As the Air Botswana flight descended into Maun, I looked out the window and gasped. The Okavango floods had already reached the Thamalakane River on the outskirts of town! Ponds, lagoons, lakes and meandering channels filled the landscape to the horizon. The last time I visited, in 2007, Maun sat in the middle of a dusty desert. Now blue waters surrounded it, sparkling in the sunlight.
In the terminal stood a small woman with a permanent smile, bright brown eyes and a “Mack Air” sign. As Grace sorted scrums of passengers onto various flights out into the Delta she said, “Wait for me over there.” Throughout a confusion of bags and jetlagged tourists, she never lost her smile.
I followed her to the Mack Air offices across the street from the terminal. “Tea?” she queried. Over the next several hours the office staff must have offered tea at least a dozen times – unfailingly polite through an amazing amount of chaos. One of their charter aircraft had lost radio contact and they were sending messages every plane in the air over the Delta, hoping for a visual sighting. Finally everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief when one of the ground crew reported that the airplane just landed in Maun. But the relief was only temporary – the aircraft’s radio couldn’t be fixed.
Now the remaining available aircraft had to be scrambled into new flights. “Tea?” “No, thank you.” One of Mack Air’s pilots wandered in. “I can take the 206.” And off he went to pick up tourists at one of the camps. “Two airstrips flooded overnight,” one of the office staff informed me. “Tea?” “No, thank you.” Grace smiled.
Another pilot wandered in, conferred with the office manager in a low voice, and wandered out. “Tea?” “No, thank you.” Computer screens flooded with revised schedules. The radio carried constant conversations between the office and pilots scattered over the Delta. The office staff leaned into their screens, several chewing gum in that constant motion that concentration brings to jaw movement. “Cheryl Merrill?” asked the receptionist, “Where is she?”
All eyes, except hers swiveled toward me. “Oh,” she said, following their looks, her face flushing into a luminous red-brown. She giggled into her hands as I waved to her. “Don’t worry, we’ll find you a flight,” Grace said. “It will take a while. Tea?”
I wandered over to the wall with pilot pictures. Mack Air is an independent charter company based in Maun, ferrying passengers and freight all over the Delta. The profiles of their eighteen pilots pretty much covered one wall. Seven are originally from South Africa, three from Botswana, and the rest from countries as diverse as New Zealand and Mauritius. One photograph stood out: Hazel Esitile, who began flying for Mack Air in February of 2011. She’s quoted as saying, “What a man can do, a woman can do too!” I secretly began to hope Hazel will be my pilot.
But it was Paul, choosing bush flying “as my mid-life crisis,” who escorted me out to a Cessna 210 Centurion. Trying for some chatty small talk, I remarked, “My husband used to own a 172.” Paul squinted at me. “Hate those. Had to train in them. No power.” He opened the cabin door. “Want to sit up front?”
I crawled over the pilot’s seat and buckled into the “copilot’s” seat, which is simply another passenger spot in small aircraft.
“It’s a little bumpy out there today,” Paul said. “Did they tell you we’re flying to Gunn’s Camp?”
“No,” I said.
“They’re working on Stanley’s airstrip. Somebody will pick you up.”
“Okay,” I said.
Small charter aircraft fly low and slow over the Delta – a perfect vantage point to inspect the current Okavango Flood. In 2011, the Okavango reached record levels, pushed by increased rain in both the Delta and Angola (headwaters of the Okavango system) and large amounts of residual ground water from the 2009 and 2010 floods. The “dry” cycle of the Delta lasted between 1985 and 2005; now it is assumed that the “wet” cycle will last another ten to twelve years. Where extensive game drives were once possible, now boats take their place. I marveled at how much land was underwater.
The difference from space:
A wet year.
For the first time in 29 years, the Savuti Channel was flooded, the Savuti Marsh swelled with birds and water seeped south into the desert pans.
And so, rather than a 15-minute drive to Stanley’s from their airport, I took an hour-long trip down the Boro River and into meandering side channels that would have me instantly lost.
And, because all of Stanley’s vehicles were out on afternoon game drives, one vehicle at Baine’s (Stanley’s sister camp) was commandeered to transport me at Doug and Sandi’s place. The flood had marooned the Groves’s vehicle in Maun.
We forded rivers that were once roads.
Sandi met me at their kitchen shelter. “Doug and the Trio are headed out to forage. Want to join us or settle in?”
Are you kidding? Eight hours after boarding an aircraft in Johannesburg, I was transported to this:
And several hours later, after dark, we walked back under a half moon. I had forgotten my flashlight, but I could still follow three huge silhouettes against the stars. I was back in Africa!
PS: The NASA images above were taken by MODIS (or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) – a key instrument aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. According to NASA, “Terra’s orbit around the Earth passes from north to south across the equator in the morning, while Aqua passes south to north over the equator in the afternoon. Their orbits view the entire Earth’s surface every 1 to 2 days. The data they gather will hopefully improve the understanding of global dynamics and processes occurring on the land, in the oceans, and in the lower atmosphere. MODIS plays a vital role in the development of global Earth models able to predict global change accurately enough to assist policy makers to make sound decisions concerning the protection of our environment.” (Fingers crossed that they do.)