An African Photo Safari Highlight; Mokoro Magic
Photographer David Harrison shares his experience of a mokoro trip in Botswana’s Okavango Delta
Botswana is undoubtably one of the premium destinations for an African photo safari. With its wealth of wildlife, its vast variety of mind-blowing landscapes, and its relative exclusivity, the country is wildlife photography heaven. When photographer David Harrison joined us there, he found that there was one particular morning that stood out most.
– Text and images by David Harrison
Early mornings are usual on an African photo safari; but this morning was very different. After coffee and breakfast, we set off for the delta waterways in the Khwai Concession for an altogether new safari experience. Excitement was in the air. We were heading for a mokoro (Botswanan canoe) safari along the Okavango Delta.
Having researched mokoros before my trip I discovered they were traditionally made by hollowing out large trees and were used for fishing and hunting. However, in a bid to conserve the larger trees in the delta, mokoro are now more often made from fibre-glass. Not so traditional, but I for one am pleased nature is being given due consideration.
When we arrived at our destination there was a hippo pool (with hippos) and several water channels leading into the bush. The mokoro was a fibre-glass variant with a small plastic seat in the centre (not fixed!). At two meters tall I was given the solo mokoro with room for my legs, whilst the others travelled in pairs.
I must admit to my trepidation at getting into a narrow flat-bottomed ‘canoe’ with a lot of expensive gear. Particularly as it easily rocked from side to side; I very quickly found my balance though! My guide stood at the back of the mokoro and used a long pole to propel the craft along the water (much like punting in Cambridge or Venice). Very efficiently too.
Morning Sunrise on the Okavango Delta
The water was still, calm and beautiful as the morning sun continued to rise. As we set off, we were greeted with the most spectacular sight – a herd of elephants coming to the water to drink. And together with an African fish eagle chorus in the background the mokoro magic begun.
Although slightly unnerving being on the water so close to such a large herd of giants our guides knew exactly what they were doing and had obviously encountered this on many occasions. Carefully reversing into the reeds at the edge of the waterway we lined up to watch the elephants. They paid us no more than a cursory glance as they got on with their day.
Below Eye Level
One of the most significant things about a safari in a mokoro is that you are very low, literally sitting on top of the water. This affords the most spectacular view of everything around you. I got on with capturing the scene with silent excitement – as a wildlife photographer you dream of being below eye level with elephants a matter of meters away. A 70-200mm lens was the maximum required!
The reeds, grasses and water lilies also look extra special viewed at this angle and the sunlight through the trees made it a real treat.
Once we were given our right of way by the elephants, we set off along the channel, effortlessly gliding across the water (well, for me anyway). So calm and peaceful with the occasional pied kingfisher disturbing the tranquillity as it dived into the water. There were other birds too like the African jacana delicately moving across the floating vegetation and, of course, the continuation of fish eagle calls, so typical of the waterways of Botswana.
A stop for coffee was a welcome opportunity to stretch my legs and remove a couple of layers. By now the sun was much higher and a lot hotter. One of the things I hadn’t appreciated about Botswana in August was the very low night time temperature and the equally hot daytime. Going from zero to the 30’s!
After our break we headed back to our start point, which gave us another encounter with an elephant herd. It’s difficult to explain the just how amazing the experience was, but the images I’ve included may help in some way. The peace and tranquillity of skimming along the water with no engine noise and no vehicles makes this a truly unique experience.
If you ever get a chance to do a mokoro trip during an African photo safari, do yourself a favour and get to the front of the queue – you won’t regret it!
David Harrison, wildlife photographer
UK Instagram: @davidharrisonphoto