In Maun I was staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers largely because I’d read online that they operated community-run mokoro trips into the Okavango. As a child, I grew up watching BBC documentaries about African wildlife and, it seemed, half the time those documentaries were shot in the Okavango. It was a place I couldn’t have pointed out on a map, but whose name was etched into my brain; a place synonymous with beauty and wilderness.
I got up early one morning and was driven by jeep way out to a small village right on the edge of the Okavango Delta. I met my guide, a lifelong mokoro poler, who pushed us out onto the waterways. He was very quite, almost alarmingly so. But then, so was the world around us. We were miles from the nearest road, miles from the nearest town, and heading further into the wild.
From the offset, we were surrounded by wildlife – namely birds. I don’t know much about birds but they were stunning, as they had been all through my African trip. Some of them were like pterodactyls – impossibly large creatures beating the air violently with their massive wings.
I lay on the mokoro – a small, dugout canoe, as he stood, pushing us through the water. We spent about two hours travelling through the shallow channels of this bizarre inland delta, birds all around us. Occasionally the guide would tell me to stand up and we would see zebra or wildebeest beyond the reeds.
Eventually we arrive at what would be our camp for the night. It was only late morning by this stage, but we were to spend the afternoon hiking. First, though, the guide wanted to take a nap. Fair enough – it must have been tiring pushing the mokoro in heat approaching 45 degrees.
While he slept, I walked out into the wild to explore. I didn’t go far, but far enough to find myself walking across plains, surrounded by zebra, wildebeest, and one elephant. It was thrilling. There is no better word. Everywhere I looked there was wildlife that until recently I’d only seen on TV or, sadly, in zoos. The long grass was lion-coloured and I couldn’t help but imagine I was being watched.
A huge storm came in quickly and I soon found myself sheltering from thunder and lightning and torrential rain, which the parched lands badly needed. I went back to my tent and sat watching the lightning all around, and listened to the rain on the tent.
After a few hours my guide awoke and we set out on a 15 km hike through the surrounding area. We tracked animals on foot, coming upon a few lion kills (and even a dead lion), and getting close to a few elephants, dozens of giraffe, and some smaller game. The feeling of walking through that incredible landscape was humbling. This is how humans felt thousands of years earlier, walking through the landscape as a vulnerable speck, hoping a lion doesn’t come running from the treeline.
At night we made a fire and watched the stars. They were so bright and innumerable, and shooting stars shot across and over the horizons. I walked around in the dark, flashing my torch to see if eyes would shine back in the night. Giant catfish flopped about in the shallow water.
In the morning, I awoke at 5am and watched the sunrise over the baobab trees and mist hang in the long grass over the waterways. We set out walking again – 20+km this time. My boots soon filled with water from the dew. On this walk we saw much of the same as the day before, but got altogether far too close to a large elephant, which charged at us and sent us running. Thankfully, it was a warning charge and it chose not to pursue us further into the trees.
I wish I could have had more time to spend walking through the Okavango. There really is no place I know of which is like it. It is the wildest place on earth and, I think, the experience of simply walking there – even over a hundred or so meters – puts so much into perspective. You feel so small and insignificant on that great landscape, so much at the mercy of the world around you, yet entirely filled with awe at its power and beauty. And that is how life should be lived.