The Okavango Delta: A Safari Symphony

By Abi King | Africa

Aug 26
Close up of African Frog on a Mokoro Safari in the Okavango Delta

Safari in the Okavango Delta

Inside a Mokoro

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.

The Okavango Delta from the air by @insidetravellab

The Okavango Delta

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.

Conservation in Botswana

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.

Elephant in the Okavango Delta - safari

Ride Elephants

“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.

Stand still, stay quiet – and try not to fall into an aardvark hole.

Mokoro on the Delta

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!”

Chu-charra, chu-charra.

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.

UPDATE: Arranging a mokoro safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta

Water lily flower visible from a mokoro boat on a safari through the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Africa

Okavango Delta Flowers

Melvin August 27, 2010

What an experience… We had hippo bubbles beneath our boat & when my wife told the guide about it, he moved us quite quickly elsewhere. :)

Jodi H. August 29, 2010

Sounds fabulous! I’ll be there too in about 15 days!! So fun to read your blog as I’m starting to pack!

Vernon August 30, 2010

There is another significant contribution to the conservation of the Okavango. Like a number of Africa’s great conservation areas, the tsetse fly restricted the development of livestock farming in the Delta.

I’ve visited the Okavango Delta on a number of occasions and my most scary incident with a hippo was a morning just before sunrise in a mokoro full of guests luggage. The delta had been really flooded that year, and a great deal of the normally dry land was covered by shallow water. We were moving the mokoro through a long stretch of this shallow water – hard work and slow going, when a large male hippo came from the other side. We froze and had a staring match with the hippo, who seemed huge as the water was so shallow that we looked up at him. Soon he got bored and left us alone, and very relieved!

Abi King August 31, 2010

Jodi – Have a great time! And make sure you take safari-coloured clothes to cover burning sun in the afternoon and plenty of warm layers for the cold, cold nights…

Vernon & Melvin – Sounds as though you had closer run-ins with hippos than I did. I suppose I should be relieved, but now that I’m safe and sound again…it would have been interesting to see one up close!

Vernon September 1, 2010

I’ve had a few, including working as a student conservator, catching hippos when you know you are making them angry. But that incident, with the hippo really looking down at us in the mokoro, was the most scary. It was the first time (out of a number of trips) that I had seen those camp guys from Botswana look a little shaken themselves.

But I prefer to just see them at a distance. I have a great deal of respect for hippos.

Abi King September 11, 2010

OK, I’ll be happy to stay at a distance!

Angela April 7, 2011

Beautiful post, you made me feel there. Not sure I could stand still and quiet if an elephant is charging though… :)

    Abi King June 1, 2011

    I think you’re supposed to do a similar thing with bears…To cheer myself up, I kept in mind that I have a lot more experience of standing still and doing nothing than I do in sprinting ;)

You are such a great story-teller. I feel like I was there … without the risk of beaten trampled by an elephant.

    Abi King June 8, 2012

    Hehe ;) Thanks

Federico March 6, 2012

You’ve flown over the Okavango?? Now I am definitely jealous!

    Abi King June 8, 2012

    One of the best experiences I’ve ever had. #lucky

Erica March 14, 2012

I dream of doing a safari one day!

    Abi King June 8, 2012

    Botswana’s a great choice, then. You can do the “classic” road vehicle trips to see elephants, rhinos and cats and then hop in a mokoro and hope to see slightly smaller creatures ;)

rudy June 11, 2013

going on a safari in africa is a dream.. hope i’ll do this one day..

    Abi King June 14, 2013

    I hope you do too – good luck!

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