A mokoro safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, allows you to experience the life of this watery wonderland in a traditional craft. View mammals and birds from the waterline as an expert poler guides you through the bulrushes and marshes of this Garden of Eden.
I had a feeling this was going to be the highlight of our trip to the Okavango Delta. There can be no better way to experience this water wonderland than in a traditional mokoro. These ‘dug-out’ craft – about 6m in length – have become the iconic symbol of the delta.
We gathered on the bank of an inlet where we met our mokoro poler, Kagiso. After a brief introduction, we clambered into the craft: my partner in front, me behind and Kagiso at the stern. He used a long pole, called an ngashi, to propel the mokoro. With a couple of powerful strokes we were off, gliding out of the bulrushes and into the main stream.
Kagiso was a muscular fellow with an intimate knowledge of the delta and its labyrinthine waterways. He was able to guide the craft with considerable speed and agility, having perfected his skills since boyhood. I’ve been punting in the genteel environments of Oxford and Cambridge before, but this was a different ballgame altogether. Punting in the African wilderness!
Kagiso told us a little bit about these amazing vessels. ‘In the old days, mekoro were the only way to get around in the delta. They were used for fishing or transporting people and goods. Mekoro were traditionally made from tree trunks, which were hollowed out using hand tools.’
‘It was agreed upon in the villages that only certain trees could be used. The trees had to be old and straight to get the right buoyancy and shape. Jackalberry, sausage and mangosteen trees were preferred. Locals used fire to hollow out the trunk. The burnt wood was then chopped away with an adze until enough was removed so that the log became buoyant. The last phase involved shaping the craft to have a distinct, pointed bow and stern.’
Kagiso went on to explain how, because timber rots, more and more trees had to be cut down, a practice that was not environmentally sustainable. Although the delta is able to compensate for the amount of trees needed, the fact that only older trees were being used had a negative impact on the ecosystem. Thus the modern mokoro is usually constructed from moulded fibreglass. Durable, long-lasting and environmentally friendly, its shape still harks back to the days of wooden craft.
‘What wood do you use for the poles?’ I asked.
‘They’re fashioned from the heart of the silver cluster-leaf,’ he said. ‘These trees are tall and straight and just right.’
Reeds pressed in around us as Kagiso eased us along. The pole slid gracefully through his hands. Then, with the slightest grunt at each stroke, he drove the mokoro through the water. A rippling arrow creased the afternoon’s reflections.
We were enveloped in a cocoon of peace, gliding through water that mirrored the sky, brushing past reeds that were home to brightly coloured frogs. We approached an elephant, ear deep in the water and happily munching reeds. He gave us a mighty shake of the head, then carried on eating.
The birdlife was amazing. I had fortunately packed my long lens and photographing the birds from the waterline was a delight. We glided silently up to cranes, egrets, darters, geese and ducks. At one point, we came to a heronry packed with sacred ibises, marabou and yellow-billed storks. Many were perched on nests, feeding their little ones and kicking up a delightful racket. Others were industriously building new apartments in the treetops.
‘The water in the Okavango is actually a kind of a flood,’ said Kagiso as we negotiated a narrow channel through the reeds. ‘Arriving from Angola after seasonal rains, the water level rises through the winter months. During the peak of the flood, between May and September, water stretches as far as the eye can see.’
‘Stranded within this marshy expanse are many islands, which shrink and expand with the changing water level. Some islands are small enough to host only a single palm tree, others are nearly 1,000 square kilometres in size.’
Our mokoro skirted a pod of hippo. We drifted up against the bank a safe distance away and watched for a while before drinks were passed around. It was the perfect evening in the delta with the sounds of sunset serenading us. I was watching one of the hippo as it circled the boat. Suddenly, it dived under the water. A few moments later, it burst to the surface about 40m from us, honking loudly.
Kagiso decided to move away, giving the grumpy fellow a wide berth and poling us back towards camp in the golden light. Just then, a fish eagle loosed its haunting cry, which echoed across the water to us. It sent a shiver down my spine: the iconic call of the African wilderness.