Last week the Okavango Wilderness Project was awarded the coveted Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award at the prestigious National Geographic Explorer Awards held at the George Washington University in Washington DC. Mmegi photojournalist THALEFANG CHARLES was amongst the explorers from around the world who graced the yellow carpet. He reports from Washington
Until Wednesday last week, local tourist guide Tumeletso ‘Water’ Setlabosha did not know anything about Rolex. But by the end of the National Geographic Explorer Awards night, the man from Jao Flats, deep in the heart of the Okavango Delta, was carrying, (not wearing) his own brand new $8,100 (P90,000) Rolex Explorer II timepiece.
Water was one of the trio who was given the luxurious Swiss timepiece. Others are the project leader and National Geographic Fellow, Steve Boyes, together with the Angolan ichthyologist and National Geographic Explorer, Adjany Costa.
The trio is part of a great team of intrepid scientists, explorers and storytellers who canoed, climbed, and slogged through uncharted regions of Angola to conduct comprehensive surveys of the river systems that feed the Okavango Delta.
Boyes, Costa and Setlabosha are starring in the National Geographic documentary directed by Neil Gelinas titled Into The Okavango. The documentary chronicles an unprecedented four-month research expedition from the source of Cuito River in Angola to the mouth of Boteti River at Lake Xau, which the team undertook in 2015.
It is the first time in the history of the awards that the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award was given to a project team. The project has brought together many people from various professions and countries.
Chief executive officer of the project, John Hilton said a few days before Boyes, Costa and Setlabosha received the three Rolex watches on behalf of the team, he sent out an acknowledgement email to 149 people who assisted in the project. Although there are many more left out because they do not have an email address, Hilton said “each one of them have supported this project in some crucial way, be that physical, emotional or financial - and we thank them, and consider them an integral part of this project’s success story”.
Hilton highlighted some of the major successes of the project: “- Since 2015, five research expeditions have traversed the full-length of all major rivers in the water tower, covering over 7,500 kilometres of detailed research transects using dug-out canoes, fat-tire mountain bikes, motorcycles, and by foot.
- There are currently 57 top scientists studying this vast, wilderness with undocumented source lakes, unnamed waterfalls, vast previously-unknown peatlands, and what is now recognised as Africa’s largest remaining intact Miombo woodland.
- More than 70 species new to science have been discovered, as well as almost 100 new species for Angola.
- National Geographic Magazine, November 2017 feature article - many of you had a hand in this!
- National Geographic Documentary Films - Into The Okavango - which has had exceptional global reception and acclaim, well done Neil and team!”
Driven by a vision of turning the neglected Angolan highlands, which have the critical sources to a number of Southern Africa’s major rivers, into a protected land, the project has engaged the Angolan government into their quest.
Protecting this Angolan area they now call ‘Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower’ will ensure that the Okavango Delta in Botswana has lifeline and secure protection because that is where the Delta’s water comes from.
Hilton added that their project is a “collaborative space with no place for ego, only altruism, towards one goal - preserving the pristine nature of the upper Okavango River Basin in order to keep the Okavango Delta thriving”.
“We have a new five-year plan with lofty fund-raising goals thanks to a trilateral agreement between Angola’s Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Tourism and the National Geographic Society,” reported Hilton.
A highly commendable thing that the project undertook is to involve the local communities in their explorations.
On their first expedition to Angola project leader Boyes brought in polers from the Okavango Delta to assist with their indigenous knowledge. The expedition team also did the same in Angola by hiring local hunters as guides.
Despite advanced GPS technology and accurate maps, these biodiversity experts found it fit to involve the community.
Speaking at the National Geographic Explorers’ Festival in Washington DC, Boyes highlighted the involvement of the local communities in conservation endeavours saying, “Local communities are the guardians of biodiversity”.
It is for this reason that he continued to bring up Setlabosha into this epic conservation story to not only demonstrate their respect for local communities in their research, but also to inspire their children on protecting their wilderness.
In his acceptance speech, holding the green Rolex box, Setlabosha thanked Boyes for the opportunity. It was Water’s third trip to the US with the project and this time he flew business class with his daughter and left with a big luxurious watch.
And now that he knows what Rolex is, how does it feel to own such an exclusive watch brand? With his usual chuckle, Setlabosha says such a pricey timepiece is too affluent for a lowly bush guide from an island settlement in the middle of the wilderness or even a dusty little town of Maun and so he hopes to use it to advance his life and family. He said, “Ga ke bone gore nka e rwala (I do not think I will wear it)”.