“Run Stacey, run”, Maria screams in my ear as we jump out of the mokorro. We grab our bags and with our spouses in tow follow the polers in front of us to higher ground jumping over trees that block in the hippo pool.
My husband and I were on a gAdventures trip in southern Africa. After traveling from Capetown up the Skeleton coast through Namibia, we arrive in Maun, Botswana and are spending two nights in the Okavanga Delta. Our trucks stop at the water’s edge and we hop out. At the Delta Station, much different than the likes of Penn or Paddington, we meet our transport that will take us on our journey into the delta. Local transporters are known as polers. These men and women stand at the back of the mokorro (boats that come from hollowed out trees-although there are now some of fiberglass) and use a very long pole to literally push the boat through the delta.
With the hard work of Samuel, our poler, we reach our destination in just over an hour. The ride takes us through reeds, riverbeds and many water lilies saturated with the ever-present African flies! We have on our long pants, long sleeves, hat, sunscreen and bug spray and clasp our constant supply of water as this journey is in the direct sunshine.
We aren’t just passengers in this mokorro. When the water level is too low, it takes all of us to keep the boat from dredging. Strategic maneuvers are often implemented since every reed that Mathew can block snaps back as he passes by and then hits me. After awhile I learn to scoot down really low so some of the reeds pass over my face. I keep my arms in front of me to push the rest away all the while keeping my sunglasses on and my hat pulled down to lessen the amount of reeds smacking me in the face…whatever works, right?
We have three days living among nature in the environs of the Okavanga Delta. We set up camp, dig our toilet, cook over an open fire and are gifted with incredible sunsets, astounding wildlife and Ouma buttermilk rusks that when dunked just right into a cup of tea make the morning that much more perfect.
On our last evening in the Delta, we take a sunset cruise and a get a chance to see hippos in their natural habitat. We find hundreds of birds, a sky filled of multiple hues and a family of hippos on their way to wherever it is they go. Sitting in the hippo pool, one swimmer allows us to get close enough in our mokorro for great photos. He is the most dangerous animal in all of Africa and we are sitting just feet away from his wide, strong jaw. Amidst many camera clicks, my heart beats loudly.
His mate, the next hippo to pass by isn’t as agreeable. As we get close, some ‘tourist’ in a mokorro not far from ours snaps a picture with a flash and the hippo loses it. She gets angrier and more frustrated by the minute. Most of the mokorros in our group make it safely through the weeds that separate the hippo pool from open water; but two boats are stuck with a thrashing hippo charging straight for our hollowed out vessel.
This is not just my mother being worried about me traveling to far off places; when the polers freak, you know it’s real. With panic-stricken faces they paddle to the edge as fast as they can and frantically gesture to us to get out of the water. “Follow me and run-run, fast” Samuel said, and we do as we are told. Maria’s Portuguese accent behind me repeatedly bellows, “Run Stacey, run” as we leap over fallen trees and dodge droppings of elephant dung. As they keep running, the polers look back and shout, “If she comes on land, we have to climb a high tree”! Now I’m really rattled!
We run until Samuel tells us to jump back in the mokorro. We’ve reached a point where they think we are all safe and past where our deadly stalker is able to break onto land and charge. We fling ourselves over the edge of the mokorros and Samuel and his mate pole as fast as their arms can carry us. Through the darkness they stealthily maneuver to find their way threw the deep brush and get us back to land-safe and sound!
Shaking with adrenaline we all make our way back to camp to retell our harrowing tale. After sharing dinner and introducing s’mores to our poler saviors, we finally stop shaking and realize that this is one of those stories we will wait to share with our parents when standing in front of them so they can count all of our fingers and toes. According to the polers, it actually makes sense that the momma hippo rushed at us. They believe there was a baby just next to her and as so many know; there’s nothing more ferocious than a mother protecting her young.
The Okavanga Delta is just one of the many brilliant gifts we were given on this African journey. There is wildlife, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, landscapes that make you sit up and take notice and a chance to commune with nature as a humble guest. We used a ‘bush toilet’, Mathew practiced being a ‘poler’, we hiked past elephant bones and really listened to what the Delta had to teach. A few days of bush camping in the Delta are definitely worth the stink that all of us have been covering with baby wipes and powder. If you are lucky enough to visit, please remember the following three rules: take out whatever you bring in, never use your flash in a hippo pool, and if that hippo comes on land run as fast as you can and head up the highest tree you can find.