Okay. Can we get real about the Okavango Delta for a moment?
Full disclosure: the Okavango Delta in Botswana was my #2 fear on my Cape Town to Zanzibar trip through Southern Africa. The #1 spot was occupied by lions, but, I do have an incredible penchant for the dramatic.
I had a number of fears, mostly surrounding those little flat-bottomed canoes that were to serve as our transportation in the Delta… the mokoro. Mokoros are the traditional way to scoot around the Delta. Originally made from hollowed out trees with varying states of ‘tippy-ness’, mokoros are now, generally, made out of fiberglass.
Now, I have zero fears concerning water vessels, or water for that matter, but I did have issues with hippos. I swear, the most popular pub quiz question of late is, “What is the most dangerous animal in Africa?” It’s hippos, my friends. To negotiate through the reeds and water of the Delta, our polers use channels (aka: hippo highways) to get from point A to point B. Knowing that we were going to be submerged in hippo habitat was very thrilling and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
But, we had nerves.
My group and I started freaking ourselves out in Namibia. We sat around the bar at Felix Unite campground bonding over our ‘Africa’ fears. Through belly-laughs and good-natured jibes, we discovered that some felt no fear. However, I obsessed about lions, Rob admitted to a concern about crocodiles and Kelsey owned up to her worries about hippos.
[SPOILER ALERT: We all survived.]
Intrepid takes on a fairly remote part of the Delta for this leg of the tour. Getting to the Delta’s edge required many hours on rough roads and a ferry crossing. The Okavango is an inland delta that became the 1000th UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. Phenomenal in size, but also in the fact that the water does not continue on from this point but evaporates during the dry season. Is it hot in the Delta? You bet. Bring your sunscreen, and a hat, or a parasol if you’re feeling particularly charming.
We bumped along until the road ended at the very edge of the water. We were going to spend the night in a bush camp on Goa Island somewhere in the Delta, so we set about gathering our tents, sleeping bags, clothes and wine. I looked up at one point and the edge of the water was lined with mokoros! They weren’t there 5 minutes ago, and I’m not sure where they came from, but our polers had arrived.
I went down to inspect.
My first task was to see if my derriere would actually fit in one of these things. I had scoured the internet looking for photos of mokoros before my trip to see if I could ascertain the width of one of them. No worries here. Wide enough with lots of room. Our polers were all locals. These are the folks that stand on the back and use long poles, a la Venetian gondola, to push the mokoro through the reeds. I took a liking to Viva’s mokoro and he quickly set me up in total comfort for the trip.
The mokoro usually fits two passengers and gear. There are no seats and so Viva ingeniously wrapped my sleeping mat around a large stick to make a back rest for me. This proved to be a life-saver during the 2-hour trip to our bush camp. Our guides gave us a few dos and don’ts, including “don’t make any sudden moves, or it will throw your poler off”… literally.
And we were off!
As soon as the mokoro hit the water, I felt the temperature of the bottom of the boat cool. It didn’t take long to get used to Viva’s dip and sway as he pushed the mokoro along, and although the mokoro edge is just a few inches above the water, we never took on a drop. This was good news because we were all packing cameras, which are totally worth the risk of taking.
The Delta provided us with a wealth of sights. There were animals and birds, water lillies and wee frogs, papery spiders and sharp grass that cut at our arms. But let me tell you, coasting on by a group of elephants playing in the water is not something I will soon forget.
We made quite a convoy through the reeds. There were 20 of us + our 10 polers + the mokoros carrying our guides and cook + the youngest mokoro poler who was in charge of our tents (which may have taken on a little water).
Our bush camp for the night was in the middle of nowhere. Our camp cook, Henry, flipped over a mokoro to use as his prep area and we went about finding the most hospitable spots for our tents. The guides set up a fabulous bathroom which consisted of a rigged-up frame and toilet seat over a dug hole. We had been using bush bathrooms for weeks, so this felt rather luxe.
“It’s sunset time,” said Rafael, one of our mokoro guides. We tramped through the burrs and bristles to the edge of the Delta and witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets of my entire 40 days. I looked across at my travel companions. Their faces were lit by a low orange sun, capturing huge smiles and coos of delight. Behind us, a full moon was rising. And it felt like it was all ours, a spectacular light show, just for us.
The night was filled with food, fun and music. The polers and guides threw down a song and dance challenge. Let’s just say that we failed miserably. They presented us with tribal songs and fabulous dance moves and we gave them awkward attempts and singing “Africa” by Toto. It made me appreciate how young Canada is. Our polers were just dripping with casual ancient richness and we were stuck in the ’80s.
In the morning we teamed up with guides for a nature walk. I headed right to Meish. Meish looked like he could stare down a lion and make it run the other direction, therefore, I was going anywhere Meish was going.
This is when we discovered that some didn’t read their trip notes. Essential clothing for this walk are long pants because of the sharp grass and everything should be in ‘safari’ colours. Blending in to the background is important if you’re looking for and/or hiding from animals.
I loved this walk. Meish talked about the plants and trees, showed us animal footprints, helped us investigate an aardvark hole, and dug around in some elephant dung. Meish could tell you which direction the elephant was going, when it was last there, and if it was male or female! We had heard a lion roar the night before, and found his footprints while on this walk, but did not find him. Thankfully. (See: Fear #1)
We switched islands that night to Mvuvu Camp. This spot had a wee bar, flush toilets and safari tents with beds. The Delta is teeming with life, and so were our tents. By this point in the trip we were less fussy about where we laid our heads, but a flip flop does come in handy as a weapon. Mvuvu does win the prize for the best showers; open-air set ups with the African sun shining down on you.
The day in Mvuvu was for relaxing, exploring, drinking ciders and trying one’s hand at poling. This also results in ‘swimming’ for some.
But what about hippos?
You will see hippos. You will be eerily close to them. You will look them in the eye from your little mokoro and you will not breathe. You will realize that life is allowing you to spend an exceptional moment with an 8000 lbs animal on their terms. You will have respect for the people and place that you have been gifted enough to visit. And, as you silently drift away from them you will call yourself a “mokoro survivor”.
Ready for an Okavango adventure of your own? Check out Intrepid’s range of tours in Botswana.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x5, Thomas Furlong, Intrepid Travel, Carla Powell.)