A Tale of Water Lilies, Hippos and Explorers…

NG Weekend1Boyd Matson, presenter of National Geographic Weekend, and I discussed how we survive the hippos and crocodiles, what we eat, and how we actually cross the Okavango Delta each year. We focussed on the use of water lily rhizomes (often called “water lily bulbs”) and the seeds from the water lily flowers as an important food resource while on expedition. I described the traditional process of preparing a mix of rhizomes (i.e. subterranean stem with high nutritional value), seeds and fish that lasts days. All day, everyday on expedition, we look for fertilized lily flowers just below the surface and large “water lily bulbs” floating on the surface. Note that the safest way to harvest these nutritious rhizomes is to wait for elephants or hippos to kick them up while feeding on the shoots, rhizomes and flowers. Over up to 35 miles a day we find enough to survive off… We depend on the hippos and elephants for the paths and channels we use, as well as much of the food we eat. The amazing Okavango Delta needs them to stay healthy and support the abundance of life.

"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)

While poling across the Okavango Delta you see millions upon millions of beautiful day and lotus water lilies scattered across vast floodplains like the stars in the universe. In the daylight, they are the wide open eyes of the pristine Okavango Delta, opening when she wakes just after dawn. “Mother Okavango”, as she is called by the baYei people, is still a self-sustaining wetland wilderness and is unlike any other place on earth. The wildlife and people of the Okavango Delta depend on this wilderness for food, waters, music, money, wood, inspiration, religion, and building materials. The striking beauty and omnipresence of her water lily eyes becomes a deep meditation when you are poling a “mokoro” (dug-out canoe) across this vast, meandering mosaic of islands, channels, papyrus, reeds and floodplains…

Amy Attenborough
Okavango giant amongst the lilies, photographed by guide Amy Attenborough of AndBeyond. Image taken at Sandibe in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Amy Attenborough)
Okavango elephants, by guide Andy Biggs. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (andybiggs.com)
Okavango elephants, by guide Andy Biggs. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (andybiggs.com)

Water lilies feed us. They mesmerize. They are a sign of clean water. The best way to avoid crocodiles when drinking from a calm lily pool is to use the lily stem as a straw down to the cooler water below, never disturbing the surface. Lilies keep us safe too. baYei men make beautiful lily flower necklaces for their wives and girlfriends. Strange in that a decoction of the flower taken orally is used as an anaphrodisiac? More than reducing sexual desire many cultures (e.g. Ancient Egypt) used the flowers to induce shamanistic trances. One researcher noted “sleepiness and mental numbness” as a side effect of drinking a decoction of the flowers. Other researchers found the rhizome and seeds to have narcotic effects in several water lily species. Perhaps we are all being drugged by the Okavango Delta? We eat lots of water lily rhizomes and seeds. Maybe the wonderful, almost overwhelming experiences we have in the wilderness are subtly linked to the water lilies we pole past everyday on expedition. I cannot wait to get back on the water for the 2013 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey across the Okavango Delta in September. I crave the calm feeling of gliding down a three-foot deep narrow channel used by hippos to get to rich pastures at night. The “quiet mind” is what keeps you sane and alive while poling up to 8 hours a day over 18 days across a wilderness with teeth, claws, horns and tusks. Maybe this is part of the Okavango Delta experience and you do not need to eat the water lilies…?

Giraffe herd, by guide Andy Biggs. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (andybiggs.com)
Giraffe herd, by guide Andy Biggs. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (andybiggs.com)


Every week Boyd Matson explores the latest discoveries by interviewing some of the most fascinating people on the planet as the host of National Geographic Weekend. Here in Episode 1326 on June 30th Boyd interviews Steve Boyes about surviving hippos and starvation during research expeditions across the Okavango. Find out how Eric Carter and Nick Elton used skis to break the record for the fastest climb of Mt Rainer. 2013 Emerging Explorer Jason De Leon uses trash and dropped belongings to understand the path undocumented migrants take through the Sonoran Desert. Harvard biologist and National Geographic grantee E.O. Wilson talks about “The Rebirth of Gorongosa” and the park’s variety of habitats and unique biodiversity. Please check listings near you to find the best way to listen to National Geographic WeekendGo to National Geographic News Watch blog for Episode 1326.


Additional notes about interview:

  • “Water lily bulb” is actually a rhizome (i.e. subterranean stem with high nutritional value). This is a common mistake and is often accepted.
  • This video comprises photographs taken during Wild Bird Trust expeditions across the Okavango Delta to survey the distribution and abundance of wetland birds.
  • All audio is from Episode 1326 of National Geographic Weekend on June 30th.
  • Additional photographs from Raghava K K, Neil Gelinas, Chris Boyes, Giles Trevethick, Amy Attenborough, Jerome Hillaire, Matt Copham, and Barry Bishop. Associated website: http://www.okavangofilm.com/
  • Hippo accident referred to occurred in December 2003 in the Okavango Delta. I provided medical aid assistance after arriving at the scene.
  • It took me over 10 years to be able to pole across the OKavango Delta in a dug-out canoe. Please do not attempt to do this yourself. There are several great local operators that will take you on a 2-3 day “mokoro trip” into the Okavango Delta.


Just look at the amazing beauty in biodiversity of the Okavango Delta!

Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
There are 35 amphibian species resident on the Okavango Delta. All of these had to come on the feet of waterbirds or down the river system from the north. From the giant bullfrog, which is the size of a large chicken, to the Angolan reed frog, which is the size of a dime and is responsible for the floodplain chorus most nights. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
There has been no formal assessment of the invertebrates in the Okavango Delta. There are certainly thousands of species. For example, a 4 day assessment of praying mantis species yielded over 90 different species. Stunning diversity. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
There are over 155 reptile species in the Okavango Delta and surrounds. From 5m crocodiles in the northern delta to striped skinks. A herpetologist’s paradise with so many local variations in coloration of most species. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
There are over 530 bird species that frequent the Okavango Delta. From solitary ostrich to million upon millions of Red-billed queleas. The Okavango Delta is an extremely important flyway for many migratory species. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
There are over 150 different mammal species in the Okavango Delta. From massive African elephant bulls to the diminutive woodland dormouse. The elephants and hippos are the engineers of the delta itself. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust) 

Tune in to National Geographic Weekend on SiriusXM Satellite radio, Sundays at noon (XM channel 121 | Sirius channel 205), or listen on the following stations below. You can also download the free National Geographic Weekend podcast at iTunes or stream the show directly to your smartphone using Stitcher.com.

National Geographic Weekend Station List

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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.