Here is the 3rd instalment of a critically-acclaimed Afrikaans-language nature series on the 2013 Okavango Expedition undertaken by the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and Wild Bird Trust. This local South African language has origins in Dutch over 400 years ago, so use the subtitles to keep up between English interviews. This insert explains how we pole ourselves across the Okavango Delta in dug-out canoes or “mekoro” as part of these research expeditions - the training, the mokoro, the specialised poles called “ngashi”, solar power plant, satellite dish, bespoke Android App, and the simple life of rice, beans and oats. We do this to complete an in-depth 9-year study of the relationship between wetland birds and the annual floods, the lifeblood of this enigmatic wilderness.
These annual pilgrimages take us into a remote, inaccessible system of islands that until 2011 had not been seen for over 50 years. A baYei elder has shared with us a secret route into this remote wilderness via Madinari “Mother of the Buffalo” Island – an unbelievable, brutal and enlightening journey we repeat each year…We pole 340km in 15-day barefoot, unarmed, with minimal food rations, and no possessions. We have learnt to live off and with this wilderness. After 4 years and almost 1500km poling ourselves across this unique delta we were accepted as “baYei River Bushmen” by Jedibe elders, now our friends and mentors. Eyes downcast in respect we wish one day to be like these men and women that have nothing but a wetland. Yes, we have advanced technologies with us. A live satellite link, tablet computers, Apps, solar panels, cameras, transponders, and every opportunity to navigate our way across this wilderness with GPS and satellite images. We choose, however, to complete each expedition unassisted and exposed to fate and chance in celebration of the human experience in this wilderness.
The wilderness is the birthplace of religion and spirituality. Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, Buddha and the Hindu teachers all went into the wild – up a mountain, into the desert, under a tree – to discover revolutionary secrets that would forever change society within themselves. Tear away the chaotic, noisy modern world you surround yourself with, the phones, screens, appliances, machines, vehicles and pollution, and you will discover a clarity and vision that guides all future decisions. The teeth, claws, tusks, horns and fangs of the wild, along with the deep, peaceful pulse of nature, echo into our souls and remind us of our instincts, living every second, and our deep connection to the wild. Hunters know this connection well and become addicted to the primal instincts this activity bring to the surface. A thousand years ago hunting was part of our daily lives, but now it has no place outside of farms that breed wild animals for this purpose. Our last wild places and the wildlife that depend on them are too valuable. For the next few decades it is going to be about he preservation of our last wildernesses on land and at sea.
In the dictum of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”, shares a keen insight into or species. That “wildness” of youth. The addictive euphoria of those first few days on safari in Africa that keeps travellers coming back. That part of you that you talk down all the time. The mad jabbering of your baby and the indomitable imaginations of kids. Anyone who has been on safari will share their stories of being struck silent by the proud, perfect animals they see. An elephant walking up to your vehicle or deck brings you into the moment and show us a world of wonder, not in our daily lives, that is slowly disappearing. Wilderness cannot be restored or recreated. Only destroyed. We are just about to lose our last glimpses into prehistory that connect us to eternity and remember a time before modern man.
Our world is beating the last “wildness” back into shrinking protected areas ring-fenced by grey, green uniform development, testament to our inability to manage landscapes for diversity. Biomimicry, the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems, needs to be at the centre of all design. We are only just starting to advance our knowledge of complex ecosystems and how they work. The mad rush to feed and develop has proven unsustainable and a new, wilder systems of agriculture, urban development, sanitation, water storage, forest and grassland management, and suburban living.
We hike, surf, run, swim, sing, meditate and love to find what the wilderness forces upon us. In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”. We need to be wild sometimes… Sometimes we need to let go of all the gadgets, all the gear, the guns, special shoes, sprays, nets, multitools and technologies that separate us from the wild world we used to exist within. We need to redesign, recreate and rewind the way we perceive the the world around us. The fear of dying makes us feel more alive. We know that, but now are only happy simulating that connection to our wild nature. The lion, crocodile, hippo and elephant were and are our gurus and guides. They teach us to tread lightly, be humble and recognise that we are all part of this world. They do not want to kill you. They want you to realise who you are and never step out of your place. Be natural and you will be safe, and this extends to all facets of our lives. Connecting ourselves to the natural world will guarantee our future on this planet. The birds and animals you see everyday have been around for tens of millions of years because they are connected. We are not anymore and no matter what we do, the more alien we become, the less likely we are to persist another thousand years let alone millions of years. Exposing myself to a living wilderness informed this realisation and I will continue these journeys into the wilderness for the rest of my life.
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