Maun was still pretty much a frontier town when I first arrived in July, 1991. There were a couple of short strips of tarred road in the village itself. For some unknown reason there was also about twenty-five kilometres tarred from Maun to the tiny village of Shorobe on the way to Moremi Game Reserve. It had been built by the Korean company, Daewoo, but was interrupted by a detour over the old pole bridge across the Thamalakane River near the Hippo Pool. The new bridge had yet to be built.
Sadly, it was the job of my company Basil Read, to help nudge the village into the twentieth century by building some thirty-three kilometres of tarred roads as well as paved walk-ways and car parks over the dusty paths of the scattering of shops known as the Mall. You needed 4×4 to even get to the bank. Sadly, because this African village was to lose a lot of its charm. It was said that you could drop your wallet on the sidewalk and it would lie there until you returned to look for it. When the three hundred kilometres from Nata to Maun was finally completed by Daewoo, Maun lost its virginity. Crime followed.
The Resident Engineer for the consultants, Stewart Scott, was an energetic red-headed ex-Zimbabwean, ex-Englishman named Keith Spackman. I very soon realised to my delight that he was very pragmatic and together we adjusted the impractical alignment of the roads, as designed, to suit conditions on the ground. Compensation had to be paid to householders affected by the roadworks, and many a mud hut trembled and dissolved as our compactors trundled past. However, we also saved a good many buildings as well as majestic trees by changing the alignments to suit.
Within a week of my arrival, I was the proud owner of an old Series II Land Rover Stationwagon that had belonged to an LTA Construction engineer. That company had been tasked with building three dams and dredging the Boro River in the recent past, but the project had been called off by pressure from environmentalists who feared for the impact on the Okavango Delta. I fetched the vehicle from a farm on the Boteti River owned by one Robert Riggs, a hunter who also built and owned a butchery in the Mall.
While I was setting out the Mall and roads, our site offices and workshops were erected by Mark Warken, and other personnel began to arrive. Adrian de Koning was our engineer in charge of the Mall, James Jacobs was our admin clerk. Willie Scheepers was the laboratory technician. We were all crammed into the chalet at the Sedie Hotel, some with mattresses on the floor. Willie got drunk on his first night there, refused to stay on his mattress and tried to get into bed with Mark, then wanted to jump out of the window because he believed that there were tokaloshesin the room. He was lucky Mark didn’t knock his block off.
Nigel Cantle, with his company Maun Office Services, was a great help to us while we were getting established. He acted as our post office and telephone exchange as well as helping guide us through the red tape of permits and bank accounts. His office was just across the road from the Duck Inn and the airport.
The Okavango Delta was right on our doorstep. We dreamed of our first opportunity to venture into it and explore, but we had to work like crazy to earn a bit of time off. I joined the local library and the first book I took out was Karen Ross‘ book “Jewel of the Kalahari.” It was a fascinating introduction to the Okavango, and by coincidence, I met Karen herself the next day. She was/is a friend of Debbie Peak who was the agent with whom John Riley, our Site Agent, dealt to hire a house on the Boro River, outside of Maun. John’s family arrived and settled in, often inviting us to braais there.
Debbie and her husband, Neville, ran “Safari Services” which specialised in hunting trophy taxidermy. The backbone of Maun’s economy, then and now, was tourism, both in the form of hunting, and game viewing and photography. Access to the Delta was by small plane, and the airport had the reputation of being the busiest in the southern hemisphere as far as take-off and landings were concerned!
At the end of the month, I took my Peugeot 404 back to our farm in Warmbaths and spent a long weekend with Sheila. It seemed that we would only be getting together once a month. She delivered me to Lanseria Airport to fly back to Maun in a 10-seater Piper Navaho by the company Turbo Air.