NAME: Phill Steffny
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CURRENT COMPANY: Phill Steffny Safaris
My previous story about our time at Ngala, particularly the cheese-stealing hyena, brought back some funny memories of my brief foray away from guiding into the unfamiliar world of lodge management. Picture the scene – a beautiful camp somewhere in the Okavango Delta. Teeming with wildlife just waiting to be discovered. And me in a white shirt, now a manager, sitting at a desk, listening enviously to the guides comparing notes about their game drives, glumly trying to make the computer talk to me – not a happy picture! And something I'll try to avoid in the future. My place is out there in the bush. Yet, there were some incredible moments and I guess it takes all kinds of experiences to bring out the rich flavours of life in the bush....
Running a camp in such a remote location is a challenge for the most stout-hearted, resourceful individual. One January, our camp was closed for routine maintenance. Heavy rain caused the water in the permanent channels surrounding our camp to rise dramatically. Skies remained sullenly bruised and the clamour of rain battering against the thatch and canvas became the ear-numbing soundtrack for an entire week.
We were expecting a special delivery – a bulldozer to level out a section of our airstrip that was prone to waterlogging. This massive machine had been loaded onto a ten ton truck which had set out from Maun a couple of days before the rains hit us. We waited. The water rose. Our airstrip took on a more, er, aquatic appearance and we had to “borrow” our neighbour’s airstrip, a few hours’ drive to the northeast over swollen channels and flooded pans and vleis. It made the simple task of fetching our weekly staff rations an expedition of its own, involving a day’s round trip and a pinch of luck that the tracks would actually still be navigable. (It was during one of these “shopping trips” that Marnie managed to take our landcruiser for a swim, but we’ll save that one for another time.)
Back to the bulldozer. With radio being our most reliable form of communication, we’d been in touch with the Maun office regularly, hoping for updates of the truck’s whereabouts. After two days of fruitless communications, we sent out an exploratory party – me, B-Man our mechanic (a man who could literally strip and reassemble any kind of engine. Blindfolded. A talent often called upon!) and two of our rangers. Enough hands to dig a vehicle out of a swamp, should the need arise. And so, it would seem a simple task to locate such an incongruous object on one of the few “roads” that linked us to Maun. Not so. We spent an entire day tracing its possible whereabouts, only to give up and slosh back to camp just after sunset with nothing to show for our efforts except a very sandy, water-logged vehicle full of drenched occupants. Next morning our radio confirmed what we expected. “It is lost, over.”
How, I wondered, does one “lose” a ten ton truck and a bulldozer? The mystery was solved by a resourceful pilot. From the air, the delta is a magnificent tapestry of mirror-like pans, lush green swamps and bone-white termite mound islands poking up through the water. The few tracks often vanish during the time of the flood and from this vantage point it’s a simple matter to pick out the remaining ones, and this is what the pilot did. He eventually located the missing truck and its cargo, spectacularly bogged down in a watery bend in a track that we’d somehow missed, and the mystery was solved.