Despite the stillness of the water, there’s no sound of silence. Insects skim across the reeds with a soft buzz and woodpeckers tap against acacia trees. Birds chatters in all directions – yet the loudest by far are the doves.
Chu charra, chu charra.
“Work harder, work harder,” says Rodger, slipping a pole into the delta and easing us forward.
“Drink lager, drink lager,” says another guide, Amos, illustrating a different point of view.
From where I’m sitting, level with the water in a slender mokoro, I hear something else. Botswana, Botswana, Botswana.
Eight hundred miles from the Atlantic and a thousand from the Indian Ocean, the Okavango Delta looks like a miniature version of the earth from the air, an expanded jigsaw of land swirls amid deep and spreading blue. Its water seeps up through the soil, having landed as monsoon rain a thousand miles north in Angola. It’s long been protected, both by government intervention and because its soggy, swampy nature makes building roads here impossible.
To get this deep into the delta, we’ve flown from Maun in a four-seater Cessna, a tiny contraption that trembled during the descent as though in awe of the expanse below. An elephant greeted us on the runway and warthogs scuttled past us in the camp.
Botswana takes its wildlife pretty seriously. Even on foot, guides can’t carry firearms for self-defence, only a gunpowder-laced contraption that resembles a syringe. When an elephant veers too close to the camp, a single empty gunshot rips through the vast sky.
Should an elephant charge, or a hippo rear up from the water, our survival depends on our behaviour, we are told. Stand still, stay quiet – and if told to run, try not to fall into an aardvark hole.
Not everyone is reassured.
“Why not take a gun with you?” asks one member of our camp. “If you killed something by accident, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“A lifetime in prison,” comes the reply.
There’s a rare moment of silence before we climb aboard.
Despite the danger, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful mode of transport. A cross between a punt and a canoe, mokoros used to be the only way to travel around here. Previous generations hand-carved them from ebony and kigelia trees but had to wait for more than 100 years for the trunk to reach the right size. Since a wooden mokoro only has a five year lifespan, the arrival of a fibreglass version was greeted with about the same enthusiasm as the discovery of sliced bread.
Today, boats use small motors to churn along the main waterway to Maun, carrying people, food and beer. The mokoros, however, fashion their own way through the reed fields, the long grass spreading apart before them in a deferential rustle.
This off-piste navigation isn’t just for entertainment, though.
“The only animal I fear,” says Rodger when I ask him, “is the hippopotamus. That is why we stay away from the main channel.”
“But,” I state the obvious. “We do need to cross it… eventually.”
Rodger sinks the pole into the delta again and water sloshes gently against the thin-walled mokoro.
“I look for bubbles,” he says slowly. He grins. “And I drive fast!”
The doves reach a crescendo as we glide past giraffe, baboons and impala, while Rodger keeps watch. My mind drifts to his interpretation of what the doves are saying.
Like the rhythm of the mokoro itself, his version soothes me.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com