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Africa’s Okavango Delta For Future Generations

The Okavango Delta is Africa’s last-remaining wetland wilderness. From the air this a vast patchwork mosaic of open floodplains, simmering lagoons, never-ending reed beds, waving impenetrable papyrus, meandering channels, and thousands upon thousands of green, palmed islands and tree-lines seem to go on forever. An emerald gem in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Visible from space this wilderness is a remote sanctuary for the region’s wildlife and natural heritage. Botswana, Namibia and Angola’s Kavango Basin is home to the largest-remaining population of African elephant, as well as keystone populations of lion, rhinoceros, giraffe, tsetsebe, zebra, hippo and much else. This is a wilderness beyond comparison that is now threatened by the inevitable, unrelenting march of development into the river’s remote Angolan catchment. The film, Okavango, will share an intimate view into human experience in the wilderness, as an expert research team “poles” over 1,000 miles of down an unexplored subcatchment of the Okavango River from the source in the Angolan highlands all the way to an untouched wilderness in the centre of the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last-remaining true wilderness areas: http://www.okavangofilm.com/

The Okavango Delta is the beating heart of the Kalahari Desert and an important part of our global heritage visible from space. (LandSat 1979)

The Okavango Delta is the beating heart of the Kalahari Desert and an important part of our global heritage visible from space. (LandSat 1979)

Steve Boyes

Migrating elephants spread across the fertile floodplains of Mombo where some of the world’s most pristine wilderness remains… (Steve Boyes)

The Okavango Delta is almost anachronistic. A place like this should not exist in this day-and-age. Over 35 years of violent conflict in the South African Border War (1966-89) and Angolan Civil War (1975-2002) has kept the catchment free from any significant development and cordoned off by land mines. Even the great elephant herds that used to move into the catchment each year stopped going. Today, in more prosperous times, there are 16 dams planned for the Okavango’s catchment and Chinese-owned rice developments are consuming important wetlands in the Cuito sub-catchment. Helicopters and trucks can now being seen prospecting for diamonds, gas, titanium, iron ore, and agricultural land. Rapid development fuelled by massive oil revenues is coming to the Bei Plateau and other parts of the Angolan highlands. The first ever pesticides and fertilisers could soon enter the river, less and less water will make it down to the Okavango Delta each year, the sand and sediment will start blocking the main river further and further upstream as the flood is depleted, impounded and exploited to support development. We need to decide upon the price for economic prosperity…

The once grand cycle of torrential rain on the Bei Plateau feeding the annual floodwaters that rage down the Cuito and Cubango Sub-catchments to the Okavango River, and then the Okavango Delta via the panhandle. Parallel fault lines, the Gumare, Thamalekane and Kunyere, traps the waters of the Okavango River in a vast alluvial fan in the remote Kalahari. This is the largest inland delta in the world and a wonder of nature feeding massive local thunderstorms and thermals that enliven the summer skies. This is a truly powerful place that strikes awe into those who pass through this wilderness with teeth, claws, tusks, horns and fangs. The illustration below is from the December 1990 issue of National Geographic magazine and shares the grandeur of the beating heart of the Kalahari…

"A river rises in mountains and dies in sand and in its dying gives birth to a jewel at the edge of the Kalahari; the Okavango Delta. " -- Frans Lanting, National Geographic Magazine, December 1990. (Copyright NGS, WILLIAM H. BOND)

“A river rises in mountains and dies in sand and in its dying gives birth to a jewel at the edge of the Kalahari; the Okavango Delta. ” — Frans Lanting, National Geographic Magazine, December 1990. (Copyright NGS, WILLIAM H. BOND)

Okavango Wilderness Project

Our mission in the Okavango Wilderness Project is to guarantee that the Okavango Delta and its vast untouched catchment remain in their current state in perpetuity through the establishment of one of Africa’s largest systems of protected areas within a trans-frontier conservation area and multinational UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project supports the declaration of the Okavango Delta as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area and OKACOM recognising the importance of establishing a global community around the issues facing the Okavango Delta and the wild river that brings its life-giving floodwaters. After decades of concern and tri-nation (Botswana/Namibia/Angola) meetings about the future of the Kavango Basin, we are soon entering a period of rapid development in the Angolan catchment. What we said would not happen in the next 10 years ten years ago is happening. Dams are being developed and irrigation schemes established. Very soon we will see the first fertilisers arrive in the delta, stimulating the papyrus to choke the life out of this system in a matter of years. This generation in Botswana, Namibia and Angola must save the Okavango Delta and its wild catchment.

Zebra dazzle at sunset, by guide Phill Steffny. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana (Phill Steffny Safaris)

Zebra dazzle at sunset, by guide Phill Steffny. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana (Phill Steffny Safaris)

"Shy cub", by guide Brendon Cremer. “We were extremely lucky to come across this shy young leopard hiding in the fork of a tree. Although you see signs and sometimes even hear the calls of leopards at Duba, they are a very uncommon sight, so to be able to spend about twenty minutes with him was a great pleasure. Photographed at Wilderness Safaris Duba Plains, Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Brendon Cremer / brendoncremerphotography.com/ wilderness-safaris.com)

“Shy cub”, by guide Brendon Cremer. “We were extremely lucky to come across this shy young leopard hiding in the fork of a tree. Although you see signs and sometimes even hear the calls of leopards at Duba, they are a very uncommon sight, so to be able to spend about twenty minutes with him was a great pleasure. Photographed at Wilderness Safaris Duba Plains, Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Brendon Cremer / brendoncremerphotography.com/ wilderness-safaris.com)

This mini-blog, Okavango, will interview experts, share our experiences in the the Okavango Delta, celebrate wilderness, become a rallying point for support behind UNESCO World heritage Status and further protection from agricultural development and mining. We support an open access future for research and conservation work in Africa, whereby experts around the world are directly involved in the exploration of remote African wilderness areas through open access to complete data sets being uploaded live as they are captured. Satellite technology and mobile Apps have made this possible in places where computers previously could not go: http://www.theascender.org/issue-01/digital-delta/

National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Steve Boyes (left) and Jer Thorp, share a common mission to inspire creativity and empower research through the sharing of data. (Steve Boyes/Jer Thorp/www.theascender.org)

Steve Boyes (left) and Jer Thorp share a common mission to inspire creativity and empower research through the sharing of data. (Steve Boyes/Jer Thorp/www.theascender.org)

2013 Okavango Expedition Team after an epic 324km journey across a very dry and difficult Okavango Delta for the annual wetland bird survey. (Paul Steyn)

2013 Okavango Expedition Team (From left: Pete, GB, Giles, Chaps, Steve, Tom, Pail, KG and John) after an epic 324km journey across a very dry and difficult Okavango Delta for the annual wetland bird survey. (Paul Steyn)

In 2015, the Okavango Wilderness Project plans on undertaking an epic 8-week research expedition down the length of the Okavango River from the source in the remote, war-torn Angolan highlands all the way down the river to the Okavango Delta. We will use traditional stand-up dug-out canoes called “mekoro” or “mokoros” and be joined by a delegation of baYei “River Bushman” who have joined us on all of our previous expeditions across the Okavango Delta. See: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/08/best-photographs-2013-okavango-expedition/ The 2015 expedition will survey all wildlife, development and habitat along the 1,700 kilometers transect down one of the remotest rivers on earth.

Steve poling past a large pod of hippos near Mombo Camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Just look at this place! (Paul Steyn)

Steve poling past a large pod of hippos near Mombo Camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Just look at this place! (Paul Steyn)

Steve Boyes

The abundance of life on a floodplain in the center of the Okavango Delta. Wildlife in the Moremi Game Reserve has not been hunted for generations and have always been seen as the “royal hunting grounds”. What will a ban on all commercial hunting achieve? (Steve Boyes)

The feature documentary film, Okavango, will follow our journey down this unexplored river as we meet the people of the catchment with our delegation of baYei from the Okavango Delta. The film will take an intimate look at the human experience in the remote wilderness as the research team is pushed to their physical and mental limits. We live off the land and maintain a simple existence close to nature, but are surrounded by advanced technology. This hybrid existence contrasts state-of-the-art cameras, research equipment, tablets, satellite dishes, solar panels and data loggers with our self-propelled traditional mokoros, simple food supplies, knife, jacket and tent. We live the way of the baYei, a proud people descended from Bantu-speaking hippo-hunters that came down the Chobe River, Linyanti Swamps and Selinda Slipway to the Okavango Delta in the late 1700s. Here they settled with the Banoka San People to perfect the art of living in this wetland wilderness with their new technology, the “mokoro”. For almost 250 years the Yei people have explored the channels of the Okavango Delta in search of hippo, lechwe, fish and ivory – most likely the first people in the central delta. They are the “people of the delta” that we will be taking to Angola to meet the people upstream that could influence their future and potentially threaten their “Mother Okavango”, the lifeblood of the remaining baYei people. Rapid urbanisation in Botswana is bleeding these remote, cut-off communities without road access, leaving them unable to support themselves due to disappearing skill sets and ways of life.

Steve with Gobonamang  finding their way through the low waters of the "People's Delta". Everyone felt the pain of the first day... (Paul Steyn)

Steve with Gobonamang finding their way through the low waters of the “People’s Delta”. Everyone felt the pain of the first day… (Paul Steyn)

Kirsten Wimberger

Young children playing while they and their mothers wait for the boat or mokoro to come and pick them up at the Jedibe boat station… (Kirsten Wimberger)

"Chobe clash", by guide Morkel Erasmus. Two young hippos engage in play-fighting to the amusement of a lone elephant on the banks of the Chobe river. Photographed at Ichobezi River Lodge, Chobe, Botswana. (Morkel Erasmus / morkelerasmus.com)

“Chobe clash”, by guide Morkel Erasmus. Two young hippos engage in play-fighting to the amusement of a lone elephant on the banks of the Chobe river. Photographed at Ichobezi River Lodge, Chobe, Botswana. (Morkel Erasmus / morkelerasmus.com)

We will be sharing the up to 10-week long expedition LIVE with the world via our IntoTheOkavango partnership with Jer Thorp and his team: http://intotheokavango.org/ Our expedition team (See: http://www.okavangofilm.com/) will share their progress LIVE via satellite link as we survey one of Africa’s wildest, least explored landscapes. Our bespoke App (By www.digitalpeppa.co.za) and tablets will make comprehensive survey data collection over large distances along the river possible and enables us to upload our research data every day to our open access website: http://intotheokavango.org/ High school classes could follow our progress as our transponders update our location every 20 minutes on a high-resolution satellite image of the Okavango Delta. University students could work with our data while we are still on expedition, informing the live expedition of findings and guiding specialist investigations on each research expedition while we are out there. It is only in a future where we share more and own less that we can truly effect change and beckon a better, cleaner, brigher, more diverse and natural future.

A view from the live representation of the 2013 Okavango Expedition that was updated every 20 minutes and shared all research data every day. (Wild Bird Trust / Office for Creative Research)

A view from the live representation of the 2013 Okavango Expedition that was updated every 20 minutes and shared all research data every day. (Wild Bird Trust / Office for Creative Research)

Sparring lechwe, by guide Brendon Cremer. A couple of Lechwe spar in the early morning as the sun rises, the dust from the rest of the herd as they move back towards the marsh adding some great mood and drama to the image. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Brendon Cremer / brendoncremerphotography.com)

Sparring lechwe, by guide Brendon Cremer. A couple of Lechwe spar in the early morning as the sun rises, the dust from the rest of the herd as they move back towards the marsh adding some great mood and drama to the image. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Brendon Cremer / brendoncremerphotography.com)

Lion’s leap, by guide Brendon Cremer. Photographed at Duba Plains, Okavango, Botswana. “We photographed this young sub-adult together with the rest of the pride shortly after we found them finishing off the remains of a lechwe they must have killed during the night. The pride was moving through the network of open plains and the ever increasing water channels that a filling daily as the flood waters arrive in the delta. This afforded us some great photographic opportunities such as this one as the pride jumped one by one over some of the narrower deeper channels.” (brendoncremerphotography/ outdoorphoto.co.za)

Lion’s leap, by guide Brendon Cremer. Photographed at Duba Plains, Okavango, Botswana. “We photographed this young sub-adult together with the rest of the pride shortly after we found them finishing off the remains of a lechwe they must have killed during the night. The pride was moving through the network of open plains and the ever increasing water channels that a filling daily as the flood waters arrive in the delta. This afforded us some great photographic opportunities such as this one as the pride jumped one by one over some of the narrower deeper channels.” (brendoncremerphotography/ outdoorphoto.co.za)

One of our last representations of a wild river in subtropical Africa, undammed and unpolluted from source to delta, could be lost within the next few decades. The world is about to lose one of our last prehistoric landscapes that remains connected to the Pleistocene, a time when “megafauna” like sabre-toothed cats, mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths ruled the earth and our ancestors lived and died in the wild. The Okavango Delta is one of the last places left on earth that can take us back 100,000 years to a time when the awesome power of nature could not be challenged. It is the responsibility of this generation right now to save our blue planet’s last truly wild places like the Congo, Amazon, Alaska, Kalahari, Okavango, Serengeti, Arctic, and Antarctic.

Steve Boyes

Not knowing where you are in the vastness of the Okavango Delta can be overwhelming as you go deeper and deeper into the unknown wilderness. Wrong turns and short cuts that do not work can break the spirit and the back. (Steve Boyes)

Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com

Steve and Kirsten going past a pod of hippos in “hippo heaven”. All hippos really want is the respect they deserve and you will have no problems. (Clinton Phillips / www.natureguidingcompany.com)

"Lily reflection", by guide Andrew Schoeman. A Waterlilly in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. The water was calm and offered a great reflection of the flower. (Andrew Schoeman / andrewschoemanphotography.co.za)

“Lily reflection”, by guide Andrew Schoeman. A Waterlilly in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. The water was calm and offered a great reflection of the flower. (Andrew Schoeman / andrewschoemanphotography.co.za)

The Okavango Wilderness Project is about protecting the wild heart of Africa…

Please watch this video of my presentation at the 2013 Explorer Symposium

Comments

  1. James Kydd
    November 19, 2013, 2:18 am

    Amazing work Steve and friends. If there are any of you reading this and considering a safari to Africa, choose the Okavango as your next destination: it is possibly the most spectacular wildlife destination on the planet. You will understand when you are there. We must do everything in our power to keep it this way.