When a broken bridge threatened to mar their Okavango holiday, John and Andrea Abbott tackled the problem head on…
Words and Pictures: Andrea Abbott
The famous Third Bridge in Moremi Game Reserve was broken; several poles had snapped in half when a far-too-heavy vehicle crossed it. “Not safe anymore,” said camp staff and closed it until further notice – and returned to sit in the shade.
This was a problem. We were leaving Third Bridge camp the next morning for Xakanaxa on the north-east fringe of Moremi. Via Third Bridge, the journey is less than 20 kilometres and, by all accounts, an easy drive. But now we faced a long journey to South Gate, through the swamps and mud we’d negotiated a few days earlier on our way in, then almost doubling back up the middle road to Xakanaxa. It would take most of the day.
We hadn’t planned on doing so much driving while in Moremi. We had wanted, rather, to ‘chill’.
Our camping partners had departed that morning and, as they had a different itinerary to ours, we weren’t at risk of making unpopular decisions. So we opted for the ultimate relaxation – spending the day in camp.
It turned out to be a good idea on many levels. For one thing, once the other nine sites had emptied and the baboons had made off with our butter and ground coffee, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.
The most profound peace settled, broken only by the occasional thud of a ‘sausage’ dropping from the massive sausage tree (Kigelia africana) that sheltered our site (while putting us in mortal danger too – a seedpod weighs up to seven kilograms).
At about midday a man in uniform parked on the other side of the river, stripped off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and waded across the submerged, shifting and now broken mopane poles that constituted Third Bridge. He was the head honcho of Moremi Game Reserve, come to inspect the damage. “It’s bad,” he said. “No traffic until we’ve repaired it.”
When would that be? Later that day? Tomorrow? Our naivety earned us a withering look.“Maybe two weeks,” he said. “We have to send the repair team and equipment from Maun. It’s a big job.” So was managing Moremi, he told us. We could believe it. At that point we decided not to complain about the broken toilet seats and the leaking cisterns that drained the water tanks every day so that by nightfall the taps were dry. This was, after all, Africa. Best to simply make do.
And that’s what the husband, restless from inactivity, did. While I kept watch for opportunistic crocs, John carried out his own inspection of the bridge. “I can fix it,” was his verdict. He should know; he’s an engineer. He sought permission from the staff and returned with a crowd. Everyone was going to help.
There was a festive air as we all congregated on the bridge amid gasps of admiration from the oh-so-willing staff while they watched John re-position poles until he’d plugged the vehicle-swallowing gaps and made the structure more secure. Then came the strength test. A heavy 4×4 appeared.
The driver took a chance. The poles held. Cheers and back-slapping erupted from the spectators. Nevertheless, we were a bit anxious. Sections of the bridge were well submerged. Our small car might still not be able to get across. My turn then, ahead of our departure the next morning, to do an inspection.
You can move very fast when you know that untold numbers of crocs lurk nearby, that a lion strolled across that same bridge in broad daylight a few days earlier, that a hippo and her calf emerge there every night. Within moments I’d fathomed the depths, found a couple of very deep, small-car-defeating places, and plotted the best line to take.
The car crossed with barely a splash and it was on to Xakanaxa, where we had the biggest fright when a bull elephant appeared as silently as only an elephant can while we were setting up camp. He was so close we could have touched him. Instead, we dived into the car. There was no need; the ellie moseyed past, intent only on his private business.
Later, the highlight – a sunset boat trip on the river. If you, like us, can afford only one boat excursion in your life, this is the one. It costs about R500 an hour to hire a 12-seater so it’s worth finding others to share the ride. We couldn’t – there are only seven camp sites at Xakanaxa that are spaced far apart and, when we arrived, no one else was at home. So we peeled off the Pula notes and gave them to our charming skipper. “Climb onto the roof,” he said. “The view is better.” Up the ladder we went, clutching cameras, drinks and snacks.
The next hour was one of superlatives. Silky, golden waters, a gentle breeze, the biggest skies, palm-studded islands in all directions, reflections so perfect the water could have been a giant mirror, the cry of the Fish Eagle, the grunting of hippos, glimpses of fish, the most beautiful water lilies anywhere, the rare sitatunga, Darters, Cormorants, Pygmy Geese, sundowners during a sunset no master painter could emulate. Heart-stoppingly beautiful Africa – our Africa – at its very, very best.
But first we had The Hippo to contend with.The deal in the bush is this: at night, keep your fire going until bedtime, light a lamp or two and the animals will stay away. We were a bit short on the lamp front, most of ours having drowned during our submarine stint at Mboma in the Third Bridge area, a few days earlier. We did have headlamps, small though their reach, and the fire was convincing – leaping flames, loud crackles. No self-respecting creature would come near that.
The first inkling we had of company was a rustling nearby. Then came a thunderous charge as this massive, dark and glistening shape burst out of the reeds just beyond the pool of firelight. “Hippo!” the husband exclaimed. “Get in the car.” The hero of Third Bridge didn’t shilly-shally; he was through the nearest door before I was out of my chair. I was left to race around the car, 2 000 kilograms of hippo power spurring me on to the only other accessible seat.
But like our ellie friend, the hippo was minding its own business (relief) and by the next day we’d grown accustomed to hefty visitors. At precisely the same time as the day before, the elephant ambled through the camp again, and when the hippo returned that night, we sat still, trusting in the power of our fire.
Later, a ghost-like figure sloughed past – a spotted hyena with characteristic guilty air. “Avoid blue tins,” we called, remembering the explosion at Third Bridge when a hyena sunk its jaws into our gas canister. “They’re dangerous!”
Xakanaxa is a beautiful, lush section of Moremi and there are countless tracks to explore with surprises at every turn. In the Paradise Pools area we found our way blocked by a heap of lionesses, relaxing after a kill. The most they could do was roll over, yawn and sometimes stretch. They were as interested in us as they were in the flies buzzing around. When the sun got too hot, they hauled themselves up, padded to some shrubs next to the road and, as many do in Moremi, flopped down heavily in the shade.
How hard it is to leave such a place. You feel as though you still have much unfinished business there – the dramas of the bush that constantly unfold, the new vistas around each bend, the something new each day that is the mark of Africa.
We exited at South Gate where we had entered the reserve. The staff, lounging in the shade, looked at us with curiosity, as if surprised that we had made it back in our small car. “Did you get to Xakanaxa?” asked a familiar, friendly voice. It was the head honcho. “No trouble,” we said.
“You took the long road?” he asked. No withering look from us; a smile instead. “No.”