Slow-travel with Mark and Charlie
Updated: Feb 2
A visit to Shamvura Camp, on the banks of Namibia's Kavango River, and a boat trip with Mark Paxton, is an experience you'll never forget.
‘Hey Mark, what’s that! Over there between the waterlilies?’ I pointed to the opposite riverbank.
‘Fuck!’ Mark steered the boat towards the floating field of white lilies, the slow motion of the boat welling up glassy swells reflecting upside-down distortions of trees, white clouds and violet skies.
‘What? Is it a cro…’ Anthon started.
‘… I warned you not to use the C-word!’ Mark shouted above the drone of the engine, but he was too late. Thunzi, the Weimaraner, was already in a quiver, nearly falling overboard with excitement. The Jack Russel Uju’s back legs lifted off the deck as she heard the dreaded word. Cream Puff attempted to heave his heavy Labrador body onto the stern of the boat, to join the action.
‘DOWN! ALL OF YOU!’ Mark yelled.
So where were we? What were we up to? Anthon and I were sitting on a small aluminium-hulled motorboat on the Kavango River, with Mark Paxton and four dogs. Fortunately, the cat and the goat didn’t join us. The goat had the habit of emptying its bowels and its bladder ---simultaneously,--- when it saw a crocodile.
I’d just spotted something dangling between the waterlilies on the side of the river, which turned out to be a forty-meter long illegal fishing net.
‘Help me bring this piece of shit in!’ Mark shouted. Anthon obliged. I merely took more photographs. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get close-ups of these glorious white waterlilies. Mark prefers birds. He adores finding them, observing them, identifying them, photographing them. The only living creatures he loves more are snakes. Especially Black Mambas.
Anthon’s happy. He’s on a river in the Caprivi, in Namibia, in Africa.
I hate photographing moving objects. Well, objects that move fast, anyway. I prefer taking my time; composing my picture, balancing the verticals and the horizontals, checking that my white balance and light settings reflect what I want to capture.
‘I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news,’ I said, trying to appear nonchalant, ‘but there’s something similar floating on the other side of the inlet.’
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’ Mark hated the nets, loved taking them out. I wasn’t sure whether the love or the hate gave him the bigger kick.
‘And, wow! There’s a yellow waterlily!’ I cried.
‘They’re the night bloomers. Only opening now, late afternoon. Shit, I cannot concentrate on waterlilies as well! Help us with the net!’ Mark was as happy as a kid in a jumping castle.
I decided to switch my attention to the net.
‘Mark,’ I asked as reality dawned on me, ‘who set these nets?’
‘The fucking Angolans!. They catch everything whether big or barely hatched. Soon we’ll have no fish left in the Kavango River.’
‘And which side of the river are we currently on?’ I asked, although I knew the answer.
‘The Angolan side, of course!’ Mark answered.
I looked up. From the level of the boat, the riverbank was a couple of meters higher than the top of my head. I couldn’t see over it.
‘And what if the owner of the net appears on this riverbank, three meters from us, right now?’
Mark patted the leather holster on his hip. ‘I’m ready for him!’
I lost all interest in waterlilies. I pulled nets as if my life depended on it. I still believe my life did depend on it. I hate guns. Would never survive in the US.
Finally the nets were in. No armed or dangerous Angolans appeared on the river bank.
‘And now? What do we do with these?’ I asked.
‘Oh, we take them home. Tomorrow I’ll phone the police in Rundu. I’ll collect the officer in my bakkie on Thursday, as they never have vehicles available. Then we’ll search for more nets, find the culprits, they’ll get a fine and the nets will be destroyed.’ The reality of law enforcement in Africa, far from police stations and governments.
‘And the sunset?’ I wasn’t sure whether we’ll still have one. On the river, that is. We were on a sunset cruise, according to Mark’s invitation.
‘Of course we’ll watch the sunset from the river!’ Mark laughed. ‘And you’ll get your G&T! Thanks for spotting those nets, though!’
The dogs were all happy and wagging their tails. They returned to their stance in the stern of the boat, shivering with anticipation. I focussed on their silhouettes against the sunset.
‘But remember not to mention the C-word! The sandbank we’re on our way to might be full of C’s!’ Mark was his old jovial self again. ‘Uju once jumped off the boat when he saw one!’
We were doing Mark and Charlie Paxton’s medicals at Shamvura Camp, on the Kavango River, 80km west of Divundu. They have four dogs, a cat, a goat, —which used to sleep between them at night—, an undisclosed number of chickens, some with chicks, roosting in beautiful Kavango baskets in the lounge, —‘No,’ Charlie told me, ‘you cannot buy that blue basket, it’s my favourite hen’s nest.’— Folklore has it that they also had an otter, which joined them in bed on the odd occasion, but he/she left for unknown reasons. —Mark grumbled something about the otter taking a short-cut through the swimming pool on it’s way to the bedroom, in the middle of the night, then parking itself in-between the two of them.—
The sun was sinking behind us as the boat glided over the silver water.
In front of us, an enormous red moon popped out behind a low cloud, directly over the sandbank we were heading to.
‘The famous Super Moon everyone talked about on Facebook for the last couple of days,’ Anthon commented.
We pulled onto the sandbank. While offloading the chairs and the cool box, the dogs charged around the edge of the island, looking for crocodiles, the dreaded ‘C’s’. A herd of hippos grunted as they surveyed us from the next river bend, their eyes bobbing gently above the wake created by our boat.
‘Thanks Mark, this must be the most spectacular sunset cruise we’ve had in a long time,’ I sighed, gin-and-tonic in hand.
We were the only three humans in the universe. Cream Puff lay next to us, the other three dogs were outlined against the flaming sky. To the east, the giant moon unrolled a long glittering path over the Kavango.
We arrived back at Shamvura’s slipway after dark. Mark’s right-hand man, Wesley, waited for us with lanterns, to guide us up what felt like a hundred steps to the camp, perched in the forest high above the river. We entered the house as Charlie was putting the finishing touches to a delicious lamb curry.
My introduction to the goat took place through the kitchen window.
‘He’s called Bokkie Spitbraai,’ Charlie informed me. ‘He used to be so aggressive and obnoxious. Then I had him castrated. His entire personality changed to sweet, loving and calm overnight!’ She gave him an affectionate pat on the head.
‘And for many months afterwards I slept with one eye open!’ Mark shouted from the bar in the lounge. ‘I was convinced Charlie was going to castrate me while I was asleep, to see if it’ll have the same effect!’
Charlie’s eyes glazed over and a dreamy smile spread over her face as she considered the possibility.
‘Did I tell you that he shot me in the arm once?’ she retaliated. I moved slightly out of the direct line of fire between them, just for in case.
‘I didn’t see you. I was sitting at the bar and noticed Bokkie Spitbraai devouring a book from the shelf in the passage,’ Mark tried to defend himself from the lounge.
‘He grabbed the airgun and took a potshot at the poor goat. The pellet ricocheted off the passage wall and lodged itself in my arm,’ Charlie continued, unruffled.
‘How was I to know you were lurking in the shadows behind the goat,’ Mark retorted.
‘I calmly walked up to Mark,’ Charlie carried on as if she hadn’t heard him, ‘showed him the wound, took out the pellet and dropped it in his hand. Do you know what he did?’
I shook my head, trying very hard to suppress the giggles welling up inside my throat.
Then Mark boomed with laughter behind me.
‘See?’ Charlie said, ‘that’s exactly what he did!’
‘And for months afterwards, I woke up in the middle of the night, cracking myself at the thought that I actually shot ol’ Charlie!’ Mark yelped with delight.
‘Yet you still manage to pull him through every time he gets bitten by a Black Mamba?’ I asked innocently.
‘Of course!’ Charlie smiled. ‘What’ll I do here all by myself, without the old chap?’
We spent the night in their tented campsite. With all the flaps open, the cool breeze rushed through the gauze, along with the sounds made by thousands of frogs, insects and other nocturnal creatures.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast with the Paxtons. Charlie explained to me that they fully supported subsistence fishing if it uses legal, traditional, methods. However, commercial fishing, with massive monofilament, --see-through--, nets has been banned by the Namibian Government. All culprits are not Angolan. Namibians also set their nets on the Angolan side, believing they cannot be removed by Namibian inspectors. The land across the river from Shamvura forms part of the Luengue-Luina National Park. Angolan and Namibian rangers therefore work together, with assistance from the local lodges like Shamvura, to kerb illegal fishing, which is threatening aquatic diversity in the Kavango River.
She also explained that orphaned baby otters will stay with them until they are old enough to fend for themselves, then instinctively go wild.
After a second coffee, we packed Henry and set off for our next destination, 50km further down the river.
We prefer not to be called tourists; ‘Slow-Travellers’ is so much more descriptive.
Ps. Since this trip took place nearly two years ago, both Cream Puff and Bokkie Spitbraai left the Paxtons for the Great Animal Heaven in the sky.
Pss. The great Covid-19 disruption of 2020 hit the Namibian tourism industry particularly hard. Please support people like the Paxtons and Shamvura camp. Our smaller family-run lodges are slowly being swallowed by the large supermarket-style lodge chains. We need diversity. We need slow-travel destinations like Shamvura Camp.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you will enjoy my book, 'A yellow butterfly on an elephant's foot.' Available from Amazon.com.