Getting around the Okavango Delta

Traffic in the Okavango Delta looks like a halted train of mokoro canoes. You’re lying back in the dugout, peering ahead; your guide is standing behind you, on pause.
“We can’t go any further,” says your guide, as steady as if he’s stuck in a rush hour traffic jam. He’s leaning on his ngashi – a long pole he uses to punt you along the waterway – and pointing to a hippo-sized shadow on the water ahead. Dugout mokoro canoes were traditionally used to cart goods along the waterways that push through the reedbeds of the Okavango Delta, although these days they’re made out of fibreglass to preserve the region’s trees.

It’s a typical day of travelling around the Okavango Delta. Instead of roadworks or a car accident, young male hippos stop tours in their tracks.
The guides aren’t there just to warn you about grouchy hippos. They’ll tell you about the importance of mokoros to the delta’s BaTawana people and about every bird you pass. They might be a guide that’s slogged through three years of notoriously tricky Botswanan guiding training or a scout who’s dwelled on the delta all their life.
Debbie Grainger, from our Okavango Delta safari specialists Wildfoot, describes her mokoro canoe ride: “We started about 7.30am and got in; we were just being punted down the river. The guides are talking to you, asking you what you want to see… I was saying that I’d like to see as many of the different kingfisher species as possible, so the guide really made a point to make sure that I saw those.

“He would get near to them without disturbing them, when possible. Because you’re on the river, you see them all fishing, diving into the water, and coming out with a fish in their beak… Just to see them in their own environment, doing what comes to them naturally was brilliant.”

Debbie experienced a hippo hold-up. “We had probably been in there for about an hour, and they stopped the canoes and said, ‘We actually can’t go up any further, because if you have a look over there you’ll see a large grey shape. A young male hippo has taken residence in the river.’ … So we sat there for a while just watching him, and then we turned around and went to a little shoreline and had a picnic.”

Walk on the wild side

The mokoro canoes are iconic, but it’s the walking on the Okavango Delta that’ll get your heart rate going. Botswana is one of the few places in Africa where you can safely see wildlife eye-to-eye.
“Your senses are so much more aware of what’s going on around you because you’re listening, you’re smelling, you’re looking,” says Debbie. “You’re on edge, because you don’t know what’s going to be around that next corner.” As it turns out, an impala was around the corner – being chased by a wild dog. Debbie saw it all as she crouched down low with her guide.
You’re on edge, because you don’t know what’s going to be around that next corner.
Any nervousness is quickly swept away under the expert eye of your guide. Before you know it, you’re Sherlock Holmes. Footprints and scratch marks are clues; droppings turn into waymarkers. Your guide is a living, breathing, wondering reference book: their years of training tell you whether those buffalo prints are fresh or if those droppings belong to a hyena or wild dog. And if there’s something they’re unsure about, they’ll whip out their rucksack-sized library of comparison charts.

Our top Okavango Delta Holiday

Botswana safari and Victoria Falls

Botswana safari and Victoria Falls

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Jeeps & bush planes

You can also choose to bump through the Okavango Delta in the ubiquitous safari vehicle: the 4x4. Although the engine noise can scatter flightier animals, it’s good for following long-range predators like wild dogs and lions. The person behind the wheel is key: you’ll be matched to a driver who gets to know what wildlife you’d like to see.
“I’m a cat person, so I was really hoping to see big cats,” says Debbie, “but I knew that I had to be really open-minded. But I did get to see leopards, cheetahs and lions, and it was absolutely amazing. “But you know what was even better? We were on the Jeep, and we were looking around us. The Jeep had just come to a stop. I just happened to look over the edge of the Jeep and there was a wild cat right next to the Jeep… it was just sat there, looking at us.”
Flying over in a little light aircraft was spectacular because you see the vastness of the delta… You can look at a map, but it means nothing.
Debbie also recalls her view of the Okavango Delta from a bush plane: “Flying over in a little light aircraft was spectacular because you see the vastness of the delta. You don’t realise how big the area is until you fly across it. When people talk of the Okavango Delta, it’s a large area and you’ve got all the different national parks in and around it. You can look at it on a map, but it means nothing.”

How do I choose my route?

There are two types of holidays – small group tours and tailor made trips – and each uses a variety of ways to get around the Okavango Delta. Small group holidays have fixed itineraries and dates. You’ll share the canoe rides and road trips with a group of equally excited adventurers. But if you have certain modes of transport that you’d prefer – or would rather avoid – then a tailor made holiday is best. Most things can be fitted to your requirements. That said, suggested itineraries are designed with the input of expert tour guides and lodges in Botswana, so it’s a good idea to take note of their timing and accommodation suggestions.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tim Copeland] [Mokoro ride: Benjamin Hollis] [Walking safari: Michiel Van Balen ] [From above: Wynand Uys]
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