Exploring Botswana’s Okavango Delta by African-Style Gondolier

On a mokoro ride on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Photo by Yvonne Michie Horn
On a mokoro ride on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Photo by Botswana Tourism

“Don’t fidget. Don’t even think about standing up. Keep your hands out of the water.”

So warned, I clutch the sides of a tippy-prone canoe known as a mokoro in this part of the world as we push off into a carpet of lily pads here in Botswana.

Botswana: Okavango Delta

It seems to me, given that crocodiles abound in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, that I’m seated alarmingly close to the water. Reason enough not to dangle one’s hands in the water.

Hippopotamus, considered among the most dangerous of wild animals, also abound. Tales are told in the Okavango of hippos, able to submerge and swim for considerable distances under water, popping up under mekora (plural) for the sheer fun of toppling them.

I fail to see how not fidgeting will curtail such behavior.

Mekora (plural) are propelled by a “poler” — think African gondolier — standing in the rear with a 12-foot pole in hand. My poler introduces himself as “Focus.” It takes me a moment to understand that he is telling me his name and not adding to the “don’t fidget” list.

Pole-propelled canoes have plied the Okavango’s 6,000-square-mile labyrinth of waterways since the mid-1800s when the BaYei people wandered down the Zambezi and found the delta ideal for their time-honored mode of transport.

Traditionally, tree trunks were hollowed out by means of fire and a small hatchet – great jackalberry trees especially favored for their long, straight trunks – resulting in a low-floating craft of about 20 feet in length and pointed at each end.

Today’s mekora are constructed of fiberglass. Unless you give one a thump or are asked to heft it, they appear dead ringers for the water-weathered, tree- trunk originals, most of which now decorate the entrances of wilderness lodges.

We are a flotilla of four, two to a mokoro. For the eight of us, this is day 17 on an ElderTrek’s 23-day “Splendors of Africa” tour.  Elder Treks is a Toronto, Canada-based touring company specializing in adventure travel for those aged 50 plus.

Okavango A hippo open its mouth. Photo by Yvonne Michie Horn
The river is rich in wildlife. Photo by Yvonne Michie Horn

For 16 days, we explored the splendors of Namibia before making our way to the Okavango for three days of adventuring in a small corner of the Delta’s 6,000 square miles of floodplains, narrow channels and innumerable small islands. Safaris into Botswana’s Chobe National Park would come next, with Zimbabwe’s thundering Victoria Falls the tour’s finale.

Focus grew up in the Okavango, he tells me, where learning how to pole a mokoro is something all kids learn how to do, rather like riding a bicycle in other parts of the world.

“I fell in a lot,” he says.

We skim soundlessly through the crystal-clear, lemon-lime water into narrow channels with papyrus and reed elbowing in on either side, and make our way through the grasses and water lilies of shallow lagoons. We pole the edges of small islands fringed with tall palms and short fig trees, and pull ashore on one to picnic and explore its interior.

Wildlife in the Okavango Delta

We see nary a crocodile or a hippo, or any other of the delta’s estimated 200,000 large mammals, including herds of buffalo, elephant and lechwe antelope. I ask Focus why that is.

The reason: Most of the animals in the Okavango are not year-round residents. They leave when the rainy season comes to find fields of grass to graze, making their way back when the season ends. This year, the wet season was running late, well into April. They’d not yet returned. As for the crocodiles, their favored lounging areas, sunny banks, remain submerged. They, too are elsewhere.

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