It's late August, seven o'clock in the morning. I am standing on the bank of the Thamalakane River, ten kilometers upstream from Maun, waiting for my captain to pick me up in a ten-foot punt. A Blacksmith Plover is making a fair racket, hopping and flying around. At night, watchdogs use them as an early warning system for strangers approaching. They make a pinging sound like a blacksmith at work. I hear the putt-putt of our 20hp engine approaching and ready myself to board. Heading toward the hippo pool, we wave at a mother and daughter fishing from the shore. We have seen these fishers before, out for much of the day, catching fish for their family. Entering the hippo pool, we slow down and prepare to go through the main pipe. Heads bowed, we go under the "old bridge" -- the first bridge built in these parts.
Making our way upstream, we are treated to herons, cranes, and ducks, busy with their morning activities. Soon we pass Crocodile Camp and Okavango River Lodge, which have breakfast guests of their own. Another kilometer on and we swing to port and start up the Boro River, toward Moremi Game Reserve, a vast wildlife management area established in 1963. It covers over 4,800 square kilometers, or 20 percent of the Okavango Delta. You enter an unspoiled region of mopane woodlands, acacia forests, floodplains, rivers, and lagoons. Moremi is one of the most beautiful wildlife reserves in Africa. If you plan to visit, come during the dry season from June to November.
Buffalo Fence marks the entry into Moremi and the end of domesticated animals. We travel the ten kilometers to the fence without incident. The annual flood waters from Angola are still causing the river to rise, overflowing its banks in parts.
Slowing down, we pass through Buffalo Fence, where tourists are embarking on an overnight mokoro trip. The polers and guides are Bayei, the traditional tribe of the river who arrived in the area during the 1850s. A mokoro outing offers plenty of time to reflect, ask your guide about the plants and animals you see, and discuss local culture. Many of the guides are interesting storytellers and are used to fielding a wide range of questions.
As we pass them by, I stare in awe at the distant plains, palms, and mopani trees. I can feel my spirit fill and lift. I am now as close to the gates of Eden as I expect to get to in my life.
Later in the morning, I am giving the captain a rest and navigating through a narrow channel. Unknown to us, we have disturbed a hippo that had made its way out of the water to graze behind bushes along the shore. Our boat passes the hippo just before it charges us.
It is a young bull, charging at the speed we are motoring. The hippo is above us, running downhill into the narrow stream, three or four meters away. My last vision is a large swell preceding the surging mass of the hippo as it runs after us and into the river. We hold on tight, and after a pregnant pause and no further commotion, breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Soon we find a shoreline with mopane trees for shade. After starting a fire for our marinated ribs, it is time to stretch our legs and have a look around. We inspect some damaged trees. Much of the lower bark is gone. Elephants have been here for their lunch. When we return to camp, the fire is ready for our grate full of ribs. We eat, take a short rest from the midday heat, clean up, and continue our search for Naraka Lagoon.
With the floodwater so high, the lagoon is almost 400 meters across. Motoring into the lagoon we are met by three hippos surfacing, snorting aggressively, and submerging. Circling the lagoon, more hippos rise to greet us. After our narrow morning escape, we don't want to push our luck. Fishing can wait for another day. Sightseeing becomes our priority.
The return trip is more leisurely. We adapt to the rhythm and meandering of the inland delta. The highlight of the trip home is a herd of elephants coming down for an afternoon drink and bath.
Elephants travel long, dusty distances with dogged determination. Their skill of smelling water from far away is legendary. If you want to see elephants in a state of pure joy, watch them enter a river. We turned off the engine and floated downstream. The closer the elephants get to the river, the faster they move. They raise and lower their heads -- tusks and noses bob with excitement. They do not test the water before plunging in. The babies are the last to enter the water because some of them stumble, not experienced enough to know how their trunks work.
Thirty minutes later, the elephants are returning to where they came from, and we proceed on our way home. Ducks, cormorants, and geese entertain us in the late afternoon, flying beside and in front of our punt, testing their speed and maneuverability against the 20hp engine. We make one last short stop and watch some jacana, the African lily runner, move over lily pads and through dense river grasses. With the softening light of the setting sun, they provide one last inspirational sighting of our trip into paradise.
We motor along in darkness. The captain carefully guides us under the two bridges that lead us home, where we tie up, unpack, and make our way up the riverbank to prepare supper. After dinner, we sit back and reflect on the exceptional day we had inside the gates of Eden.