Okavango Expedition 2013: The Greatest Moment of All

Frustrated after days pushing fully-loaded mokoros across dry floodplains always looking for flowing water and the path we know. Nothing, no water… We were recording two or three birds an hour and the searing heat is making the tablet cut out. “Frustrated” just doesn’t capture it. Begging for it to stop is maybe better. Doing another September transect is essential and represents the first repeat year in a nine-year study. Research was, however, going very well as we had seen thousands of birds in the same floodplain in 2012.

The euphoric scene after leaving the reeds out into the main channel.
The euphoric scene after leaving the reeds out into the main channel.

By noon we were still pulling the mokoros for hundreds of meters and really getting nowhere. Still begging. Then, eventually, after a few slow periods of struggle with narrow pathways, we found a sandy bank with flowing water in paradise. We had found what looked like our path to the channel. A few hours later, after fighting more narrow hippo paths, we arrived on the main channel we knew and our path to “Buffalo Skull” Island and one of our most important research areas had been regained. This a place where we had discovered new slaty egret breeding sites and found over 5,000 Egyptian geese unable to fly due to being in molt. Feathers and flapping geese everywhere! Interestingly, this year we saw hundreds of birds over about three kilometres of channel. To us this was the abundance of life right in front of us, but compared to previous years many of the birds had moved. We hope to find them when we catch up with the flood? Will keep you updated…

The research team has lifted their spirits after entering one of the world’s premier wilderness areas. We are a day behind and hoping to get to Mombo Camp tomorrow morning to collect another member of our team. Lechwe, zebra, buffalo, hippo, impala, kudu and lion abound. There is a giraffe kill about 2 kilometers up the channel. We are excited to return to an area where I did part of my PhD research and consider a spiritual home. We need to do everything we can to make sure that this wilderness is protected for future generations. This important place needs to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Paul Steyn’s expedition diary (Follow on twitter @paulsteyn1)

 Here I sit watching a breeding herd of elephants grazing by the water’s edge, and I feel like I’ve been born again. Leaving behind the dreaded toil of the last five days has been one of the highest points in my life.

Elephant feeding near our camp site.
Elephant feeding near our camp site.

I will never forget the feeling today when we burst through those reeds and into the channel we had waited so long to find. Animals of all kind littered the banks and birds were flitting in and out of sight as our mokoros eased out over the clear flowing water.

This is the scene the others have been describing since we started. This is what the flood water of the Okavango brings every year. This is wonderland.

If you have been following our previous posts you would have some idea why this is such a great moment for us. It’s as if the expedition has been reignited after a period of mild torment. We’ve started to call bird species again, our cameras are out snapping away and I’ve been writing pages and pages of notes about the last few days. The team is in top spirit and I am walking around in a kind of elated daze.

There’s so much life near our island. I’ve noted at least 15 different bird species since arriving, including 3 fish eagles in the last 5 minutes. There are hippos, red letchwe, zebra, giraffe and elephant surrounding the island as if welcoming us to their wonderland.

The best sunset of the expedition.
The best sunset of the expedition.

The message is clearer than ever. This is what we are here for. This is why the Okavango is such a special place and why it deserves to be protected. The struggle of the last few days only served to remind us that the balance of life is cyclical. As the floods grow and recede, the wildlife reacts accordingly. We now know more about why and how this happens. We are better equipped to predict the consequences of issues and threats facing the delta. This is what research and conservation is all about – heading out into the best and worst of the wilderness and discovering the questions, and hopefully the answers too. It’s about finding out.

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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.