With less and less light by which to navigate, we sped along…out the dusty roads from Rundu…on the northernmost edge of Namibia. We were on the high floodplains above the river. Those on the Angola side give it the moniker, The Cubango. In Namibia the most common name for it, as it forms the border between these two countries, is The Kavango. Days later, when we left Namibia’s Zambezi region (formerly the Caprivi strip), we dropped south from this skinny arm of land into Botswana where the river becomes The Okavango. Here it flows into the only landlocked delta in the world. (But that’s a story for another day….). To simplify for this story, I will refer to it as the Okavango river.
(I’m including a couple of sketches from that day as we traveled to Rundu, one of the largest border towns between Namibia and Angola.)
Cecil, my brother-in-law had arranged for a sunset cruise on the river. We finally found the camp from which our boat and driver were to depart at 5:00pm sharp, so that we wouldn’t miss the sunset. It was a ridiculous scramble when we pulled in, quickly changing into our long pants and jackets now that we were in mosquito territory, Our group of five scurried across the grass and skidded and tripped down a dirt trail to the water’s edge. With cameras dangling from our necks and shoulders and two small grocery bags, we approached a wobbly dock to meet our driver of the weather-worn, flat bottomed boat ready to take us upriver for a couple of hours. Five minutes of the sun before it went down was not exactly what Cecil had in mind for us, but we had a slightly wacky, relaxing “cruise” on the Okavango, watching the colors glow as we were slowly absorbed into the darkness.
Just like that…step onto one flat bottomed boat and float out into the dusky border zone of hippos, birds, crocodiles and quiet between Namibia and Angola.We brought cold Windhoek lagers and chips for our “sundowner” on the boat. The “sundowner,” adopted by many sub-Saharahan African countries, is the equivalent of the French aperitif. Offering a beer to our boat driver, he happily accepted ~ a welcome refreshment between stops to deal with the sputtering motor, which with further investigating was found to be out of gas! He poured some into the outboard from his gas can through a handmade funnel…made from a cut-off plastic water bottle…with as much going into the river as into the motor! We moved slowly, enjoying our sundowner, with the outboard motor chattering as the noises of the night came up on the riverbanks.
It may seem silly, but I couldn’t get over the fact that Angola was a paddle length away. Every now and then I just had to exclaim the fact…”that’s Angola, right there!” I talked to my brother-in-law, who is Namibian, and wondered why they didn’t have constant issues with border crossing. He reminded me that the river is full of hippos and crocodiles and said, “Our customs is the crocodiles.” I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. It’s not that the border crossing was such an issue any more, but there had been a time when Angola was full of civil war and much fighting and violence along the border. People of all walks of life lived along the river, on both sides, with many having relatives on either side, and still do. We saw small resort camps for tourists, and kraals and huts inhabited by locals, who made their living by fishing and herding goats and cattle and raising sorghum, maize and cassava.
I think some of the intrigue about the country through the reeds and papyrus on the other side, comes from “the idea” of being somewhere else. I was in the traveler frame of mind and I was curious about yet another place that was different from “home.” When I am in my studio at home in Seattle, the thought of being in a small boat on the Okavango river, gliding between Namibia and Angola seems hard to believe…mysterious, unknown, fantastic.
To feel the cool night air on my skin, watch the magenta-red glow of the sun drop below the river’s surface, sip my Namibian beer, hear the buzz of a mosquito…malaria potential or not? I look around this strange little boat on the river and see people that I care about, who are travelers with me, thinking their own thoughts, having their own questions…their own sensations. I turn and look at our driver, doing his job, and know that he has his questions about us too. The Okavango conjures up images, stories and lore, but it is also just another place to be…listen, look, absorb and carry in my heart and mind.
And that was just the first night!