A Mokoro Trip Through Botswana’s Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is a 16,000 sq. km. wetland comprised of lagoons, channels, and islands and is the world’s largest inland delta. It is formed where the Okavango River empties into a swamp in the Kalahari Desert, with water flowing down from the rainfall in Angola. My plans to visit Botswana revolved around visiting this enchanting place. I had been staying in Kasane for the past few days to go on a Chobe River Cruise. In order to get to Maun, where most budget trips into the Delta commence, I couldn’t travel straight south to get there. I had to take a bus east to Nata and then catch another bus heading southwest to Maun. Getting to Maun was a small miracle. I had booked a taxi to come pick me up at the Chobe River Lodge at 5:20am. The bus, scheduled to leave at 6am, actually leaves when full so it’s best to get there early. At 5:27am, the taxi still wasn’t there so the lodge called someone else. He showed up at 5:35am, was half the price of the other taxi, and I got the very last seat on the bus. Phew! I was dropped off in Nata a few hours later where I had to wait at a petrol station for an hour and a half for a bus coming from the capital city Gabarone. I passed my time sitting on a curb, people watching and feeding a stray dog. When I arrived in Maun, I took a taxi to my hostel and secured a spot on an overnight mokoro trip for the following day.

Peace & tranquility on the Delta

A Little Background

A mokoro is a shallow dugout canoe typically carved from a sausage tree, although newer ones are being made from fiberglass. Rather than paddles, the mokoro is pushed through the Delta by a poler, a man who stands in the back with a bamboo pole. Most trips organized from Maun are booked through the Okavango Polers Trust. This collective was formed in 1998 by the Seronga Community; it is entirely run by the community and profits are shared by the workers.

From my hostel, I would be going on the overnight trip with three students from California.  The trip is self-catered so you must bring your own food and camping gear, and typically, it is polite to bring food for your guides as well. I had bread, peanut butter, muesli, and oranges with me, since I didn’t have any cooking equipment. I was hoping that whoever was on my trip as well might have something a little more exciting with them to offer the guides. But I was oh so wrong. These comical kids from California showed up 20 minutes late and hungover. We climbed in the speedboat that was to take us to the village from which our mokoro trip would depart, and halfway into this ride, the students realized they had forgotten their food bag. They only had a half box of corn flakes, peanut butter, apples, and cookies for the three of them for the next two days. What ensued was a fun-filled adventure with two guides who were good-hearted and found us to be a bit of a joke. However, at least we provided them with a good laugh, and in return, they took us on the trip of a lifetime.

The Trip Begins

On the speed boat on our way to the village where we would meet our guides, we passed two horses drinking in the Delta. They were highlighted under the morning sunlight, and it was an omen for the magical trip that was about to begin.

We met our guides Edward and Loxion, and they went to ‘prepare themselves’ in the village before we could leave. Twenty minutes later we tossed our camping equipment in the dugout canoes, climbed in, and drifted off into the delta. We drifted along for about 2-1/2 hours, plowing our own route through the reeds, watching the lily pads and fauna as we sailed on by.

I Hear Elephants

We arrived on our little island and went about setting up our tents- or attempting to. My fellow trip mates had a pole that didn’t go with their tent, and let’s just say when they set it up, it was a lopsided mess! Of course, don’t underestimate the ingenuity of Africans. Our guide Edward swooned in and asked for a pocketknife. Hello, we barely have food, of course we don’t have a pocketknife. Fortunately, one of the girls is a smoker and had matches on her, so Edward melted the string holding the pole parts together and made it the right length to fit. We soon heard a noise, and our guide said it was an elephant. “Can we go search for it?” I asked. “Now?” he replied. “Yeah!” So we dropped what we were doing and went out on the hunt. Within five minutes we stumbled upon two elephants shaking the trunk of a palm tree to get fruit. It was so cool. I can’t get over how strong their trunks are.

We walked back to camp and lazed around before heading back out in our mekoro (plural for mokoro). A short ride later to another island, we went for a bush walk. We got back into the mekoro just in time to sail through the Delta at sunset. It’s unbelievably magnificent, sitting in the quiet of the Delta with only the swoosh of the moving reeds as you meander through them.

Sunset on the Delta

How to be Easily Entertained

That evening, with little food, no alcohol, and just a fire to sit around, we asked our guides to sing for us. And to our surprise, Edward sings a song. We clap and then he proceeds to tell another girl that it is her turn. She jokingly starts a line from “Twinkle twinkle little star,” and it turns out that Edward knows the song. So we all join in to this goofy campfire experience. I’m next, and I believe I sing a Disney song. Our other guide sings a really cool song. This takes up all of about five minutes. Hmm, now what. Games? Yes, teach us some games please. Edward teaches us two Botswana games that I’m pretty sure only five-year-olds play. While I doubt any other campers out that night on mokoro trips are playing children’s games around the fire, we have the best time! We laugh, we joke, and soon we retire to bed.

Sunrise on the Delta
Elephants- before they tried to kill us.

Looking for the elephant

Elephant. Run!

After another night of on and off sleeping due to being cold, Edward wakes us up at 6am to go for another early morning bush walk. We experience the sunrise from the mokoro, and it’s another beautiful day in the Delta. Drama unfolds on this second bush walk. We had been watching a family of elephants for a while, until they disappeared into some trees. We walk through a grassy plain and duck into a brushy area to see if we can spot other animals. And then we stumble upon an elephant, not ten feet away, who starts pawing at the ground. We start walking briskly, Loxion starts wigging out. He ducks to the left and takes off in a sprint, and that’s when I realize the seriousness of the situation. We all take off in a run, however, most of us did not see the elephant so we had no idea what we’re running from. We finally stop by a fallen tree, and the guides climb up to see if they can spot the elephant. He’s maybe 50 meters away and pacing. The guides duck when he turns in our direction. The next thirty minutes walking back to our mekoro were spent in complete silence. No one said a word, and we were all hoping to make it off the island safely!

After the bush walk, we come back to camp for breakfast, where we make a bowl of cereal for our guides and rest before heading back to the village. As we drift through the Okavango Delta for the last time, we exchange few words. It’s a moment of contemplation and reflection for all of us who have spent our summer in Africa, having some of the best times of our lives. At the conclusion of our trip, we hop out of the canoes and repeatedly thank our guides while apologizing for our lack of food. When we jokingly ask Edward, “Are we the worst campers you’ve ever had?” his response, with a straight face, is “Yes.” We laugh and assume he must have misunderstood the question, for there is no doubt that these polers had a new experience singing and teaching us children’s games.

If you are interested in going on a mokoro trip and are staying in Maun, shop around. All of the backpacking hostels there use the Okavango Polers Trust if you’re going on a trip in the area, yet I found that prices varied pretty drastically. I also think that it’s necessary to do an overnight trip. With a day trip, you’ll miss out on the sunset and sunrise on the delta, and it’s just too short!

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