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Mokoro on The Okavango Delta

Mokoro poler and papyrus

I have always had a certain attraction for the Okavango Delta.  I've always wanted to float across the water, its surface carpeted in water lilies and see the delta as a hippo may see it: at eye level.  I have always been fascinated by the marshy landscape dotted with palms, the clear water, tall papyrus and the possibility of coming across a hippo or an elephant.  I also find the contrast the delta presents intriguing: water and life surrounded by the hot, dry, thirsty bush.  The Okavango Delta is a land of water and sky and is the life-blood of the animals and people who inhabit this area.

The Okavango Delta is a vast swampland covering over 9,000 square miles of northern Botswana.  Abundant populations of bird (herons, storks, cranes, pelicans) and animals (elephants, hippos, crocodiles, antelopes) can be found here, along with a high diversity of plants (fan palms, date palms, papyrus, mopane).  Moremi Game Reserve is on the eastern edge of the delta, with Chobe National Park stretching off to the north east.  The combination of these wilderness areas is what makes northern Botswana one of the best destinations for an African safari.   Here it is possible to see a wide variety of habitat, lots of game and have a true wilderness experience.

The Okavango Delta is located in NW Botswana and Water lilies from the mokoro

The Okavango Delta is formed as the Okavango River enters Bostwana from the Caprivi Strip of Namibia.  The river arises over 700 miles away on the Banguela Plateau of south-eastern Angola.  The Okavango River has no outlet to the sea but instead empties into the sands of the Kalahari Desert.  The delta forms as the river slows and spreads out over this vast area.  The summer rains that fall in Angola (starting in January) give rise to the flood that will eventually fill the delta region with water.   The water that falls in Angola takes about 1 month to reach Botswana.  However it takes about another 4 months for the water to move its way through the delta.  This is perfect timing.  The floods arrive during the winter dry season in Botswana (June-August)  providing life-giving water to thirsty animals and people.   In recent years the flood has been so strong that rivers which had been dry for decades are now full of water.  The Savute Channel hasn't seen water since the early 1980s but is now flowing.  The same for the Thamalakane River that flows near Maun.  The Thamalakane is now feeding water into the Boteti River, a bonanza for the wildlife of the Makgadikgadi Pans.   Since the Okavango River has no outlet, most of the water is lost by evaporation and transpiration.

The geologic forces that have contributed to the formation of the delta have been going on for millennia.  It is thought that the Okavango River, along with nearby rivers like the Kuando and Zambezi, may have once flowed south into the Orange River of South Africa and emptied into the Atlantic.  Over millions of years a long series of tectonic activity (uplifting of the earth's crust and the formation of faults) has changed the course of these rivers.  Now the Kuando and Zambezi Rivers eventually reach the Indian Ocean.  The land where the delta is currently located has dropped relative to surrounding land, essentially trapping the Okavango River in the Kalahari Desert.

People of a number of ethnic groups inhabit the delta region.  The Bayei people immigrated to the delta region in the 19th century bringing with them their dug-out canoes, or mekoro (mokoro is singular).  The mokoro is crafted from an old tree trunk and the strong wood of the Sausage tree is favored.  However, in modern times the traditional wood mokoro has been replaced by fiberglass boats.  It is a common means of transportation throughout the delta.  Historically the Bayei used the mekoro for fishing and even for harpooning hippos.  Since the bottom of a mokoro is round and lacks a keel, great skill is required to maneuver them.

I had been close to the delta on a previous trip but didn't have a chance to go onto the water.  On my 2009 safari I took advantage of an extra day in Maun and booked a day trip to explore part of the delta by mokoro.  The local people have established a community trust to ensure the money generated by tourism remains in the local economy.  The trust also provides a qualified mokoro guide for the trip. We took a motorboat from Maun up the Thamalakane River to a poling station where the mekoro are launched.  As I gingerly stepped into the bow of the mokoro I could sense the skill required to pole the boat through the delta.  What was most interesting was being so low on the water.  I felt I was experiencing the delta from the perspective of a hippo.  The poler stood in the stern of the mokoro and guided us smoothly over the water lilies and along the papyrus mats.  The day was brilliant blue as I relaxed with my binoculars and bird book.  We eventually stopped and the guide took our group on a short walk to a nearby waterhole.  Even though it was the heat of midday we managed to see some zebra and wildebeest.  Following lunch at the waters edge we returned to the poling station.  Though the trip only lasted a few hours it was a beautiful introduction to this beautiful region of Africa.

A mokoro trip is a serene and relaxing way to visit the Okavango Delta.  We offer four safaris that include overnight camping with mekoro.  It's a great way to explore the more remote parts of the delta and see game as well. 

References:

Botswana: The Bradt Safari Guide.

  Chris McIntyre.  2nd Ed, 2007

Trees & Shrubs of the Okavango Delta

. Veronica Roodt. Shell Field Guide Series Pt 1. 1998

Wikipedia "Okavango Delta"

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