From the first light of dawn today, it seemed like Gudigwa Camp was running in high gear. The staff was making last minute preparations and straightening out the cabins for the VIP guests attending today's opening ceremony.
A project like Gudigwa doesn't get off the ground without support from the community, government and the public and private sector. Many of these supporters came today to have a look at the final product and to officially open the camp. Sharon worked tirelessly to get donors to commit to a day on the far side of the Delta. Botswana's Minister of Tourism and Environment, supporters from the European Union and the U.S. Department of State as well as the regional head of Wilderness Safaris, the company promoting Gudigwa, were all expected.
Final touches were made to the huts for guests to tour just as I began to hear the buzz of the Cessnas circling overhead. The atmosphere reminded me of a dress rehearsal for a live performance and in some ways, that's what it really was. Today, the first planes landed at the new airstrip, the safari vehicle we rode in from Maun made its debut, and the guides and the staff hosted VIPs as if they were guests.
Over by the sandy parking lot there was a rhythmic beat of drums and choruses of "Toyaate Tsekaraga" (hope your journey went well). A swarm of guests and villagers took tours of the camp and everyone was chattering about the accommodations and the camp's atmosphere.
"So far, so good," said Sharon as she rounded up guests to show them the kitchen facilities and staff housing.
By mid-morning we loaded up an army's worth of safari vehicles and headed back to the airstrip. Although chairs were set up under large tents, it was such a hot, sunny morning, that most of us headed under the few trees in the area for shade.
Speeches, a ubiquitous part of any public ceremony, dominated the program. Morena Motoloki, the Chairman of the Bukakhwe Cultural Conservation Trust described the community meeting where the idea for Gudigwa Camp came about. "We asked ourselves, what can we do to rejuvenate our culture and create jobs? How can we ensure that our culture does not die?"
Across from the tents, a very enterprising woman from the village was selling rolls she had baked that morning.
It's hard to believe that from that meeting, just a few short years ago, a business like Gudigwa Camp could be built and that the community would accomplish just what it set out do. Fifty or so jobs were created, the Bukhakwe culture is experiencing a revival and younger generations are now taking an interest in learning more about their ancestry as well as their environment.
The speakers continued. Keith Vincent from Wilderness Safaris described his enthusiasm for the camp's unique approach and challenged tour operators to bring visitors to Gudigwa. "Today, most tourists want to know about the history and heritage of an area. Gudigwa Camp has this, and more importantly, the community owns it. It's vital to the community that we spread the word about Gudigwa so they can succeed in this venture," he said. "It is far easier to protect the beauty and nature of the Okavango if communities can earn income from this kind of tourism."
I nodded in agreement as the sun moved high in the sky - it got hotter and hotter. Even the dancers, who performed during interludes of the speeches, seemed to be melting.
Across from the tents, a very enterprising woman from the village was selling rolls she had baked that morning. The thought of eating never crossed my mind because my throat was parched. "So, this is what it's like to bake in the sun, " I thought.
The hours after the opening ceremony until the next day's dawn were a bit of a blur. Maybe it was just the heat. Luckily, we woke the next day to cooler temperatures and amazing morning light. I was just getting used to using CI's new digital camera and figured our morning bushwalk would be a great opportunity to put it into action.
Zero Ngorogwe, one of the camp managers, led the walk. We were accompanied by three traditional bushmen from Gudigwa village who, we quickly learned, knew just about everything about anything in the bush.
It was even more special because there were just three of us on the walk - Jen, Dave, a private safari guide who works with Wilderness Safaris and me. Dave grew up in Zambia and is an avid birder so between him and Zero we were sure to luck out spotting birds. I was keen to spot more colorful rollers and bee-eaters.
"Now, if we can only leave camp, " I thought. It was amazing that the grasses that camouflage the camp huts now captivated our attention. We spent a several minutes just talking about plants right near the camp before we realized we had an hour-plus walk ahead of us into the bush and little time to dawdle.
But before we were more than a few hundred feet away from camp Zero said, "OK - let's read the morning paper," as he pointed to the ground. "The news last night was that there was more than one elephant near camp. If you are the first people to come upon tracks at dawn, you can understand what's been happening." I compared the size of the elephant tracks to my own foot and immediately felt small in the world.
We walked slowly because just about every insect, flower, nut and hole in the ground had a story. It was hard to keep them straight too. At one point, Jen was about to put a seed pod in her mouth that she thought the bushwomen said was edible when they began waving their hands and telling her to stop. "Huh?" said Jen. "I thought I could eat this." "Not unless you want to go deaf," said Zero.
When you look at the bush from a safari vehicle or from a plane in the sky, it doesn't appear to be a very rich ecosystem. But every grass species has a different use for animals and people and even every waste product (like elephant dung) is useful to some critter. In all the years I've spent communicating about biodiversity and conservation, nothing better illustrated the web of life to me than this bushwalk.
I tried to imagine what such an experience might be like for Gudigwa's first real guests. I decided it might be simultaneously humbling and awesome for western folks to imagine.
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