanging around seemingly 24-7 in the hopes of driving a tourist around for a few bucks. Or it can be a young ambitious girl working the reception desk in a Balinese hotel. Asking me thousands of questions about where I live and about how she can someday come and visit this country. And this time, in the Okavango delta, it was a woman thriving in a men’s world. What a surprise.
The day I met Esther started with a beautiful sunrise over the Okavango Delta. This massive delta is located in Botswana and the largest delta that never reaches the ocean. We wake up as the light is slowly illuminating this world heritage sight. The sky is already a bright blue that is reflected in the perfectly still waters. Waters that are steaming as the world slowly heats up. The early morning birds being drowned out by singing cicadas and us strolling along the waters edge. Enjoying the very unnatural Wi-Fi before we head out onto the water where we will lose contact with the world. Where we will find the stillness of a watery world.
Getting to a quieter part of the delta is remarkably noisy. It takes us about an hour and a half in a very noisy motor boat (no mufflers) and another hour in a bumpy, noisy truck (again, no mufflers) to get to our drivers. Our canoe drivers that is. Or, more accurately, our makoro drivers. And that is when we meet Esther.
A makoro used to be a tree that was dug out to form a canoe shallow enough to navigate the ever smaller branches of the delta. These days they are made out of plastic, because plastic lasts longer and thus, it’s a better investment. Usually it’s the man poling them around as a job. Yet here she is. Esther. One of the makoro drivers. And I am hooked.
Sadly, she is not the person poling Erik’s and me, but this does give me a chance to foster my newfound obsession. And so, as we are sailing the delta, I wonder about her. We are transported to the silence of the delta and I keep thinking about how she got here, in this world of men. We are driven past more hippos (Erik just loves that), through impossibly small and narrow gullies and I think about what kind of a life she must have. We pass water lilies, all kinds of beautiful birds, some brightly coloured, others black and white, while I try to captures this woman with my camera.
For a little while my obsession wanes as we go on a bush walk. The guide is very knowledgeable and the stories he tells about our surroundings interesting, but the heat is so intense I have trouble concentrating. I understand why everything in this place is drawn to the water.
As we move further inland, Erik (there he goes again) spots an elephant. We approach him, but just as I am ready to take a picture, the guide starts running. Torn between taking the shot and fear for whatever could make a guide take off like that I stand frozen for a few seconds. But I come to my senses and my legs carry me through spiky grass and harsh branches to safety. Turns out, the guide feared we’d accidentally put ourselves between two elephants because the one we saw was a bull. No harm done and we get back to the makoros.
I have another chance of observing the makoro drivers until we get to a small island where we will spend the night. Esther is then taken in by the other women cooking our meal and she appears to be as at home here as with the men on the water.
We have dinner in one of the most beautiful places we have been so far. Dining in a grassland that stretches as far as we can see. The water hidden because the grasses grow so tall here.
For dessert, we get to go back out on the water to see the sunset. And what a sunset. The only thing exceeding its beauty is the starry sky that follows it immediately after. As we walk back, I try to ask Esther some questions, but her English is rudimentary and she hurries back to the fire when I gaze up at the ancient fires adorning the sky.
The sky then takes up my full attention. Its so incredibly bright and big and just beautiful. I so wish I was able to capture its beauty and thanks to the photographer on our trip, I get to make a start. Learning more about manual focus, long exposure times and patience. The pictures I take fall very far short of the real beauty, but they’re a start.
The next morning is another gorgeous sunrise interrupted by a basic breakfast and packing up the tents. We then take to the water again for some more quiet time to contemplate the lives of the people around us. Or to look at more birds, hippos and grass as tall as a person of course. The delta keeps showing us incredible sights. From down low in the makoros, we get to experience what life is like at the waters edge, but after another (greatly under appreciated) bushwalk, we get to a houseboat and a chance to gaze over the vast expanse of the delta from two stories up.
We spent the afternoon on the boat sleeping (the heat makes most of us tired), protecting the dining area from monsoon rains (and they are beyond anything I’ve ever seen), and just exchanging stories with our fellow travellers. Waiting for the sun to set. And I feel we’ve come full circle since two days ago. The sky is an incredible blue just laced with a hint of pink where the sun touches the horizon. The water has become as still as a pond and reflects the vastness of the sky. The world growing darker the same way it grew lighter the day we started our Okavango adventure.
And the makoro drivers? They have long since left us, but I cannot help but wonder about Esther every once in a while. What would she be doing now? Where does she go home to? What does she dream about right before she falls a sleep? I will probably never know, but it doesn’t take anything away from the beautiful experience we’ve had in the Okavango Delta.