Okavango Expedition 2013: On the Edge of Wilderness

Eleven wattled cranes, hundreds of spur-winged geese, saddle-billed stork everywhere, cormorants, egrets, a multitude of fish eagles, and a whiskered tern fishing in front of a blood red sun… On the edge of the wilderness again and all on the research team are transfixed by the scene, this wonderful Okavango Delta.

In a way all of us have geared our lives to do this 9-year research project using wetland birds as indicators for significant change in this magnificent, soon-to-be World Heritage Site.

Wattled cranes flying
Wattled cranes flying

There is almost no water here up north this year along our transect route across the Okavango and we are not getting where we need to each day. Today we missed “Burning Tree” Island and found an absolute gem in amongst the over 10,000 other green, palmyislands. We learn something new from every island we visit and build on ten years of work on Vundumtiki Island in the NE of the delta.

We are on the edge of the wilderness, on the edge of the most important part of our research and one of the most beautiful places on earth. Tomorrow we hope to make it Madinari Island and then we will try for the islands off the northern peninsula of Chief’s Island…

From Paul Steyn’s expedition diary

The swamp is drawing us into it like a magnet.

Bird sighting have increased substantially and we can’t seem to stop calling out fish eagles. We saw our first elephants today, a sitatunga and many letchwe on the wetland plains. As I sit writing this there is an elephant about 50 meters away chewing on a papysus branch. The wilderness, nervous at first, is now opening up to us, and it feels amazing.

My first taste of Eden came in the form of an island yesterday. As the afternoon began to end, we pulled up on a small patch of land with a big sausage tree sticking up out the middle. Setting up camp has become fairly habitual, and once that was complete, I took a stroll to the far side of the island. Steve was sitting by the water making notes – blending into the surroundings as if he were a part of it. I snapped a few pics of him and carried on.

Steve immersed in nature.

There was a high termite mound and I wanted to get my bearings so I scrambled up the side of it. Termite mounds are a dominant feature in the Okavango – pretty much every single island is made up of termites. This one was particularly high, and once on top, I could survey the entire area.

Other islands dotted around ours like an archipelago – each patch of land connected by hippo and elephant trails. Six wattled cranes flew across the sun. That’s more wattled cranes in one sighting than I’ve ever seen. The air around me was pulsing with the energy of wetland life and I breathed in the anesthetic. This was the most peaceful I have felt in a long time.

Shot from on top of the termite mound.
Shot from on top of the termite mound.

The entire team seems to be on a similar high from our immersion into the delta. Although polling is hard in the day, everyone is happy by the time sunset arrives, and keen to get going in the morning.

We have two incredibly tough days ahead, polling though low water and travelling long distances.

But everyone knows Chiefs Island is coming. And that’s the real wonderland. Stay tuned.

For more follow us in 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.