Zambezi Rider: Southern Africa’s Original Dugout Canoe

No 17

Call it southern Africa's answer to the Venetian gondola. The narrow, flat-bottomed canoe known as a makoro is the signature mode of transport in Botswana's Okavango Delta, where it is used by safari guides and hunters alike to ply the shallow tributaries.

Hewn out of a single tree trunk, a makoro takes great poise to pilot and several weeks to build. The Bayei (bye-AY) people introduced these tipsy boats in the Okavango Delta in the 18th century and taught the indigenous bushmen the fine art of steering them. For many years, building a family makoro was a young man's rite of passage. In recent decades, with these boats being used more and more for tourism, longer-lasting fiberglass versions have replaced the traditional wooden ones.

In Zambia, however, carpenters still make makoros the old-fashioned way. Many prefer magongo wood, for its low density, and there is almost as much skill involved in selecting the perfect tree as there is in carving it out with axe and chisel. The Zambezi's waters are deeper than the Okavango's, and guides here use paddles in lieu of poles.

For all their charms, these are fair-weather boats. According The Material Culture of the Peoples of the Gwembe Valley, a 1968 study by anthropologist Barrie Reynolds, “they are unwieldy in strong currents or rapids and easily swamped if a fresh wind makes the surface of the water at all choppy. The absence of keel and outrigger also renders them most unstable." And experience shows that they are no match for hippos.

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