#Okavango14: Out There …

I don’t possess the words to accurately illustrate this place.

I’ve always had a passionate flair—I speak about the places I visit with inspiration that I often expect fails to resonate with my audience, my superlative soup only conjuring up images of whatever a reader’s biggest or greatest experience has been, most falling outside the context I’m trying to relate.

So, it is with some hesitancy that I say this place is beyond those superlatives. This place is… out there.

 An elephant clashes with hippos. (Photo by Gregg Treinish)
An elephant clashes with hippos. (Photo by Gregg Treinish)

Each morning I wake and repeat the mistake of clenching my fists. The pain that sears through my wrists and into my arms shocks the sleep out of me almost instantly (even the two separate elephants mere feet outside my tent on the last two nights failed to wake me from the deep sleep I’ve fallen into after the days of relentless struggle). This agony is a result of the determination with which I clutch my ngashi, the large stick made from the silver terminalia tree that I’ve used to push my way across the delta.

We have earned where we are now. We’ve used every ounce of our strength to part the 10-foot-tall impenetrable grasses that blocked our path, reversing our course repeatedly in search of hippo or elephant paths to ease the fight. We have strapped our mokoros to harnesses and pulled six in line like dogs mushing through deep snow. We have pulled over dry ground and poled through deep mud. We have endured and we have arrived… out there.

Gregg pulls a mokoro through thick grasses. (Photo by James Kydd)
Gregg pulls a mokoro through thick grasses. (Photo by James Kydd)

This morning, after barely negotiating the second of several hippo pods we encountered throughout the day, we watched more than 40 elephants cross the river in front of us. Two trailing behind also had to back down to the cantankerous hippos. This was a clash between two of the largest mammals on Earth.

Immediately, Shah turned and smiled ear-to-ear. “That was the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life,” he said, stealing the words right from my mouth.

In one day, we’ve seen baboons, vervet monkeys, zebras, lechwe, kudu, mongoose, warthogs, impala, monitor lizards, giraffe, hippos, elephants, hyenas, otter, crocodile, eagles, herons, egrets, storks and jacana. Most of these species are visible at any given moment if we look across the flood plain.

The sun sets behind rain trees, African ebony and palms with the reddish tinge of smoke from nearby burning grasses as monkeys play in the trees silhouetted against the darkening sky. Constantly the sounds of hippos, birds and elephants bellowing in the distance interrupt our conversations.

BaYei poler GB looks for another route around a hippo pod. (Photo by Gregg Treinish)

Tomorrow is my last day with the group, and I will watch from afar as they continue downstream. I know I will return to this place, and with many of the same people. This partnership between Shah Selbe, Jer Thorpe and the Office for Creative Research, Steve Boyes’ Wild Bird Trust, and my organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, brings together art, engineering, adventure science and a deep-seated passion and knowledge of the delta. Our goal is to ensure that the development threatening this magnificent ecosystem never happens.

As I prepare to leave, I realize the Okavango is a reminder of what once was. It’s as though we’ve poled 10,000 years back in time.

We can choose to extract the riches from this place, to drill it, mine it and log it. We can build high-rise hotels and roads and bring cars here, too. We can, and that is our choice. We can also choose to maintain this sliver of a link to the history of life on the planet. We can choose to leave a few places alone and let them remain… out there.

Listen to Gregg describe his experience the night he wrote this:

Many thanks to National Geographic, Clif Bar and Company, Inmarsat and Sat4Rent for making this trip possible.

Gregg Treinish is Executive Director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Learn more at adventurescience.org/okavango, on our Field Notes blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+. Stay tuned for opportunities to get involved in future Okavango expeditions.

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Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at adventurescientists.org/field-notes. Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.