Punting the Okavango Delta

There are some places where all that is needed is a glimpse of a photo to make you want to go there: the rock emerging from the crystalline waters surrounding the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi; the vast expanse of the salt flats against the cobalt blue sky at Uyuni, Bolivia. For me it was an aerial photograph of the Okavango Delta. Described as Botswana’s premier tourist destination, this jewel on the edge of the Kalahari Desert is currently Lonely Planet’s top pick for Africa. The delta’s narrow waterways filled with water lilies and reeds contrast greatly with the barren expanse of the Kalahari which you pass through to find it.

What attracted me most to the Delta, other than the obvious visual spectacle, was the chance to escape. This was an opportunity to camp on an uninhabited island in the delta, accessible only by Mokoro (the traditional dug-out wooden canoes). Although propelled in a similar fashion to a punt, this feels like more than a world away from Cambridge – the only smiliarity being the feeling of panic and the yelps emitted when our foolhardy poler allowed us to take to the helm. Instead, whilst you recline in your Mokoro, the only sounds you will hear are the gentle lapping of the water as you are poled through the clear, glistening channels; the clicking of insects and perhaps the grunt of a hippo; and the incessant moan of propellers as a steady stream of planes pass overhead, allowing tourists to capture for themselves the image that first drew them to this place.

As you leave behind civilisation at the town of Maun (‘mau-oon’), you are truly going into the wild. There is nothing here, what you want or need you have to bring with you; perhaps not the kitchen sink, but in our case a fridge! It is not until you take your place in the Mokoro that you realise what an art it is to load and navigate them. There are no seats to be had, instead you perch on a pile of dried reeds, with various parts of your camping equipment for cushions.

As with any foray into boating, it takes a while to get your ‘sea legs.’ For the first half hour of the journey you are constantly tensing muscles, terrified that you are about to get rather more up-close-and-personal with the Delta than you initially envisaged. Stability is not an in-built component of these crafts, instead it is down to the skill and prowess of the poler to distribute weight throughout the boat and balance themselves to ensure maximum power, without capsizing. Just don’t expect to remain dry for long — waterproofing is the one skill that the poler’s haven’t got down to a tee. Expect to gradually get a soggy bottom as water laps over the sides and in through cracks, that despite ingenious patching with the soles of discarded Converse, gently pool to cool you down nicely; a welcome relief in the midday sun.

There are few places where you can truly escape the real world, but this is one of them. Close your eyes, sit back and relax and you will be transported to paradise. Gently gliding along the channels, a different world unfolds before you. You won’t see another soul, but you will experience the best bird and wildlife imaginable, completely undisturbed. The exploration doesn’t end when you touch dry land – there are endless walking safaris to be undertaken. Giraffes and elephants are a common sight; we even had a rather terrifying encounter with a lion having intruded on his freshly killed wildebeest. And beware the hungry hippos if you choose to have a go at poling yourself — the millpond appearance belies whole herds, who don’t take kindly to disturbances.

As with so many places in Africa, the Okavango also provides one of the best experiences when it comes to watching sunsets and stargazing. There is no better way to top off a day of exploring the Delta by Mokoro and on foot than to sit on the shore as the burning, orange sun gently sinks down behind the acacia trees and meets its reflection in the water, creating the most impressive silhouettes. And finally, miles from the nearest habitations and the electricity that comes with them, you can look up to a sky free from light pollution, covered with sparkling stars, which make this wilderness pale into insignificance.

Useful info:

  • Use the town of Maun as your base.
  • Organise to go by mokoro into the Delta with The Okavango Polers
  • Trust a collective where all the profits are shared by the workers.
  • Expect to pay $160 for a three day excursion. You will be required to provide food and water (and for your poler), and camping and cooking equipment.
  • A scenic flight is $85pp based on at least 5 people sharing a plane.

Photos courtesy of Annie Foot and Pamela De Mark. Compiled by Lucy Thomas.