meerkats standing on a woman

Flying the Okavango

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The Okavango is one of the world’s largest deltas and commonly known as “the river that never finds the sea”.

It is a tranquil and isolated oasis set in Botswana’s harsh Kalahari Desert. Travelling to Botswana and not requesting a visit to the Okavango, is a sin.

There are only two ways to witness the beauty that is the Okavango, by mokoro and by air.

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Traditional mokoro rides

A mokoro is a wooden dugout canoe created from local jackal berry, sausage trees or marula. These trees are used as they grow straight, tall and have durable wood which is best for carving.

Before tourists visited the area the demand on local resources for mekoro was minimal, however, with the onset of tourism, there’s been a rise in trips into the Delta. Fortunately, a new type of mokoro has emerged which has a limited impact on the forest; these are in the form of fibreglass canoes, modelled on the original mokoro.

The first time I settled into a mokoro, the poler pushed our mokoro away from the land, and we glided into the clear waters of the Okavango. There were two people per mokoro and one poler to navigate the channels using merely a pole, similar to punting. We floated past waterlilies with their bright white flowers opening to the azure blue sky, a herd of antelope galloping along the edges of the waterway and storks gently moving through the water.

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Wildlife viewing from a different perspective

Our guide was able to spot wildlife from far, and it wasn’t long before we saw an enormous herd of elephants drinking the refreshing crystal water. We had come downwind from them, so we had not interrupted them and spent over an hour watching these animals in amazement.

It was truly magical.

Flying the Okavango

The other way of witnessing the Okavango is by air. It’s a completely different experience and the views are magnificent. To get to any of the more exclusive lodges in the Okavango, you need to fly in over this watery wilderness. Spot vast herds of elephant and buffalo from the skies on your transfer, admire hippos impersonating rocks and soar above stark white cattle egrets as they skim over the waterways; it is a breathtaking sight.

Be prepared as it can get quite bumpy. The pilot might give you a choice and ask if you want to fly high or low; high means it is less rough with the turbulence but also entails not seeing the waterways as clearly, low implies wildlife galore, but it may also mean that someone could become sick. Depending on your fellow passenger’s constitutions as to whether the latter happens is akin to Russian roulette. And when one goes, more will follow.

I suffer from air sickness, as many people do in these small planes. There are 5 to 10 seater planes; I prefer the larger ones as they have more stability and are therefore less bumpy. The smaller ones waft around in the slightest breeze, and in minor turbulence, it feels like you are in Dorothy’s farmhouse in the Wizard of Oz. Maybe a slight exaggeration there, but it can feel like it.

I remember being told that if you stuck your tongue out, rolled it and then breath through your tongue, it helps with air sicknesses. I felt utterly ridiculous doing this and suspected that it was a ruse to make me look stupid, which it achieved, but I didn’t feel as ill anymore. And neither did all the other passengers who I convinced to do the same. Perhaps I was concentrating so much on breathing that my mind had no chance to think about vomiting. But it worked. 

My advice on your Okavango flight would be to ensure you sit next to the pilot as the views are tremendous. The best way to engineer this is to make sure you’re last in the queue to board the plane. It’s only for the five-seater aircraft as there is only one door and you fill in from the back first. This will guarantee that you are sitting next to the pilot in the co-pilot’s seat. However, if it is a ten seater plane, then there is more scope for manoeuvring inside the plane.

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Did you say I can fly?

If you have been clever and get to sit beside the pilot then the pilot might let you fly the plane for a bit – well I have done this on a private flight.

Flying a plane is quite tricky, especially if you are trying to keep the horizon steady and search for wildlife at the same time. There are small dials for you to keep a silhouette of the plane level and when you change course, there really should be no jerky movements. I only flew the plane for 10 minutes, and that was quite exhausting, but by that time Hattie had been sick and the other passengers were begging me to hand over the controls to the actual pilot!

When visiting Botswana, make sure you visit the Okavango. Take time to spend at least a day in a mokoro and when you get into a plane make sure I am not sitting in the co-pilot seat!

Thanks, Jenny Bowen for your wonderful insights!


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