We were going into the Okavango Delta for 2 nights in the bush. The first part of the journey was by motorboat from our hotel to the Mokoro (canoe) station. At the station, we’d load up the gear and go to the camping site on Mokoros. The day started at a completely agreeable 8am with the motorboat sailing under two very low bridges, the first being the old bridge (walking only), and the second newer one (cars allowed). We had a scare of sorts as we emerged from the other end of the new bridge when Shweta thought she had spotted a water snake, it turned out to be a yellow-spotted Water Monitor Lizard, which swam away far too quickly for us to photograph. The rest of the sail took us up the glassy waters of the Thamalakane River, both banks hidden from view by reeds. The channel the boat goes through is a narrow and winding opening through the reeds, a river within the river.
The Mokoro station is on the southeastern tip of the Delta. It is part of the village of Boro, a name derived as a homophone for borehole as we found out later on. The village used to have a lot of Chinese rice farms that were using Boreholes to fill their paddy fields. They drained too much water and have had to stop. The station was surprisingly busy, a lot of trips were going out that morning so an armada of Mokoros was being readied for the days ahead. As we got our bags out of the motorboat, our guide and poler introduced himself to us simply as “Scar”. He was an older gentleman from the area, had been a guide for over two decades, had served all major tourist destinations in Botswana, stood upright with his arms behind his back holding a guidebook, and had a milky right eye. We thought the eye injury and its similarity to Simba’s unruly uncle might have been the reason for his name, but turns out it was a separate scar on his hand that had been his namesake; Scar is simply a translation of his Tswana name Lebadi. Scar introduced us to our camping team of James, Opi, Vincent, Ricco and Antania, who were responsible for our camp setup, food and general safety and wellbeing. Seeing this team of more-experienced-than-us people helped put our minds at ease.
As we set out on the Mokoro, it quickly became obvious that this Delta is unlike any other. There are no expanses of water or flowing rivers, just grass, reeds and water lilies growing throughout a completely still mirror. From the shore, its impossible to tell where land ends and water begins. The Mokoros plough their way through the greenery, making channels where none existed, or using those built by the trampling Hippos and Elephants. The Mokoro is pushed along using a long pole as there is no room for oars to cut through the water, the captains of these vessels are known as Polers. One of the side-effects of this vegetation is that it attracts certain types of fauna – spiders (terrifyingly abundant) and frogs (not as abundant, and definitely not as terrifying). Spiders use the stalks of reeds and grasses as looms to weave their mosquito nets, and the frogs hold onto these stalks while sunbathing. We curiously asked about the spiders, but Scar assured us that the only ones to be afraid of were those with black, yellow-spotted, behinds, oddly named Community Spiders.
The Okavango river abandons the traditional seaward flow of its kin, and instead flows inland. Like a cornucopia, it empties its vast riches of water, silt and life into the Kalahari desert forming this rare inland delta. The ever-so-slightly higher parts of the region turn into islands, while the lowlands turn into a clear-water marsh when the waters flow in. During the rains from Nov-Mar, the Okavango river builds up its supply of water from Angola and flows into Botswana causing the region to flood annually. This flood rejuvenates the life in the delta and quenches the thirst built up during the dry months.
As we continued our slow push inwards, the other tourist groups started splitting away from the convoy to their individual destinations. Our camp team had long passed us by to go ahead and setup, while Scar patiently answered all our questions about the flora and fauna of the region. We slowly moved through the reeds towards a group of Mokoros, and the grass/reed camouflage was so effective that before realizing it we were on-shore at our campsite. We walked off the Mokoros, through a short trail to our campsite.
The campsite was pretty much setup when we got there – a fire burning with water boiling for coffee/tea, the tents were pitched, the “toilet” was dug, and the trees were providing the right amount of shade. We were amazed by the efficiency of this group of people and the ease with which they seemed to have gotten everything together. After settling into our tent, we had coffee and Scar went over the agenda. We were to go on three walking safaris, one that evening and two more each morning, we had a sunset cruise the next evening, and would leave the camp the following afternoon to make it back to Boro for the motorboat pickup. We had a few hours to kill before our walk, so we explored the area a bit, did some reading, relaxed and watched the birds play.
The walking safaris were simply splendid. The first evening we walked for about and hour and a half while the other two mornings we had to trek for 4 hours. Although we didn’t see too many animals, there was much more to the delta than the fauna. The trails run through some of the islands that are formed within the waters. The scene is pockmarked by aardvark holes and storey-high termite mounds. We weren’t lucky enough to see the former due to their nocturnal nature, or if you’re to believe Scar, this was actually lucky since local lore has it that seeing an aardvark in the daytime is a bad omen (death and destruction kind of bad). The later is one of the reasons for the formation of these islands, as the termite mounds make for great higher ground in a completely flat region, the trees and their root systems take over and as the years pass these tiny isles grow.
The islands are mostly flat grasslands with a rim of Palm, Leadwood and Raintrees, the last of these getting their name from an insect that spits out a liquid that can seem like rain to someone resting under its branches. We learnt how to make Palm Wine (which Scar didn’t like much), how Leadwood cannot be used for fires since it burns to ash, how Wild Sage is a mosquito repellent, how roots of trees are used to dye Palm leaves to make intricate designs in woven baskets, and how Acacia trees can be used as a hair relaxer. The larger trees can only grow on the rim as this is where the water channels run, but this makes for some absolutely beautiful vistas.
Note: The below is 360 Photos gallery, if you cant view them directly on the website, download them and watch them on an appropriate viewer, the Google Photos app supports this format, VR headsets are great!
As for animals, we saw some zebras and wildebeast (gnu) at a watering hole; giraffes amongst the trees; and a few lechwe from a distance. Most animals are quite shy and will start walking away as soon as you’re within a few hundred meters of them. On the water, we saw quite a few hippos that were mostly lounging around trying to get away from the blazing sun. Critters we saw quite a few, apart from the previously mentioned spiders, there are a lot of ground beetles here especially in the morning. In the skies there were a variety of birds: kookal, egret, fish eagle, an array of lark, storks, and the go-away bird (whose actual name was much more complicated, or at least less memorable).
The camp itself was quite comfortable. Of course we had opted for the catered option so that made things easier, but considering we have no camping gear, we had no other option. Chef James managed to whip up really good meals with his limited equipment and a wood fire. We had coffee and tea, which is really important for the cold mornings and lazy evenings, and biscuits to go with the beverages. Lunch was usually a lighter meal with salad, while dinners were stewed meat with rice and pap (a local starch preparation made with maize meal, Kenyans know it as Ugali, and Zambians, Nshima). The toilet was the most, lets call it interesting, part of the setup. It was a commode frame set atop a hole dug in the ground, the flush was a shovel and a pile of dirt. This wasn’t much of a problem until we had to go there in the middle of the night once, at which point one of us had to stand guard. This is when we learnt that spiders, as terrifying as they are, suddenly became exponentially more terrifying, when we found out that they have glow-in-the-dark eyes.
One of the evenings we got to go on a sunset cruise to a hippo pool. The hippo pool is an opening in the reeds that is created by the hippos trampling about. Although we were in the same pool, the hippos were a ways away and mostly submerged. We weren’t allowed to go much closer to them since they are quite dangerous and it woud be exceedingly easy for them to flip our tiny Mokoro. The sunset was gorgeous, the mirror we were floating on made it seem like two suns were setting, one drifting downwards in its usual fashion, while the other wafted upwards to meet its twin. This is where the male palette of primary colors just isn’t sufficient to describe the scene, there are sky blues and greys and maroons and fuchsias and violets and tangerines. Aside from the greens, the whole spectrum is on display in full glory.
Unfortunately, as all good things do, this had to end. After three truly wonderful days in the delta, it was time to leave. The team packed up the tents as efficiently as they had put them up. The toilet was filled-in and the ash from the fire was burried to avoid bushfires. We loaded up the Mokors once again to slowly drift back towards reality. We saw a few more of our spider and frog friends, and cut through more of the reeds and grasses. As we arrived at the Mokoro Station, it was far less busy than on the first day, with a small group of people waiting for the motorboat. We said our goodbyes to everyone and boarded the motorboat for our ride back to the old-bridge. Almost as a consolation prize, we did see a cow swimming through the water channel as we meandered down the river-within-a-river towards the hotel. The sun had begun its decent towards the horizon, but its twin wasn’t around to rise through the waters for their meeting.