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Okavango Expedition 2013: The Greatest Day Ever

From Steve Boyes’ Expedition Diary (@drsteveboyes): The best day we have ever had on expedition… Thousands of birds in 1022 GPS-marked sightings over 9 hours of poling down narrow channels filled with crocodile, hippo and the abundance of life. We had to portage many times today to pass by large, immovable pods of hippo. We...

Steve waving off a bull elephant
Steve waving off a bull elephant

From Steve Boyes’ Expedition Diary (@drsteveboyes):

The best day we have ever had on expedition… Thousands of birds in 1022 GPS-marked sightings over 9 hours of poling down narrow channels filled with crocodile, hippo and the abundance of life. We had to portage many times today to pass by large, immovable pods of hippo. We saw so many birds that my brain almost burnt out.

The research was more than we ever expected with heronries of up to 80 night herons, a flock of 36 wattled cranes, the first african skimmers, and more long-toed lapwings than we have ever seen. To top it all off we eventually completing the transect at Simbira Baobab. One of my most special places on earth and the best place I know to find out who you are meant to be.

From Paul Steyn’s Expedition Diary (@paulsteyn1):

It’s been the greatest day of our expedition. My adrenaline has been heaving for nine hours straight. We came face to face with at least five life-threatening situations, and hundreds of incredible wildlife moments while immersed in this amazing natural ecosystem.

The unbelievable concentration of birds and animals along the channel system resulted in a continuous flow of wildlife around every corner. I maxed out my camera battery and memory card trying to photograph it all.

It’s far too dangerous to do what we just did. We all know this. The wildlife along the banks would never expect to see people at this time of year. And for good reason too. As we’ve found, it’s virtually impossible to reach our position in mokoros, and even if others did make it, there’s no reason for them to risk navigating the waters down from Mombo at this time of year.

Hundreds of hippos were taking up the pools along the way, resulting in tense moments trying to pass the pods on the water or while dragging mokoros. At one moment we bumped into a single bull in the stream ahead of us. He disappeared under the water just in front, so we backed off slowly to the bank, hoping he would move off. He kept coming though, which was strange as the hippos don’t usually approach the mokoros. As we reached the bank, we realised he was approaching another hippo that was right under our original position. The two of them were no more that 5 meters from our mokoros as we eased past as silent as the air.

Another stimulating moment came when a big bull elephant blocked our way for 20 minutes. Eventually we began to shout, slap the water and pressure him off so we could pass. It looked like he was about to leave the area, but instead began to charge the front boat, causing a huge scene, before finally moving off. Tense moments.

We saw buffalo bulls, big breeding herds of elephants,a herd of at least 500  letchwe, and thousands of birds. The birds were everywhere and Steve and the research team could barely keep up the counting for nine hours straight. Eventually the tablet packed up and died from overuse, and we had to resort to good old pen and paper.

Other than the incredible concentration of birds and mammals, we also found many crocodiles along the streams. At one point we came across a scene similar to a horror movie. There was a pungent smell of death in the air – a rotting carcass of some kind near the water. The first croc emerged from the reeds and gave the front mokoro a bit of a fright. Then the flow of reptiles began. Steve was up front and pointing out crocs under his boat with a mixture of terror and excitement. As the rest of the mokoros eased over, the shouts increased as the polers began to see the crocs in the clear shallow water under our boats.

“His head is a meter long,” Pete shouted from behind my boat. “Jesus, we shouldn’t be here now.”

I looked ahead of me and Steve was pointing to the right of his mokoro, warning the people in his boat about the looming danger below.

“It’s a big one, GB!” Steve shouted. “It’s coming round, it’s coming round, its coming round!”

An almighty splash emerged next to the boat and the mokoro began to heave over as if in a storm.

The boat righted itself and everyone managed to somehow stay in the mokoro. Red faces emerged with a mixture of nervous laughter and a kind of ‘let’s get the hell out of here’ look in their eyes.

A huge crocodile comes up right next to one of the moving mokoros...
A huge crocodile comes up right next to one of the moving mokoros…

Wonderland has produced the most epic day for us and we are totally revved from the experience. After six days of hard work we feel like we deserve it, and we know there are very few people who have made it here to see what we’ve seen, making today even more unique and special.

The dangers are obvious. We know this. But the addiction of the Okavango has taken hold and I’m keen on tomorrow’s fix.

From Steve Boyes’ expedition Diary:

Soon after landing from the day’s poling, I phoned my wife, Dr Kirsten Wimberger, on the satellite phone. We were chatting about updates from when I heard the team shout: “Bona phiri!!” (“Loook hyena!!!”). I looked up into the darkness and saw the eyes of 6 hyenas illuminated their flashlights bearing down on me. Running straight at us! Still on the phone, I ran back to the fire to witness 25 hyenas ducking and diving in front of us. The clan must be over 50 hyenas and they have not stopped calling.

My wife could hear the hyenas going on in the background. When added to the crocodile, the elephant, the hippos and everything else, what a day, 9 hours of poling through on of the planet’s premier wilderness areas.

This is a pilgrimage, a journey through the Okavango wilderness that will change your life. The whole world needs to care about places like this. We need to do everything we can to protect these last places.

Please go to and help us complete the first scientific survey of the entire length of the Okavango River down the Cuito sub-catchment in Angola next year.

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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.