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Bush Boyes on Expedition: Seronga to Jedibe Across the People’s Okavango…

The journey from Seronga to Jedibe takes us three to four days and poles the wetland bird survey through the unique aquatic habitats of the northern Okavango Delta with crystal clear water, vast reed and papyrus beds, the main rivers, expansive open floodplains, small, palm-covered islands, and beautiful, sparkling channels – you really get the feeling that the floodwaters have been there for a long, long time. The wildlife is, however, scarce up north with few islands large enough for big game species like lion, buffalo, zebra and giraffe. Subsistence hunters, fisherman, poachers, farmers, and commercial hunters have also contributed to the lack of wildlife. Some 110 years ago few people had actually ventured into the northern Okavango Delta due to choking clouds of tsetse flies and mosquitoes, as well the inherent and fabled dangers of the royal hunting grounds on Chief’s Island. During those first days we saw the odd elephant sloshing slowly through papyrus or walking resolutely in the deep sedge between the small, scattered palm islands. We saw crocodiles, hippos, monitor lizards, baboons, monkeys and much else in those first days this year. Birdlife was, as always, prolific and GPS-marking the hundreds of birds we saw each day kept us very busy. We stopped to swab frogs, check our bearings, or wait for the support mokoros while eating a rice ‘n beans lunch. This year we all got very much into our personal wilderness experiences and our respective roles in the survey and the expedition during this first week.

 

Giles Trevethick
Dr Steve Boyes and Chris Boyes before departing from Seronga Village at the top of the Okavango Delta. (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
A view across one of the floodplains in the Mombo area when I lived and worked there in 2005. We were going past this same floodplain in the next few days... (Steve Boyes)

 

The first section of the research expedition from Seronga to Jedibe was the perfect preparation this year for what was to come further down the transect in the remote, inaccessible heart of the Okavango Delta. The expedition team got to settle into their different roles while their bodies, supercharged on adrenaline, oxygen and the delta’s sweet water, jump into “survival mode”. Your blood becomes thicker and body tougher. Suddenly thorns, scratches, itches and bites are no problem. You move slower, with more purpose, and feel somehow stronger. You talk differently and feel more and more at home in the bush. That book that you thought you might read and the diary you hoped to keep are packed deeper into your waterproof bag, as you find yourself focussed intensely on the present moment, the all-consuming place surrounding you. Right now and nothing else in this place of constant threat, ultimate consequences, and wilderness with claws, tusks, teeth, and horns. Everyday we moved mentally and physically “deeper and deeper” into this Okavango wilderness, everyone preparing for their passage via Madinari Island to the most pristine wilderness area in Africa, if not the world, the Mombo area off the northern peninsula of Chief’s Island. All on the expedition team become acutely aware that they alone are responsible for their own safety out there. Myself and Cliffy had lived and worked at Mombo Camp. Chris, Pete and Giles had seen the northern part of the Mombo area during the 2011 expedition. Kirsten had never been there before, but had heard many, many stories… None of us were, however, prepared for what we experienced in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Our wetland bird sighings went up 10-fold in this wonderland, as the vibrant perfection of true wilderness was revealed to us…

 

Steve Boyes
Pel'sfishing owls can be heard answering each other most evenings in the northern part of the Okavango Delta. The first booming call for the evening from a nearby owl always hushes a campfire. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Google Earth images we used to plot our route to the main Okavango River on the first day. This took us from Seronga village to Tsatsa Lagoon, our first test of mokoro'ing fully-loaded in a deep lagoon. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Route used to cross Tsatsa lagoon in 2011 on a Google Earth image. In 2012 we took the gap north of the small island at the entrance of the lagoon. (Steve Boyes)

 

The expedition departed from Seronga after lunchtime on the 17th June, which meant that we did not have enough time to get to the Okavango River for our first big crossing in fast-flowing current. Instead, we camped on Tsatsa Island near the main Okavango River. Both myself and Chris were very quiet before launching from the beach in Seronga. We knew that we had the crossing ahead of us and did not know how fully-loaded mokoros would react to the swirling current. We had mokoro’d together for years during our ongoing research on Vundumtiki Island and had spent the two months before the 2012 expedition training on a mokoro in Cape Town. We were nonetheless still a bit worried about the crossing. As it turned out, I did scare the hell out of myself… I was the first to emerge from the papyrus into the Okavango River and the nose of my mokoro was swept downstream. A problem because we wanted to go upstream against the current. No effort on my part could stop my mokoro from turning. I was, however, able to very quickly turn it back onto the papyrus and begin the process of clawing my way up the side of the channel to catch up with Chris who made it out of the papyrus alley just fine and was almost far enough up the river to attempt the crossing. Meter by meter we crept forwards until we were in a position to turn and go for the other side of the river. We were aiming at a half meter gap in the papyrus and did not know what the current would do. We both made it quite easily, but Chris definitely proved more stable and much faster in the deep water.

 

Kirsten Wimberger
Chris Boyes poling upstream on the NE bank of the Okavango River before crossing the fast-flowing river and exiting to a narrow gap in the papyrus. No easy feat... (Kirsten Wimberger)
Giles Trevethick
We had our only sighting of African skimmers early on in the expedition. A flock of seven skimmers flying north in search of sandbanks. (Giles Trevethick)
Giles Trevethick
Dr Steve Boyes exiting the Okavango River via a narrow papyrus gap. Upon entering the river the front of the mokoro was swept downstream, making passage upstream to get above the exit point on the other side of the river all that more difficult. (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
Google Earth image of the push through the papyrus and across the main Okavango River on our mokoros. Fast-flowing and lots of large crocodiles... (Steve Boyes)

 

Those first three days were hard, as the re was not as much water as previous years and we lost our way a few times. Any pains or worries melted away in a vision of crystal clear water, waving reeds and water plants, lilies and bullrushes, papyrus, evergreen forests, palm islands, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, lions, Pel’s fishing owls, hyeans, termite mounds, and the diversity of life. The wilderness was taking over and there was no way we were not going to make it. The poling got much better and much worse later on…

 

We saw massive crocodiles along the main channels and Okavango River the day before departing, so were very conscious of this threat during those first few days of poling. It was, however, winter and man-eating crocodiles had not been seen for many years. The crocodiles we saw basking in the sun had to be living off goats and cattle… Nonetheless, there was good reason to stay away from the deep water, always look for bubbles and swirls, and, of course, never fall in. While on the mokoros we saw several large crocodiles in the water with us. Just before arriving in Jedibe a huge crocodile launched out in front of our mokoro going for the deep water. At first , showing off a girth on par with a hippo. Basic rule you learn very quickly: “Never forget where you are!” Every time you let your mind wander or feel that you are in control, something arresting and heart-stopping happens that brings you back to reality. An example on the day before arriving in Jedibe I almost went over a hippo while trying to pole the mokoro as fast as possible, thus endangering our lives and the research expedition. Positioned above this wilderness was an ambitious survey of the distribution, abundance and breeding activity of wetland birds relative to flood levels and habitat availability. Everyone on these wetland bird surveys understands that our research is the priority and is only superseded by personal safety. We take this very seriously and are very proud of what we have achieved so far.

 

Steve Boyes
The crystal clear waters of the Okavango Delta captivate you on a mokoro. You are looking deep into the water for signs of danger, and all you see is an underwater world of vibrant colors, sparkling light, waving movement, and life. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Dragonflies are quite scarce in winter during the flood, but when you start seeing them you see them everywhere. (Steve Boyes)
Kirsten Wimberger
Steve Boyes, Chris Boyes and Gobonamang Kgetho joking about a hippo that popped up in front of them and how much their feet hurt from poling all day. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Giles Trevethick
Large crocodile resting on a small island near Seronga. (Giles Trevethick)
Kirsten Wimberger
Chris Boyes resting as we wait for the support mokoros to arrive with Giles and Pete. It is an amazing feeling gliding across an open floodplain in big sky country. No sore feet or cramped hands could ever beat the feeling of being free in the Okavango Delta. The wilderness will keep you going forever... (Kirsten Wimberger)
Steve Boyes
Hippos playing with each other in the deep water after being disturbed. This is a display to demonstrate how dangerous they are. Respect them and they will respect you. (Steve Boyes)
Giles Trevethick
Chris Boyes (left) and Steve Boyes resting between long sessions of poling and paddling down a fast channel to Jedibe. We got a reality check when we almost passed over a resting hippo... (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
Southern yellow-billed hornbills are a common resident of the Okavango Delta. (Steve Boyes)
Giles Trevethick
The wetland bird survey is going well... Dr Steve Boyes the day before leaving for Madinari Island and then the centre of the Okavango Delta. (Giles Trevethick)

 

The northern Okavango Delta is best described as the “people’s delta” used by the baYei people living in Etsha 13, Jedibe, Seronga and other villages up north. Local villagers venture out to harvest reeds, fish, water lily bulbs, water lily seeds, wood, and medicinal plants on a daily basis. Some live seasonally in small fishing camps on remote islands near good fishing spots. In the first  three days transit to Jedibe village we came across fisherman checking their nets and families living on islands. All the islands we camped up in those first three days in transit to Jedibe had signs of camping and people. No litter, just signs of people. Most of these baYei fisherman originated from Jedibe, which is the only village that only has baYei living in it. To the local baYei polers with us, Jedibe represented an important part of their cultural identity. In Jedibe, we found our old friends Comet and Judge, who after brief discussions agreed to show us again how to get to Madinari Island and then the Mombo area from Jedibe. Comet was in his 70s and Judge in his late 50s. Both were proud baYei men that kept with them the secret route to Mombo and a journal of information on how to survive in the wilderness. Comet just has that way about him. When he walks into your presence you instantly focus respectfully on him in the hope that he will teach you something. For some reason you feel like your time with him will be short and you must make the most of it. Myself and Chris were excited to have Comet and Judge join us for a few days on the expedition to show us the way and spend some time together in the bush. Learning from the baYei polers that take us is an integral part of these research expeditions. It is wonderful being introduced by them to their mother, the Okavango Delta and her bounty. GB and Comet smoked some fish that GB’s father had caught for us on our afternoon off in Jedibe. We collected water lily seeds and bulbs for an amazing local dish made with fish. On Day 5 on Sunbird Island (so called because of the beautiful sunbirds seen flitting in the palms), Tom played his mouth organ for the first time. The sound and atmosphere that he produced is the hymn for their relationship with the wilderness, a flowing river of sound that leaves you bobbing your head, moving your head, and groaning quietly to yourself. You have no words for the song, but know what it means. We feel very privileged to spend time with these amazing people of the Okavango. As I said in the first blog… One day we will proudly be able to shout to the children playing on the river bank: “Ga gona makgoa. Bayei hela!” (“No foreigners. Only Bayei!”)

 

Steve Boyes
Google Earth image of Jedibe village. Notice the large islands and the detour to find Comet. (Steve Boyes)
Kirsten Wimberger
Steve Boyes calling the support team on a handheld radio. With no battery power in the satellite phone due to a mistake on our part, we were restricted to inadequate radios. We knew for the next few days that we were alone if anything bad happened... (Kirsten Wimberger)
Kirsten Wimberger
Children that gathered at the Jedibe boat station to see what was going on... We can only hope that the young boy with the mokoro one day teached his children how to cross the Okavango Delta on a mokoro... (Kirsten Wimberger)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Comet, GB and Mr Kgetho smoking fish on Burning Tree Island so named on the 2011 expedition after we found a burning tree... (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Chris Boyes
Smaller fish being smoked another way using palm leaves to tie them to a branch. These fish would be eaten after we enter the Moremi Game Reserve and do not fish. (Chris Boyes)
Chris Boyes
Comet has guided us from Jedibe to Mombo on two occasions and in so doing has touched all of us. We would like to think he would be proud of the work we are doing. (Chris Boyes)
Chris Boyes
Judge has a gentle presence that makes you feel safer in the bush. He has known Comet all his life and they have poled the channels of the Okavango together for many years. His tough exterior proves that "Africa is not for Sissies" [no translation necessary
Steve Boyes
Angolan reed frogs have been recorded with 18 different color morphs, of which this is the most striking. (Steve Boyes)
Kirsten Wimberger
Mr Kgetho, Tom, Chris and Steve preparing for a day of poling. You have to be mindful of your surroundings at all times to avoid mishaps. Hippos, crocodiles and elephants are so very strong that avoidance is the only way. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Kirsten Wimberger
Steve Boyes after the first 6-hour day of poling, the day before arriving in Jedibe. What you see here is a mix of pain and a "wilderness buzz". When you get like this nothing will stop you. (Kirsten Wimberger)

 

The next blog will take us from an island close to Jedibe Village all the way to the center of the Okavango Delta past Madinari (“Mother of the Buffalo”) Island…

 

See 1st blog of the series, “Bush Boyes on Expedition: 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/26/bush-boyes-on-expedition-okavango-wetland-bird-survey/

 

2011 Expedition Blog: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/22/crossing-the-okavango-delta-for-world-heritage-status-celebrating-botswanas-wetland-wilderness/

Comments

  1. [...] “Bush Boyes on Expedition: Seronga to Jedibe Across the People’s Okavango…”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/03/bush-boyes-on-expedition-seronga-to-jedibe/ [...]

  2. Mehmet
    GMwknHXVBD
    August 21, 2012, 12:11 am

    From the ground the Delta, also known as the Okavango Swamps, is a wteray green labyrinth; from the air it is a horizon-stretching pattern of sparkling channels, quiet swamps, bustling islands and snaking game trails. Great photos, you capture it perfectly.

  3. Monica
    Canada
    August 8, 2012, 8:58 am

    Best of luck and with appreciation from here…

  4. Frederic
    Belize
    August 6, 2012, 2:12 am

    Well done Steve, congrats