Okavango Expedition 2013: Lost

From the dairy of Paul Steyn – expedition writer

“We are lost. We may have to sleep in the mokoros tonight.”

I could not tell if GB was joking.

I was fairly certain he was serious about being lost though. We’d been paddling for eight hours, the sun was about to set, and we still hadn’t found a dry island to camp on for the night. And GB, our expedition head guide, looked highly concerned.

GB - The expedition head poller.
GB – The expedition head poller.

“I know every single route here,” GB continued. “But I don’t know this one.”

Only day one of Okavango Expedition 2013 and we were already lost. We were following a number of subtle pointers put up between the waterways to show the route to the main channel. GB calls them “The signs of the pollers” – a broken papyrus branch; a lilly hanging out the water, or a twisted stem.

We’d already tried to islands for potential camp sites, but both were water-logged. The sun was low and the trees in the far distance held the promise of dry land. On we slogged.

Steve and John in search of an island to camp on for the night
Steve and John in search of an island to camp on for the night

I was polling with KG, and he seemed strong and upbeat. We’d stopped calling out bird species because the research iPad was now way out of earshot. The other mokoros were lagging behind and it seemed up to us to get ahead and check out possibilities.

“What do you think KG?” I asked looking ahead at a sausage tree sticking out of what seemed to be a sizable Island.

“I don’t know, maybe.”

We hit a thick bed of reeds about 200 meters from the island, bringing us to a frustrating halt. Thoughts of going round faded with our fatigue and we decided to make a go of it. It was like polling through butter, but eventually a hippo path appeared the led us to the bank of the island and up into the unknown brush. The other mokoros had stopped at the thick reeds behind us, obviously waiting for the word. We jumped out of the mokoro and began walking along a game track to see if there was an open space to camp.

Walking onto an unknown island in these places always worries me. Most of the terrain was dried mud full of old hippo and elephant tracks and it didn’t look promising.  But the promises turned out to be wrong. A grassy patch appeared before us – bumpy, small and less than ideal for camping.

“This will do,” KG said.

I walked to the muddy bank and lifted my long poll to signal to the others to join us. Some clapping and the odd excited whoop signaled their delight.

It’s only day 2 of our 18-day mokoro research trip. Keep up to date with us on twitter (@drsteveboyes and @paulsteyn1) 

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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.