As we climbed aboard our eighteen foot motorised tin can Somers and I both held vast amounts of anticipation for the day ahead. We had a boat and a skipper and a river. I was anxious to see what we could catch, be it Tiger Fish, Cat Fish or Bream. Somers was anxious as she imagined the rather large hook tearing a hole in the fishes face only for it to be thrown back in the river after we’d had our fun. I explained that we had booked a fishing trip and that some fish pain or even death was to be expected. Somers wasn’t so sure. But she was keen to try it.
We roared along the river, with the wind in our hair and a river flanked by reed beds and crocodiles. Occasionally we would turn towards into what looked like a wall of reeds before at the last minute a narrow gap opened to reveal a channel along which we could wind and dart in and out of pools and interconnecting streams. The fishing went well and despite the absence of the tiger Fish we caught plenty of Catfish the biggest being around five or six pounds. Somers landed a beauty early on and her face at first appeared bemused, leading to a cringe and then a cringe combined with a squint as her face contracted around her nose when the hook was removed. A series of leading questions ensued as the fish lay quietly on the deck. “Is it going to die? Can it breathe? Is its’ mouth OK? Can we throw it back in?” In it went and we continued our fishing. By this point Laura was in the swing of things and had grown very fond of casting and reeling her lure back in, “I could do this all day” she proclaimed. I couldn’t help but notice though that she seemed to be casting in the opposite direction to the run of babbling Catfish at which I was targeting my baited hook. One of those little blighters was destined to be our dinner.
Laura had enquired about seeing the hippos while we were out on the river and our final trip was a little upstream to get close to a local pod. As we sat, quietly moored at the bank, the hippos would surface in a burst of air, blowing water out of their nostrils, before looking directly at us trying to fathom what we were up to. On the opposite bank, hidden from view, women chattered as the sound of a machete hacked the reeds down to be used for roofing materials. Suddenly there was a huge splash and the women fell silent. Gradually, the noise of moving reeds grew louder as the women slowly moved to where the splash had arisen. A gasp, a single sentence spoken, and then the high pitched rapid speech from a group of excited ladies. Our guide translated. The splash was a crocodile and the women had found its nest of eggs and were chatting amongst each other as to their freshness and edibility. The guide decided he too wanted a look and we nipped across the river before disembarking onto the reeded bank from which the mummy croc had just departed. There was indeed a clutch of sixteen eggs. There had been seventeen until a minute previously when one of the ladies had broken it in an attempt to see if the others were edible. The contents had met with her approval and the croc had sadly been outwitted by humans. One by one the ladies collected all sixteen eggs into their upturned t-shirts. They’d be eating eggs for supper.
This little scenario opened up a whole world of whirling thought: Morality, conservation, subsistence living, natures’ innate cruelty and the ethical basis for eating what were most likely a viable clutch of crocodile eggs. Whilst taking the eggs, is from a broader view, lacking in environmental responsibility and certainly unsustainable in the long term on a larger scale, crocodiles are not endangered, in fact there are plenty of them as we had already seen and been told that day. Crocodiles reportedly take children from the waters’ edge and men from their Mokoro canoes on a monthly basis. The remoteness of the nests and carnivorous appetite of the would be baby crocs parents, means that even if they became a sought after delicacy it would be unlikely that too many hunter gatherers would be stepping forward. Whatever the reasoning, it was clear that these particular eggs would not be hatching of their own accord and their fate was inevitable. That was my reasoning for stretching out my hand and saying “Can I have one?”
The lady had produced one from her faded black t-shirt and handed it to me. In taking it I became as culpable and despicable as they. More so, as not only should I know better. I did. And still I took it.
The boat ride home was a sombre one. Our dinner was on the back of the boat and still not dead. The guide had not brought anything to kill it with and weakly reassured us with “Don’t worry, it will die.” Furthermore, we had a crocodile egg and the discussion remained focused solely on the justification of its acquisition. With the admission of guilt and the reality of its chances of survival once found by those ladies, the loose moral justification of the action became sounder. Was there any more responsible way of obtaining a wild crocodiles egg? Shouting at the ladies may have forced them to replace the eggs, but they’d almost certainly be retaken once we left. Perhaps, through our guide, we could have attempted to educate the ladies in the way so many westerners think they hold the moral high ground over other peoples’ ways of living. Had we bought the eggs we’d be encouraging their theft. If we’d been the only ones to stumble upon them, we’d have walked away quickly in fear of their mother making an appearance. Those ova had been doomed the minute their creator left them and tomorrow we’d have omelette for breakfast.
Back at the ranch I set about filleting the Catfish. It was a fair size and it’d provide meat for a day or two at least. It was hard work and I built up a sweat in doing it. After poor Eric our knife had lost its vim and found the bones hard work. I produced four fillets, two from the abdomen and two from the tail. I was imagining the braai when I noticed the first encysted larva curled quietly amongst the muscle fibres of a tail fillet. The fish had worms. As I teased the small globe of worm larva out of the muscle I noticed another, and another, and another. It was riddled. I was put off the instant I’d seen the first larva. Somers held out a little longer and only when we saw the others did we decide that this fish had met its fate without real cause. It would be eaten, of that there was no doubt, but not by us. I gave it a fairly unceremonial burial ‘at river’ as the fish became fish food.
We ate pasta and sauce, creamy pesto flavour, without meat, and went to bed. The thunder and lightning was so close we thought God was taking his revenge.
We rose the next day and had a morning clear out of Redvers. We cracked our ill-gotten egg and our dismay and moral descent were complete when amongst the yolk we saw a tiny crocodile foetus. The egg became monkey food in yet another unceremonious burial, this time into the bush.
As Somers turned to the back of the car another “Oh My Holy Crap” rang from her lips. There was a fairly large vervet monkey sat in the back of the landy tucking into what was left of our loaf of bread. I chased it into the bushes and as I threw sticks at him, he sat watching and eating. He knew my sticks couldn’t hit him in the thick bush.
We said our goodbyes to our hosts and hit the road destined for Maun. The town at the bottom of the Okavango Delta from where we could arrange the permits and accommodation we would need over the next fortnight.
The climate had been hot and humid alongside the delta but as we drove to Maun and briefly left a world supplied by water from the Angolan mountains we had a glimpse at something with which we’d become familiar in Namibia; the arid countryside of a land during dry season. This however seemed all the harsher as we passed a roadside littered with the rotting carcasses of horses, cattle and goats. Vultures sat heavily in the trees, too full to fly and too stuffed, almost, to roost. The pungent aroma of death heralded our entrance to Botswana’s’ ‘Capital of Tourism.’
It was Sunday afternoon. We found a bank machine that would give us money, the DHL office in which our coveted sim-card was held and a back-packers lodge, ‘Back to the Bridge’, where we could stay for four pounds each per night. Oh and Liverpool have just beaten Chelsea on the telly. Ooooh.