National Geographic Society Newsroom

Okavango Expedition 2013: We are lost in the Okavango Delta

From Steve Boyes’ expedition diary (@drsteveboyes): Every great expedition through the ages gets lost… If we didn’t we would not be pushing the boundaries of science and exploration. We would not be discovering something new. We are currently undertaking the first, most comprehensive scientific survey across the Okavango Delta in mokoros in September ever undertaken....

A big bull hippo rears up at KG.
A big bull hippo rears up at KG.

From Steve Boyes’ expedition diary (@drsteveboyes):

Every great expedition through the ages gets lost… If we didn’t we would not be pushing the boundaries of science and exploration. We would not be discovering something new. We are currently undertaking the first, most comprehensive scientific survey across the Okavango Delta in mokoros in September ever undertaken. We always knew this was the end of the annual flood and a time when the parts of the delta we are passing through just want to be left alone. Everyone must leave. The elephants, the general game, the birds, everyone. Next month even the fish and aquatic fauna will have to leave and let the area rest in the burning sun. This is the essence of wilderness, a place that self-regulates and doesn’t need people to make sure it is functioning correctly.

From Paul Steyn’s expedition diary (@paulsteyn1):

This morning, our mokoros floated along Chiefs Island and I could not have pictured a more surreal place on this planet.

The towering fig, jackal berry, marula and palms that stand strong and tall on the banks of the river were covered in life. Troops of baboons played in the branches and under their shade we found herds of impala, kudu and elephants. Even with my most passionate of childhood imaginations, this was everything I could picture of the perfect bushveld setting. I wanted to soak up every moment and store it somewhere for a bad day.

There were also many frightening and frustrating moments in the day. Every pool we come to seems to hold some type of animal intent of halting our way – herds of hippos use these pools as refuge from the receding floods and will not move. This morning, there was such a big pod in our way that we couldn’t find a single way past.

“It’s impossible,” Steve said as we approached the scene.  “15… 20… maybe 25 hippos on top of each other.”

“Two elephants behind them as well,” someone said from behind.

“There is another channel here,” GB suggested. He pointed behind the reeds and began to manoeuvre the boat.

“There’s no water.” Steve said, guessing.

“Let’s try”

We spent the next 20 minutes hacking through the reeds in search of deeper water, the baYei polers chatting away in Tswana, obviously plotting some type of route. I had absolutely no idea what was going on or where we were going. More elephants began crashing through the bush around us like combine harvesters.

“We are bloody, flippin stuck in the reeds and about to die.” I announced.

“What’s going on there?” Steve shouted from behind.

“No idea – we are waiting for an update. The polers have gone walking.”

Giles, our resident Englishman, returned shortly to tell us that it was like Waterloo station full of elephants. No way but to drag our boats over the island ahead and hopefully find a new channel around the hippos.

The confusion continued like this for another three hours. At one point I stood up on my mokoro to see what had become of the GB, KG, Chaps and the guys and saw all four of them standing in separate trees, staring clueless into the distance.

“I sometimes question the baYei sense of direction,” I said to John, half-jokingly. I was a little pissed off that they had taken us so far off course. Being pissed off gets you nowhere here though.

We eventually realised that our new course was taking us nowhere so backtracked to the deadly pod of hippos, only to find that they had left and moved further along. Their new pool left us about five meters of gap that we could use to squeeze past and continue our way. But we were still very much lost.

At the end of the day, it’s possible to reflect on all the emotions that we go through. Awe, excitement, fright, frustration etc… they all combine to produce an experience I find hard to constrict into any sequential narrative.

We now find ourselves on another mind-blowingly beautiful island in the absolute middle of the Okavango Delta. GB and KG have gone off on a reconnaissance mission to find out our route tomorrow and will hopefully return with good news. We will see. The guys are incredibly strong, and their intuition is remarkable, but sometimes the Okavango gets the better of even the baYei. And today she told us to piss off.

Nowhere to go - hippos in the way!
Nowhere to go – hippos in the way!

From Steve Boyes’ expedition diary:

We have learnt out here, on this expedition, that the only things that are important, the only things we should worry or care about, are our health and our place on this living, breathing planet. We struggled today. We did. We argued out of frustration. We stood around defeated by this place. We had started in paradise with abundant wildlife and some of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen, and then, we struggled and toiled to find our way.

This is the process of impregnating this amazing wilderness on your soul forever. Everyone involved in this research expedition will never forget this experience and will spend the rest of their lives as ambassadors of this important place, one of the last true wilderness areas on earth, one of the last places we are able to find ourselves and where we fit into life on this planet. We are not the managers and owners of this grand blue and green earth as we would like to believe. We are simply a species that needs to learn that we must fit in or we will be evicted.

 See you tomorrow.

Powered by Suunto,, Inmarsat and digitalpeppa

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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.