Steve Boyes and his team’s expedition from Angola to the Okavango Delta was the first of its kind. He tells Travel Africa what they achieved on their epic journey
How would you describe yourself: an adventurer, explorer or biologist?
As a biologist and explorer, even though it seems bizarre that someone would identify themselves as an “explorer” in the 21st century. There will always be new, world-changing discoveries and realisations to be made. It is just our job to go deeper. We are all adventurers and explorers in the wilderness.
You are the founder of the Okavango Wilderness Project. What does it aim to do and who else is involved?
The Okavango Wilderness Project, recently renamed the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project was launched in 2014. Our founding objective was to explore the upper catchments of the Okavango River Basin in Angola and to support the establishment of new protected areas, capable of preserving the natural flow of the Okavango, Cuando-Kwando and Zambezi river systems. We have a collection of the very best biodiversity experts, expedition teams, survey staff and support crews. Our project director pulls all this together with unparalleled attention to detail and patience.
Tell me about your expedition in the Okavango Delta. Did you travel the whole way by mokoro?
When we entered the Okavango Panhandle, we had already travelled more than 1800km by mokoro from the remote source lake of the Cuito River. Then, from the source in the Angolan highlands, we travelled 2476km. It took us 121 days to complete the groundbreaking expedition across the Okavango River Basin from source to sand. Lying awake late at night in a tent under Simbira baobab, you can hear the very heartbeat of the planet as lions roar in the distance and leopards grunt nearby. The Bayei are the people of the Okavango Delta, the men whose fate is most connected to this fragile wetland ecosystem. Over the past 15 years, the Bayei have taught us how to live off the ‘Mother Okavango’; how to drink the purest water in the world from the top of the delta to the bottom; how to navigate the bewildering labyrinth of channels, crossings, floodplains, hippo paths and short cuts using the strongest flow of the water as your guide. At all times, you must be able to point at the location of your destination or you are lost. Most importantly, the Bayei taught us how to pole a mokoro. It makes you feel alive, proud and connected to this living wilderness. On your shallow boat you are transported back in time, as you leave all signs of the modern world behind you.
The Delta was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014. What makes it so special?
The Okavango Delta is far more than just a World Heritage Site: it is one of our last glimpses into prehistory when we lived in balance with a vast, unending wilderness. It is home to the largest-remaining population of elephant on the planet and you can still see great herds of several thousand buffalo followed by super-prides of lion. An unrivalled abundance of animals is what makes Africa great.
What were the challenges along the way?
This is a landscape preserved in time by decades of war and inaccessibility. We had four major capsizes and faced sweat bees, mosquitos, freezing cold, biting ants, honey bees, hippo flies, blister beetles and spiders. Malaria, typhoid, cuts, burns, broken bones, unidentified fevers, constant dehydration and a quite alarming outbreak of flesh-eating bacteria. Over 121 days on the river we had two medical evacuations – one for a broken arm and the other for mental collapse. Things can get pretty tough out there.
What were the highlights?
Arriving at the magnificent source lake of the Cuito River. No one has photographs of this ancient lake and we found several unknown waterfalls thundering away in the upper reaches of the Okavango River system. Seeing our biodiversity experts get excited about a new fish, frog or plant is always amazing and on this expedition we found 22 species that are potentially undocumented.
Tell me about a funny incident from the expedition. Or a scary moment?
We were running behind schedule so I decided to focus on going fast, in the now much wider river. I remember coming around a sharp corner and hearing my brother calling: “The reeds are moving on the right!” I had seen three large crocodiles that morning, so I called: “Kwena!” (“Crocodile!”). For a crocodile, you move a little bit into the deep water to give it room to slip into the flow of the river and escape. For a hippo, you do the opposite.
I soon realised that there was something much bigger under the water than a crocodile. As I was calling “Kubu!” (“Hippo!”) to the team, I saw something beautiful and terrifying in equal measure: in the clear water, a hippo with its mouth half open, came hurtling towards my left foot. Less than a second later most of the hippo’s body came out of the water as the tusks went straight through the hull of my mokoro, lifting us into the sky. Giles and I went flying into the air and all I could think about was getting my legs out of the water, imagining a catastrophic clamping. My brother screamed “swim!”, having noticed that the hippo was more interested in our floating bags. Somehow we both made it to the bank safely. It was absolutely terrifying and a lesson in remaining present and connected.
What did the mission achieve?
We have started a new chapter in Angolan natural history research and biodiversity conservation with the exploration of the upper reaches of the Kwanza, Cuito, Cuando-Kwando and Lungue-Bungo Rivers. We have recorded deep, stratified peat deposits around each of the source lakes, demonstrating how ancient these seepage lakes and associated wetlands are. We are taking cores from these peat deposits to conduct pollen grain analyses to determine predominant habitat types and plant species going back as far as 10,000 years at times. This year, we are submitting the proposal for a new protected area around the source lakes and vast, intact miombo woodlands that are home to unique biodiversity, as well as megafauna such as lion and elephant.
What are the long-term plans?
We aim to continue with the exploration of these remote highlands in order to urgently identify opportunities for conservation and tourism development. We would like to support the Angolan government in the establishment of the largest wildlife reserve in sub-Saharan Africa that connects the sources of the Okavango River to the Delta itself with protected areas. Once this incredible wildlife corridor along the Cuito-Okavango and Cuando-Kwando Rivers is established, UNESCO will support the extension of the current World Heritage Site around the Okavango Delta to include the catchments in Angola and Namibia. Our work in Angola will protect the ‘water tower’ of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), of the largest elephant population remaining on the planet and of millions of people in seven countries. We need to support transboundary conservation in an Africa that is starting to trade internally and open borders.
How can our readers get involved with the Okavango Wilderness Project?
Follow us on our website http://intotheokavango.org or get involved in the #okavango16 on twitter and retweet @intotheokavango. You can also stay up-to-date with the progress of the research expedition through our blogs and Facebook posts.
What would you advise to those going to the Okavango Delta? Do you have any tips?
Make sure that you fly over the Okavango Delta to appreciate the vast, unending network of channels, lagoons, floodplains and thousands of islands built by termites. Since the Delta is mathematically flatter than a billiard table, you can see for miles. Also make sure that you have a short two-day mokoro camping trip on your itinerary. You need to leave everything behind and trust the experience of the Bayei poler behind you. Camp out on a small island that you make yours for the night and listen to the African bush at its best, far away from any generator, vehicles or engines.
What’s next for Steve Boyes?
In May next year we will launch eight mokoros, split evenly between the two source lakes of the Kwando and Kembo Rivers, meeting a month later at the confluence over 800km away. We are going to survey the full length of the Cuando-Kwando River all the way to the Linyanti Swamps and onward to the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers. This expedition, the 2017 Cuando River Expedition, will be a megatransect that will take us about three months to complete – from the source to Victoria Falls.
For further information on Steve Boyes and his adventures, visit http://intotheokavango.org.