Drifting away…A mokoro ride in Botswana

by Sandy Salle on December 5, 2016

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This past September I had the privilege of visiting the Okavango Delta region of Botswana.  This amazing area is widely known as being quite a different safari destination, offering boating and fishing activities not found in many other areas of the bush.  Since the Delta easily offers water based activities, we decided to forgo the usual early morning game drive to enjoy a mokoro ride.

A mokoro is a canoe, traditionally dug out of a long, straight tree.  Rather than paddles, the mokoro is pushed along the shallow waters of the delta by a poler standing in the rear using a long pole.   Today, mokoros are often made from fiber-glass to help avoid cutting down trees, much more environmentally friendly and certainly lasts longer than a wood product constantly exposed to water.

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Our morning began with a short drive from camp to meet with our mokoro guides along a quiet waterway.  We were given a brief safety talk, ‘do enjoy the quiet & let us know if you spot something to investigate’ but ‘do not attempt to stand up in the mokoro or put your hands in the water’, and were then helped to get into the skinny boat.  It was a bit intimidating at first, stepping in and hoping I didn’t topple the thing over!  But we made it in and settled ourselves comfortably and off we went.   I was impressed with the skill of our guides to stand in this boat, maneuvering us around reeds and logs with no problem.  They were able to sit down and stand back up with the mokoro hardly shifting.

As we waved goodbye to our driver, with his promises to be back later to collect us, we got our first good glimpses of the waterway from a totally different perspective, in many ways.  For one, we were sitting on the bottom of the boat, so our sight line was low and if felt as if we were gliding right along the surface of the water.   But the most striking difference between the mokoro ride and a traditional game drive was the silence.  With no motor tooling us along, we were free to simply enjoy the sounds of the bush not heard above the din of the game drive vehicle.

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Close your eyes and imagine the soft rustle of the reeds and we passed by. The gentle lap of water as the poler effortlessly pushed us along. The birds in the trees calling to one another, or the whisper of their wings as they took flight, wary of our approach.  Then suddenly…the not so gentle sounds of a hippo pod just ahead.  They were certainly not thrilled by our approach and made sure to let us know!  We sat for a bit, at a safe and respectful distance,  enjoying this pod of hippos watching us, curious I’m sure what in the world we were up to.

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But those large animals were not all we enjoyed encountering.  It became a competition to see who could spy a tiny frog clinging to a reed, or find the most beautiful water lilies floating along.  Our guides were experts at pointing out the smallest inhabitants of this watery world, and taught us so much about the birds, plants and insects we came across.

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Not to be outdone by the excitement afforded a good kill attempt on a traditional game drive, we did experience a bit of unexpected excitement as we lazily made our way back to our launch site.  As we rounded a bend, the guides instructed us to be very quiet and still.  They had spotted a lone hippo on the shore making his way into the waterway.  He spied us and made his discontent known that we had invaded his space.  Not wanting to rile this giant, our guides poled the mokoros up into a reed bed, out of the main channel, giving our friend plenty of room to go by.  What a road block!  We sat for several minutes letting him take his time in passing, keeping his eyes on us all along.  We scouted out a possible escape route to shore, just in case he decided not to go on and let us be on our way.  I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility of having to wade through the shallows & reeds to get to shore, and luckily we didn’t have to.  After a bit this giant decided we were of no interest and made his way down stream to join the rest of the pod.  We backed out of the reeds and were on our way once again, soon back to the safety of solid ground and our ride back to camp.

This experience was a thrilling way to experience an African Safari Vacation in an entirely different way!  I will definitely plan for more mokoro rides and hope you will too!

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