Delta Days, Delta Nights
By Karen Petersen
In memory of P.S.
I’d flown back to America with a bottle of Nederburg Red by my side, drunk as a skunk. The plane had sat for three hours in the Johannesburg Airport before taking off, so I’d gotten sloshed on champagne and saved the Nederburg for New York where I could cry my eyes out. I had gone to Maun, a small town up in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, to take some photographs for an American magazine, expecting to be there for five or six days, little knowing I’d be staying months.
I had arrived in true Maun style–bumping into town in a four-wheel-drive Land Rover, clothing covered in the silky brown dust of the southern African bush and aching for a shower at Riley’s Hotel. Riley had been a cool guy. He’d come to Maun from the UK to run a garage and a funky hotel for those first crazy European hunters and explorers who’d dared to penetrate the great African wilderness over one hundred years ago. Lions, cape buffalo, elephants and leopards all strolled through their camp at night as casually as one would take a stroll to the grocery store, and they definitely had to keep their cool. In fact, I think the men at those safari exploration camps originated the meaning of the word ‘cool,’ for without it they were dead.
Well, poor Riley, for all his coolness, ended up drowned in the Okavango when it flooded one year and he’d gotten on an overloaded pontoon to ferry supplies around to different settlements throughout the Delta. Things like that were always happening there. When I arrived, his daughter was running the place, so all of that history hadn’t been that long ago really.
I’d gotten to Maun from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, down this long dusty road–go one way you’re in Zimbabwe, go the other, South Africa. Roads were like that there. Simple. My driver quickly disappeared to look for his next meal ticket, so I got out and staggered down the path toward the reception desk with all my luggage–past several white hunters and African trackers, a few tourists, and a couple of local winos all getting tanked up in the heat of the afternoon at Harry’s Bar. Harry had been Riley’s first name.
I already knew there weren’t many white women in this town–the total white population was around one hundred and fifty–and I could see these guys all sizing me up as fair game. Out of luck boys, I laughed to myself.
The local Tswanas at the front desk seemed like pleasant, easy-going people, not at all like the proud Herero whose villages we had passed on the way in. The Herero, originally from Central Africa, were now in three groups, one of which, the Mbanderu, had come to live in Botswana. They were cattle herders whose women were striking, both in dress and in looks. They were considered the peacocks of the region, and wore many hand-sewn pieces of bright prints fashioned into a Victorian bodice which was attached to several large, gathered skirts. They adorned themselves with necklaces, bracelets and earrings of gold, silver, bone and glass, but their most spectacular adornment was their headdress. These were made from one bright piece of fabric, matched to the colour scheme of the dress, and wrapped around the head in such a way that a long, squarish shelf stood out in front. It almost seemed South Asian.
These clothes, combined with their handsome features produced a very graceful and lovely effect. They were, however, known to be opportunists, according to my driver, and I was later told that if a man outside the tribe slept with a Herero woman he’d not wake up, as she’d stab him to death in the middle of the night and steal his belongings. For these entrepreneurs, sex was only a means to the very practical end of increasing your personal wealth, not unlike many beautiful women in the rest of the world who came from impoverished backgrounds.
As I checked in, I got a room key the size of a cricket bat. I certainly wouldn’t forget to leave that key behind. Dumela, my porter said to me. That was Tswana for “Good Day.”
He was a strange-looking little man, with almost Mongolian features and golden brown skin. Unknowingly, I’d met my first bushman, or near bushman, as I found out later. To survive, many had intermarried in these semi-urban areas with the Tswana. What remained of the Bushmen, a misunderstood, non-negroid race, which was once hunted with a permit by Black Africans and by White Europeans as animals, stayed hidden within the vast harsh sands of the Kalahari Desert, their last refuge.
After unpacking, I wandered back over to the bar, where a group of hunters eyed me. Much to their dismay, I ordered an Orange Fanta and left. Too bad, guys. I wanted to see what the area had to offer before the sun set.
The road in front of the hotel was the main road in town. I headed right, toward the airport, in the hopes of bumming a ride up to the Okavango Delta from one of the bush pilots. The aerial views would be spectacular.
The road, or rather, the continually used path through the sand made by one Land Rover after another, gave back twofold the heat from the burning sun. And this was the southern African winter! I couldn’t imagine what the summers were like.
I made my way slowly through the sand, and after about twenty minutes began to wonder how the Africans were able to walk everywhere. Damn, it was hot. As the occasional Rover or truck went churning by I decided I should try and hitch a lift to the airport before I collapsed.
The thumb went out, but nobody stopped. Just as I was about to resign myself to the trek a truck pulled up and a voice said, “Where are you going?” I looked in the window into the most beautiful, wide-awake pair of blue eyes I’d ever seen.
“Uh, to the airport...”
“Well, get in,” the face took on a focus. What a handsome devil, I thought. Where did he come from?
“Are you off to the Delta?” he said, forcibly shifting the gears of the truck. I noticed that driving these vehicles took a lot of muscle, not like putting the car into “drive” and cruising down an urban Expressway on a Sunday afternoon. The hot air and dust flew in the window as we drove on.
“Actually, I’m trying to bum a ride with one of the pilots. I just got here an hour ago, but since I have some time to kill I want to get a good look at this region from the air.” I wiped the dust from my face with a handkerchief. “I’m here to do some photography for a travel company, but since I don’t start until tomorrow, I thought this would be fun.”
He smiled, shifted again, looked at me and said, “Well, welcome to Maun. I’m Matt.” I saw that he was driving barefooted.
“Hi!” I replied. “I’m Kate...do you always drive without your shoes?”
Matt grinned. “You’ll soon discover that in this part of Africa the sand gets into everything. Shoes are pointless unless you’re somewhere where your feet should be protected, like up in the Delta where the snakes are.” He widened his eyes and looked at me melodramatically
“Aw, come on,” I said, laughing.
“Really, I’m not kidding.” Another gear shift. Bump. Bump. Bump. We arrived at the airport.
“Thanks a lot, Matt. This was really nice of you. I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake, walking in this heat.” I held out my hand.
He shook it-a good, firm handshake, I liked that-and said, “My pleasure. If you don’t mind, I’ll just hang around a bit. I have a feeling none of the pilots are flying to the Delta today.”
I nodded and ran toward the planes, knowing full well that he was watching me. I felt very vulnerable being watched like that, and I knew if I turned around he would meet my gaze.
Unfortunately, none of the bush pilots-a pretty scruffy lot-were heading north that afternoon, so I walked sheepishly back to Matt’s truck. He had gotten out and was peering at the engine.
“Well, you were right,” I said. “Everything okay?”
“Yah,” he replied. “I’m just checking up on her.”
I suddenly realised his accent sounded South African. “You’re South African, aren’t you?” I was suspicious. “What are you doing here?”
Matt grinned. “You guessed it. I’m South African. We’re not all bad you know. The locals love me because I’m fluent in Setswana and a damn good hunter and tracker. My family owns a fuel business, and I run one of the safari operations here. I’ve lived in Maun for about ten years–things got so out of hand in South Africa, I had to leave. Before independence, the government wanted me for their army and I refused to fight so I left.”
“Oh,” I said.
Matt said slyly, “My friend Sandy’s throwing a braai tonight. Why don’t you come as my guest and meet the locals?”
A braai was a southern African word for barbecue–a catch-all term that described events ranging from staid backyard gatherings to all-night beer brawls where people wandered drunkenly off into the bush to fatally waltz with the lions.
“Why, thanks Matt...sure, I’d love to come! What time?”
“Oh, I dunno. Eight okay? Pointing to his truck he said, “Come on, let’s go–I’ll give you a lift back.”
The late afternoon sun on the acacia trees threw long shadows into the dusty front yards of Maun’s black working class. Their squat, concrete housing blocks lined the road for a mile or so, and as the day was still hot these gathering shadows gave people a brief respite from the glare of the sun. This was short of going inside, which no one ever did, unless it was to sleep or have sex. Africans were much too social to stay indoors.
Ahead of us, an open bush truck was stopped in the middle of the road with a great crowd around it. As we got closer, I saw to my horror that hanging from its rear on two large hooks was some giant skinned animal, brown and bloody.
“What on earth is that?” I said to Matt in disgust. I’d seen some bloody things before in my travels but this had to be the grossest.
“I see they finally got that hippo,” he replied, taking out a cigarette and lighting it nonchalantly as the truck slowed to a halt.
“What do you mean? I thought hunting them was forbidden?” I stared at all this dead meat in front of me. It smelled.
“Well...it is, but the other day before you got here, two locals were going down the river in a long makorro, fishing, and they were killed. Cut right in half. Wack!” He slapped the dashboard for emphasis. “So whenever that happens around here, we go out and shoot one just to teach the other hippos to stay away. They know what death is, they sense it and smell it. After that, they stay away for a while.”
“All that meat you see, there must be half a ton of it right there, gets distributed to these people in the town. They go wild for a few days-impromptu dancing, drunken orgies and all that kind of tribal stuff and then everything gets back to normal until the next time.”
He offered me his cigarette. “I figure those hippos are good for at least five, six feasts a year...”
“That’s awful, Matt! Those animals don’t know any better. It’s we who are invading their territory. They’re just protecting it!”
“We all have to live together,” he replied, and then just shrugged as if to say-this is Africa-and started up the truck again. Bump. Bump. Bump. Off we went.
As Matt dropped me off at dusk, I saw that I’d left the light on in my bathroom at the hotel. Going inside, I discovered thousands of African gnats had met horrible kamikaze deaths at the hands of General Electric. The tub was a graveyard.
I quickly opted for a shower in the dark instead of that nice hot bath I’d envisioned. Christ! How could I relax with half the insect population of Africa floating around me?
At 8 pm on the dot Matt appeared with the punctual timing of a true colonialist. I guess in such a wild outpost, being on time (Western time, that is) had its own special merit for the white man. I’d already noticed how important watches were to them. Matt had been wearing a giant Seiko and the white men at Harry’s Bar had on those big diver’s watches originally meant for somebody like Lloyd Bridges.
Time was an important commodity to these former colonialists, probably the most important. In the vast African spaces where they had chosen to live they harnessed it, packaged it, fought with it, but never embraced it. Only the black African did that, which is one of the reasons each could never really understand the other. African time was so different from Western time and gave new meaning to the old cliche “go with the flow.”
Matt stood in the doorway uncertainly. “Do you smoke pot?”
“Sure!” I said with a big smile, “Come on in.”
“We flew in some Malawi gold the other day...Matt took out a long bundle wrapped in reeds like a small cylindrical basket. “Like to try some?”
“Definitely!” I answered, eyeing the pot, and motioned for him to sit down.
He took out a box of Lion brand stick matches from his leather jacket and began to unwind the reed covering form the marijuana stick. “Ever been to Malawi?”
I nodded no.
“It’s an odd little country. The current guy is okay but before him the leader of it was half crazy. He was one of those powerful and revered tribal chiefs whose father, who ruled before him, had sent him off to Oxford, or some such place, to be “properly’ educated. Well, the poor fool came back with some pretty strange ideas in his head. He decided a few years ago that the only way to modernise his little fiefdom was to force everyone to learn the Classics–ancient Greek and Latin. He felt that those were such great societies he intended to model his country after them. So now you’ve got all these failed English classicists wandering around Malawi teaching Greek and Latin to the Africans. Those poor bastards have no idea what’s hit them, ha-ha-ha! Believe me, it’s a very strange place, even now.”
“It certainly sounds, uh, different.”
We smoked some pot and walked back out to the truck, where I noticed a CD player.
“What kind of music do you have, Matt?”
“All kinds.” Judging by the way his face lit up I had clearly hit upon one of his favourite subjects. Have you heard the latest Coldplay record? It’s great. I got it in Harare last month.” He stuffed a CD in and Chris Martin’s powerful voice blared forth.
I didn’t much care for any music at that point because I was so caught up by the majesty of the inky black African night high above my head. The Southern Cross gleamed its ancient navigational bearing as the entire radiant and shimmering mantle of the deep Milky Way arched above us fading off into infinity.
“Is the sky always like that?” I asked in awe.
“In the winter,” Matt said. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
After a few minutes, he started up the truck and we jerked and jolted our way down to his friend Sandy’s house. He lived as many whites did in the region, in a screened-in series of thatched rooms scattered all over a cleared compound down by one of the ill-fated hippo pools, about twenty minutes out of town. As we drove up, it was clear this wasn’t going to be one of those laid-back neighbourly barbecues, but an all-out bash. A sign had been tacked to the clearing near the river where about thirty Land Rovers were parked, and read: “Beware Of The Unknown. It May Be Toxic.” Light streamed from several of the thatched rooms and the smell of cooking meat was everywhere. A man who I guessed must be Sandy lurched out of the crowd toward us, beer in hand.
“Hallo there, mates.” Glad you could make it.” I realised from the accent that Sandy was Australian. “Come on in and relax.” Already slightly drunk, he grinned at both of us.
I smiled and gingerly made my way toward the light quickly as Matt stayed behind to chat with Sandy. The proximity of those hippo pools was making me nervous, especially when we could easily hear the deep bassoon honking of the hippos calling each other in breathy quarter note fashion.
A red-haired South African named Rita thrust a beer into my hand and introduced herself as Sandy’s cousin. She had what could only be described as a relentless perkiness. She told me she ran one of the local travel agencies. I politely nodded and privately thought this quite amusing, as there were perhaps a total of 150 whites in this community and they were the only ones who could afford to go anywhere. But where? I guessed Joburg and Cape Town were the hottest spots around, next to Vic Falls. In Vic Falls she could always book a couple on “The Flight of the Angels,” a careening 20 minute flight over the falls in a very small plane which one wag had described as a “bad amusement park ride.”
I forced myself to pay attention to Rita’s chattering “...yes, you must meet him. He’s a lot of fun, and quite interesting.” She was leading me somewhere, through a pack of strangers, to talk to someone near the bar. She came up behind a tall, dark-haired man and tapped him on the shoulder.
My heart beat faster. It was Matt. I should have guessed. He was holding a bowl of what appeared to be egg drop soup, of all things.
“Why do you always serve this darned poached egg debris at your parties, Rita?” he said teasingly, giving her a friendly kiss without seeing me.
“Oh Matt, you’re so silly! All you need is a good soup bone to gnaw on.” Rita tugged on his sleeve. “Listen, I’d like you to meet someone.”
Matt turned expectantly and his eyes widened in mock surprise. “Well, well, well...look who’s here!”
I looked down at the ground, unsure of what to say next. Rita smiled and squeezed my arm. “So, I see you two have met?”
“Yah,” Matt said slowly, drawing out the South African pronunciation of the word and looking at me carefully. Those blue eyes were so amazing.
“How’s business these days, Matt?” Rita was valiantly attempting to save me from Matt’s spell.
“Oh, good, good...” Matt said, still looking at me. I felt my face flushing. Dammit. “How long did you say you were around for?” This was directed at me.
“Uh, a couple of days I guess.”
“Well then, I’ll have to show you the sights, my dear,” Matt was grinning, in full control.
“Okay,” I smiled weakly. He had me now and he knew it.
Rita looked amused. “I think I’ll go get some barbecued chicken. Bye!”
Matt, moved closer and looked into my pale face. I hadn’t eaten all day. “You look famished. I’ll go get you some food. Wait here.”
I stood listening to the strange squeaking of the bats in the trees, a sound closely akin to a rusty swing, and unnerving after a while.
Matt had come back quickly, plate jammed with every kind of food the party had to offer. “Here, I brought it all...so you don’t miss anything.” I laughed as I took the plate. This man was funny.
“Eat up. I’m going to take you to see the sights.” He held up a bottle of wine. “This is for later. It’s a Nederburg Red. Sandy flies it up here from Johannesburg.” He bent down to pet a large, black dog that was licking his feet. “Meet Beezer. Local lion tamer, serval stalker, monkey terrorist...good beezerboy. I think he’s adopted me!”
Beezer, who looked to be a cross between a German Shepherd and a Retriever, barked in assent and went back to licking Matt’s toes.
I ate as much as I could and felt better. The sun had been so hot it hurt, draining me all at once, and a good meal had been just what I needed.
“Thanks Matt,” I said, finishing off my beer. He stood up, motioning for us to leave.
We said goodbye to Sandy and the others, and I took special care to say goodbye to Rita, who was looking slightly drunk and depressed.
“Come on, Rita. Buck up. You’ll find a nice man, you’ll see.” I patted her arm reassuringly. You make friends fast in this part of the world–instincts went far.
Matt came over to us and took my arm. “Oh, don’t pay attention to her. She always does this at parties.”
Only one door worked on Matt’s truck, so I had to climb in head first, fighting off Beezer for possession of my side of the seat. Matt and I drove in silence, comfortable with each other, for many miles. Then, he slowed down and pulled off the sandy road into the bush, turning off the lights so that only the vast darkness could be felt. It was so still we could hear each other breathing. The sounds mingled with the great African silence outside.
“This is beautiful country,” Matt said after a while.
“Yes it is,” I spoke softly and looked at him.
He took my face in his hands and held it close to his so I could just feel his lips and breath on mine. “You’re not a Herero in disguise. Are you?” he said grinning. “I want to live for a few years more!”
I giggled nervously.
“Stay for a while,” he whispered, kissing me. “Don’t leave just yet.”
To this day, I don’t know if it was the seductive magic of that African night–the place just gets under your skin–or a passionate force more ancient that either Matt or I could understand that drew us together, but I said, “Yes, I will stay,” not knowing it would be for many months.
But the assignment editors from New York were always in the back of my mind, and I knew my life, my real life, was not in this beautiful place. When it came time to leave at last, Matt and I looked at one another tenderly, kissed, and then we both turned and walked away. We had different worlds, and that was life. I doubted I would ever see him or the region again. My coming to the area had been a special treat, and my assignment had been long over. I knew my fate was to be a nomad, and wander the world and tell others about what wonders lay beyond those horizons, and Matt’s was to stay in Botswana and build a future for himself in tourism.
Sandy flew me down to the Joburg airport, where we had a stiff goodbye, and I got on the big 747 already drunk on one of two bottles of Nederburg Red that Sandy and I had shared before saying farewell. They had all been such good people and I was going to miss them. I almost got off the big airliner but knew I couldn’t. My life was elsewhere.
After sitting for what seemed like an eternity the plane’s engines finally roared, and it began its ascent over the great South African veldt. I saw the familiar golden sand and rust-coloured soil, checkerboarded with green and a darker green, as low lying clouds dappled the land. Soon we were flying over the sun-swept beauty of the Kalahari and I couldn’t stop crying.
A pretty stewardess brought me some champagne and a magazine. I held my glass and watched the bubbles as they rose speedily up through the golden liquid. In Setswana, there was a saying I’d heard spoken by the one going away to the one that remained behind. It was a saying from the heart and, loosely translated, meant “be well.” “Sala sentle, Matt,” I said softly as the plane levelled off, and the glowing clouds came and took me away.
Adventurer, photojournalist and writer, Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, her poetry was published in The Manzano Mountain Review and Pilgrimage Magazine in the USA, Orbis in the UK, and The Wild Word in Berlin. Her poems and short stories have also appeared in A New Ulster in Northern Ireland and The Bosphorus Review in Istanbul. In 2015, she read "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the KGB Bar in NYC. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and teaches English Composition at NNMC.