Photos and Words by David Poulnot Jr.
Cascading out of the Angolan highlands, the Okavango Delta is affectionately known as ‘the river that never meets the sea.’ And for the Tswana people of Northwest Botswana, its flow defines the routine. Young Botswanan males only ripen to manhood following the carving of a mokoro canoe, the primary mode of transportation in the Delta. Distances are approximated using ‘mokoro-hours’ or the number required to pole from village to village. And Okavango Champagne, water consumed directly from the Delta, is celebrated for its crisp, natural flavor.
We connected through Maun, the bucolic frontier town considered to be the gateway to the Okavango. Aside from the light air force of Cessnas, it was the portrait of a border town from a Cormac McCarthian novel. Dirt streets guided informal commerce, the little of which quickly dissolved in the midday sun. We breezed past security preoccupied with Robert Muldoon’s inspiration, ensuring sufficient leeway around his rifle cases, and uneasily emerged onto the tarmac. The fleet of Cessnas sat idling, ready to ferry the wazungu into the hinterland while the airport coordinators directed the newly disembarked where next to board. We obeyed them without reservation.
The Delta laid out underneath us like a canvas, advancing toward the horizon in all directions. Mokoro canals and migration trails snaked between the oases of earth collectively forming the very circulatory system of life within the Okavango. We drifted above the grassless outline of a soccer pitch and I considered again the remarkable permeation of the game that had brought us to this continent. I found myself silently contemplating.
The hop to Chief’s Island was quick and after meeting our guides we immediately set out. Two days and an evening later we’d shared the Champagne with our hosts, dozed to lions bellowing territorial claims, and squared off with an injured water buffalo disguising himself in the brush.“
Aside from wounded leopards, wounded buffalos are the most dangerous of all,” somewhat belatedly confessed our hosts.
Following the tour we were honored with an invitation to visit the village. After closing camp, we loaded up the mokoros and arrived to discover the soccer pitch the most prominent landmark in town. After formalizing our visit via introductions with a few village elders, the all-call was sounded via the proverbial ‘first punt.’ Doors opened, the village youth flowed in, and after rocks were stacked for goals, a 5v5 was underway. No teams were chosen. No captains were designated. It was the chorus of the game in its purest form.
“The formal goals are under repair,” proclaimed one man, pushing a finger toward the wooden goal posts marking the ends of the full-side field.
“The rocks will do,” he followed, smiling wildly in that uncontrollable way that only the content can.
He was correct. The rocks, together with spontaneity of it all, were all that was needed. One of our crew dropped a shoulder, followed it with a step-over, and ghosted past one of our guides.
“What level did you play?” asked Kitso.
“High school,” he said.
A wave of the hand and a shake of the head followed: “Never give up practicing the game.”
This story was brought to us by David Poulnot Jr.
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