The mokoro ride

There were no thundering hooves of fleeing buffalo or barking of zebra this afternoon. Even the coos of the turtle and wood doves were subdued owing to the heat.

We gently slid into the mokoro. Kenneth leaned on his long pole, skillfully balancing in the prow, and we silently glided into the channel. At normal volume our voices seemed to boom out over the water. This made us talk in low murmurs, and even though they carried, they were muffled by the reeds.

A mokoro is an African dugout canoe traditionally hewed from a single tree trunk and common in Botswana´s Okavango Delta. Today the camps in Botswana use ones manufactured from fibre-glass to reduce the impact of tourism on the harvesting of hardwoods.

We were low enough that even the teal (ducks) seemed to be at eye level. A shy bittern flew off so quickly that I didn´t have time to find it in my binoculars. However, we managed to get close enough to see the spurs on a pair of spur-winged geese (Plectropterus gambensis) as they stretched their wings in preparation for flight. The spurs are vestigial claws and could be useful in combat, but that is doubtful because both males and females have them. Another possibility is they could be useful to maneuver when they access their nests, which are sometimes in tree hollows. These are one of the few wildfowl that may be increasing in numbers, as they benefit from certain crop farming and the creation of reservoirs and other man-made structures. Apparently, they can be poisonous to eat if they have been feeding on blister beetles.

Kenneth is an expert at finding the small creatures, and he showed us a few painted reed frogs (Hyperolius marmoratus). These are so still and cling so well to bullrush and papyrus stems that it takes a while to find them, but their markings are stunning. There were lots of day lilies (Nymphaea nouchali) with their white-pink-bluish flowers. Kenneth explained how these have edible rhizomes embedded in the soil. These lilies only bloom during the day, while the night lily´s (Nymphaea lotus) yellow flowers only bloom at night. We also crept up to a juvenile malachite kingfisher, one of the most stunning birds to find in streams and rivers. The juvenile has a dark bill, unlike the adults which have red bills. Although they are relatively common they are fast, and often move away before you get a good chance to look at them through binoculars.

We glided towards a palm-endowed island. This part of Botswana is so flat that a few centimeters gain in altitude can make a huge difference to the amount of time a place can be covered in water. Occasionally, during period of low water-levels, a pair of termites succeed in starting a colony. Over time these burrowers and mound builders raise the area above their nest enough to dramatically alter the amount of flooding that occurs on that patch of land, resulting in an “island”. They aerate the soil and bury nutrients, creating an ideal environment for a tree to propagate.

On the shore we saw a pair of long-toed lapwings (Vanellus crassirostris) court in a grassy area and proceed to mate. Kenneth, who is often in this swamp, had never seen this before and was quite excited. I am sure that detailed studies have been done on the long-toed lapwing, but I have not found breeding information after a quick internet search. These lapwings spend most of their time in water bodies with floating vegetation or in swamps, unlike their cousins the blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus), who prefer drier land on the margins of wetlands.

Kenneth moored the canoe on the island and proceeded to produce all the ingredients for a sundowner cocktail including the local Okavango gin, which makes a great gin and tonic! As we watched the sun set, flocks of ibis were silhouetted on their way to roost.

Soon afterwards the deep snorts and grunts of hippos could be heard. We packed the bar away and Kenneth poled us back in the direction of camp. Soon they will start to become active and will find their way through the channels to feed in grasslands during the night, so we did not want to linger too much.

The sounds as we approached camp had changed dramatically from our earlier departure. We now heard the pings of fruit bats and the rhythmic trills of scops owls. The evening had begun.


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