Okavango Delta Mokoro Expedition

“We don’t own the planet earth, we belong to it. And we must share it with our wildlife.”

Steve Irwin

Our Base: The Old Bridge Backpackers Maun, Botswana

July 2019

Once through the town of Maun, Botswana we found our way to The Old Bridge Backpackers down a dirt road and along the edge of the Thamalakane River next to a hippo pool. Upon arrival we confirmed we were booked for a 3 day mokoro trip through the Okavango Delta. We would meet our transfer vehicle outside of the reception office first thing the following morning.

The area for tents was small and the plot firm but adequate. As Alex worked to set up our home I headed off to cook dinner in the self-cater area. I found suitable cookware and fired up the gas stove. While cooking I met a couple of other travelers. One from the United States and another from Russia. The two had met in South Africa. The latter had sold his company and decided to ride his bicycle down to South Africa and the pair were traveling back up together. The American was helping the Russian with his English as he spoke a myriad of languages. Alex and I got into some really interesting conversations with them. I had explained my work with animals and my interest in doing more in the field of wildlife conservation. The American told me of a fairly new organization called RARE Conservation back in the States. I looked them up later and according to their webpage they believe that, “Changing our behavior is the single most important thing we can do to ensure nature’s survival.” Pretty straight. I always appreciate meeting new people as you never know what you might learn and where a connection will take you in the future.

After supper, Alex and I grabbed a couple of beers at the bar and joined a Spanish couple by the fire. We learned that they were just finishing their own year long tour of the world. They had both been able to take a year long sabbatical from their jobs which apparently is not uncommon in Europe. They also provided us with some helpful tips on visiting and getting around in Spain. That night we went to bed feeling happy we had made some new friends and gained some valuable insight.

Day 1

Botswana nights in July were chilly thus we hopped on the open-air safari vehicle the next morning along with other adventurers wrapped up in our warmest layers. Additionally, we were provided with blankets to help keep us warm as the wind whipped past. After a couple of hours with my face tucked inside my coat we reached the end of the tarred road and headed onto the sand entering the Okavango Delta. Intrigued by our new surroundings I revealed my eyes to the world. We spotted some giraffe, zebra, and ostrich along the remainder of our route before stopping in the village to pick up a couple of the mokoro guides and made our way to the river.

The Old Bridge Backpackers runs all of their trips through the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT) who control activity guide and community fees for a large part of the Delta. The mission of OKMCT is, “to promote sustainable utilisation of natural resources through direct participation of communities in managing the environment, animals and plant species abundant in their vicinity.” Right on. The mokoro boat plays an integral part in community activities such as fishing, reed cutting, and water lily bulb harvesting. Mokoro guides know the waterways in detail and are familiar with the communities of native wildlife. For them, the Delta has been a part of daily life their whole lives.

Steve, our mokoro guide, introduced himself and set our bags inside the boat before instructing us to step in. He stood at the stern, I sat in the middle, and Alex at the bow. Beyond the grassy shore lie forests of tall reeds as far as the eye could see. Steve pushed us back off the shore, got us turned around, and off we went. We headed into the narrow water way among dense reeds that towered over our heads. The seats in the boat equated to plastic chairs without legs and it felt like we were in a kayak without a top. Though traditional mokoros were carved out of a single trunk of wood the boat we were in was made of fibreglass. As wood eventually rots, fibreglass is supposedly more environmentally sustainable.

Close encounter with an elephant camouflaged by the reeds!

Not long into the trip Steve stopped the boat and started backing up quickly just as I made out the profile of an elephant head covered by reeds and tall grass. He explained that they were a lot faster than us in the shallow water and do not enjoy being disturbed during their meals. We waited while the elephant moved away from us before proceeding. Though I wanted to get closer I appreciated our disadvantage and Steve’s concern for our safety.

Along the way we stopped at a bank to pick up a fishing net our guide would later set up near camp. We reached our destination not long after and unloaded our gear at an unassuming spot under some trees along the shore. Steve made quick work of digging a loo and taught us his method of communicating with each other whether it was free or in use. If the stick he selected was sticking straight up in the ground the loo was occupied. If the stick was lying flat on the ground it was free. A second guide named Doc along with his solo traveler, Mike, from Minnesota joined up with us at camp. The guides gathered wood and built a fire while we set up our tent and relaxed.

That afternoon I pulled my mokoro chair out onto the bank and sat comfortably reclined observing another day in the life of the Delta. I watched two hippos bob up and down in the cool water always with one eye on our camp. Just passed them an elephant stood chest deep in the water tearing mouthfuls of long grass from either side of him. On the far bank buffalo grazed. Content in my surroundings I joined my camp mates and settled in for a nap.

After catching some z’s that afternoon we prepared for an evening walking safari. Steve gave us the safety lowdown on wild animal confrontations. Elephant: ears out and flapping while head shaking = warning display. Ears pinned back and head low = going to charge. Lion, do look into his eyes and look intimidating. Leopard, don’t look into his eyes. Buffalo, get the fudge outta there! Buffalo charge immediately and will not give warning. Basically, try to remember how to maybe not die and good luck!

We softly sauntered single-file closely behind our guide. The setting sun painted the savannah golden. At first we strained to see tan-colored gazelles camouflaged by tall grass. Soon Alex and I began spotting animals hidden right in front of us. We stood motionless with Steve while a couple of elephants browsed their way by and exchanged curious glances with a warthog. A calm and handsome male giraffe casually dined nearby occasionally checking us out while the zebra he alerted held our gaze. It is amazing how sharp our eyesight and hearing become when resting our mouths. 

Back at camp the five of us sat around minding our meals cooking on the fire and reflecting on our day. We learned our guide had endured several intimidating confrontations with wildlife over his years in the Delta. We also talked about our families and differences in lifestyle and traditions. We learned both guides had children along with partners whom they hoped to one day have enough money to marry. Mike had completed a Vipassana course where he spent 10 days in silent meditation. Before bed Steve welcomed us to call him should we need help that night with any camp intruders. 

Day 2

The next morning we hopped into the mokoro and Steve steered us to a new shore for our morning walking safari. We found a huge elephant skull and fresh, comparatively ginormous, elephant tracks nearby. We took some time to sit and appreciate the circle of life going on around us. A fish eagle tended to a nest high in a tree while a cattle egret searched for breakfast. We were able to get fairly close to a giraffe who was used to the presence of humans in his domain.

We walked next to a large pool in the Delta where many hippopotamus reside. Steve pointed to a female who had sectioned herself off in a finger of the Delta. A pod of hippos contains males and females with a dominant territorial male. Females will seperate off nearing labor. He said that if a female has a male calf she may keep it away from the others to protect it from the head bull. Hippos can move at speeds up to 30km/hr on land. After passing by the glares from suspicious hippos we headed into a wooded area where we came across an impressive buffalo skull dined on by worms not far from our Mokoro.

Catch of the day.

Back at camp our guides checked the fishing net and successfully collected their dinner. Midday we rested in the shade, ate lunch, and appreciated the peace we felt in this wilderness.

In the evening we took the mokoro out for a sunset safari. I sipped on wine from my thermos and allowed the beauty of our surroundings to soak in fully. Elephants lined the water way on both sides happily grazing as the sun descended in the sky. Steve and Doc lit bits of reed on fire just long enough to send up smoke alerting the elephants of our presence. This kept them at a safe distance from our boats. We rode the boats onto a soft sandy bank and climbed up onto a tree branch and sat quietly waiting. As if on cue, a herd of elephants on the far bank crossed the waterway towards us one by one and walked slowly past. As a quiet observer of these magnificent animals it is hard to believe that some humans see them and feel they are worth more dead than alive. How could someone take the life out of something so beautiful, so prehistoric, so intelligent?

As the sun turned the sky vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow we returned to camp. Conversations got deeper as all of us reflected on the current state of our world. Doc and Steve shared the fish they caught which had been boiled in a pot of water on the fire. Alex and I shared our rice and beans. We reflected warmly on our experience in the Delta and the melancholy feelings we endured associated with leaving the following day.

Day 3

Morning came and we packed up camp in preparation for our mokoro ride back to where we started. We really enjoyed our time in the Okavango Delta, camping in the bush, and getting to know our guides and how they lived in this wild and beautiful place. Heading into the narrow waterways once more we welcomed the now familiar signs of wildlife. Birds gracefully led us  through the channels and dragonflies danced around our boats. The elephants were out in full force that day and Steve had to keep lighting bits of reed so we could safely pass. There were a few exciting close encounters and rapid retreats though we trusted our guide and made it safely back to the take out spot.

Alex testing out his mokoro driving skills.

While waiting for the jeep, Steve allowed both Alex and I to try our hand at steering the mokoro around. Keeping balanced while standing and pushing the boat with the oar from behind was a bit tricky and we quickly respected our guide’s finesse and agility.

A few more mokoros with guests who had completed single night mokoro trips pulled up on the shore. Amongst the crew were the American and Russian we befriended back at The Old Bridge and a single mother from America who brought her 3 children back to experience Botswana where she had worked years earlier. We had exciting conversations during the ride back and witnessed two male giraffes fighting on the plains.

The next morning we ate our muesli at the edge of the hippo pool and watched as fish eagles swooped down from the surrounding tree tops to catch fish. Once they spotted their prey the eagles soared, spreading their wings and penetrating the water surface with their talons, snatching fish with incredible speed and precision. It is mesmerizing to watch and we sat there as long as they kept hunting.

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