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Falling in love in the Okavango Delta

My sister, Penny, and I are the 4th generation of Netteltons to have spent time living in the Okavango Delta (and the 3rd generation to have fallen in love there).

Great-grandpa Clement Nettelton was the trailblazer. In 1899, he left his home in Basutoland (now Lesotho) and arrived in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana), at the behest of Chief Khama III.

Chief Khama had requested Bechuanaland’s Colonial Administration to appoint as head of the embryonic Bechuanaland Police Force someone fluent in Sesotho. Sesotho is the national language of Lesotho and is similar to Sechuana, spoken in Botswana. It appears an outsider was preferred, and Clement—who lived in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, where he managed the Telegraph service which was an important means of communication between Southern Africa and London back then—was fluent in Sesotho.

The Boer War was in progress so travel was difficult. Clement took up his post in Gaberone—at the time, little more than a village—and my great-grandmother, Rose, followed, a few months later. With four children aged under ten, the three-day train journey from Lesotho to Botswana was arduous and dangerous. There was no dining car and several bridges had recently been blown up by Boer commandos.

Rose and Clement’s house was not yet ready so my great-grandparents took up residence with Colonel Ellenberger. (He later became Bechuanaland’s Resident Commissioner while his son, Vivian Ellenberger—a  future DC like his father and my grandfather—married one of their four children, my great-aunt Bimbi, whom I remember in her old age as a very formidable woman.)

My grandfather, Gerald Nettelton, was the third of Rose and Clement’s four children. He was only a toddler when he arrived in Botswana and he grew up speaking sechuana like a local which was hugely helpful for his court work when he was a District Commissioner as he didn’t need an interpreter.

As a young District Officer of barely twenty, grandpa went on many long and lonely treks of up to three months into the interior, mapping the tsetse fly belt, collecting hut tax and, on one occasion in 1917 while WWI was in progress, hunting suspected German rebels who were believed to have crossed from North West Africa (now Namibia) into Botswana.

Usually, Grandpa travelled with a dozen or so carriers and a Scotch Cart. Often, he rode his detested mule since horses were likely to die of sleeping sickness if bitten by the tsetse fly. (Mules, according to my grandfather, were immune.) Gerald travelled by night through tsetse fly country, as the flies were not active then, and slept during the day.

He shot for the pot, the game being a welcome supplement to the meat supplies of his carriers and the villagers along his route.

My grandfather kept a pictorial diary between 1916 and 1922. It’s a rambunctious account by a very young man pouring out his loneliness and frustration but also his jubilation at his hunting exploits. It’s this diary, which I discovered in my early 20s, that inspired me to make my first trip from my home in Australia to the country where grandpa spent his life and where my dad was born and brought up in the 1930s and 40s.

And it was in Botswana that I met my husband-to-be in the 1990s, while working at Mombo Safari Lodge, on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, in the beautiful Okavango.

Below are a couple of pictures from the memoirs my dad is writing about his Botswana memories, with another volume of adventures he’s collated of his father’s treks. These will be published before Christmas.

Meanwhile, my Okavango-set novella, Christmas Angel, will be up for pre-order in a couple of weeks. It’s set in Mombo (renamed—inspiringly—Momba in the story) about an Aussie girl who falls in love with a game ranger. I’ve based it on how I remember life helping to manage a luxury safari lodge in the early 1990s.

Grampa Gerald Nettelton is on the right. Shooting for the pot.

Grampa Gerald Nettelton is on the right. Shooting for the pot.

Grandpa's trusty Scotch cart loaded up for a few days or weeks in the bush.

Grandpa Gerald’s trusty Scotch cart loaded up for a few weeks or months in the bush.

Out in the mekoro. A great way to travel.

Out in the mekoro. A great way to travel.

A typical early Okavango scene.

A typical early Okavango scene.

Penny outside her reed hut in Xigera

My sister, Penny, outside her reed hut in Xigera, which was home for a couple of years.

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