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Bush Boyes on Expedition: Madinari “Mother of the Buffalo” Island to the Mombo Wilderness…

After a few hours of poling on the morning of Day 7 of the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey we were just about to leave the “People’s Delta” that had become home and turn E to Madinari (“Mother of the Buffalo”) Island on our way across impenetrable reed beds, thick papyrus, and a maze of small channels and animal paths to the northern peninsula of Chief’s Island. We take an impossible route from Jedibe to Madinari “Mother of the Buffalo” Island using an old mokoro trail known by Comet and his son. There are several portages between massive floodplains that are choked by thick sedge and hippo grass. Every meter requires all of the power that you can muster to pass. Hour after hour we move slowly and determinedly towards our goal for the day. Bird names are being called out less frequently, as we begin to see more cisticolas, reed warblers, coucals, and crakes in this vast maze of reedbeds, channels and floodplains with no islands and no deep water. The expedition goes quiet. Just knowing glances, hand signs, and nods. Pure focus, pure life-saving calm. Our tired and broken bodies pass silently through the narrow hippo and elephant paths as our mokoros do little to give away our presence. We are acutely aware of the dangers, hyper-sensitive to any ripple, any noise, any flash of activity… Purification through alert and purifying pain, leeches, cuts, bruises, and bright winter sun that makes any lingering problems in our minds seem insignificant, as we focus on the present moment and the simple things that have become important – the research, our safety, the team, and this wilderness surrounding us. Polers, researchers and support crew that were pushing, dragging and poling their way to Madinari the day before departed for Mombo the next day ready for the experience they were about to share with each other and this wilderness. Reborn on an island they will fought so hard to find, but will never know having only been there overnight. Madinari will always remain an enigma to us, the faraway place that we visit in preparation for the Mombo area on the northern peninsula of Chief’s Island…

Giles TrevethickDr. Steve Boyes, and his brother, Chris, the “Bush Boyes”, on their way to Madinari “Mother of the Buffalo” Island. Day 7 and the wetland bird sightings were to drop off that day, as the expedition moved through claustrophobic elephant paths through the papyrus and shallow sedge fields… (Giles Trevethick)
LandSat 1979
Imagine navigating your way across this maze? Satellite image from 1979 (using LandSat). The flood levels were very similar on the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. It is exciting to think what kind of delta existed when this satellite image was taken. A vast, untouched wilderness unlike today when have to use mokoros to find inaccessible wilderness. (LandSat 1979)
Google Earth / Steve Boyes
This is a small section of the secret path through the maze of small, blocked channels and thick sedgy, grassy floodplains with hippo, elephant and buffalo that Comet uses to get us to Madinari Island and then Mombo. We have done it twice with him now and hope to find this route ourselves next year. (Google Earth / Steve Boyes)
Kirsten Wimberger
Comet and Judge leading the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey into the Mombo area. These two old men set a blistering pace and had to wait for us on several occasions. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Google Earth / Steve Boyes
The portage across Madinari Island on our way to Mombo. It almost killed us getting there through shallow, blocked channels, reed beds and floodplains. Notice the two parallel animal paths on the left that are used by migrating elephants, buffalo, hippo and other big game. A truly special, forgotten place cut off from the world by a blockage in the channel and shifting flood waters. (Google Earth / Steve Boyes)

 

Over the past two mokoro expeditions across the Okavango Delta we have developed a very close relationship with Comet and Judge. From the moment we met these amazing men of the Okavango we knew that our life paths were going to cross many times until intertwined and the same… I have met many important and influential people in my life. None have affected me the same way as Comet. He is about 5 foot 4 inches tall and light of frame, but commands the immense power of the wilderness can provide. As if filled with the blood of a 20-year-old this man in his late 60s can pole across the Okavango Delta with ease and will not need food or supplies to do this. For all his imperfections – Comet drinks a little, jokes around – he is our spiritual leader in the wilderness. He will be buried on an island somewhere in the Okavango and be remembered in the name of the island and the mokoro routes he pioneered. At one of our evenings around the campfire on “Out There Island” north of the Mombo area, a breath-taking paradise, Comet said the following in saYei:

“I am happy to be on this mokoro trips with Steve and Chris. I hope to see you next year and the year after for many more trips. When I die you will have my son and Judge to go with you. When you (Steve) die, my son and Judge will have Chris to go with them.”

This simple statement meant the world to us. Myself and Chris are making plans to visit Comet on his island next to learn more about his way of life, the disappearing ways of the baYei. Comet is GB’s mother’s brother and has clearly had a huge influence on hos life. GB translated his uncle’s conversations with us to make sure we understood and made sure every day we live and understand the baYei way. We cannot wait for the next six research expeditions across the Okavango Delta with these amazing men. 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!”)

 

Kirsten Wimberger
Photo taken on Garmin Oregon 500 during habitat survey: Chris Boyes at the head of the expedition on his way into the unknown with Gobonamang "GB"... (Kirsten Wimberger)
Google Earth / Steve Boyes
Google Earth image of the treacherous, back-breaking route from Madinari Island to Mombo across the Jao Channel. (Google Earth / Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
We only had one sighting of African skimmers during the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. Changes in their distribution and abundance over the last three years will come out in our data analysis. (Steve Boyes)
Giles Trevethick
Dr Steve Boyes poling past an island covered in real fan palms during the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
Google Earth image of the inaccessible, northern part of the Mombo area just off the northern peninsula of Chief'd Island. The only way to get here in using a mokoro... The closest camp is Mombo Camp (http://www.wilderness-safaris.com/botswana_okavango_delta/mombo_camp/introduction/), ESE of this satellite image. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
View over an amazingly productive floodplain with a fish trap in the Mombo area. Hundreds of buffalo, spoonbills, yellow-billed storks enjoying the glut of fish and frogs. (Steve Boyes)
Giles Trevethick
Chris Boyes and Gobonamang "GB" Kgetho exploring the Mombo area during the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. (Giles Trevethick)
Giles Trevethick
Hippos that have moved to the deep water to let us pass, but are not that happy about it... (Giles Trevethick)

 

Chief’s Island is about 90km long and is the largest island in the Okavango Delta. Our expedition emerged after two days going past Madinari Island on the northern tip of Chief’s Island and we were all blown away by the awesome scene displayed in front of us. Hundreds of wetland birds, lechwe, elephants and hippo were in view. African snipes were doing their buzzing dives all around us, as the males compete for the attention of females. You could see it, you could smell it, and you hear it. We were in the wilderness. Our wetland bird sightings went up over 600%, our cameras and binoculars all came out, and the entire expedition was reborn, as if from the womb of Madinari “Mother of the Buffalo” Island… We were now in an untouched wilderness that remains inaccessible by boat due to blockages in the channels and extremely high densities of hippo in the only deep water. The baYei people saw it as taboo to hunt or camp on Chief’s Island due to man-eating lions and the island’s status as the royal hunting grounds. The first human beings to enter this area were baYei polers and European hunters who used to mokoros to penetrate northern Chief’s Island in the early 1900s. Before then visitors to this wilderness had little chance of survival with the high densities of tsetse flies, mosquitoes, lion, leopard, elephant and hippo. Back then this wilderness was soo alive that it was simply too dangerous for unarmed people like the baYei and Banoka bushmen. Comet had last been to the Mombo area for 30 or 40 years, and did not know anyone else who had been there. According to GB only he and his son knew the way to Mombo via Madinari. Not even Judge knew the way after joining Comet last year for the first time. As on every expedition, most people on the expedition team were simply overwhelmed to the point of tears by this living, breathing, roaring, hooting, grunting wilderness with teeth, claws, tusks and horns. We need places like this to put us in our place, to teach us how we fit into life on this blue planet, and makes us believe in a greener, more sustainable, more diverse future. We are going to lose ALL “wilderness”, like the Okavango Delta, the remote Amazon, and the deepest corner of the Congo, within the next 10-15 years. We are going to lose it to development, to dams, logging, fences, roads, cattle, fires, war and civil unrest. If we do. If we lose our last wilderness area to booming populations and the resultant degradation, we would have gone too far and lost the only places that could teach us how to survive. As per Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “In wilderness (or wildness) is the preservation of the world.” 

Giles Trevethick
The Bush Boyes on the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey in the Mombo area. We completed our first three years of data collection this year and are now ready to publish our findings. (Giles Trevethick)
Kirsten Wimberger
Large crocodile basking on the side of the channel in the Mombo area. This nile crocodile slipped into the water right in front of us, passing below us as we moved carefully past hippos. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Giles Trevethick
Clinton (Clinton) Phillips knows a good patch of wilderness when he sees one... As an expert guide training and specialist guide he has seen it all, but still holds the Mombo area dear to his heart. Cliffy took us through "hippo heaven" with a paddle and many years canoeing the Selinda Slipway. (Giles Trevethick)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Some beautiful hippos posing as we passed in our mokoros... This was a day in "hippo heaven"! (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Giles Trevethick
Lone male hippo halts the expedition for a few minutes as we let him go where he wants to go and we all settle down... We encountered many large pods of hippo that day as we passed through high density of hippos I have ever seen. (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
The distinctive series of clucks that they give are heard throughout the day as we disturb when passing close to their hideaways in the reeds on the edge of the deeper water... (Steve Boyes)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
"Hippo Heaven" is what we called the channels we used to the north of Mombo Camp, the only camp up there. Every corner had a big pod of hippos and the nights were serenaded by the grunting, farting, sloshing, eating and breeding sounds of hundreds of hippo. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Kirsten Wimberger
African jacana eggs have the most amazing streaked pattern that mimics the shadows cast by grass and reeds. Delicate beauty and a privilege to see in this remote wilderness. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Steve and Kirsten going past a pod of hippos on a day that I do not think anyone on the 2012 expedition will ever forget. All hippos really want is the respect they deserve and some space. Don't stress them out and you willl hopefully have no problems. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Giles Trevethick
Hippos have a bad reputation as the biggest killers in Africa, which is not justified. Yes, they are easily upset and can be aggressive, but all they really want is to be left alone. Just go around... (Giles Trevethick)
Giles Trevethick
Chris and Steve, the Bush Boyes, after passing through "hippo heaven" on their way to Mombo Camp. Calm and focussed in the wilderness. We recorded the most wetland bird sightings in one day of the whole trip that day. (Giles Trevethick)
Kirsten Wimberger
Simbira baobab is over 4,000 years old and stands tall above the surrounding bush. A cathedral for the ages and a beacon for the celebration of wilderness for thousands of years. We slept under this baobab for a night to share in its wisdom and marvel at its grandeur. The lions nearby called all night. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Chris Boyes spending a few moments with a large nile monitor near Simbira baobab in the Mombo area. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Steve Boyes
Spur-winged geese taking off from the edge of the channel as we pass them in the Mombo area. Our wetland bird sighting frequency went up 700% in this amazing wilderness in the centre of the Okavango Delta. (Steve Boyes)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Large crocodile entering water in front of mokoros... This happened several times and made us feel the same way each time... very uneasy. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Steve Boyes
Leopard are ever-present in the Okavango Delta, calling at night, and captivating our imaginations around the campfire. They are the kings and queens of the Okavango's hardwood forests. (Steve Boyes)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Chirs Boyes waiting for an elephant and some lechwe to move off... (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
This young elephant was sloshing around in the reeds next to the channel we were using and allowed us to pass without incident. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)
Kirsten Wimberger
Comet showing Steve how to make a fire without any effort... (Kirsten Wimberger)
Kirsten Wimberger
Chris Boyes at his campsite on "Out There Island" to the N of Mombo. We leave no trace of our presence when we leave and will only stay more than one night once or twice on each expedition. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Giles Trevethick
Steve and Kirst in front of a large bull elephant that was bumping nuts out of a palm tree at sunset. Magic moments on expedition. (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
Large pride of lions feeding on a buffalo they killed moments before... We saw a large herd of buffalo behind Simbira baobab and the walk with Cliffy saw the lions about 500m from our camp under the baobab. Lions were heard every night of the expedition. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Dr Kirsten Wimberger enjoying a sunset over a remote floodplain off the northern peninsula of Chief's Island. The days counting birds and GPS-marking habitat changes are hard, but the pay-off is learning and discovery in this primordial wilderness. (Steve Boyes)
Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com
Sunset after another life-changing day poling across the Okavango Delta for wetland birds and World Heritage Status. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

 

The next blog will take us from Mombo to Maun and outline our plans for the future. These are important times for the lobby for World Heritage Status and we need to support this process now. Please contact Dr Steve Boyes for more information on how you can get involved in the campaign to protect the Okavango Delta and ensure the wilderness therein persists in perpetuity. This is a multi-generational undertaking in a rapidly changing society that is becoming more desperate for resources than ever before and far more likely to make decisions that impact on wild, unmanaged places. We need to support leaders in the Kavango region, in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola, that celebrate local knowledge and customs, uphold principles of conservation and sustainable-use, and teach us how to share this planet with the diversity of life. All of our future research expeditions across the Okavango Delta are dedicated to World Heritage Status and

 

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/

See 2nd blog of the series, “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/

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

Please support our film campaign in any way you can… http://www.okavangofilm.com/

Comments

  1. peg cagle
    galion, ohio
    September 9, 2012, 11:49 am

    Oh my , I can’t even look at your photos without reminiscing and getting all emotional.

    Love to Steve, Kristen and Chris

  2. PARTHA SARATHI BISWAS
    KOLKATA, WEST BENGAL, INDIA
    August 21, 2012, 8:14 am

    IT’S AWESOME !!!!!!!!!

  3. Oliver Vincent
    Home
    August 19, 2012, 1:47 pm

    In this mish mash modern world in which we live we often forget our humble origins, it takes places such as Madinari Island to put the human race back into its place.

  4. jeannette lauzon hooper
    clearwater fl
    August 18, 2012, 12:45 am

    thankss for the tour hard going as it was it must be a privilige to experience thanks for sharing