Bush Boyes on Expedition: Research, Rain and Walking on Water

The first few days on expedition have been very wet with constant threat of rain and frequent showers. The Okavango Delta is flatter than a billiard table with an elevation change of 60m over 200 miles top to bottom. This makes for some real “big sky country” with sunsets, storms and sunrises like no other place I have ever been. The sky reflected in the still waters of a windless floodplain multiplies the effect, resulting in scenes that will strike anyone silent in a moment of awe and inward reflection.

If you are looking for a way to “reset”, de-stress or simply get away I advise you book a ticket to Botswana and join a Wilderness Safaris mokoro trip in the Okavango Delta. Witnessing the ebb and flow of this grand wilderness while it is still vital and powerful is as important as visiting our poles, the Arctic and Antarctic, before they are gone. Our world is changing and we are losing places, species and ecosystems that used to reside in the wilderness every year, every month, every day. This new process of change that we have brought about is permanent and threatens this big sky country and the wildlife that depend on it. We will fight the rest of our lives to protect this image of perfection, this last wild place…


Sunrise over Vundumtiki floodplain. Photo courtesy of Steve Boyes.


Research was in full swing by Wednesday. The heat was choking and the tall, green summer vegetation was itchy and full of insects. We nonetheless managed to inspect 22 nest boxes using a 10m ladder before the heat and the itching became unbearable and we had to retreat to the cool waters of Okavango. Only four of the nest boxes had not been used with most occupied by squirrels and woodland dormice. We found Burchell’s starlings, hornbills, wood hoopoes and much else in the nest boxes. This important research is teaching how to accommodate a wide range of cavity-nesting bird, mammal and reptile species in forests that have been destroyed by the rampant charcoal industry, raging fires and clear-felling, and uncontrolled logging on the African continent.


Starling in a nest box. Photo courtesy of Steve Boyes.


On Thursday we embarked on a circumnavigation of Vundumtiki Island. Chris and I “tandem poling”, with Neil in the middle filming the amazing scenery. This was the first time that we had poled together and, after a few disagreements about rhythm and direction, we were going along perfectly. The only way to describe poling a mokoro (dug-out canoe) across the channels, lagoons and floodplains of the Okavango is “walking on water”, slowly making your way a across a vast shining expanse of water.

Twice, on the circumnavigation, we had to retreat under tarpaulins to hide from the rain and protect out gear. Each time we made a fire under the cover and each time the rains were able to flood it out. Wet, wet, wet. Refreshing and wild. We drank bush tea (a strong mix of milk powder, sugar and rooibos tea) and ate eggs in the pouring rain.

Our objective on the trip was to see exactly where the last floodwaters had gone and what the effect was on the evergreen forest on the periphery of Vundumtiki Island.


Chris Boyes poling across the Vundumtiki floodplain. Photo courtesy of Steve Boyes.


There was so much remaining floodwater and additional rainwater that we could literally go anywhere, thus allowing us to move easily around the island. This excess water is killing the old-growth riverine forest, which is benefiting the cavity-nesting birds we are studying. We will be continuing with nest boxes today (17/02/2012) and conduct our first forest survey in the afternoon.

Amazing Okavango. I will carry the full wonder and purity of Vundumtiki with me always…

Dr Steve Boyes
National Geographic Grantee
Director – Wild Bird Trust
Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (University of Cape Town)

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.