Botswana: Dangers in the deep

The hippo is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Photo / Thinkstock
The hippo is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Photo / Thinkstock

Lightning flashes across the dark sky. Thunder reverberates throughout the Okavango Delta.

I sit - cold, wet, scared.

The rain is unrelenting. Clothes are heavy, sticking to thighs, stomachs and backs. The reeds become thick; the passageway narrow. Hands and forearms are held high to protect eyes against the thwacking of the reeds. Cargo shorts are spread with streaks of khaki moss. Flying ants splatter my rain jacket.

We zigzag into the shoots of lime green vegetation. The bow of the mokoro - a traditional wooden canoe - pushes through the plants before Victor, my poler, corrects his course.

Victor steers the mokoro by standing at the back and pushing a wooden pole against the banks of the delta.

His movements are often shaky but he is strong and young.

We pass lilypad flowers that add beauty to this vast waterway in northern Botswana.

They're white and mauve with yellow centres, and are as large as dinner plates. The mokoro flips the pads like pancakes as it hits them, revealing underbellies that are rhubarb red.

The rain continues, soaking through to my underwear.

The tips of my fingers trail outside the mokoro, dipping below the surface into the warm water. It's a contrast to the chill in my body.

Victor, a lithe 30-year-old, talks to me but I can't understand his words - the raindrops crinkling the poncho hood covering my ears.

The mokoro sidles up to a thick clump of reeds protruding from the tannin-coloured waters. They are no barrier, however, to the monster in front of us.

"Here hippo," I softly hear Victor say.

"There's a hippo?" I ask, unsure of my ears.

"Yes, just one. In here."

"Where?"

"I'm not sure. I am looking."

Then we see it. It's huge.

I sit still and Victor stops talking. It knows we're here. It's looking directly at us. Half of its head is above water, revealing its enormity. It's beautiful but all I can think about is its girth and strength.

The hippo is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. I'm later told they kill more people than any other animal across the continent.

Male hippos weigh an average 1200kg, while females weigh about 900kg. They can launch themselves at prey, or tourists intruding into their pools, a distance of 100 metres.

It's no comfort then that polers venture within 50 metres of the aggressive creatures. It's the accepted distance among locals, but is disconcerting as I sit in front of the animals. It feels much closer.

It knows we're here, too. It watches with intent eyes, flittering its ears as it listens for movement.

Dragonflies buzz about, refusing to sit still for long.

The rain continues to send rings rippling across the brown water's surface. It's rainy season so being stuck in a monsoon in the Okavango makes perfect sense. It all makes sense, except for the distance between this delta hippo and the intruder - me.

We wait. For what, I don't know. For the hippo to move closer? I hope not.

"Victor, it's time to go," I say.

He may be comfortable here, in a tiny tributary of the world's largest inland delta, but I am not.

Adult hippos can stay underwater for six minutes and before they attack they pinpoint their prey, dive under and make a beeline.

Of course, if you have a quick poler you can move out of the way in time but it's the waiting for the hippo's head to reappear that's the nerve-racking part. And the fact that a hippo is intent on removing you from its home.

With this in mind, Victor zips us away from the creature in front of us. We're not keen to tempt fate.

Within a minute we're back among the relative safety of the narrow waterways of the Okavango, away from the open pools where hippos spend their days.

It is then that Victor reveals we'd encountered a large male and that his pool is a well-known "hippo hole".

It's one of those pieces of information you're glad you didn't know beforehand. Yet knowing it afterwards leaves you staring at every "hippo hole" you pass, convinced there's a mammoth creature waiting to charge.

Welcome to the Okavango Delta.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The Okavango Delta is in northern Botswana, which is in the south of Africa. Botswana's airports are in Gaborone, Francistown, Maun and Kasane. Intrepid Travel's Okavango Experience tour starts in Johannesburg and ends in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

STAYING THERE: Okavango Experience is a Basix tour, meaning budget accommodation (in this case, primarily camping) and optional activities. The tour is nine days and costs approximately A$1306 (conditions apply). For departure dates and details visit intrepidtravel.com.

PLAYING THERE: The currency in Botswana is the Pula (BWP) but US dollars can readily be changed at exchange bureaus and there are ATMs in larger towns. Currently, A$1 buys 8.49 BWP. Australian citizens do not need a visa to visit Botswana as a tourist for up to 90 days.


The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

- AAP

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