Our mokoro launch is as smooth as a marble kitchen counter. Without a sound we glide off into the waters of the Okavango Delta, following paths initially formed by hippos and elephants long before. We move at a serenely slow pace while dragonflies skim the calm surface and malachite kingfishers perch on the reeds around us. We sit low on the floor of the mokoro, propped against molded plastic seats while our guide, John, stands in the back and propels us, his two passengers, forward with a long pole.
Mokoros are sometimes called the gondolas of Africa, and the comparison seems fitting as they are equally romantic. A mokoro is a traditional dug-out canoe, carved from a sausage, sycamore fig, or jackalberry tree. These days, however, Botswana’s government has called for the use of fiberglass models to help conserve trees. It’s the traditional method for getting around in the shallow wetlands of the Okavango, used by fishermen to fish and travel between islands.
John doesn’t talk much. He’s been living in the Delta all his life and it seems like he knows the best part of a mokoro trip is the tranquillity due to the lack of a motor. He pushes us stoically along as the sun starts to near the horizon and the light takes on that magical quality photographers adore. We’re in a group and I see the blissful smiles on my friends’ faces as we pass them, as if they’re being whisked off to the next buffet. All I hear is the occasional splash of an oar or chirrup of a bird and I close my eyes in revery.
What’s the secret?
“What is it about gliding on water that is so enjoyable?” I ask John. He just smiles and shrugs, as if to say; it just is. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Well, ever since we arrived in Botswana, the home of water-based safaris. For a landlocked country boasting the massive Kalahari Desert, the amount of water here is staggering. The Okavango Delta is flooded each year from the rains that fall in the Angolan Highlands and flow down into Botswana before emptying into the flat wetlands of the Delta. We’ve been whisked through the riverways of the Delta between lodges, gone tiger fishing and now the mokoro ride. And it’s all been glorious.
The thought reminds me of a short New York Times documentary about a retired doctor called Slomo who spends every day of his life rollerblading on the San Diego beachfront. Slomo realised there is something about lateral acceleration that, “makes many of us feel good.” He studied this further and discovered there is a neurological explanation for the joy that gliding brings.
“Acceleration stimulates a set of receptors which are in the inner ear that connects us with the centre of the earth by gravity,” Slomo says. “A piece of calcium sits on a membrane so that any change in the relative change of gravity will make this stone roll and therefore there will be some indication that the body is moving relative to the centre of the earth. When we have a continuous feeling of acceleration, and if you keep it constant, you can use it for meditation because it puts you in a zone.” Think of surfing, skateboarding, riding a bicycle and… cruising on a river. Now, mix that joy of a boat cruise with the thrill of epic, back-to-back wildlife sightings and you begin to understand the magic of Botswana.
Testament to Botswana’s allure is the fireside conversations we have with the other guests every night. Vicki, from Toronto, for example, was on her first trip to Africa. A retired teacher, she lit up like one of the little girls she used to teach when talking about her first lion sighting. With eyes glimmering like the fire beside us, she couldn’t stop smiling. The next day she was due to go on her first mokoro ride. I couldn’t wait to see her and hear her about her experience.
Stuart Parker, from Desert and Delta Safaris, explains, “There’s not a lot of safari destinations that offer anything similar. Most areas are focused on game walking and game drives but Botswana offers much more than that. What’s hard to understand about Botswana is how much the experience also involves the experience between destinations. To have a proper Bots experience, you need to visit two or three properties so you can understand how it all fits together. That’s why it’s an experiential safari. It’s not only about seeing wildlife. It’s about seeing how the wildlife fits into the environment, at different times of year, in this complex system.”
The Chobe Extravaganza
A few days later and we’re back on the water, this time on the Chobe River for one of their famous sunset cruises. Botswana is the elephant capital of the world, home to one-third of Africa’s elephants, and Chobe is home to one-third of that. In the dry season, thousands of elephants descend on the river to drink, swim and cool down.
We climb aboard our skimmer boat and our captain, Vivien, tells us, “We’re never sure what we’ll see but we’ll slowly make our way up river and see what we can find.” Sounds good to us. Gin and tonics are poured and we settle in to enjoy the passing landscape, wildlife and other boats. We see kingfishers, fish eagles, carmine bee-eaters, vultures, a buffalo cooling itself in the shady waters, elephants drinking, herds of impala, and baboons playing in the trees. As the afternoon starts to cool, more and more elephants start to appear on the river’s banks.
Our drinks are flowing, too, and we bask in the glow of this amazing journey through Botswana. Not for the first time this trip, the wildlife becomes a side attraction and we are simply happy to watch things pass us by, admire the setting sun, take a photo or two and enjoy the moment. As the horizon turns from orange to tangerine to pink, we attempt to have a moment of silence to savour the splendour but we’re too happy to sit still.
These waters have been a source of much of our joy and it’s fitting that we spend our last evening on them before we go to the desert. The sun has gone now, slipping over the horizon like a leaf floating past our boat. Soon, we’ll enjoy a dinner under the stars accompanied by a festive marimba band, but for now, we sit back and watch the colours change, wishing already that it won’t be too long before we return to Botswana’s waters and incredible charms.