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Mokoro on the Okavango Delta

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 unfenced wilderness areas is what makes northern Botswana one of the best destinations for an African safari.   A mokoro (traditional dug-out canoe) is the iconic way of experiencing this pristine marsh.

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The Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is formed as the Okavango River enters Botswana 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 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.

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A Mokoro Trip

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 recently spent an afternoon floating the Okavango in a mokoro. Near Maun, the local people have established a community trust to ensure the money generated by tourism remains in the local economy and to provide qualified mokoro guides for the trip.  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.  It was the heat of midday but we did see some zebra and wildebeest. 

Across the Okavango

A Few Safaris with a Mokoro Experience

A mokoro trip is a serene and relaxing way to visit the Okavango Delta.  Many of our safaris include a mokoro excursion.  Lodges around the delta will take you out for a few hours and combine the mokoro trip with a walk in the bush.  You can even pack all your gear into a mokoro and head out to camp for a few nights deep in the Okavango.  Take a look at these itineraries:

Fish Eagle Safari: A participation camping safari, as part of the itinerary you'll camp on a remote island and explore the surrounding area in a mokoro.

Focus on Botswana:  An 8 day lodge safari, two of the featured lodges offer mokoro excursions using the lodge as a base.

Great North Road: A fully-serviced camping safari, you'll spend an afternoon exploring the waterways around Khwai River in a mokoro.

Explore More African Adventures

What's calling you to Africa?  An exhilarating trek in search of endangered mountain gorillas?  Experiencing the vast desert wilderness of Namibia?  Following a herd of elephants on foot?  Paddling papyrus lined waterways of the Okavango?  Discover your African adventure on one of our safari packages or we'll help design your own itinerary.

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