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Botswana by boat

Hippo in the Okavango DeltaImage: Getty Images

Kieran Meeke discovers the wildlife-rich mighty delta by boat

 

I glide through the waters of the Okavango Delta in a mokoro, a flat-bottomed canoe used by the local people here since the 18th century. Once made from wood, they’re now molded from fiberglass. My poler, Letsego, stands at the back, navigating the maze of 6ft-high reed beds with the ease of long familiarity.

I sit on a folded foam mattress that will be my bed tonight when we reach camp on a sandy island deep in the delta. But for now I enjoy the warmth of the African sun and the sound of birds and insects. The water is so clear — the sand it pushes through on its long journey acts as a gigantic filter — that we’ll draw from it for cooking. Several times, my poler reaches down to drink it from a cupped hand.

Letsego learned to pole as a young man and has been doing it now for 20 years. I ask him if he ever falls in. “I fell in last week,” he says. “Sometimes your pole gets stuck in the muddy bottom and it drags you back.” As he speaks we run aground on a sandbank — most of the delta is only a few feet deep.

When we come to a deeper, much larger pool, he points out the eyes of a few hippos watching us placidly from a distance. They’re the biggest danger, he says. As bottom-dwellers, they can rise unexpectedly. Mothers can also be aggressively protective of their young.

“If you beat your pole on the water, they’ll usually stop,” he says. “You just have to speed up and keep your distance if they chase you. It’s happened to me twice, but I just ran my mokoro ashore. But they mostly use the channels at night, so it’s not a problem.”

Early the next morning, I join a walk with a ranger, Johnson, to explore the island on which we’ve camped. He points out the trees and shrubs, describing their uses in local culture, as well as the tracks of various animals. A herd of giraffe appears in the distance and we crouch to watch them browse their way through the high trees.

Walking back, we enter a thick wood and realize we’re surrounded by a small herd of elephants, invisible in the thick bush. Their noise makes them seem much closer than they are and it’s a thrilling moment. Johnson ushers us calmly on a detour along the water’s edge where we can see them in the distance, intent on their feeding. African life goes on, ignoring the strangers in its midst.

 

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