Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Okavango Delta - Inspiration and Motivation

click on them to enlarge the photos

Driving through the floodwaters with a bad clutch to the place we will leave the Hog and start our transfer to Nguma Island Lodge in the Okavango Delta.

Loading up the canoes and boats for our first transfer. We then unloaded onto one of the lodge's trucks, drove about four miles, then loaded everything back onto more Mokoros for the final leg to the camp.

Martin and Carl's first-ever time on a Mokoro, Carl's shirt reads: "The Kalamari Dessert" in spray paint.

Into the Delta.

The Okavango Delta is a symbol of the types of problems and successes facing the future of the proposed Kavango/Zambezi (KAZA) transfrontier peace park. This vast area is one of the largest inland deltas in the world, the largest swamp in the southerm hemisphere, and the numbers help tell the story. The Okavango Delta fluctuates between 6, 000 to 8,000 square kilometers during the dry season, swelling to 15,850 square kms during the flood, which is happening now.

The Kavango River flows from the Angolan highlands 1100 kilometers away, then through Namibia and out onto Botswana’s Kalahari Desert in a huge alluvial fan. It never reaches the sea, but languishes in the hot dry air creating an unique habitat for an amazing array of birds, plants and wildlife. There are 150,000 little islands dotting the Delta, which get bigger or smaller depending on the time of the season.

Only a small part of the Delta is actually protected by a designated National Park. Moremi National Park is in the central northeast of the Delta, and with Chobe National Park to the west, covers about a third of the Delta’s area. The rest is not totally unprotected, but maintained by a community concession type of system that allows mixed use of the land, isles and wildlife. Some of these activities include hunting, fishing, and even wood cutting.

Our last transfer to Nguma Island and the first time we meet Max, left, who became our guide and dear friend over the next five days.

The future of the Delta is in doubt. These are desert countries, and this is a lot of water. There have been many plans to divert or utilize the flow of the Kavango River which would dramatically change the nature of this dynamic system. One of the reasons behind the creation of the KAZA is to protect this ecosystem, and make it work for the communities that live along side of it. That means that community concessions must play a vital role in protecting it, probably a bigger role than they are playing now.

Our trip combines elements of community conservation systems, private lodges, and local people who will guide us through this fascinating place.

Nookie and Jeff Randall started Nguma Island Lodge years ago in the upper northwestern part of the Delta, near the town of Gumare. They bring in tourists during the high water season with a series of boat and truck transfers that really create a feeling of isolation. Their gorgeous lodge rests on the edge of Nguma lagoon, and they cater for tourists of all sorts, even campers like us.

They also enjoy a successful public-private partnership with the local Jakotsha Community Trust, who run the NG 24 Concession in this part of the Okavango Delta. The polers they employ all come from the local community, and far from being simple men who push a boat, these guides are encyclopedias of knowledge about the animals, plants and issues affecting the Delta.

Geoff, Nookie’s husband sadly passed away a few years ago, but some of the projects he started live on. An avid outdoors-man with a love for nature, he saw that increased tourism for the Delta was difficult for one very obvious and important reason. The boats, called mokoros, that people use to get around in the thick reeds are long, and thin, and traditionally made from big hardwood trees.

The delta is a swamp dotted with islands, and on these islands are a limited number of trees, but the number of tourists wanting to see the Delta is increasing exponentially. So the people of the communities were cutting down old trees that anchored the islands in the shifting waters, and using them to make boats that lasted about three years. This was clearly unsustainable, and after many attempts to get government oversight onto the problem, Randall and his team of local guides had an epiphany, why not make replica boats out of fibreglass?

And so began a period of experimentation in making makoros that look and feel like wood, but are lighter, stronger, and far more durable that the wooden ones that were made traditionally. His final product is a masterpiece of innovation and appropriate technology that has changed the face of transport in the Okavango Delta, and probably saved thousands of vital trees. Their lifespan is unlimited, since they can be fixed simply, and they are perfectly water-tight, so the bums of high-dollar tourists don’t get damp while out on a makoro safari. They are easier to pole as well and can carry a much higher payload, with a minimum of effort.

Before my readers start to talk about the environmental impact of using polymer and glass-based fibre systems, keep in mind that two well-ventilated and well maintained shops can and did supply virtually the whole Delta with these mokoros, and if Nookie has her way, they will again. Geoff fixed any fiberglass mokoro for free if someone brought one in, essentially guaranteeing them for life.

Matshelo (Max) Thokabotshabelo has been poling the waters of the Okavango since he could walk. He and all the other polers I spoke to agreed that Geoff Randall’s mokoros are the most sought after things in the Delta. Sometimes their own boats are even stolen the demand for them is so high. Standing under a gorgeous Jackleberry tree, Max maintained that without Geoff’s boats, trees like this would be a thing of the past, “The people would have taken down this tree years ago if it wasn’t for Geoff and Nookie, everyone now wants a fibreglass Mokoro, and that is good for our trees”.

It is a rare look at a can-do project in Africa that works, and something that the KAZA program coordinators should look at for inspiration.

Our bushcamp, with the tent where I wrote the journal entry at the end of this story in the middle of the frame behind Carl and Martin.

We woke up this morning on Nguma island in our little bush camp near the main lodge, The guys are outside my tent getting our things packed and ready to board a boat with three of Geoff’s fiberglass canoes on it. We will get transferred into the northern part of the Delta for a three day trip with the local community guides from the Jakotsha Trust. Hopefully we will get out there, wont get stung by any more bees, and come back with a pile a memories and new experiences. The birds are singing a loud dawn chorus and I am excited about everything. It is days like this that make doing this job ever-so worth it. Nothing to worry about except the nature around us, where we will camp, whether we have enough food, how our beer supplies are doing. This is the basics, the things humanity evolved worrying about. Far from cellphones, unit trusts, bills and everything that makes us forget that we are just animals living on borrowed time, on a borrowed land.

Sunset over Nguma Lagoon from our bushcamp near Nookie and Geoff Randall's Nguma Island Lodge.


  1. chriskuehl@hotmail.comMay 19, 2011 at 3:54 AM

    Nice storry

  2. Anybody have a idea where i can purchase one of these Mokoros for myself? e-mail me at : plz