Search for Okavango's fastest poler begins

Ready to rumble: Polers from Gudigwa
Ready to rumble: Polers from Gudigwa

Riding mokoro is regarded as Botswana’s ultimate adventure experience, even though some people argue that the mokoro experience is one of those poor activities that are romanticised by the West. What is certain is that mokoro is a crucial mode of transport that has been used by the people of Ngamiland for ages and it is the ultimate vessel that helps in the protection of the magic that is Okavango Delta.

Botswana Wild Bird Trust (BWBT), an organisation that has been using mokoro and advocating for the protection of the entire Okavango River Basin using mokoro this week began their big search for Okavango Delta’s fastest mokoro poler through the Nkashi Classic Mokoro race.

BWBT managing director, Koketso Mookodi said: “The spirit of the race is a celebration of the vital flood waters which flow unimpeded from the highlands of Angola, through Namibia and into the Okavango Delta where they become an oasis for wildlife like no other on the planet. It also celebrates the community and the power which it holds to affect positive change for future generations.” According to Mookodi, the event is non-profit and is aimed at celebrating the traditional means of transport around the Okavango waterways using a mekoro and the nkashi. Nkashi is the stick used to pole mokoro. The event also endeavours to build awareness amongst the local community and tourism sector of the vital role that the mekoro and the polers have in promoting tourism and business in the area. The organisers plan to hold the heats covering the Okavango Eastern Panhandle, including the villages of Seronga, Beetsha, Eretsha, Gonotsoga and Gudigwa, as well as Central Okavango that includes villages of Etsha 1 to 13 and Jedibe in Jao Flats.

The final will be on the Southern Okavango covering Xaxaba, Daonara, Boro, Tshutshubega and Maun.

The top 10 contestants from these areas will travel to Maun for the main event that is scheduled to be held on August 21.

Since the inaugural Nkashi Classic that was held in Thamalakane River in Maun, the people of the Okavango, from Gudigwa to Mohembo and Maun, have been waiting to take away the crown from Nkeletsang ‘Ralph’ Moshupa.

In 2018, Moshupa from Jao Flats inside the Okavango Delta was crowned the ‘Okavango Delta’s fastest poler’ after winning the inaugural Nkashi Classic Mokoro race.

The following year, Thamakalane River was dry as a bone due to the low water levels, so the BWBT was unable to host the race, and instead hosted a Science, Community and Conservation event in Maun, focussing on themes such as the Okavango Delta, water, and climate change.

In 2020, the Thamalakane River received a big flood but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the event being cancelled, to the disappointment of the people of the Delta.

This year, even though the Okavango Delta has less water than the last season, the Thamalakane River has received lots of water after last season’s plentiful rains. And it is time ‘ya ja nkashi’ as they say in the Okavango.

So this week at Mbiroba in Seronga, BWBT kickstarted the Nkashi Classic with the heats of the communities on the Okavango Eastern Panhandle. Restricted by COVID-19 protocols, the heats were held without crowds and the contestants were limited to 15 from each village. Mookodi said the event is experiencing challenges as communities, after months of shows, or any activity in their remote villages, want to watch the heats.

On Monday, eight men from the village of Gudigwa travelled to Seronga for the first heats of the Nkashi Classic.

Although Gudigwa is not regarded as a big poling community because they are not located next to a big river and sometimes the flood does not reach their area, the contestants demonstrated that they are the river natives as they clocked respectful times in the trials.

The people of Seronga, who regard themselves as the best polers because they are located next to a big ever-flowing river, are confident that the next fastest poler will be a Seronga native.

But there is also Jedibe village, which is an island inside the Okavango Delta. Natives there say it was not by luck or accident that it produced the first Nkashi champion.

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