Trips on motor boats and mokoro are very much an integral part of a safari trip to northern Botswana – they're both very different, and both a lot of fun. Almost no operators use the paddle-yourself Canadian-style canoes that are popular elsewhere in Africa (Linyanti Tented Camp is perhaps the exception which proves this rule).
In Lake Ngami the explorer Andersson describes a mokoro used by him on Lake Ngami in the early 1850s:The canoe in which I embarked (and they are all somewhat similarly constructed) was but a miserable craft. It consisted of the trunk of a tree, about 20 feet long, pointed at both ends, and hollowed out by means of fire and a small hatchet. The natives are not at all particular as to the shape of the canoe. The after part of some that have come to my notice, would form an angle of near forty-five degrees with their stem! Nevertheless, they were propelled through the water by the Bayeye (my boatmen were of that nation) with considerable speed and skill.
The 'appointments' of the canoe, consist of a paddle and a pole, ten to twelve feet in length. The paddle-man sits well in the stern, and attends mostly to the steering; whilst his comrade, posted at the head of the canoe, sends her along, by means of the pole, with great force and skill.
The natives, however, rarely venture any distance from the shore in their frail Skiffs.
Local inhabitants of the Okavango still use mekoro like this, but for visitors it's more usual to have simply a single poler standing up at the stern and propelling the craft with a long pole. It's very like the punting done at some universities in Britain; a gentle form of locomotion best suited to shallow waters.
Only certain trees are suitable for making mekoro; they must usually be old, straight and strong. Jackalberries (Diospyros mespiliformis
), sausage trees (Kigelia Africana
) and kiats (Pterocarpus angolensis
) are favourites, whilst occasionally African mangosteens (Garcenia livingstonei
) and rain trees (Lonchocarpus capassa
) are also used. The wood used to make the poles to propel them is less crucial, though these are often made from silver-leaf terminalia trees (Terminalia sericea
The last few decades have seen a mushrooming demand for mekoro, which began to deplete the older specimens of these species in some areas. Fortunately, fibreglass mekoro, that look very similar, are now being made. Most safari camps use these now. This is worth encouraging, so if you are given a wooden craft, check with your camp that when it's no longer useable, they intend to replace it with a fiberglass version. The Delta can't afford to lose more of its oldest trees!
By motor boat
Motor boats are used on the rivers, and in the deeper channels and lagoons of the Okavango. They can be a lot of fun although, used carelessly, their noise and (especially) their wake can do a lot of damage; so be sensitive to the dangers and don't encourage your guide to speed. You'll often see much more by going slowly anyhow.
Interesting variations on this theme include the stately, almost silent electric boat that's been introduced at Sandibe and the small, double-decker boat used at Kwara which affords views out over the top of the papyrus beds.
The main dangers
It's tempting to become concerned about dangerous animals in Africa, but it's foolish to get paranoid. With common sense and a little knowledge, boat and mokoro trips are very safe – certainly no more dangerous than going on a game drive or walking safari. And if these worry you, maybe you shouldn't be heading out into the bush at all!
On motor boat trips, you'd have to try hard indeed to get into difficulties. Mekoro are also safe, though these craft are smaller and more vulnerable, so you should be aware of the dangers posed to you by hippos and crocodiles:Hippo
Hippopotami are strictly vegetarians, and will usually only attack a mokoro if they feel threatened. Your poler is usually standing up, so he has the best vantage-point for spotting potential dangers ahead. It's helpful if you're either silent, or making so much noise that every animal in the bush can hear you approaching!
During the day, hippopotami will usually congregate in deeper water. The odd ones in shallow water, where they feel less secure, will head for the deeper places as soon as they are aware of a nearby mokoro. Avoiding hippos then becomes a fairly simple case of steering around the deeper areas, and sticking to the shallows. This is where the poler's experience, knowing every waterway in the area, becomes valuable.
Really large and deep channels and waterways are seldom a problem, as the hippos can avoid you provided that you make enough noise so that they know you are around. Shallow floodplains are also fairly safe, as you'll see the hippo in advance, and avoid them.
Problems usually occur when mekoro use relatively small and narrow 'hippo trails' where hippos can submerge but can't get away. Then there's a danger of accidentally approaching too close. A mokoro inadvertently surprises a hippo, and/or cuts it off from its path of retreat to deeper water. Then the hippo feels cornered and threatened, and may even attack. Some camps now send mekoro out in small groups, with an armed guide in the lead mokoro – though others maintain that this isn't necessary.
An angry hippo could overturn a mokoro without a second thought, biting at it and/or its occupants. Once in this situation, there are no easy remedies. So avoid it in the first place.Crocodiles
Crocodiles may have sharp teeth and look prehistoric, but are of little danger to you … unless you are in the water. Then the more you struggle and the more waves you create, the more you will attract their unwelcome attentions. They sometimes become an issue when a mokoro is overturned by a hippo; you must get out of the water as soon as possible, either into another canoe or on to the bank.
When a crocodile attacks an animal, it will try to disable it, normally by getting a firm, biting grip, submerging, and performing a long, fast barrel-roll. This will disorient the prey, drown it, and probably twist off the limb that has been bitten. In this dire situation, your best line of defence is probably to stab the reptile in its eyes with anything sharp that you have. Alternatively, if you can lift up its tongue and let the water into its lungs whilst it is underwater, then a crocodile will start to drown and will release its prey.
I have had reliable reports of a man surviving an attack in the Zambezi recently when a crocodile grabbed his arm and started to spin backwards into deep water. The man wrapped his legs around the crocodile, to spin with it and avoid having his arm twisted off. As this happened, he tried to poke his thumb into its eyes, but with no effect. Finally he put his free arm into the crocodile's mouth, and opened up the beast's throat. This worked. The crocodile left him and he survived with only a damaged arm. Understandably, anecdotes about tried and tested methods of escape are rare.