Floating papyrus greets us early morning as we navigate to a small island where mokoros are waiting. We are truly off the beaten path- the islands we are exploring cannot be found on a map. I get into my mokoro- a hollowed out boat with a puller standing in the back, pushing the boat through the flooded delta with a stick. We push off into the flooded grass, pushing reeds out of the way. I sit in the bottom of the boat, almost level with the still waters, dodging the papyrus puffs that threaten to hit my face, my arms parting the grass as the boat pushes through.
We come upon the grunts and splashing of a thirsty hippo, completely submerged in the deep open water, only the head is visible. I sit still in the water watching one of the most dangerous animals in Africa noisily drink. It’s head lifts suddenly as it becomes aware of our presence- we watch it and it watches us. A mokoro pulls into the open water near the hippo and it lunges for the boat with a grunt, mouth open. The puller reacts quickly and pushes the boat into the tall grass before the hippo attacks. The hippo retreats and continues to enjoy the refuge that cool waters provide from the hot sun.
We track a group of elephants, pulling our mokoros into an island, moving in silence to catch a glimpse of the wild animals. We stumble upon the remains of a hippo, a termite mound taller than me, and a huge sage bush as we crunch through the dry grass of the island. The island was inhabited until 1995 when a Tse Tse fly epidemic prompted the government to spray the islands with toxic chemicals, killing the insects and forcing the local people out. Our guide was one of those people, who now visits what remains of his old home with curious tourists.
The sun is beating down on us as we navigate the floating islands, we float wobbly (mokoros are not very stable) through the grass in our boats. The heat is slightly nauseating, I’ve never been so grateful for clouds, shade, and a breeze. A baby frog jumps in our boat and takes a ride with us, sitting between my feet, looking up a me with beady frog eyes. It jumps out and a spider takes its place, quickly making a web on my boot. The blinding sun sets over the black trees of Okavango as we prepare to leave our secluded habitat the next morning.
I’m walking in complete blackness, I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I’m supposed to be following the person in front of me, but my eyes search for something and find nothing. I stumble ahead, listening to for footsteps as a guide for where to go- instead I hear the clumsy grunting of a hippo somewhere in the darkness. A hippo grazes outside our camp, blocking our path, and we must sneak past it to go to bed. We stand in the darkness for hours, watching the outline of the massive creature eating, waiting for the opportune moment to pass by without disturbing snack time. Finally, we sneak by the light of the stars to the safety of our tents and fall sleep to a hippo splashing in the water freely, no more than 10 feet from the comfort of our canvas protection.