The local baYei people use mokoros to hunt, fish and ferry around tourists in the Okavango Delta. The biggest danger comes not from crocodiles or falling in, but hippos.
I am in Botswana, on an island in the Okavango Delta – a gigantic oasis of plant, fish, bird and animal life, expanding and contracting as the Okavango River's flow varies with the seasons.
I have come to this island in a mokoro, a canoe used by the local baYei people since they fled into this wilderness from Angola to escape slave hunters in the 18th century. Our poler, Letsego Mutapula, has been poling for more than 20 years. He tells us it took four weeks for him to first learn the balance needed to keep a mokoro upright.
“I learned from my friends when I was about 16, in an old wooden mokoro,” he says. “I know how to swim but we practiced in a shallow place, where you could stand up. I have broken my poles many times because I like a thin one – the weight is easier to work with over long distances.”
Does he ever lose his balance? “I fell in last week,” he says. “Sometimes your pole gets stuck in the muddy bottom and it drags you back.”
We push off from the island and glide across the still waters, Mutapula assuring me that the hippos mostly use the channels at night. The mokoro plunges into papyrus that towers high above my head, the way ahead lost in a bend of the channel.
The chirrup of birds, the buzz of flies, the splash of the pole as we surge and pause, surge and pause, becomes hypnotic. The sound of a pod of hippos bellowing their anger towards us quickly brings me out of this trance.