Okavango Expedition 2013: Beyond the People’s Delta

In the words of Aldo Leopold: “Wilderness is a resource that can shrink, but not grow… the creation of wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible”.

As we travel deeper into the Okavango Delta you cannot help but feel that you are going deeper into the wilderness. The number of birds in the survey is increasing every day and the first elephant, lechwe and sitatunga have been sighted.

We have four baYei polers with us – men of the delta. We have not seen people since Jedibe, the only village in the Okavango Delta and home of the baYei. This small community arrived as hippo hunters from the Zambezi region in the late 1700s. They brought with them a new technology, the “mokoro”, and became the first people to go into the central Okavango Delta. Their mokoros are now made from fibreglass to conserve large hardwoods like the sausage tree. They teach us how to survive in this wilderness.

A baYei mother and child in a mokoro
A baYei mother and child in a mokoro

The baYei survive, whether it be by pay or subsistence, from their Mother, Okavango. Many people would see Jedibe Village, the only village with only baYei, and would want to help them out of this “poverty”. Yes, there are some amazing modern technologies that could help them, but their current way of life has protected the Okavango Delta for almost 250 years. Would they notice if modern society crumbled? No. Do we have something to learn from them? Yes.

From Paul Steyn’s expedition diary:

The water was completely clear, the current was with us and there was no wind, so I stood up to give the subtle art off polling a try.

I’d been watching GB poll for the last two days and taken in most of the theory. He stands at the back of the mokoro and uses his arms to thrust the poll skywards. He then lets it drop through his hands into the water, and once touching the ground, leans down on the poll with all his weight. The mokoro surges forward and with two movements he pulls the poll back into position, only to repeat the motion again.

I was unstable to begin with. Like a drunk under sober pretense. The mokoro was heavy and full of equipment and the last thing I wanted was to upset the boat and embarrass myself in front of the pollers.

Once I got over the initial tipsiness, I began to replicate GB’s movements. I was surprised how naturally it came. Mokoroing is the perfect way to move around the delta. Sitting high up on the water, the fibre-glass hull ploughed through papyrus and eased over sand banks like a dream.

Standing in the mokoro as it moves is a bit like operating a magic carpet. The water is so clear that it literally feels like you are flying a few meters above the ground.

Learning to poll from the masters
Learning to poll from the masters

“You must lean forward,” GB pointed out. “Bend your legs… up and down. Bend you body to steer.”

My two hour mokoro session was nothing compared to the 240 years the Bayei have been perfecting the art of polling. This is their transport system. And as we make our way deeper into the wilderness, further and further from the people of the delta, we appreciate their prized knowledge all the more.

For more updates from Paul Steyn’s diary, follow their progress on twitter (@paulsteyn1)

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  1. Tlhokomelang Boemelwang
    October 5, 2013, 9:13 am

    Eish that was nice guyz i lyk it n c u whn u c me thx

  2. Belinda
    Cape Town South Africa
    September 11, 2013, 12:12 pm

    A great post – Steve your knowledge of the Delta is huge and Paul’s writing reflects his simple and authentic style and good powers of observation. Paul please use the English spelling of the word pole or poling and not poll which means opinion or vote or can mean to cut off the top of a tree or plant.

  3. Robbie Cameron
    September 11, 2013, 3:58 am

    Great to be able to follow you guys! Best of luck Robbie