Spending three days with our mokoro guides was an incredible way to learn about the local plants and how the local people live with the teeming life in the Okavongo Delta at their backdoor. Many people were forced to leave the islands where we camped and move to higher ground due to climate change causing more flooding, but they still fish and travel these waters daily. They made wonderful teachers, and I learned enough to have a fighting chance should I ever be stranded on an island in the middle of the great Okavongo Delta.
Demonstration on how to drink clean water through a waterlily stem
Don’t Camp Under the Sausage Tree.
Sandy, one of our mokoro pollers during our two days bush camping in the Okavango Delta is holding a footlong seed pod from the tree behind us, aptly called a sausage tree. The “don’t camp under this tree” seems obvious when we feel the solid weight of that pod – it would punch through any tent top. The pod looks like an enormous narrow sweet potato. The tree trunk is used to make a very good mokoro. The inside of these pods are spongy and can be soaked and used for washing. In traditional medicine, women who aren’t producing enough milk will have their breasts cut and juice from the pod put into the cuts and blood from her breasts put into the pods. This is the traditional remedy. I think if nothing else the breast would weep for mercy.
Avoid open water while in the mokoro if at all possible
As I was getting slapped in the face by reeds and plants scooting along through the thick plants in our little Mokoro, I wondered why we were in the reeds instead of the perfectly open reed-free water nearby.
We learned after we were back and done with mokoro travel that we kept to the weeds because hippos are more likely to attack mokoros in open water. They attack when they feel threatened, and are very territorial. They run on the river floor under water and can come up under the mokoros and tip them over, then bite with their huge mouths and big tusks. The crocodiles come in for the clean up. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other creature – especially fishermen in mokoros who like to cast nets near hippo pods because the hippo poop attracts more fish.
So when we turned through the reeds in our mokoro this was one of those safety moves we didn’t fully appreciate at the time while dodging plants. But there is no way I want to run into a grumpy hippo in that tiny little boat, thank you very much. And I also expect we stopped and backed up more than once to avoid hippos on our three-day mokoro journey.
Shine your light out the tent and look first … before getting out of your tent at night.
Hippos like to come onto land to graze on grass at night. Their skin is very sensitive to sun – which is why they stay under water all day and come on land after dark. But the cardinal rule is to never get between a hippo and water … and if there is a big animal outside the tent, stay in the tent and be quiet till it wanders off. And don’t keep fruit in the tent … elephants really like fruit. Especially oranges.
Termite Mounds Point East
In case we are ever lost … and honestly I don’t know how those mokoro pollers can navigate all those channels and islands and not stay lost … we learned that the big mud mounds that termites call home inevitably lean towards the east. The reason is the prevailing winds from the west shift the dirt mounded by the termites slightly, causing the tips of these mounds to lean slightly east.
Local people use the mud from termite mounds to build their houses – traditionally round homes with cane walls that are packed with mud and a thatch roof.
If you are hungry, eat a termite
We also learned that of the five different types of termites living in the mound, the winged termite is very tasty and high in protein. To catch termites, you must wait till the wet season. Then dig a deep hole approximately five meters from the termite mound. After dark put a light in the bottom of the hole. The winged termites fly out of the nest and into the hold. Then scoop up as many and you need to fill your container. Every villager going out to get termites must pick their own mound, and do all the prep work and hole digging themselves. I got the sense this was a bit of a competition.
To prepare your termites, take them home and fry them up. They are excellent just like that. Or, you can add a little water and grind them into a paste – somewhat like a Botswanan peanut butter. Very delicious we were told, and it will keep for a year as long as no water is added.
Elephant poop is an excellent fire-starter
Elephants eat a lot. Entire trees, swaths of water grasses … they use their tusks to tear the bark off the massive BauBau trees until there are enormous holes in the tree trunk. They are big destructive eating machines.
They also poop a lot because they only digest 40 percent of what they consume, and this results in enormous mounds of elephant excrement everywhere. Baboons and other creatures like to pick through the elephant poo because they find all kinds of nutritious food that the elephant left behind … kind of like a baboon smorgasbord.
But the dried-out, partially digested grass in old elephant poop – particularly after it has been picked over by a baboon to just leave the undigested plant roughage- makes the perfect tender for a fire. Any campfire will start easily with a spark and some properly seasoned excrement.
All the comforts of home
In case you tear your clothes, a makeshift needle can be made from the 2 inch thorn of the acacia tree. The frond of the ilala palm tree makes excellent thread.
Ilala means dreamy. And the ilala palm is called that because it can be made into the local alcohol. And offering ilala beer to your buddies is an excellent way to get them to help you cut down a sausage tree and make a mokoro.
The stem of the water lily makes a perfect straw to suck up clean water without tipping over you mokoro while kneeling to drink.
And, last but never least, the leaves of the sage plant make a soft and perfectly biodegradable toilet paper.