National Geographic Society Newsroom

Bush Boyes on Expedition: 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey

“We had an epic, life-changing expedition that recharged us all. I can say, without a doubt, that nobody on the 2012 expedition will ever forget what happened during those weeks on the water in a distant, untouched wilderness. Humanity cannot exist in the absence of places like the Okavango Delta…”   Every year, my brother Chris Boyes, Pieter...

“We had an epic, life-changing expedition that recharged us all. I can say, without a doubt, that nobody on the 2012 expedition will ever forget what happened during those weeks on the water in a distant, untouched wilderness. Humanity cannot exist in the absence of places like the Okavango Delta…”
Every year, my brother Chris Boyes, Pieter (Pete “the Nare”) Hugo, Giles Trevethick and I (Dr Steve Boyes) cross the Okavango Delta, top to bottom, on mokoros (dug-out canoes) to survey the distribution and abundance of wetland birds, advocate for World Heritage Status, and share this amazing wilderness with accompanying scientists, explorers and special guests. My wife, Dr Kirsten Wimberger, joined us for the first time this year and completed the Bush Boyes expedition team, leading up all scientific research along the 300km transect, recording and GPS-marking all wetland bird sightings, taking GPS-marked photographs of habitat changes, swabbing frogs for chytrid fungus, testing water quality (pH, conductivity, oxygen), and sampling leaf litter for new species of springtail. This was a dream come true for me after two expeditions without her. 
2012 was our third “trans-Okavango” mokoro expedition as part of the 9-year Okavango Wetland Bird Survey, which uses the relationship between wetland birds and annual flood as an indicator of significant change. These birds will chose with their wings or die. They survey their chosen feeding and nesting habitat from the air, making decisions based on waterflow, vegetation, proximity to fish, flood levels, etc. Every expedition we learn more about this primordial place and collaborate with leading scientists by gathering samples and data for them from impossibly remote wilderness areas in the Okavango Delta. This year we swabbed frogs for Dr Jeanne Tarrant (Endangered Wildlife Trust) and sampled springtails for Dr Charlene Janion (University of Stellenbosch). We eagerly await the results and look forward to working with them and other experts on the future expeditions. Please contact Dr Steve Boyes (Percy FitzPatrick Institute) via email ( for more information on future expeditions.
Giles Trevethick
2012 Expedition Team (from left to right): Chris, GB, Steve and Kirst. (Giles Trevethick)
Clinton Phillips /
Tea tIme for the support crew of the production crew. Giles and Pete talking to Chris in the foreground. It is natural to be overcome by the tranquility and power of the Okavango Delta. (Clinton Phillips /


After last year’s expedition both myself and Chris, the “Bush Boyes”, decided to “pole” the whole way from Seronga to Maun using traditional “ngashis” (specially-crafted poles made from long silver Terminalia stems) and adhering to the techniques, attitude and customs of the Bayei “River Bushmen” that we had come to know over the last 10 years. This year, I poled Kirsten, while Chris poled Gobonamang Kgetho (“GB”). GB had led the first two expeditions and now was going to continue our instruction on the ways of the Bayei, while teaching us how to navigate the channels, floodplains, lagoons, hippo paths, papyrus swamps, and reed beds of this vast, infinitely flat, wetland ecosystem. Throughout the expedition everyone involved maintained a clear focus on the task at hand, fostered a connection with the changing wilderness surrounding them, and opened themselves to the experiences that feed our passion for the African bush, a passion that has forever connected our life paths with the exploration and conservation of Africa’s last wild places.

<Chris Boyes, sea turtle biologist and explorer, shares his views on our expeditions across the Okavango Delta> “The main ethic around this expedition was to minimise the human impact on the studied environment, while gathering valuable, accurate and comparable scientific data to add to the accountable worth of ecosystems like the Okavango Delta.

To achieve this, our first decision was to use self-propelled crafts to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels and minimise the noise pollution generated. The makoro, used for hundreds of years by the Bayei tribesmen for the navigation of waterways of southern Africa, was the perfect candidate for this craft. On an expedition into a wilderness area like this there are no places to resupply, so all that is needed for surviving 18 days must be taken along from the beginning. All consumerables on the expedition where biodegradable or reusuable. The only product we could not find a good biodegradable alternative for was water-resistant sunscreen, otherwise all toothpaste and soaps were 100% biodegradable. All batteries were rechargable, and solar panels were used to do this charging. Whereever possible, a great effort was put into sourcing everything locally produced. Wholesalers and distributors were approached directly to minimise and eliminate unnecessary packaging. All containers taken on the expediiton were reusable, and any un-reusable packaging was recycled before the expedition, so no waste was generated in the wilderness.

This expedition displays a simple, healthy way of living where no real quality of life is lost in these remote areas. Anyone can learn from this to incorporate in their everyday lives to minimise their impact on the planet. Sometimes it takes going to a place where you are forced to live the simplest of lives to realise how little you need to be comfortable, healthy and happy.”

In order to minimize negative impact to this fragile wetland ecosystem we bought the best bio-degradable soaps, simplified our food supplies to oats, dried fruit and nuts, beans, rice and tea/coffee, and constantly reminded expedition crew of their responsibilities to this breathtaking wilderness around them. On expedition we all adhered to 3 simple rule: ” Leave no trace; never forget where you are; and live curious”. We included Clinton “Cliffy” Phillips (Founder – Nature Guiding Company) in the expedition team this year to ensure we did everything possible to leave no trace of our presence. Cliffy poled part of the way, swabbed frogs, counted cisticolas, and kept us safe from hippos. He has guided professionally for over 20 years and is one of the top guide trainers in Africa. He has made the choice in his career to focus on curating wilderness experiences for as many people as possible, teaching them to realize and then know their place on this planet…

Giles Trevethick
Clinton (Cliffy) Phillips knows paradise when he sees it! This is the expedition arriving in the Mombo area after two days of hard pushing past Madinari Island. Pure paradise! (Giles Trevethick)

On our expeditions GB often speaks of the Okavango Delta surrounding us as the “mother of his people”, giving them shelter, feeding them, providing boats, wine, and everything else. He shared concerns about the future of the Bayei should the Okavango Delta be threatened by developments upstream. Dams and agricultural development in the Angolan catchment or hydro-electric and irrigation schemes on the Okavango River itself would be the end of the Okavango Delta as they know it. GB’s father, Mr Kgetho Kgetho, joined the support team and shared with us an iron will that saw him cross the Okavango Delta after only recently recovering from tuberculosis at the age of 68. On our last day coming into Maun on the 4th July 2012 some children on the river bank 10km from Maun shouted out, “Makgoa, makgoa!!” (“Foreigners, foreigners!!”) when we poled past at a great clip trying to make it all the way to Maun. Mr Kgetho instantly retorted: “Ga gona makgoa. Bayei hela!” (“No foreigners. Only Bayei!”). This was a huge compliment from the oldest man on the expedition. The sentiment was echoed by the other Bayei polers and expedition members that had hoped to hear this one day.  Chaps, Tom, Justin, Kgalalelo (“KG”), Mr Kgetho, and GB were the true ambassadors of this Okavango Delta we were studying. I have spent 10 years working in the Okavango Delta and did my PhD there, but still am just starting to learn the calm, selfless attitude of acceptance that you need to cultivate in yourself to exist sustainably in the wilderness. Bush skills and knowledge are one thing, but living and existing at one with nature is something completely different. It will take me many, many more mokoro expeditions across the Okavango Delta with these “river bushmen” before I will be able to proudly shout out: “Ga gona makgoa. Bayei hela!” This year we poled all the way across the Okavango Delta in 18 days. We are already making plans to take what we learned this year and attempt to navigate the over 300km meandering route all the way to Maun in 30 days, while supplying ourselves predominantly from the delta, depending on bartering with local fisherman, fishing with nets, and gathering water lily bulbs and seeds, for sustenance.

Clinton Phillips /
The Bush Boyes indicating the location of a resting hippo to the rest of the expedition... (Clinton Phillips /
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 /
"Hippo heaven" is a dead-end off the northern tip of Chief's Island with the best hippo grazing in the Okavango and thousands of hippo to protect it. An amazing place! (Clinton Phillips /
Clinton Phillips /
Steve and Kirst moving past some hippos in the Mombo area. We managed most of the time to move safely past by pushing through the shallow grass and sedge. (Clinton Phillips /

On the 17th June 2012 we struck out from Seronga on a journey through the heart of the Okavango Delta all the way to Maun over 18 days. No one knew what to expect on this research expedition into an untouched wilderness where we hope to learn new secrets about this little-known inland delta, the beating heart of the Kalahari, visible from space. We have many more research expeditions across the Okavango Delta to complete in the years ahead. I very much doubt that I will ever stop going on these expeditions. The next few blogs are an account of some of the events, discoveries, experiences, realizations and discussions that occurred during this 18-day journey through the wilderness with Kirsten, Chris, GB, Chaps, Tom, Mr Kgetho, Justin, KG, Pete, Giles, Cliffy, Comet and Judge…

Dr Steve Boyes
Kirsten Wimberger
Steve and Chris Boyes laughing with Gobonamang Kgetho ("GB") about a lone hippo they almost went over due to travelling the channels too late in the afternoon. (Kirsten Wimberger)
Giles Trevethick
Large crocodile staying warm in the sun near Seronga. (Giles Trevethick)
Steve Boyes
Day lily shining in the morning light. Being surrounded by so much beauty day in and day out is good for the soul. (Steve Boyes)

See the blog for last year’s expedition

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
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.