June, 2017: Our mokoro, otherwise known as a canoe, glides through the glassy waters of the Okavango delta. Metres high papyrus lines the small channel as we push onwards towards the main Okavango river. Other than the odd cry of a distant bird all we can hear is the gentle lapping of water and the rhythmic sound of our guide’s pole. With the Botswanan sun beating down the whole experience is rather hypnotic. And, extremely relaxing. Our Okavango delta mokoro trip had begun.
What is the Okavango delta?
The Okavango delta is a sprawling network of channels, swamps and game clogged islands which spreads into the Kalahari desert of northern Botswana like an ever expanding spider web. Each year the summer rains drain from the Angolan highlands flooding the Okavango river with 11,000,000,000,000 litres (11 cubic kilometres) of water!* The water peaks around June / July and then amazingly over 90% is either gobbled up by plants or evaporated by the scorching Botswana sun. This annual deluge creates a veritable water wonderland supporting over 800 different animal species and around 1500 different species of plants.
Pretty much everyone coming to the Okavango delta will come through the ramshackle but busy town of Maun. It’s a relatively well serviced town which forms the entry point for both the Okavango delta plus Moremi and Chobe National Parks. You’ll be able to find everything you need from good camping, decent supermarkets, places to refill potable water and a bustling airport. Given the isolated nature of the place and it’s position as main servicing hub for one of Botswana’s biggest tourist attractions nothing is cheap here but it’s not a bad spot to spend a few days.
The best time to visit the Okavango delta**
The best time to visit the Okavango Delta depends on the type of weather you like and what you’re interested in seeing and doing:
- June – August: arguably the best time as the water is at it’s highest and the weather is cooler and drier. A great time of year for water born safaris and game viewing.
- September – October: the weather heats up and the animals concentrate around the ever dwindling areas of water. Perhaps better for game viewing but not nearly as comfortable.
- November – May: is the rainy season. Humidity goes up along with the population of bugs. For some this makes it the worst time of years but for those twitchers amongst us (bird lovers) this is the time of year for you.
Exploring the Okavango delta on the cheap
As one of the world’s premier natural hotspots, and with a government tourism policy aimed at high value / low volume, exploring the Okavango Delta on the cheap isn’t overly easy. Cashed up tourists fly in from all over the world to happily drop loads of cash on luxury lodges, helicopter fly-overs or boat safaris. $5000/night on a luxury lodge in the delta, no problems! If like us, you don’t happen to have a lazy $5000 lying around there is one awesome option which may suit you. Granted it’s not shoestring $10/day cheap but for value for money compared to the other options we thought it hard to beat. Enter the Okavango delta mokoro trip with the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust.
What the hell is a Okavango delta mokoro trip?
Our Okavango delta mokoro trip was one of the highlights of our time in southern Africa Africa. Essentially a ‘mokoro’ is a canoe propelled by a person standing at the back pushing away with a long pole. Traditionally the mokoros were made from digging out a tree trunk but now-a-days they are more commonly made from fibreglass. Mokoro trips in the Okavango are where these canoes head out into the delta piled up with happy-snapping tourists seeking to enjoy the stunning scenery and hopefully spot a bunch of game while not getting attacked by marauding hippos. To get the ultimate mokoro trip experience though, the best option is to camp overnight on one of the many islands in the delta.
Who is the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT)?
As tight ass overlanders, we were looking for a relatively cheap option to get out and explore the delta. We had read about the OKMCT as a community based organisation which organises Okavango delta mokoro trips where all the money goes back to the locals who actually run the trips. The OKMCT is based in Maun and has a revolving cooperative of guides, mokoros and itineraries. You get the same high quality guides as you would with the bigger companies but at a fraction of the cost. OKMCT enables you to keep costs down by organising your own transport out to (and back from) where the trip starts, plus all your own camping gear, food and water. The trips certainly aren’t luxurious and the OKMCT aren’t going to win any customer service awards but we had an amazing trip.
A quick note on transport
We had planned to drive our own car out to the starting point of our trip but were advised against it due to fears that our car would be pinched. We were also told that you definitely need a 4×4 as the road was a bit dodgy. Initially this seemed like a potential deal breaker as organising someone to drive us out and back in a 4×4 would have cost FAR more than the trip itself. Thankfully the lady at the OKMCT had a ‘friend’ who could take us. Ironically the ‘friend’ was actually her husband and his ‘4×4’ was a slightly battered Toyota sedan with barely any ground clearance. While others might have better negotiation skills or have better luck in finding cheaper transport, for us it still cost about the same as the actual tour itself! As it turned out, if we had gone by ourselves it’s quite likely we would have got lost in the rabbit warren of sandy tracks so we were glad to be chauffeured out and back. Still, if you’re feeling adventurous and take time to negotiate your own security detail with the villagers where your trip starts, we’re sure you’ll be fine.
How was our Okavango delta mokoro trip?
We got picked up from our river side camp in Maun around 9am by the affable TK. After getting bogged in the sand once and then lost in the bush (apparently due to poor directions from TK’s wife), we found ourselves at the water’s edge shaking hands with a skinny local wearing a huge purple cowboy hat. Onks was to be our guide for the trip and while only young was a total legend. He really knew his stuff from safely navigating the myriad of channels to having an impressive knowledge of the animals and vegetation of the area.
For 2-3 hours Onks pushed us through a dizzying array of tiny channels, hippo ponds and at times straight through dense stands of papyrus. Every now-and-then Onks would bring the mokoro to a stop so we could stand up to see a family of hippos or distant elephants. At first this was one of the most relaxing and lazy experiences of our lives but as the papyrus thickened we were suddenly invaded by bugs, spiders and tiny frogs while getting regularly slapped in the face by murky reeds. Still awesome, but not so relaxing.
We arrived at our camp site around 1pm and after doing a quick check that we weren’t sharing it with any lions settled down for lunch and a bit of a siesta. It dawned on us that instead of seeing the African bush from the security of our Toyota we were out in the middle of no where with nothing more than a skinny dude and a stick for protection. There wasn’t another sign of humans on the entire island….happy days! That afternoon we went on a walking safari to see what game we could discover amongst termite mounds, mopani groves and palm trees. It felt amazing to be right in amongst it all; to be part of the bush rather than a detached spectator. While we didn’t see any cats we did see elephant and giraffe, wildebeest and impala, zebra and the odd buffalo. As we made our way back to camp we stopped for a moment to appreciate the immense African sunset. They never get boring. In the evening the three of us sat around the camp fire chatting before eye lids drooped and we fell happily into our sleeping bags around 8pm.
The next day was more of the awesome same. We were up at dawn for a morning hike before coming back for a simple breakfast. While the scenery wasn’t much different it was still amazing to be right in amongst the savannah. At first the bush seemed completely silent but before long it was buzzing with noise. Birds, bugs, the snort of a startled wildebeest and the rumble of a grazing elephant. It was exactly the type of experience you want from Africa. Immense yet intimate, wild as hell but more relaxing than an expensive spa treatment.
Final thoughts on our Okavango Delta mokoro trip
If you’re heading to southern Africa, taking an Okavango delta mokoro trip is an amazing experience. Don’t be fooled by the people who will tell you the only way to experience it is by spending a month or two worth of your salary on some kind of expensive excursion. Track down the OKMCT, get excited about a mokoro trip and head out for some rustic camping with someone like Onks. So long as you don’t mind roughing it a little you’ll hopefully love your Okavango delta mokoro trip just as much as we did.
Okavango delta mokoro trip: the fine print
- We definitely recommend using the OKMCT to organise your Okavango delta mokoro trip. They’re located in the Apollo Complex out near the airport. Push them hard on the cheapest transport options to get you out and back to your Mokoro trip and if possible ask for Onks as your guide. For two people, our trip cost BWP336/day for park entry and guide plus BWP600 in transport costs.
- While in Maun we stayed at the Island Safari Lodge which is on the other side of the river from Maun centre. We had a lovely, powered camp site right on the river for BWP210/night for two. There is relatively clean hot water ablutions, temperamental but free wifi and they also let us park our car there for free while we did our Mokoro trip. If you do go there, ask for one of the camp sites right on the river.
- If you’re looking for a wholesome and tasty lunch while in Maun, head to Hilary’s cafe out near the airport. They bake their own bread (plus other sweet goodies), do great salad sandwiches and home made soups.
- You can refill your water bottles / tanks at the Aquarite water purification plant on Mophane St which is again out near the Maun airport
- If you’re thinking of heading to Moremi National Park after Maun, consider heading to the Khwai Development Trust area instead. Camping is still expensive at BWP600/night for two people on a site with zero facilities but if you get there early there are some AMAZING spots to be had right on the Khwai River. And, it’s cheaper than what you’ll find actually in Moremi. Game will come and go through your camp and the sunsets are EPIC! We also saw more game in the Khwai area than we did in Moremi. To get to the Khwai land, you can either drive straight through Moremi and pay for a day pass into the park (BWP290 for two); or take the long and pretty bloody rough road which goes east of Moremi through the villages of Sankuyo and Mababe. You can organise to camp at the Khwai camp sites either in Maun at an office a few doors down from the OKMCT or actually in the Khwai village just outside the Moremi park north gate. The camp site is then another 30-45 minutes drive from the Khwai village.
*SOURCE: Okavango Delta Explorations
**SOURCE: Safari Bookings