Gliding through reeds in a mokoro in the Okavango.

Gliding through reeds in a mokoro in the Okavango.

Having left the dry dusty and showerless Central Kalahari Game Reserve behind, we were now resting in the small town of Maun, nestled in the southern reaches of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The town is little more than a base for safari companies and a place to stock up on supplies. After ten days in the Kalahari it was a relief to see water and green landscapes. While recharging our batteries at The Old Bridge Backpackers, we noticed that they arranged mokoro tours into the delta with the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT). We learned that a mokoro is a dug-out canoe, generally carved from the trunk of a native sausage tree, and is the traditional method for getting around in the shallow wetlands of the Okavango. These days, the locals are replacing them with fiberglass models to help conserve trees. It sounded like the perfect way to experience one of Africa’s largest wetland area: three days poling in the mokoro, camping under the stars, and searching for wildlife on foot. On top of that it was a chance to support local communities and help preserve this unique ecosystem.

The rare Red Lechwe is plentiful in the Okavango.

The Red Lechwe is plentiful in the Okavango.

The OKMCT was registered in 1997 to promote the sustainable use of natural resources through the direct participation of local communities in managing the environment, animals, and plant species. The community traditionally uses this part of the delta for reed cutting, fishing, and the harvesting of water lily bulbs. Mokoro trips are an integral part of these activities.

Our Okavango Mokoro Tour

On the day our tour started, we set out early in the morning and drove toward the delta. There, we transferred into a motorboat that took us one hour into the delta to the starting point of our mokoro trip. It was a busy beach full of local guides, mokoros, and tourists ready to enjoy the traquility and beauty of the Okavango. Some tourists were departing; others were arriving. An American with a white beard turned to me smiling, “It is so peaceful and amazing… I hope you brought some bug spray!”

Mokoros wait to escort tourists into the Okavango Delta.

Mokoros wait to escort tourists into the Okavango Delta.

And so we glided into the Okavango Delta. We moved slowly on the calm surface, gliding through reeds while tiny reed frogs jumped onto our legs and arms to catch a ride. We sat low in the floor of the mokoro, propped against molded plastic seats, while our guide stood in the back and pushed us forward with a long pole. We passed through narrow canals and water lilies and watched tall palm trees slide by. A few hours later we arrived at our camp, a small beach on a large forested island.

Our swimming hole in the Okavango

Our swimming hole in the Okavango

After lunch, our guide told us we could take the mokoro for a paddle by ourselves. Really? On our own? It was his only livelihood yet he trustingly allowed us to take it wherever we wanted. We happily, and somewhat nervously, hopped on and Hal took charge of the pole. He soon got the hang of it and guided us to a nearby swimming hole where we were told it was safe to swim (no crocodiles, no hippos, no lions).

We swam in the calm dark waters and enjoyed the peace and quiet, only broken by the occasional sightseeing plane doing lazy circles above our heads. Though the planes seemed invasive to me, I noticed that the wildlife took no notice.  Soon the sound of motors faded away and only the buzz of dragonflies remained. Out of nowhere, a wave of mokoros appeared filled with tourists who, like us, craved seclusion. Having lost our paradise, we climbed out of the water and sunned ourselves on a nearby log surrounded by elephant poo.

Walking Safari in the Okavango

That evening, our guide took us on our first walking safari, lasting about three hours, around the island where we would camp. But first he sat us down and gave us explicit instructions on what to do in case of animal encounters.

“If a rhino charges at you, climb a tree. If an elephant charges at you, don’t climb a tree. Run. They would knock the tree down just to get at you. If you see a lion cub trying to walk between your legs, do not kick it. Its mother wouldn’t like that.” The guide looked at us with a serious face. He wasn’t joking.

After this enlightening advice, we set off on our first walking safari.

An evening walking safari on an island in the Okavango.

An evening walking safari on an island in the Okavango.

We walked through the island, along lines of palm trees, past termite mounds taller than our heads, and stopped to watch a baby giraffe nurse. We found buffalo remains, antelope horns, and an elephant skull. We sat near a shallow pool and watched a group of white-faced whistling ducks squeaking like rubber bath toys. Zebras and wildebeest strolled by in large herds while red lechwe and impalas grazed. Large open-billed storks and tiny bee-eaters flew by. Southern Ground Hornbills pecked at an empty tortoise shell. Baboons held meetings on abandoned termite mounds.

A baby giraffe nursing near a large termite mound.

A baby giraffe nursing near a large termite mound.

Watching Wildebeest on a walking tour.

Watching Wildebeest on a walking tour.

As we walked back to camp, we watched the red sun setting just for us.

We fell asleep in our tent listening to the sound of night creatures making their rounds.

The following day we took a morning walk, followed by a mokoro outing to a hippo pool. In the evening we had a final hike around the island. Still no sign of that baby lion or its mother.

 

On day three our guide polled us back out of the wetlands to our starting point. It was a beautiful sunny day and the tiny frogs hopped onto our bare toes as we said our goodbyes to our paradise.

 

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