Botswana's Okavango Delta by Boat and Foot

A River Runs Through It
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Maun, Botswana
Smack dab in the upper middle, slightly eastern part of Botswana lies the Okavango Delta. This is not your basic delta because, as you may have gathered, the upper middle, slightly eastern part of Botswana does not lie on the ocean. Instead, the Okavango Rver empties into the middle of the Kalahari Desert, where it fans out and then gets absorbed by the sand, but not before attracting tens of thousands of thirsty large African animals and tens of thousands of postcard deprived tourists.

In most places the delta canals are shallow, so a safari generally takes place in dug-out canoes called mokoros, which can hold two people plus the poler, who stands in the back of the mokoro like a Venetian gondolier and pushes you through the marshy delta, only he doesn't sing or try to sell you a phony hat at the end of the ride. He just tries to keep you from getting attacked by hippos.

I hung out at Safari Island Lodge (a budget campground that is neither a lodge nor situated on an island), and eventually found some people to tag along with: a group of Aussies, Kiwis, and English who were doing a three-day tour of the delta as part of their 12-week Africa overland truck journey. They charged me $110 for three days.

A two-hour off-road ride in a Land Cruiser took us into the Delta, where we met our mokoro polers. Mine was named Taba. He was about six feet tall and had negative body fat. In addition to his oxford shirt and long dress trousers, he wore loafers—the least practical outfit imaginable for a safari.

As the 11th person in the group, I had my own mokoro. After I got the hang of balancing, Taba guided the mokoro through the tall reeds with slow relaxing strokes. We arrived at our campsite an hour later and set up our tents. That done, we told the polers we were ready to do some animal watching. They looked at each other and I couldn't detect what they were thinking. Then Taba spoke up and announced we were going to look at some hippos.

We boarded the mokoros again and started cruising gently through the grassy canals, this time in search of hippos. After 15 minutes, I realized we were taking the same route we came in on. When we arrived at one of the wider parts of the delta we had just passed an hour before, Taba announced, "no hippos" and we returned.

The following morning they said they were taking us to a special swimming area. It was the same area we went to see the hippos the night before. "You can get in now," Taba said. "What about the hippos?" we asked. "Don't worry, there are no hippos around here."

Back at the camp we learned that Island Safari Lodge had conveniently forgotten to mention that the water level in the delta was unusually low and there was only a single 60-minute-long canal deep enough for our three-day mokoro trip.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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