National Geographic and Wild Bird Trust just completed an epic crossing through the world’s largest, last undeveloped and wildest Kuvango-Okavango River basin. Intrepid Mmegi Staffer THALEFANG CHARLES spent the last two weeks of the expedition with the team and reports from the banks of the Boteti River
After six mekoro capsized, one hit by a grumpy lone hippo, 119 days in the river of poling, pulling, pushing and paddling, expedition leader Dr Steve Boyes still looks calm and as focused as ever.
It is the final sunset on the Boteti River and they expect to reach ‘the end of water’ before the next sunset.
Together with ground support team leader, John Hilton, they have been studying the GPS and satellite images of the mouth of the Boteti River on the tablet, mapping and calculating whether they will make it to the end on the following day.
The two expedition leaders have agreed that they are on the eve of the finale – the following day they must reach the end and complete the epic transect from the source of Cuito River in Angola through Namibia to Botswana.
But the journey began many years ago. Boyes, 36, is a National Geographic (Nat Geo) Emerging Explorer and a research fellow at the University of Cape Town. His love and knowledge of the Okavango Delta is legendary – from the people, history, landscape, animals, fish and birds.
He learnt how to ‘pole’ mokoro (dug-out canoe) using the traditional ‘pole’ called ngashi by the Bayei before acquiring his own mokoro that he has been using for years. He even got his doctorate while working in the delta.
For the past six years, Boyes and his Wild Bird Trust have been conducting annual surveys through the nine-year Okavango Wetland Bird Project. Under the project Boyes says they aim to record the distribution, abundance and breeding activity of all wetland birds along a 288km mokoro based transect of the Okavango Delta.
In 2014 Boyes founded the Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP) after the successful listing of the Okavango Delta as UNESCO’s 1,000th World Heritage Site.
“The project aims to support tourism development, biodiversity conservation, protected areas management, and the preservation of ecosystem services throughout the Kubango-Okavango River Basin,” explained Boyes.
He further said that their main goal is to preserve the pristine Kubango-Okavango River Basin and protect keystone wildlife populations that depend on the life-giving floodwaters.
“The project supports trans-boundary conservation initiatives that share benefit and generate significant revenues from sustainable tourism development in Angola, Namibia and Botswana,” said Boyes.
A world first 18 weeks, 2,400km research expedition using mekoro to travel the entire Kuvango-Okavango River basin was born out of the OWP.
“Our aim was to cross the Okavango Delta on mekoro with local Bayei to study the relationship between wetland birds and the annual floods. We are getting to know the ‘barometer’ of the world’s last undeveloped river basin – the Okavango Delta. This sensitive wetland ecosystem will tell us very quickly if there is something wrong upstream,” said Boyes.
Together with Nat Geo, OWP assembled a team of biodiversity experts whom Boyes referred to as ‘the best of the best’. He brought together the leading ichthyologists, ornithologists, biologists, conservation technologists, renowned Nat Geo explorers, photographers, experts, guides and the river bushmen with invaluable wealth of the river and its secrets.
The expedition team included Professor (Prof) Paul Skelton, Prof Nigel Barker, Prof Bill Branch, Dr David Gowder, Boyes, Dr Werner Conradie, Dr Matt Janks, Dr Stoffel Bester, Maans Booysen, Gotz Neef, Adjany Costa and Nkosinathi Mazungula.
National Geographic Emerging Explorers Shah Selbe, Jer Thorp and Gregg Treinish were also part of the team.
The team travelled to the unexplored and the dangerous landmine littered Angolan highlands where they found local people who said they had last seen outsiders more than 40 years ago.
Boyes signed agreements with the Angolan government to begin information sharing gathered from the expedition that could be used to guide policy formation on the Kuvango region. This could prove invaluable for the conservation of the Okavango Delta because whatever happens at the catchment areas in Angola would affect the delta in Botswana.
It is Boyes’ dream to open up the Okavango River basin and package it as a trans-boundary tourist product – last true undeveloped wilderness in the world. The young conservationist believes in sharing the beauty and wildness of the Okavango.
He trusts that the Nat Geo media products from the expedition, a feature film, a book and 26-page feature article in the Nat Geo Magazine offer an exciting opportunity to present the entire Okavango River Basin to the world, holding up the Okavango Delta as the ‘Jewel of the Kalahari’.
“We need to establish the Okavango River as an international tourism destination likened to the Galapagos, Amazon, Serengeti, Great Barrier Reef, and Polar Regions,” he added.
The expedition received a large following on social media. It has over 50,000 followers on Instagram and the team made regular live chats through Nat Geo platforms. Technology also made it possible for people to follow the team live, observing their route, speed and heartbeats. Every night the expedition shared their experiences with the world with stories, pictures and sounds from the wilderness.
Back to the Boteti River, where the team has set up the last camp before the end of water, team photographer and social media manager, James Kydd together with Nat Geo team, Neil Gelinas and Kaya Ensor, are busy in their respective production tents editing pictures and videos from the day. Expedition chef, Pieter Hugo and Alex Pullin are preparing their last and now unpopular rice and beans for the last supper and lunch packs for the following day on water. Everyone is waiting for the loud ‘Grabs Up’, which is an expedition code for ‘supper is served’.
The following day just before sunset at the end of the water, Boyes’ younger brother, Chris Boyes, a marine biologist who joined the team in Angola, helped to push his older brother’s lead mokoro from the mud to dry land before asking, “It’s done, right?” Overwhelmed with emotion and holding back the tears, Boyes could only confirm with a short “Mmmh,” marking the end of an epic journey from ‘source to sand’.