In 2015 we took a mokoro trip in the Okavango Delta, in the northwest part of the country. A mokoro is sort of like a dug-out canoe. It sits low on the water and is guided and controlled by a poler, who stands at the stern like a gondolier and pilots the boat through a forest of reeds poking up from the waters of the delta.
Our poler was named Marius. He served as both delta guide and wildlife guide, taking us on a walk later in the afternoon. I liked him a lot. He was young and quiet and had a good sense of humor: “Don’t panic unless you see me panicking,” he told us as we approached a huge elephant vigorously shaking a tree. “And if I panic, you should really panic.”
It was a wonderful two days. The only wrong note was when I asked him, while we were gliding along, what his favorite animal was.
“The zebra,” he said. “Because it’s black and white, just like you and me.”
I think I managed a backwards nod and an “ah” – but I was terribly disappointed. I had genuinely wanted to know what someone who grew up in and spent every day working in a UNESCO World Heritage Site thought. I wish I’d had the guts to call his bluff, but I didn’t.
Canned tourist answer aside, the zebra is an important symbol in Botswana. The National Football team are the Zebras and the seal of Botswana features two zebras, rampant. The country, from its founding, was set up with racial equality at the forefront, so the comment about the zebras maybe wasn’t too far off.
Zebras are the African animal from children’s nurseries and story books. They are the animal cracker animal, the circus animal, so impossible a creation that you can hardly believe they’re real. If the long neck of a giraffe or the prehensile nose of an elephant are fantastic, imagine a black and white striped horse. Probably more than any other animal, the zebra is the one that makes some part of my brain ask “is this even real?” every time we come across one.
Zebras do indeed resemble their less-showy equine cousins. They’re extremely stocky, with those amazing stripes and fabulous spiked manes that Steve says makes them look “so punk.” Here we have Burchell’s zebras, less red than the Mountain zebras across the border in Namibia. Their stripes curve around their bellies, but don’t go all the way down to their hooves, and the stripes on their backs and rumps are interspersed with lighter “ghost stripes.” They are savanna dwelling grazers and they live in herds that Lonely Planet says might be the largest of any ungulate in southern Africa.
The herds themselves, even when huge, are made up of many smaller groups – harems of ten or so females guarded by a male, who has his work cut out for him, as zebras are the main prey for lions. Baby zebras – including the one we found at Mokolodi – are very carefully guarded and are insanely cute.
In this landscape of red and brown, it seems improbable that a black and white striped horse could blend in. But they do, astoundingly. I read that the black stripes mimic long grasses and white stripes mimic the sky in between. And when they are standing together, even just two of them, it is difficult to tell which is which in the riot of stripes.
I like them. I like that Botswana, and Batswana, have made them such a symbol of racial harmony in their country. They are a magnificent animal – something straight out of a children’s picture book.