Exploring Botswana’s Okavango African Gondolier Style

Don’t fidget. Don’t even think about standing up. Keep your hands out of the water.” So warned, I clutch the edges 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.

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

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Propelling a mokoro with a poler takes balance. (Photo: Yvonne Michie Horn)

Mekora 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.

Delta Ideal for Poling

Poler-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, about 20 feet in length, pointed at either end.Today’s mekora are constructed of fiberglass. Unless you give one a thump or are asked to heft one, they appear dead ringers for the water-weathered, tree-trunk originals, most of which now decorate the entrances of wilderness lodges.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • You search out way to travel the way the local people do.
  • With or without animals you love being out in nature.
  • Putting yourself into a place of possible danger adds to the travel experience.
  • Recommended for adventure travelers and nature lovers.

We are a flotilla of four, two to a mokoro. For the eight of us, this is day 17 on an ElderTrek’s 25-day “Splendors of Africa” tour. Elder Treks is a Toronto, Canada-based touring company specializing in adventure travel for those aged 50 plus. For 16 days, we explored the splendors of Namibia before making our way to the Okavanga for three days of watery 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 splendiferous finale.

Focus grew up in the Okavanga, 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.

Papyrus and Reed Elbow In

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.

With nary a crocodile or a hippo to be seen, or any other of the delta’s estimated 200,000 large mammals, including herds of buffalo, elephant and lechwe antelope. I ask Focus, “How come?” The reason: Most are not year-round residents. They leave when the rainy season comes to find renewed 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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Bird-life in the Okavango makes it a birders paradise. (Photo: Yvonne Michie Horn)

As if to make up for it, birds are in abundance with chirps, twitters, and tweeting providing the sound track for our adventure. Many are of such fine-feathered iridescence they appear Tiffany designed. Flowers, too, are in abundance, with entire bouquets brightening the papyrus and reed greenery. Along with, of course, all those water lilies. Handy things, lily pads. Forgot your hat? Try a lily pad, as Focus models.

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Among many uses for a lily pad. (Photo Yvonne Michie Horn)

Sitting back in the padded seat and backrest thoughtfully provided, and no longer concerned that a little fidget would put us in the drink, I’m struck by the Okavango’s beauty, doubled in its watery reflections. We’d seen plentiful exotic animals in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, with the certainty of a Botswana menagerie in Chobe National Park yet to come. No need to add Okavango exotic sightings to my Africa checklist.

Oh, Oh …Hippos!

Three sets of periscope eyes appear in the water.

Three sets of periscope eyes appear in the water. (Yvonne Michie Horn)

It is then that my mokoro partner spies three sets of periscope eyes floating in the cove of the island we are passing. Our flotilla of four comes to a halt. Hippos. With a great harrumph and grunt, one rears its head out of the water and opens its massive jaw wide. Something one would not wish to encounter if coming up for air after a surprise toppling over.

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Not something one wishes to see when emerging from an impromptu dunking. (Photo: Yvonne Michie Horn) 

Oh, oh – now there are but two sets of periscope eyes. Focus demonstrates fast poling.

Thieving Monkeys at the Lodge

The porch of my permanently tented cabin at Nguma Island Lodge awaits, a fine place to relax with a glass of South Africa wine in hand. Monkeys scamper about, swinging out of the trees and walking the tightrope banister of the boardwalk that ties the lodge’s 12 tents to the log-structure dining, bar, and lounge overlooking the lagoon. At check-in, we were warned not to leave anything in our open-to-the-sky bathrooms, separated from the sleeping area by a screen door. The monkeys would steal it.

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Nguma Island Lodge’s dining room and lounge headquarter comfortable tented cabins. (Photo: Yvonne Michie Horn) 

But now, a pre-dinner sunset cruise awaits. We make our way to the far edge of the lagoon as the oncoming evening’s golden light, framed by dark trees, turns pinky-purple. The best is yet to come. As the sun settles into the horizon, the lagoon turns into a fire of reds, orange, terracotta.

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Glorious Okavango sunset. (Photo: Yvonne Michie Horn) 

To add an array of animals to the scene would be, well, redundant.

Practicalities

  • Botswana’s Okavango Delta is huge, some 10,000 square miles.
  • Okavango’s immense menagerie of wildlife is best viewed in Botswana’s dry months.
  • Be sure to pack a hat and insect repellent.
  • For more information about ElderTreks’ Adventure Tours, www.eldertreks.com.

 

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