Success. What does it mean to you? It seems, a little different, here in Botswana, to the frenetic lego-building of accomplishments back home. If you have a few kids and a good vegetable patch, tea and friends, your family nearby and enough cigarettes to last you the day; that seems to be a widely accepted view of living large with locals. A house – even better. A donkey? Excellent. Some cows? Practically a baron. It’s somewhat of a hiatus from the rat wheel of social media comparison. Just on the colour of my skin, am I privileged, and utterly successful. And it has sparked an inkling that I need to push back on my anxiety that I am not ‘achieving’. Achieving quickly enough, big enough, extraordinarily enough, for my untapped potential and of course, alongside my peers. ‘Things take the time they take. Don’t worry,’ wrote Mary Oliver. ‘How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?’ And in particular, the sunlit words of John Steinbeck, ‘If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.’ What a relaxing thought.
The guides here are locals, their blood the colour of the cola-clear waters of the floodplains and the impassive blue sweep of the sky’s face. Their people are from here, and their peoples’ people. Person, Chief and Rodgers; men who came to the camp as boys and young men and have spent much of their lives living within its boundaries and those who run it. They know how to pole a mokoro through the bulrush reeds and lily pads of the molapos, noiselessly skimming the water’s surface, beneath the waah waah of the Go-Away bird. They can glance at the path and tell you what has passed before them, whether it was male or female, how old it might be, whether it was chased, chasing or at a leisurely stroll. When I look at the bush and open plains I see grass and sand and trees dotting the horizon; they see a million possibilities, scurried movements, blinking eyes and pounding hearts. Bushes whose roots can be used for toothbrushes, berries that will give you a night fever, leaves that act as a poultice and bark as a pain killer. The million- mile stare is no saying here. It’s a job and a way of life.
Working as a guide from horseback is next level. You not only have eight humans and their varying idiosyncrasies to contend with, but also the horses they're riding, all ranging in temperament and character. You have to scan your surroundings for wildlife, control your horse, keep an eye on the track ahead of you for hazards like acacia thorns, holes and snakes, always keep alert for possible dangers, point out and talk about what you see and keep an eye behind you on what your clients are doing - and if they're still in the saddle! Basically you need eyes in the back of your head, and six in the front. Unfortunately this hasn't yet been developed. I'm sure it's around the scientific corner.
Rodgers, officially christened Ditihalo Tirelo came to work for Barney and PJ when he was just 14 years old in 1991, growing from boyhood to man, raised by the village of staff that toil on the safari camp. He couldn’t read or write, signing his name on official documents with an X. But he grew wanted more and was determined; painstakingly learning to read and taking the long and, at times, gruelling journey to be a professional guide. The guides license is a feat in itself. He’s a big man, astride his horse Scorpion, whose dancing feet never stop but shuffle continuously, head bobbing, named for his sideways gait. He looks kinda like a young Samuel Jackson, with a boyish, natural, high pitched laugh, his face split in two with an infectious, gap toothed smile. Impossibly long feminine lashes and very dark piercing eyes, he takes his job very seriously, and loves sharing his knowledge and meeting people from all over the world.
There are several steps to master – Specialist, Assistant and Professional. The top echelon is a literary slog with a vast theoretical component. The students must know every bird and animal in Botswana; their cry and the shape of their footprint, their dung and their characteristics. There is also a practical element that is both fascinating and terrifying. They must incite a charge from three of the dangerous animals, and know how to defend themselves. For Chief, it was an elephant, a buffalo, and he tracked a lion for a day before it at last eluded his grasp. Percy said he didn’t sleep the night before that exam, imagining the tusk of an elephant through his body if he didn’t get it right.
To watch them work is a gift; men for whom the unmarked sandy pastures, hiding dozens of possibilities within its scorched cloak, is an open book to be read and understood. Chief and Rodgers will glance down from their horses back and study the track, scored with dozens of marks that for me could be footprints, or just the sour wind scattering the earth with the flat of its palm. They’ll tell stories from the dusty page; there a lion, lithe, walking east that morning. There the glancing scurry of the striped jackal, there its life-long mate; there and there the poetry of an antelope, perhaps a reedbuck or an impala. The moon dents of the elephant, laughable in their dimensions, pressed with considerable force and little haste. It’s a fine thing to watch, a feast for the suburban self for whom the land and its inhabitants are apart, separate, lived on and not in.
The ever-cool Chief, Kelebogile Mosepele, sporting tasselled long boots and a beaten-up cowboy hat, sits so naturally upon his steed Black Mamba, or Tyrion or 007. He has backed a lot of the young horses here at Okavango Horse Safaris, and has worked his way up from groom to guide in his seven years working for the lodge. The favoured first born son, Chief was taught to ride a donkey when he was eight-years-old; his father would lift his boy to sit on the saddle in front of him. Speed was his delight from an early age and he would sneak away from the house and steal his father’s horse, galloping on the savanna and chasing the bucking zebras in clouds of dust, whipping their striped hides with the singular mischievousness of boys and their tendency to poke the vulnerable. He would be beaten for his misadventures when he returned home but it served little purpose; as soon as he had the chance he would do it again. The heart of the boy lives on in the man for when his blood is up he loves to follow the moving game; the thundering of the wildebeest as they throw their heads back and forth, tail moving like a pendulum; the nipping and snorting zebra with striped mohawks trembling; the giraffe, moving liquidly, as if not tied down by gravity as other mortal beings but afloat on the surface of the earth; all these things give Chief that buoyant urge to chase, like the joyful nature of a terrier after a flock of birds, that burbling, child-like capacity to run for the sake of it. What a pleasure to be a part of it, everyone grinning from ear to ear, mud splashed and dusty, remembering half-forgotten pleasures of childhood with its many glorious moments of chasing, running, falling, jumping, sprinting with all of your arms and legs, simply, for the hell of it.
The wild grinned Percy, Ntesang Mothanka, larger than life, charming and joyous, has been with Okavango Horse Safaris for more than 25 years – his wife Koshanda is head cook and has been here just as long. Together they’re a dynamic duo with a litany of stories, much water under the bridge. The thousands of people they’ve fed, amused, kept safe, guided, explained, hosted; the purveyors of the ultimate African dream. Percy’s stories are hilarious in their telling; the inflections and the power of the pause, the gestures and the re-enactments. He is generous with his guests; no matter how many times he has told and re-told the story, it is spat on and polished up and brought forward for another, leaning forward on their chair with eyes a-glistenin’.
All of the guides have this penchant for the tale, and with fodder like theirs it’s no wonder. Years and years of extraordinary happenings, encounters with wildlife and near brushes with the blue shadow of death; they’re all wrapped up in rhetoric and a familiar rhythm, their edges smoothed by the years of re-telling like fat river stones under the passage of water. The teller settles deeper into the self in their offering; whether by the campfire, the flames licking golden on their faces, throwing their eyes into deep dark shadow, just the moving mouth eschewing forth; or on a game drive, over a cuppa, around the dinner table. The stories are like the long rains and we the parched earth, grateful for each drop, flowering into the attentive nodding plants that thirstily drink up each fable. It’s the gestures and well-practised animation that bring the adventures into sharp relief, growing into a live thing themselves that can be prodded and watched. The arm movements and quick gesticulations of outstretched hands like dark spiders, a grimace and a pealing, manic laugh. Most of the them end in laughter, compounded with relief that the teller just survived the ordeal. Like Percy on a walking trip, slowly plodding along in the heat of the day, carrying rifle at the tail end of the group while Rodgers led at the front. Rodgers stopped and pointed at a small bush, saying to Percy, ‘There is something in there’. Percy went to see; it was a small scrub bush and he couldn’t think what would be hiding there. Coming to its periphery he peered into the centre to come face to bristling face with a leopard, its ears flat on its skull and teeth bared, coiled like a spring. Percy slowly raised his left forearm, hand balled into a fist, whilst unsheathing his hunting knife with his right; he figured should the leopard attack he would give it his left arm and stab it in its soft belly with his right. Replying to Rodgers queries, ‘Leopard. Angry…’ was all he said, backing away, the cat’s eyes boring a hole in his head. Or the time he and Rodgers had a client each in a mokoro, poling down the river enjoying the quiet, the rippling suck of the pole clipping the mud below. When, without warning, a hippo upended Percy’s canoe, its massive berth coming underneath the boat, flipping it with little effort. Chest deep in water, Percy swung the mokoro between he and the yawning great pink mouth of the hippo, his female companion spluttering and screaming behind him. “What on earth did you do?” I said, eyes marble round. I could only imagine the terror of the situation; being in an alien environment that is very much the territory of another creature, massive from afar and truly colossal up close. ‘If you shrink away and become small, that is when they attack,’ Percy said, screwing up his face and flapping his hands. “I splash splash splash it in the face, to confuse it and make it think I am very large. I thought for sure, this is the end!” It’s a comical thought, the only weapon a splash of water in the face of such a mammoth aquatic creature, like a dandy, faced with a naked, tattooed, machete wielding heathen, striking out by slapping him on the cheek with a white glove. I imagine the hippo, eyes half closed in annoyance, languishing in its fury. Surely the only way out is down the hippo’s gullet. ‘Then Rodgers, he come behind the hippo and smack it on the head with his mokoro pole. And we were saved,’ Percy said promptly. They’re a double act, Rodgers and Person; they call themselves the Bush Brothers. A comedy duo, finishing each other’s stories, chiming in with well-timed precision to build suspense and hilarity. They like to pretend to shame each other, ribbing the other with stories tinged with elbow jogging giggles. Like the time the two were in charge of a group of six women, taking them swimming in a waterhole, Percy driving whilst Rodgers waded and swam in the water. Eventually all the ladies were sat in the boat, waiting to leave, and Rodgers, hands on the dingy’s sides, leapt out the water to land in front of them. A daring manoeuvre, save the absence of his swimming trunks that were still floating down stream and he, standing as naked as the day he was born. The women screamed and looking down and realising his situation, leapt backwards, jumping straight back into the water. This story is told with great mirth by Percy, his voice taking on the falsetto of the women; ‘Rodgers, Rodgers, do it again!’ Percy laughs about Rodgers fear of lions and likewise, Percy’s elephant apprehension. Like the time Percy was certain he was being tracked by a large female ellie they called Washing Machine, named for the throat infection that meant she sounded just like one. Percy woke in the middle of the night to hear the characteristic chug chug of the elephant behind his tent, and ran screaming into the sleeping Rodgers; ‘That elephant is after meeeeeee!’. It’s reminiscent of the ticking crocodile following Captain Hooke’s every move.