Exploring the Okavango Delta by boat

The Okavango Delta is the synonymous with life southern Africa; A beautiful, unspoilt wetland ecosystem, slow waterways glimmering in the sun, alive with mangroves, insects and crocodiles, covering thousands of square kilometers.

Pushing through the reeds slowly and spotting wilflife in a mokoro, a pole-driven canoe, is an unforgettable experience.

What is the Okavango Delta?

In northern Botswana, a sprawling wetlands floods every year as the mighty Okavango River drains into a tectonic lowland, with waters fanning out over a stunning 15,000 to 22,000 km². In turn, an explosion of life occurs, as everything from elephants, lions, hippos and crocodiles (and many more) are drawn in to the waters to make this fertile landscape home.

Welcome to the Okavango Delta.

A mokoro canoe on the okavango delta
The view of the mokoro on the Okavango Delta

Entering the Okavango Delta

We began in the small town of Maun, to the south of the delta. Maun does not have much to do, except for offering accomodation and camping for adventurers who want to see the delta.

We woke up early to get started. Arranged by the Crocodile Camp where we stayed, a speedboat was waiting for us. As we spend along the river, the driver explained that we were headed to the ‘buffalo fence’, one of the entry points to the Okavango.

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So early in the morning, the air was ice-cold, and our faces stung in the wind. The water was choppy, and we bounced around against the metal seats. But who cares – we were so excited to arrive.

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Boarding the mokoro

The buffalo fence was less of a fence, and more of a small island, where lots of guides and a few tourists were milling around. Here, we changed boats. We waded ashore and inspected our two mokoros, a type of long, slender canoe.

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We would sit in the front of the mokoro, whilst the guide stood behind and controlled the speed and direction with a long wooden pole.

We boarded the mokoros and pushed off into the flat, glassy water. Wessel and myself shared one, and Jeff was on his own in the other. It had been cold that morning, but by now the midday sun was beating down ferociously.

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The wetlands were calm and still, and so clear that we could see the thick red and green roots of the reeds spiralling and intertwining beneath us to the bottom. The water was amazingly deep. As we drifted through, we were enveloped by millions of dry grassy reeds, forming a surreal grassland around us.

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Water spiders

It was getting itchy. Tiny, long-legged spiders were crawling onto the boat, down our necks, into our sleeves. Occasionally, one of us would flail in annoyance, slapping and scratching at spider bites on our arms and legs. Wessel frantically tried to crush one with his shoe, in a torrent of swearing and bashing.

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I asked the guide what they were.

The guide, a tall local with a jovial attitude and colourful Rastafarian beanie, laughed. “Water spider“, he replied in a deep voice, in a thick African accent. He assured us they were harmless. Harmless, indeed, but they were itchy and irritating, and they were swarming everywhere.

Eventually I couldn’t be bothered to chase them away, and I let them spin their webs on me. To try and stopThe guides posted some leafy branches on the front of each boat, to catch any spiderwebs we were heading into.

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Visiting in winter is not ideal for wildlife

Winter was not the best season for spotting wildlife, and we accepted that we probably wouldn’t see any crocodiles or hippos today. March to August is generally the best time to visit.

Our guides had a plan, however, and were leading us towards of one of the larger islands to try and track down some wildlife.

Going ashore

Our mokoro stopped against a bank of reeds, and the guides hopped out to tie the boat up. The two guides told us to stay in the boat as they climbed up the embankment, finding high ground and standing aloft like meerkat sentries for a few minutes. They gestured to us. Excited, we joined them ashore. They were on the lookout for elephants.

The guides knew the trails and led us through the bush and brittle yellow grassland, following comically oversized piles of elephant dung and keeping a keen ear open for trouble. Lions hunted here too.

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The guides showed us a giant Baobab, an iconic African tree with a wide, swollen trunk filled with stored water, and short, leaf-less branches that more resembled roots. They look almost as if they’d been planted upside-down.

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The guides felt disappointed that we hadn’t seen wildlife, except for frogs and insects. But to be honest, we were having a great time, in the middle of nowhere, walking across an island in a delta, tracking elephants.

Back to Maun

After about an hour of walking the trails, we continued our tour around the delta, taking pictures of birds and the stunning landscape of reeds. Early afternoon, we headed back down to the buffalo fence.

We arrived back at the campsite in the afternoon, packed our car quickly, and drove quickly to the other side of Maun to find some lunch. We were conscious of time, as usual, and we still planned on a gigantic journey to the Chobe National Park.

Stopping for lunch, we found a fancy hotel restaurant, which, despite appearances, had very cheap food and lazy service (this is Africa!), and we drank beers and ate hot chips by the side of the pool.

Continuing the journey

Wessel and I had gotten extremely sunburnt on the water.

To keep the sun off my skin, I was wearing a black hoody. The Okavango Delta was great, but soon our minds returned to the prospect of a long drive to reach a game lodge to sleep in the Chobe National Park. We started the car, and drove relentlessly for hours, reaching the gates of Chobe at sunset.

Then we saw the problem.

There wasn’t anywhere to sleep for hours in any direction.


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