Okavango Delta: Mokoro Safari

The Caprivi Strip is a 280 mile panhandle that connects the main body of Namibia to the Zambezi River. Its width varies between 20 miles and 65 miles, and it’s bordered on the north by Angola and Zambia, and on the south by Botswana. It was named for Leo, Graf von Caprivi, Chancellor of Germany, 1890-1894, when it was ceded by Britain to Germany’s Southwest African colony. The Germans hoped to obtain trading access to the Indian Ocean from Namibia. Only one problem: Victoria Falls!

While the bulk of Namibia is dry, dry desert, on the Caprivi Strip, as you head east, you can watch the landscape change from desert to grass and trees. In the west, the drier area is occupied by bands of San people (bushmen,) and in the east, villages of Bantu-speaking Barotse dot the landscape. At the very eastern end, there are marshes and some seasonal flooding, and also to the south, which is the swampy northern edge of the Kalahari in Botswana, our next border crossing.

We were headed to a bush camp (read: place with no running water or flush toilets, and what’s a “shower?”) in the Okavango Delta. But, first, we had to cross the ferry.

I lived on an island in Puget Sound in Washington State in the U.S. for about thirty years, and taking the ferry across to the mainland was part of life there, so it was interesting to see the ferry in operation here. There was the approach, and the boat- you-just-missed leaving:

Our bus (below) took up about half of the boat, and only two more cars were able to get on. The ferry is propelled by two large outboard motors, one on each side of the ferry. They also provide steering by coordinated pivoting.

Above: That’s the captain of the ferry and our driver, John, “on the bridge.”

The scenery was beautiful. On the other side of the boat, however, the country was building a bridge, which would eliminate the ferry. I’m biased, of course, and it’s not my country, but I couldn’t help but think, “Be careful what you wish for.” Mambo was excited about the bridge because it would save a lot of time, and he is right about that. But….

Backing off of the boat was the only choice. John did a great job while we watched (or not…) from shore:

A closer view of the future bridge:

After a drive, we arrived at the edge of a lagoon, or rather, a network of lagoons in the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is an endorheic lagoon, meaning that it doesn’t drain into a larger body of water – it’s the “dead end.” The water stays in the delta basin as a lagoon, sinks into the ground, or, if it’s shallow enough, it evaporates during the dry season. Even if the lagoons shrink, they keep enough water all year long to support the hippos who live here. The flooding that the Kalahari experiences was not expected this year because it is the second year that the rains have failed altogether. The lagoons are interspersed with islands, most of which exist year round, although if the delta floods, they may be smaller than at other times of the year.

Waiting to greet us were some local farmers, now mokoro polers, and their mokoros. A mokoro is a dugout canoe with a very shallow draft that allows it to move in the lagoon, through the grass and water lilies, easily and quietly. The mokoros used to be hacked out of ebony or kigalia trees, but these trees take over thirty years to become large enough, and mokoros last for only about five years. As a conservation measure, mokoros now are made of fiberglass. They are still wonderful to ride in.

Elephants in the distance, slightly beyond my telephoto capability….

Loading up, pulling out:

Gail and I were in the first mokoro because it turned out our poler, Moss, was in charge of the group of polers. Moss is a very nice guy and very knowledgeable about the plants, birds, and animals that we saw. Plus, he had a good command of his mokoro.

I noticed, as we moved through the water, that Moss kept his mokoro in the grass, where it is shallow enough that I could see the bottom of the lagoon clearly. When we did touch a clear area, he kept to the edge of it. He was avoiding the deeper water, which hippos prefer. Hippos don’t like the grass-filled areas and very shallow areas – they prefer the depth that they can sort of “swim-run” along the bottom.

Hippos are among the most dangerous animals in the world. You wouldn’t think so to look at them, but they are the deadliest animal in Africa to humans. They are very agile in water, and they can run faster on land than their appearance lets on. They have large teeth that are used to defend their females (but not territorial on land) and they are generally cranky and easily irritated by other animals, including humans, and other hippos. Human deaths usually are caused by hippos overturning their boats or mokoros when they have gotten too close, or by getting too close on land, mistakenly assuming that humans can run faster than hippos – not necessarily true.

While hippos are primarily herbivores, they occasionally eat meat. They have been observed feeding on the carcasses of eland, impala, and wildebeest, but it’s unclear whether they actually killed the animals. Carnivore behavior is believed to be nutrient-driven, i.e. usually occurs in drought conditions when hippos were observed eating other unusual foods, such as woody plants or elephant poo.

Elephants in Botswana are bigger than the elephants in Namibia, probably because of an easier food supply. Both are big enough, however, that when the elephants want to cross in front of you, you wait.

Even though the elephants have no reason to be afraid of us, I was a little nervous. As I watched them approach, walk through the water, and climb on the next bank, the water rippled a little. The strength that they have is obvious from the way they move, and the reality of how small I am sank into my consciousness. They are impressive animals.

Another group on the shore, headed away from the water:

Those are cows that are grazing around where the elephants are walking. The elephants made no sign that they would change their path. The cows moved.

When we arrived at the campsite, we were greeted by an elephant munching on the trees and bushes around the clearing.

Moss poled right up onto the shore, and then backed away to a floating position – just in case we needed to get away was my guess. The elephant looked at the humans and wandered off in no particular hurry.

I had to get out first because I was in front, and I did so, keeping an eye open in case the elephant came back, but he didn’t. In a few minutes the other mokoros landed also. I appreciated the feeling of numbers.

We were all practiced by now at setting up camp. Our polers unloaded the tents and other equipment, and we went about our business, putting things in order. We had some time to relax before visiting the hippo lagoon, eating dinner, and having entertainment.


Moss and the mokoro polers work with tourists through Botswana’s “community based tourism” program. Community members help tourists to learn about the area, sharing their knowledge about the wildlife, the plants, and other things about their daily lives, and their culture. The cultural contribution most often takes the form of music, such as chanting, singing, instrumentals, and dancing.

Mambo had told us about this at the very beginning of the tour, but nonetheless, there was some last-minute panic amongst our group, as they realized that was tonight!

In the waning light, we re-boarded our mokoros and headed toward the lagoon. Because Moss and others live around here, they know where the hippos like to gather. They positioned their mokoros in a fairly shallow place on the edge of deeper water, and we waited. We could see a hippo to our left, and it turned out it was not alone. And they were curious! Several of them moved toward us, and took up positions in front of the mokoros, and we all spent quite a while quietly looking at one another.

The hippos talked to each other, making distinctive grunting sounds that I recognized throughout our travel. They all stayed quietly in the water, however, so photo ops were limited.

When we returned to the campsite, we all prepared for dinner and the “cultural exchange.”

I was the only American in the group. Everyone else was from somewhere over an ocean, which turned out to be the defining characteristic. I wanted to do something uniquely American, which is a little different from trying to be “typically” American, as if such a thing existed. I wanted it to be something that Batswanans (the name of the people of Botswana) could relate to. Also, I had to know the words (no internet here) and be able to sing it with my three-note vocal range.

I finally settled on a Western-themed song with a simple tune. “Cowboy westerns” have circulated into many countries, and I thought the Batswanans could relate to a love of “wide open spaces.”

After dinner, we gathered around the campfire. Moss introduced our mokoro polers.

The Batswanans went first, joining in a traditional dance, with chanting and some vocal improvisations. It was a wonderful contribution to the evening, and set the tone.

The Australians in our group contributed an explanation and rendition of “Waltzing Matilda.” I didn’t know that a “Matilda” was a colloquial name for the bundle at the end of a hobo’s stick, or that a “billabong” was a small body of water, usually isolated, left after a rainfall. “Waltzing” is the movement of the “Matilda” as the hobo walks along. Everyone knew the chorus, so we all joined in. (The song makes so much more sense to me, now!)

The “Kiwis” in the group performed a “Haka,” the traditional Maori war dance. Nowadays, the haka is used for special occasions, as a tribute to someone, or to gather team spirit before a soccer (football) game.

I came next. I introduced my song by saying that it was a cowboy song, and celebrated nature and wide open spaces, something that I thought our countries had in common. Moss translated that part. I hoped the words’ meaning would be clear enough:

“Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above- Don’t fence me in!

Let me ride through the wide open country that I love – Don’t fence me in!

Let me be by myself in the evening breeze,

Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,

Send me off forever, but I ask you please,

Don’t fence me in!

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle underneath the western skies,

On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder till I see the mountains rise.

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences,

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses,

I don’t want a house and I can’t stand fences,

Don’t fence me in!”

I started to wander off-tune at one point (nerves,) but they began clapping in time, which helped me start the next verse back on track, and then they gave me a big round of applause at the end. I was grateful for their kindness and encouragement!

After me came Lilia, from Romania, who demonstrated a Romanian folk dance and then tried to teach volunteers from the audience. The ensuing language and coordination challenges caused some hilarity, and everyone enjoyed the effort!

“The Europeans,” (as they called themselves) came next. They were from Switzerland and England. Katie was their spokesperson, and explained their offering, which was a game. I can’t remember what she called it, but it’s a game that we have all played at some time and in some variation. They and others of our group formed a circle, facing the center. Someone, “it,” walked around the circle, tagged someone and called either, “Same” or “Opposite.” The player who was tagged and the “it” player then raced, either in the same direction or opposite directions, back to the empty place. Whoever lost the race was “it” for the next turn.

They demonstrated for three turns, then solicited volunteers, and got several. They caught right on, and played for about twenty minutes – nearly everyone had a turn at being “it.” It was a fun time for everyone!

After applause for all and some conversation, we said our “good nights” and retired for the evening, good vibrations surrounding us.

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