Getting Intimate with the Okavango

© Mokoro sunset in Okavango
Intimacy. It is what most people search for in life, but few people find. I have lived and worked in and around the Okavango Delta in Botswana for over 5 years, but it was only just the other day, that we finally became intimate. How? I went on a three-day mokoro trail in the heart of the Okavango.It is 2pm on an April afternoon and I'm sitting in a mokoro in Botswana's Okavango Delta. The sun is hitting us directly, as well as reflecting off the water. It is hot. Ahead of us, we can see hundred's of pelican's and Marabou storks lined up on a sandbank at the end of Xigera Lagoon. There are also red lechwe grazing peacefully on the bank to our north. Aside from the heat, it is a very peaceful scene. The serenity is accentuated by the fact that we are moving silently.With a BaYei paddler in the back of the mokoro, there is almost no sound as we move through the open water.As we move closer to the pelicans, we understand why they are here in such numbers on today of all days. The annual flood of the Okavango Delta has just hit Xigera Lagoon, where we are camping for the next couple of days. Perfect timing. Xigera Lagoon is a huge expanse of fairly shallow water, and before the new floodwaters arrived, there were numerous sandbanks that had emerged.
As these sandbanks had been covered with shallow water, the pelicans and marabou storks were lined up along them and were picking off fish as they arrived with the water. They were essentially making their own fish trap.When we continue our approach, the pelicans begin to take off. There must have been over 400 White and Pink-Backed Pelicans that took to the air. Added to this were several hundred Marabou Storks that had come to feast on the incoming fish, and hundreds of African Skimmers that were flying in long circles above our heads. The skimmers had been nesting on the exposed sandbanks until the water arrived, but were now also making the most of the glut of food.

Also in smaller numbers were Yellow-billed Storks, Saddle-billed Storks, Wattled Cranes, Fish Eagles, Greenshanks, Grey Herons, Goliath Herons, Squacco Herons, Rufous-bellied Herons, Slaty Egrets, Little Egrets, Malachite Kingfishers, Pied Kingfishers, Long-toed Plovers and a host more.

It was an absolute festival of birds topped off by a sighting of a pair of Caspian Terns. We knew that this was a special sight when our BaYei guides, Ishmael and William, who had been born and raised in the area, admitted that they had never seen them before. Yet their shear size rendered them unmistakable.

As we checked our bird books to confirm the sighting of the Caspian Terns, we nearly fell out of our mekoro (the plural of mokoro) by a noise that sounded like a huge clap of thunder moving across water. We looked back to see the herd of red lechwe, that had previously been grazing peacefully, charging across the open expanse of water.

Clearly unimpressed with us, but in doubt as to whether to carry on crossing the lagoon, the lechwe stopped midway. They seemed to be evaluating the relative risks. Us behind them or the unknown in front of them. They decided to take a chance on the latter and carried on their explosive mission across the lagoon.

With the spectacle of the birds and the lechwe behind us, my travelling companion (an American travel writer named Jeff) and I were keen to try some fishing. Ishmael found us a quiet spot on the main channel of the Boro River and proved that he had chosen the spot well by pulling in a huge tiger fish with his first cast. However, the next half-hour was spent casting unsuccessfully and the decision was made - collectively - to move to a new spot.

The new spot was perfect in every way - except for the fishing. But that didn't actually matter. We sat with fishing rod in one hand, cold beer in the other, casting into the rushing water. As we fished we watched another herd of lechwe grazing on a flood plain in front of us.

A couple of bull elephants sauntered past us. All the while the sun was starting to sink slowly and the light was changing to a colour that fairly closely matched our beers. I was getting intimate.

Jeff however was itching to move. He was in the process of telling Ishmael as much when his fishing line took off. He had latched himself a tiger. It took him a full ten minutes to bring it in, and whilst we didn't have a scale with us, it must have weighed in at about 4 kilograms. We decided to fish on. A couple of bream later and a fairly quiet fishing afternoon had turned into fresh fish for dinner.

We returned to our mekoro and headed for our fly camp. The sun had just set and a full moon was rising in front of us. The only distraction was a 747 that was still catching the sun that had so recently left us. It was flying so high that we couldn't even hear it.

I wondered if they knew that at that moment they were flying over one of the most pristine areas left in Africa. I wondered where they were going but didn't worry about it for long. Wherever they were going I knew where I would rather be.

This mokoro trail was something of a renaissance. Twenty years ago, a few days camping in the heart of the Okavango, and travelling purely by mokoro was standard fare for most tourists who weren't into hunting safaris. Many of Botswana's top professional guides cut their teeth doing these sorts of trips.

However, visitors to the Okavango these days spend almost all their time in up-market lodges and camps, where they hardly even feel the earth beneath their feet, let alone get their toes wet. These lodges offer an amazing experience, however for the most part, intimacy is no longer on the menu.

Hennie and Angie Rawlinson are the owners of Xigera camp. Located on the southwestern edge of Moremi Game Reserve, and right in the heart of the permanent water of the Okavango, it is perfectly situated for an amazing water experience in the Delta. Hennie was one of the Okavango's top guides in the early '80's, and was best known for his camping trips in the Delta.When he and Angie won the lease for the Xigera concession in the late 90's, they soon decided that aside from a beautiful, up-market camp, they were going to run mokoro trails as well. Hennie and Angie met at Xigera, and having spent much time being intimate in the Delta, they now wish to revive intimacy with the Delta for their guests.

Ishmael Setlabosha is one of the more amazing people that resides in the Delta. He was born and raised on an island just north of Xigera lagoon and an incredible knowledge of the Okavango and its many inhabitants - both plant and animal - is now thoroughly ingrained.

His knowledge is not from textbooks but from life. It is an intimate knowledge and those who have walked with him on the islands of the Okavango will not soon forget the experience.

I was fortunate enough to have this experience the next morning. We had a short mokoro ride to a large island where we began our walk. We set in behind Ishmael who was armed only with a rather fearsome looking, home-made spear, a pencil flare and a lifetime's experience in the Okavango.

He missed nothing. Any tracks and signs were analysed and a new route was taken accordingly. For example, Ishmael found fresh tracks of an old bull buffalo heading into a dense thicket. Whilst we were relieved when Ishmael started walking in the opposite direction, such was our trust in him that we would have been right there with him had he headed straight in after the tracks.

We were able to stalk to within 20 metres of a herd of grazing impala, and tracked and found a small herd of kudu browsing on the edge of the island.

He chatted willingly about many of the plants that we walked past. He gave us an indication of the full medical cabinet that exists in the bush, as well plants that poisoned fish, plants that you could eat, and plants whose roots would leave your baby smelling fresher than Johnson and Johnson baby powder.We had walked for three hours, but hadn't raised a sweat. It was a botanical experience, an anthropological experience, and a cultural experience, but most of all it was an intimate experience.On the way home, Ishmael spotted a female sitatunga - a rare and highly aquatic antelope, and one of the most prized sightings of the Okavango Delta. Once again, through the skill of Ishmael and William we were able to get close to the "tunga" before it leapt away into a thicket of papyrus.We returned to camp around midday, had a substantial brunch and snoozed until early afternoon. We had planned an afternoon of swimming and fishing.Swimming is the ultimate way to get intimate with the Okavango. Clearly safety is an issue, and swimming at random is not recommended as large crocodiles and hippos abound. Ishmael however, took us to his swimming pool.

It was a tiny channel between two small islands of sand that would soon be entirely covered by water. The new floodwater was charging through this little channel and staying in the one spot was difficult but not impossible.

The water was deep enough for us to dive without danger, but shallow enough on its extremities, for us not to have to worry about the presence of unwanted reptilian visitors. Even at the deepest point of this small channel the water was clear enough for me to count all the hairs on my big toes.

Yep, all three were still in place! The temperature was wonderful. It was cool enough for us to feel immediately refreshed, yet warm enough for us to rather stay in then get out.

At one stage I saw a tiny White Fronted Plover about twenty metres down stream from me. Using the fast current I drifted towards it with only my nose and eyes out of the water. I was able to float to within a metre it finally flew off.The whole experience was absolutely unbelievable. Whilst sitting in the water with it rushing over my back and shoulders I knew that I was no longer just a visitor. At that time and in that place, I was a part of the Okavango. There was genuine intimacy.It was with reluctance that we left our swimming pool and carried on our way. We were in the mokoro's for a while, but I couldn't say how long exactly. The rest of the world may have been in turmoil, but I was in a state of total peace.I had a few interesting things happen to me on that afternoon mokoro ride. Firstly, as we brushed a reed, a tiny green frog jumped onto my lap. He was a Long Reed Frog. A very inappropriate name as he is only about 13mm long. He stayed in my lap until much later when I relocated him onto a water lily pad.

Secondly I saw a pair of bright orange dragonflies mating. Nothing unusual about that except that they were flying in the same direction as I was, they were moving at roughly the same pace, and were about a metre from my head.

They spent so long traveling right next to me, that I was able to pull out my field guide and identify them - Urothemis assignata. Despite their long and complicated name I was touched by their intimacy and I could not think of any other mode of transport that would let me spend so long with a pair of amorous insects.

Before sunset we stopped so that Jeff could fish again. There is definitely a certain Zen that you get when fishing. However I didn't need to fish - I was there already. I instead stayed seated in my mokoro and watched as a Western-Banded Snake Eagle flew overhead and perched in a nearby tree.

If I hadn't been in such a state of "Okavango Zen" I probably would have fallen out of my mokoro at this wonderfully rare sight. I listened to fish eagles and swamp boubous calling. On a neighbouring island a troop of vervet monkeys started chattering.

From the same place came the alarm calls of a red billed francolin. I wondered what predator they saw, but marvelled at the fact that the feeling that I was still part of the Delta had not left.

That night during dinner we had a large male hippo come and join us on the small island on which we were camping. We saw him coming from a long way off as the moon shone brightly off his wet back. He wandered to within 20 yards of our small camp, before sensing that something was not quite right and moving back into the shallow water.

He stayed close by for most of the night, and his slow footsteps and constantly munching jaws, were strangely comforting. The only other animal that disturbed my sleep that night, was a Pel's Fishing Owl, which issued its haunting call from somewhere close by on the island. We would look for him tomorrow.

Any sighting of a Pel's Fishing Owl is special. They are unbelievably attractive birds, not common anywhere, and are highly secretive - particularly in daylight hours when they spend most of the day hiding from the unwanted attentions of their main competitor, the African Fish Eagle.

Xigera however, is one of the best places to find the "Pel's". The habitat is perfect, with many good hunting sites, and many safe places to roost and nest. Consequently, it should have been no surprise that we had three separate sightings of Pel's the next morning. We had to work for the first two - mokoroing to small islands, hopping out and closely inspecting the dense woodland.

The tough task was made easier by the skill of Ishmael and William, who had an amazing sense for which islands and which trees to look in. We managed to accidentally flush the final Pel's whilst in our mokoro. As he burst out from within a Mangosteen tree, he was harried and harassed by a flock of grey louries. We were as sorry to have disturbed him as we were happy to see him.

Our safari finished later that morning when a boat from Xigera Camp came to pick us up. As the boat approached it struck me that for the last two nights and three days we had been without any artificial noise. There had been no engines. No boats, no vehicles, no generators, and best of all no radios blurting out depressing reports of wars in far off places.

Whilst I was not happy that I had to return to the "real" world that afternoon, I felt a strong sense of relief that with the rebirth of the mokoro trail, should I ever feel the need, I would once again be able to get intimate with the Okavango.

By Richard Field
Botswana Safari Tours and Game Lodges
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