Magazine article The Spectator

A Watery Wilderness

Magazine article The Spectator

A Watery Wilderness

Article excerpt

There is a distinct nip in the air as I slide quietly from the riverbank into the water. November may be the start of Botswana's summer, but in the early morning a fleece is still an essential item of clothing. The hippo have finished their nightly wanderings, returning along the 'hippo highway' to their watery abodes. The birds have just woken up, stretching and warming their wings in the sunlight. Their squawks and occasional warning calls mingle with the rustling of the grasses and reeds and the gentle slap of the water against the sides of my canoe.

The Gomoti River is at the very edge of Botswana's Okavango Delta. Heavy rains in the Angolan Highlands take six months to filter down here, but when they do, they cause the river to flood and fill a criss-cross of seasonal waterways. These channels remain wet throughout even the driest of months, supporting lush yellow-green grasses and the wealth of wildlife feasting upon them. Solid ground turns to boggy marshes, hillocks become islands, and deciduous forest gives way to lagoon. A pool might only be knee-deep, or it could submerge an entire pod of hippo. You'll never know if you just stay standing on the shore.

The people of the delta are just as at ease on the water as on the land. Like the guide on a Cambridge punt tour, my poler makes propelling our canoe appear effortless. He stands and poles from the back, keeps it balanced, and talks at a scarcely audible level so as not to disturb the peace. The canoe is a mokoro, a long, slim canoe traditionally carved from the thick trunk of a sausage tree. But this one is a fibreglass model: Botswana's government promotes environmental sustainability, and expects the tourism sector to do its bit.

I'm floating along almost level with the water lilies, which are brilliant white or lilac but with a bright yellow centre. From so low in the water, my perspective is completely different to when walking or driving: the grasses loom above my head, and the cloud-streaked sky seems endless.

The mokoro moves at little more than a walking pace. I'm transfixed by the water boatmen, their four legs shooting back and forth like oars, and by the brrrrr-ing of an insect I can't even see. No doubt it will make a tasty morsel for an African skimmer or one of the numerous other waterbirds. …

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