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Bush Boyes on Expedition: Escape From Chief’s Island and World Heritage Status…

Until next year then… During those last few days on the mokoros you can feel every kilometer travelled away from the wilderness in the center of the Okavango Delta that you have just visited. As this “true wilderness” got further and further away we began to fear that we would forget what it felt like to be there, that most of us had cried your eyes out upon arrival, that we had promised our souls and this place would be linked forever… One night, then two nights away from that glorious wilderness, from Mombo, Simbira baobab and MaPhiri Island, became two and then one night from Maun and the race is get back to civilization. Or perhaps to simply do it again? We still have 6 more expeditions to do as part of the current Okavango Wetland Bird Survey, which is a nine-year project designed to use common wetland birds species as indicators of significant change to this sensitive wetland ecosystem. This year, we expanded our survey by doing preliminary studies on water quality and the incidence of chytrid fungus in frogs of the Okavango Delta. All three trans-Okavango mokoro expeditions have been in support of the nomination and declaration of World Heritage Status. In February 2012, the Dossier for the nomination was submitted in triplicate to UNESCO. Unfortunately the World Heritage Center came back with requests for additional maps and information, thus delaying  the nomination until February 2013. After the nomination next year, the UNESCO Site Selection Committee will visit the Okavango Delta towards the middle of the year in preparation for declaration as a Natural World Heritage Site in February 2014. The jewel of the Kalahari, an emerald gem-shaped oasis visible from space, is not yet a World Heritage Site. Please post your comments below this blog to share your support, advice and/or opinions…

 

By the end of Day 16, I felt like I had a stomach bug, dehydration, and chronic fatigue. My body had been shutting down all day and I was relieved to get to an island suitable for camping. I could not even lift my arms or stand up by the end of the day. Early to bed… and the next morning, myself and Chris woke up ready to push harder than every before. We had to be ready to go to that place we had avoided – the limit… No one on the expedition thought we would make it Maun in two days, as we had failed to make up the half-day we had fallen behind. Chris and I resolved that morning on Day 17 to make up that half-day before 11am! We didn’t do it, but we did kick the expedition into a much higher gear. Talk around the campfire became more excited as the polers began to believe that we would make it to Maun the next day. The laughter of tired, but excited polers that had not seen the city for many months lifted our spirits and we began to believe that we would make it too. Mentally we were all coming down as we left our personal wilderness experiences, looking back at what we had experienced and musing at to whether we would see the world in the same way upon our return… Physically, we had to be ready for one of the biggest physical challenges of our lives. The polers from Seronga had all their gear and supplies transferred to a support boat and both our camp finished our breakfast supplies that final morning. There was no choice now. We had to make before sunset… So we pushed hard…

 

We poled and paddled harder and longer than any other day, sticking to the main Boro River and taking only big, established mokoro short cuts. You have to take your brain into a “standby mode”, eyes and ears aware for any dangers that necessitate the brain being switched on. I suppose this is much like meditation and I can say that in this state the human body could withstand literally anything. Marathon runners must go to this place. I suppose this is why most survival instructors, extreme sportsman, skydivers and stuntmen will simply tell you: “Stay calm and everything will be OK…” All through this experience on the last 45 (=60) kilometres into Maun, Dr Kirsten Wimberger managed to record and GPS mark every new wetland bird sighting on that final day. We passed 3,000 sightings that afternoon, exceeding the two previous expeditions and setting a new benchmark. When we arrived in Maun we had completed our first research cycle and were ready to publish our findings to the world. The last few kilometres down the Thamalekane River were brutal with both of us still fully-loaded and the deep floodwater making it difficult to move quickly. I was very tired by the time I reached the Old Bridge and was actually struggling to see straight. To my horror I found a aluminium boat with tourists when I turned the corner to enter the narrow tunnel under the bridge. Their guide had to reverse out quickly, which kicked up four standing waves where the water rapids go over the bridge. Neither of us feel in, but both myself and Chris were knocked down into our mokoros by the force of the waves. A shaky arrival to the Old Bridge Backpackers signalled the end of a life-changing expedition and successful survey. We look forward to next year… “Ga gona makgoa. Bayei hela!” (“No foreigners. Only Bayei!”)

www.okavangofilm.com

Giles Trevethick

Dr Steve Boyes trying to pick out the way through an open floodplain. Wherever possible we try to cut corners and use open floodplains to avoid the deep water in the channels. (Giles Trevethick)

Steve Boyes

An amazing little spider perched on a sedge blade. Your body is literally covered in spiders of many, many different kinds for most of the day everyday while on expedition. All of these spiders have cast webs between grass, reeds and papyrus to catch flying insects breeding above or hatching from the water. (Steve Boyes)

Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com

Dr Steve Boyes (close) and his brother, Chris Boyes, in front of a herd of lechwe as they pass down the western-side of Chief's Island. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

Steve Boyes

Two lionesses get frustrated by the red lechwes that are following them across a vast Mombo floodplain. Interactions like this are priceless... (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

The skies light up at sunrise on a cold Okavango winter morning when a distant front is rolling over high in the sky. The power of this place and the effect on us is hard to describe. (Steve Boyes)

Kirsten Wimberger

Chris led the expedition for four days with Gobonamang as they guided us past the hippos and crocodiles of the Mombo area with Clinton Phillips. Chris is a powerful presence in the bush. (Kirsten Wimberger)

Steve Boyes

Breeding herd of elephants are on the move on a floodplain in northern Chief's Island, picking a direct line between islands and creating some of the paths we use on our mokoros. (Steve Boyes)

Giles Trevethick

Pieter Hugo with the support crew at one of the few rest stops between islands. Pete and Giles Trevethick managed all the logistical needs of the 2012 expedition. (Giles Trevethick)

Steve Boyes

Lion tracks always get my heart going. First thought is how fresh it is, which is swiftly followed by a smile due the knowledge that this area is good enough for lions... (Steve Boyes)

Giles Trevethick

The Bush Boyes in the deep Okavango wilderness... To be in wilderness areas like this is to travel through time back to a place untouched by man, a place that is connected to eternity... (Giles Trevethick)

Steve Boyes

Proud male lion on his way to becoming a pride male in the Mombo area. He will need a few more years with his brothers and sisters before he can make an attempt to take over one of the super prides. It is all over for us if the Okavango Delta cannot support lions like this one in his aspirations... (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

Speckled-bellied grass frogs use rapidly repeated soft croaks to locate their partners. They are often seen on the water's edge and two were caught and swabbed for chytrid fungus during the research expedition (Steve Boyes)

Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com

Chris Boyes zooming down the narrow channels to the south of Simbira baobab before the expedition headed west to link up with the Boro Channel on our way to Maun. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

Steve Boyes

Young crocodile cruising the periphery of the flood while looking for small fish and frogs to hunt in the shallow water of the floodplains where they find refuge... (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

A troop of baboons that roosts near Mombo Camp and live in this amazing wilderness. They are the masters of their domain and proud custodians of the evergreen forests they roost in... (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

The ever-present and hardworking little bee-eater perched on a well-used perch in a favorable location for ambushing flying insects. (Steve Boyes)

Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com

Chris Boyes up ahead of the support crew as we pass into the Mombo area and into paradise... (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com

Gobonamang or "GB" has been a constant source of encouragement, advice and assistance during the last three trans-Okavango research expeditions. Here he is in front of a breeding herd of elephants... (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

Steve Boyes

Large herd of buffalo attracted to the fertile Mombo floodplains. These herds are able to maintain some of the last-remaining super-prides on the continent with prides of up to 40 lions. Please support big cat conservation! (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

The abundance of life! View from a mokoro across a "fish trap" filled with foraging birds, some red lechwes, and a massive herd of buffalo. (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

What does the future hold for this little guy? Born on Mombo Island and future custodian of the ebony forests these primates protect as their roosts. We need to make sure he/she gets to continue living in their wilderness. (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

This beautiful leopardess is one of the resident leopards of the Mombo area, prowling the night in search of prey in the darkness of this amazing wilderness. (Steve Boyes)

Giles Trevethick

Dr Steve Boyes and his wife, Dr Kirsten Wimberger, on their way to Maun on the Boro Channel. This team has works together on most of their projects. (Giles Trevethick)

Steve Boyes

Like these Egyptian geese, we literally flew home on the last day of the 2012 expedition, covering over 45km during 9 hours of poling and paddling down the Boro Channel. All the polers were completely spent when they arrived in Maun. (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

African elephants moving across a dry and dusty floodplain in the Mombo area. Breeding herds are very protective of their new borns, preferring to stay on smaller islands where there are less lions and hyenas. (Steve Boyes)

Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com

The tired arrival in Maun in the late afternoon of Day 18 was made more perilous by a boat that blocked our passage under the old bridge before our beach landing. The boast reversed and kicked up four standing wwaves that almost capsized us a few metres before the end, having made it so far... (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

Steve Boyes

Mesmerizing sunset off "Buffalo Skull Island" just off the northern tip of Chief's Island, which is home of the last remaining super prides of Africa with 30-40 lions ruled by large coalitions of up to 7 big male lions. We could here several prides calling during this sunset... (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

The Okavango Delta is so flat that the full moon rises at exactly the same as the sun sets, creating this wonderful red glow on the full moon rise. The moon will then rise around 45m minutes later each day after that... (Steve Boyes)

Steve Boyes

"Bush television" makes for hours of entertainment as conversations flows between friends as they stare into the fire. Alone by the fire in the middle of the wilderness you will feel a connection to this planet that takes you thousands of lifetimes back in time. (Steve Boyes)

Neil Gelinas

The stars above the Okavango are often seen reflected in the still waters. Simply takes your breath away... (Neil Gelinas)

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Most people that visit the Okavango Delta are so taken aback by this vast maze of channels, lagoons, floodplains, flats, crossings, and islands that they assume that it must be a World Heritage Site. When informed that it is not a World Heritage Site, they all sit back, shake their heads, and disagree, lamenting the Botswana government and anyone else that could be involved in this travesty. The next question, having now thought about it, is: “How will World Heritage Status help the Okavango Delta?”

Dr Karen Ross (Okavango World Heritage Project) explains: “What a wonderful designation for the Okavango Delta if it is recognized as a Natural World Heritage site. There can be no better branding and marketing tool for communities and businesses involved in tourism – a sector which provides about 70 % of  livelihoods in the region.”

Recognition as a site of global importance that needs to be saved for future generations is a powerful statement. With commercial hunting being phased out and more lodges and concessions being established it would appear that the Okavango Delta is doing fine. The facts are that poaching is on the rise in the areas to the north and est of the Okavango Delta, cattle are encroaching, and signs of pollution are beginning to appear in the main channels due to excessive boat traffic. This complex wetland ecosystem is, in many ways, an anachronisms in this day and age, preserved up until recently by border and civil wars in the Angolan highlands, all the way up to the source of the Okavango River near Huambo. Today, the Okavango Delta is faced by threats of new dam developments to support irrigation schemes and agricultural development in the catchment. Land mines are being removed and wildlife like elephants and general game are moving back into the catchment. People are, however, also migrating into these areas and signs of development are becoming more apparent.  Namibia have repeatedly proposed a hydro-electric weir across the Okavango River at Popa Falls that would seriously hamper the functioning of the delta. There is no doubt that the future of this proposed World Heritage Site hinges on developments up in the catchment, which could have minimal impacts if the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site is considered in any development upstream – agriculture, mining, power generation or otherwise.

Dr Ross continues: “Such a listing is also an important extra-layer of protection for the Delta, which lies at the end point of the Okavango River Basin, and thus could be impacted by upstream developments from Angola and Namibia. Further, within Botswana there is also greater protection, for instance mining is not permitted in any World Heritage sites.  Finally, a UNESCO World Heritage site, while retaining its sovereign status, has 189 State Parties monitoring the property through the Convention. the World Heritage Convention has more member States than any other UN Convention, and it is party to international law.”

Over the last five years there have been several stories of mining companies prospecting for shale gas, coal, diamonds and much else in the Okavango Delta. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site means no mining and establishes the Convention as the watchdog that ensures that the management of the property maintains the highest standards possible. World Heritage Status will be a shot in the arm for the Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM) that facilitates talks between Botswana, Namibia and Angola about development in the Kavango Basin, as it will kickstart discussions towards guarantees that development upstream will not impact on the natural flow of the Okavango River. It re-affirms the notion that if the Okavango Delta were to collapse due to changes upstream it would herald the beginning of the end for the Kavango region. The management authority for the World Heritage Site, the discussions with stakeholders, and the development of a management plan will continue for years, diverting more and more grant funding and investment into the region. Bottomline is we need to get World Heritage Status declared as soon as possible and then move onto advancing discussions with Namibia and Angola about the future management of the Kavango Basin for the benefit of its people, wildlife, and fragile ecosystems…

 

We hope you enjoy our photo gallery from the last few days of our recent mokoro expedition across the Okavango Delta to study wetland birds and advocate for World Heritage Status*. The wilderness area in the middle of the Okavango Delta near Mombo Camp is the beating heart of the Okavango Delta. We need to protect this place. We need to do everything we can to achieve World Heritage Status and then ensure Namibia and Angola agree to ecotourism as the primary economic driver for the Kavango Basin. World Heritage Status really helps us market this idea, and a healthy Okavango Delta with lots of wildlife will re-populate the region…

 

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/

See 3rd blog of the series, “Bush Boyes on Expedition: Escape from Chief’s Island”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/11/bush-boyes-on-expedition-madinari-mother-of-the-buffalo-island-to-the-mombo-wilderness/

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. Jean Kreiseler
    England
    July 30, 2013, 11:50 am

    Yes, the Okavango must be protected at all costs. Just had my 4th visit and saving for my 5th. There one finds what we in the outside world have lost. Awesome! Keep up your wonderful work.

  2. Lezlie Ramsey
    United States
    August 28, 2012, 10:21 pm

    An amazing adventure to bring the wilderness to life for those of us caught in civilization’s concrete grasp.

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  6. Erin Thomsen
    Washington State, USA
    August 19, 2012, 2:35 pm

    thank you…for the work you are doing, the respect in which you do it, and for sharing it with those of us who wish we were there with you.

    cheers
    Erin T.

  7. Mano explorer
    August 18, 2012, 11:19 am

    Great article about the expedition and amazing photos…