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The art of poling

THALEFANG CHARLES
PIC: THLEFANG CHARLES
In 2014, a celebrated media personality Laona Segaetsho sadly lost his life together with two others on a mokoro accident in Lake Ngami. After the tragic accident, the dugout canoe that has been the preferred mode of transport since mediaeval times by the people of the river, was shunned regarded as too dangerous.

Many people, especially from the south of the country, vowed to ‘never step on that thing’.

The little vessel that helped the Bayei to tame the Okavango Delta and travel its precarious waterways lost its glory.

Riding a mokoro was, ever since the accident, put in some imagined list of 100 ways to die in Botswana. But four years later, the ultimate vessel of the Delta has won back its glory and it is regarded as one of the most ultimate travel experiences in Botswana.

A few months after the 2014 accident, in the winter of 2015, Yours Truly led the first Cross Okavango Delta expedition from Seronga to Maun travelling by mekoro only. It was a 14-day ultimate Botswana adventure trip travelling through the hippos, crocodiles, elephants, lions and buffaloes of the Okavango wilderness. Back then, it was the ‘most dangerous thing’ and most people thought we were outright crazy to even attempt to be in a mokoro for more than 30 minutes. Our biggest secret that we banked on so much throughout the trip was the experience of the polers – their art of poling. To cross the Okavango Delta using mekoro, one needs only experienced polers who have advanced knowledge on these waterways and the use of nkashi – the pole used to drive the mokoro.

It takes special human navigators to cross the Okavango Delta because the waterways change due to seasonal flooding and the movements of tectonic plates.

The rivers within the Delta continuously die and birth other rivers, the hippos too through their special legs and unique movements always ‘construct’ new waterways that turn into rivers but with certain lifespan. The waters of the Okavango Delta continuously switch the flow patterns. So electronic GPS systems would get ‘lost’ because of the changing ways. Only ‘human GPS’ with advanced knowledge of poling are able to find their way through the delta.

I have had the privilege of travelling with some of the best polers who ever trekked these waterways. And I have realised that their advanced skill is more than just moving the little vessel through the precarious waterways. It is an art.

As young boys, growing up in the delta, whether it is from Jedibe in Jao Flats, Xaxaba, Seronga, Sepupa, or Xaraxau, they must learn how to pole a mokoro. Poling a mokoro is a life skill that every Okavango boy must master.

The art of poling involves knowing how to find the best branch of the Silver Terminalia tree (Mogonono in Setswana) to make one’s own personal nkashi that is fit for one’s height, swing strength and style. The polers say the pole was originally called ‘nkakashi’ but most polers nowadays have

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since adopted the shortened name of ‘nkashi’.

Nkashi is the steering tool, the brakes, the accelerator, and the first weapon in times of danger when driving a mokoro. It is therefore the most important tool in driving a mokoro.  In the Okavango Delta, the alpha males would be the ones that are expert polers. These are men that could venture into the river to hunt, fish and gather for their families. It is men that could safely travel from Seronga to Maun for trade in the shortest possible times.  These are men that could spot a hippo 100 metres away under the water. They could quietly navigate around the sleeping hippo without waking the beast. These are brave men that cross the lagoons with blot of hippos and are skilled enough to know how to outrun a mad hippo in the water.

Interestingly men from Jedibe in Jao Flats have this inborn skill of mastering the art of poling. Some of the Okavango world famous polers are Bayei men from Jao Flats. These are men like Seitsane ‘Sea Company’ Boitumelo also known as the ‘GPS of the Okavango’ because of his impressive navigation and Tomeletso ‘Water’ Setlabosha, now a film star with a leading role in the National Geographic’s Into The Okavango.

In 2015, National Geographic explorers teamed up with local polers during their audacious mokoro-based expedition from the source of the Cuito River on the Angola highlands throughout the entire river basin to where the water ends at Lake Xau near Mopipi. The polers included the Kgetho brothers, Gobonamang ‘GB’ Kgetho and Leilamang ‘Snaps’ Kgetho, and Thopo ‘Tom’ Retiyo all from Seronga. Still with their latest navigating technologies, the NatGeo scientists still relied on the natural knowledge of the old timers of the Okavango Delta when they needed to cross the area using mekoro.

That is why they usually employ an old timer Moshupa Sayuruku from Jao Flats to assist with the navigation. Sayuruku, who is popularly known as Comet by his protégés, is one of the last generations of the Bayei that know the Okavango Delta by heart.

Last week Sayuruku’s son, Nkeletsang ‘Ralph’ Moshupa won the inaugural mokoro race dubbed Nkashi Classic in Maun.

He has since been crowned the ‘Fastest Poler in the Okavango Delta’. But Moshupa shares other polers’ sentiments saying to bring out the best of the art of poling, the distance has to be a little bit longer.

The polers, especially from around the inside of the Okavango Delta enjoy the endurance of poling long distances. That is when they show off their natural skills of the art of poling.



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