Words and photos by Shane Quinnell and Videos by Tarryn Quinnell unless otherwise credited.
Don’t miss the awesome short video at the end which captures this story.
It was still early when the giant, extended wheelbase Landcruiser, our ride to the Okavango, rolled off the main road from Maun and onto the dirt road towards the village. Along with Tarryn’s folks, Grant and Debbie, we were the only people filling the twelve seater.
The Okavango Delta is a huge marshland area in Northern Botswana. A very important area naturally, the area hosts a huge variety of wildlife from birds to the giant African mammals like the Hippo, Elephant and Giraffe.
Within a short distance from the road we came across the first of many water crossings over the veins of the Okavango. From first sight it was clear the Okavango’s reputation for wildlife was well founded. Life was everywhere. In a minute we spotted numerous bird species including Pied Kingfishers, multiple species of Herons and Cranes and Fish Eagles. The lush landscape glinted in the morning light from the moisture in the ground and local people moved on the banks looking for fish. It was beautiful, it even smelled pristine.
We drove on and after a few water crossings deep enough to submerge half of the Landcruiser, making its exhaust sound like a submersible, reached the village. We were happy we didn’t bring our Jimny, Badger, on this excursion. He might be tough as nails but we didn’t want to drown him.
The village we were at was one of the local polling stations, a hub for Macora activity in the area and a gateway to the Okavango. Macoras are the local name for the dugout canoes which the locals throughout the Northern Botswanan and Southern Zambian regions use to navigate the waterways. Rivers and swamps. Though traditionally made from trees, in Botswana, they are now commonly fibreglass in an attempt by the Government to reduce deforestation and promote sustainable tourism. From what we saw they were 3-4m long and on average only 50cm wide with a flat bottom to enable them to move in shallow water. Rather than using paddles as you would in a Kayak, they move the boats by using wooden poles to push off the swamp floor as they are much more effective in the shallow water. This has led to the guides being given the name “polers.”
From the first moment we met our polers, Heaven and Leon, we were impressed both with them and the initiatives set up around the Macora tourism. It was clear the guides were exceptionally knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the area and cared about their impact and conservation. “This is our home and our lives, we need to protect it,” said Heaven.
It was clear the guides were exceptionally knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the area and cared about their impact and conservation. “This is our home and our lives, we need to protect it,” said Heaven.
With guiding principles and introductions aside, we poled off. Once we were out from the reeds and into the open water Heaven found his rhythm. He pushed off the ground with strong but graceful thrusts, smoothly propelling us forward in rhythmic bursts. We were not moving through but gliding on the water.
It wasn’t long till we heard and then saw our first pod of hippo. There were about three to four of them in the water, their eyes and snouts visible above the water line intermittently as they bobbed up to catch a breath. Hippos being her favourite animals, Tarryn was in her element. “They are like oversized cuddly piggies, but demanding the respect of space,” she says.
We moved on, pausing often to view birds, photograph scenery and chat. We soon heard more hippos. Heaven, now understanding Tarryn’s affection for them, paddled in their direction. This time we found far more than previously; probably sixteen in two different pods.
We sat and gawked at the gigantic animals in amazement. Keeping about fifty meters between us and the hippos, our guides kept a close eye. It might sound a long way but when you consider we were in a tiny canoe watching and a bunch of Africa’s most dangerous animals, you realise it’s not that far at all.
Once we were safely away from the Hippos I asked Heaven for a turn at poling. Miscalculating how tippy the boats were, I nearly capsized the Macora before I even started. Shortly afterwards I managed to accidently smack Heaven on the head with the pole which caused an eruption of laughter. Luckily things improved from there and though I can’t claim I was ever graceful, I got us around for about twenty minutes without giving myself or my passengers unwanted swims.
We stopped at a large island for lunch and an informative walk where the poler’s taught us about local plant, animals and showed us how to track using prints and dung. We found some giraffe and zebra which we watched for a time before moving off.
With that, our day was drawing to a close, it was time to go home. We turned and headed back. We had been privileged to have an amazing day and meet some of the incredible animals who call our continent home. We left happy knowing that Botswana and the polers were doing their part to preserve their precious environment.