Camping in the Okavango

Poler and makoro

The Okavango River Delta in Botswana is the world’s largest inland delta, fed by several rivers coming down from Angola. The landscape of the delta is in constant flux, as waters rise and fall and islands are created and then submerged once again. We signed up to take a two night excursion into the delta, away from the truck, where we’d be completely immersed in the wild bush of Africa. We headed out early on the first day, and after nearly two hours of driving in a huge 4×4 truck through wild grasses and deep streams, we arrived at our drop point and were introduced to our group of local guides. They would be responsible for our safety over the next couple of days, as we trekked and camped and swam in the land of hippos, lions, buffalo, baboons, and more.

Since the delta is first and foremost a landscape defined by water, our journey to our campsite was undertaken by canoe. The canoes in question were called “mokoros”, and were dug-out canoes made from a single African sausage tree each. Unfortunately, the practice of making the canoes is not the most sustainable one: the lifespan of a mokoro is about 15 years, but it takes 80 years for a sausage tree to grow big enough to make a new one. The locals have started to purchase fiberglass mokoros, but the cost of each is high, so the transition is slow. We were fortunate enough to get to ride in one of the traditional wooden mokoros. It was two per boat, plus a poler to push you along in the style of the Venetian gondolas. It took us an hour and a half to navigate the reed-choked waterways to the patch of dry land where our camp was set up. It was such a relaxed way to travel – we just laid back on our sleeping mats while our poler gently pushed us along. Ahhhhhh.

Termite hill and giraffes

The main aim of our time in the bush was to go on bush walks to (hopefully) see wildlife. We split up into small groups of about 6 people each, plus a guide. We went on three bush walks in total: one evening walk and two early morning walks. Our three guides were Waco, Seven and Lucas, and they were fantastic. Meg and I were with Waco, and it was amazing to watch him pick out animal tracks in the sand and spot wildlife way off in the distance before any of the rest of us even thought to look for it. The walks were between 2 and 4 hours each, and fortunately for us, the wildlife cooperated.

Hippos have it good

On our first walk we found a group of a dozen or so hippos lazing about in the water. From shore, it was quite safe to watch them, but Waco told us that hippo attacks on mokoros are very common. Apparently the hippos know whether the boat is empty or has people in it, and they won’t attack an empty boat. When the polers are near hippos they try to keep to the shallower waters, as the hippos tend to stay in the deeper parts during the heat of the day. They were really cool to hear – the sound a hippo makes in the water is like a deep, throaty laugh, that seems to say “ahhhhh, I have such a wonderful life, lazing about in the water all day without a worry in the world”. They seemed very content.

The famous water buffalo

On our second walk we saw giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, baboons, and ostrich, but the highlight had to be the water buffalo. We managed to track a herd of about 20-30 buffalo, and we caught up to them as they were grazing at the water’s edge. Waco explained to us that if it was a solitary buffalo, we wouldn’t dare approach within 100 meters of it, as they will attack on sight if they are alone. In a group, however, they prefer to congregate and run away rather than confront, if they can. It seemed counter-intuitive to us, but sure enough, as we got closer and the buffalo caught our scent, they took off in a thunderous stampede through the water away from us. You should have heard the noise! Even though there were only a couple dozen of them, it sounded like hundreds of buffalo where charging through the reeds. It made the hair on my arms stand on end. We stood in awe as we listened to them pound away into the distance, and wondered why they would ever run away from anything, when the thought of them charging towards you was so terrifying. They were huge, and their horns looked pretty darn tough. We realized as they faded into the distance that we’d seen the Big 5. Less than three weeks on the road, and already we’d spotted rhino, leopard, lion, elephant, and now buffalo. Cool.

On the second night in camp, after we’d all had dinner, our guides and polers treated us to some of their local songs and dance. There were about 8 or 9 performers, and they sang beautiful multi-part songs and danced around the fire, throwing in yells and shouts of enthusiasm as they went. When they started singing and dancing a frog dance, I got invited up to hop around with the other dancers around the fire. It was so much fun. As we enjoyed the entertainment, I had a little moment where I realized exactly where I was. We were sitting in the middle of wild Africa, around a campfire, listening to traditional African songs under a brilliant star-saturated sky. It made me feel very, very lucky, and very, very happy.

On our last day we went for another short bush walk, where we saw warthogs, more zebra and wildebeest, and a couple of baboons that had taken up semi-permanent residence near our camp. We then got to enjoy another couple of hours lazing in the sun as our polers guided the mokoros back to our pickup point. It was great to be away from the truck for a few days, and we enjoyed the down time almost as much as the sights and walks. A big thank-you to our awesome guides and all the polers, as they were wonderful hosts the whole time.

Relaxed in our makoro


    unreal…Kate I”ll do it with you..LOL What an adventure….

    Incredible experience!


    Wow! The pictures are amazing and they always say that the pictures don’t do it justice. You guys must be in awe of creation everyday. Amazing! I got quite a chuckle out of the friendly girafe.

    “I’m so happy when your Mom/Kate reads me your stories, especially to know that you are having such a good time. You will never regret taking this trip.
    Nor will I ever forget your blog, and that is really saying something for me these days. Love to you both… Nan”

    Mom and Chris you should definitely come!

    Mike and Sarah: how do you feel about adopting this new canoeing technique on our next canoe trip? Mark and I will relax whilst you two pole us through the water. Ya, sounds nice eh?

    Ahahaha. Meghan, I thought at least you would suggest that Mike and Mark pole YOU AND I through the water!

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