Every year for more than a decade, scientists and other researchers from the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP), now also supported by De Beers through the Okavango Eternal partnership, trace centuries-old routes of the river people through the Okavango Delta to conduct biodiversity surveys. “We follow the exact route every year. Nothing much has changed―and that’s a good thing,” says Dr. Rainer von Brandis, NGOWP research director, on seeing similar numbers of species each year. Von Brandis explains that these transects—the process of traveling across a section of the region while gathering data on the ecosystem—are like monitoring the Delta’s heartbeat. “[With the data collected], we would be the first to know exactly when something goes wrong, or if anything changes,” he says. For the research team, any changes in wildlife numbers or diversity could indicate problems in the upstream ecosystem—the one that stretches all the way up into the Angola highlands and supplies the water that fuels life in the Delta. This is one of several transects that Okavango Eternal is supporting, and should the team’s findings uncover any problems with the Delta’s “heartbeat,” a faster solution can be found.
During the flood season, the expedition employs the traditional vessel of the Okavango called a mokoro―a type of dugout canoe―to navigate the complex labyrinth of waterways. Scientists also rely on the knowledge and experience of locals to guide them through this completely wild place. In the village of Seronga, the launch point for the Delta crossing, these guides, or “polers” as they are known, gather around a pile of nkashi—the traditional wooden poles used to punt and steer mekoro. Each poler must select the most suitable nkashi for the way ahead. It is ritualistic: The choice they make will have an impact on the entire journey. The height, curvature, and weight are the most important elements that influence the choice of nkashi. Carved from the mogonono tree (also known as a silver terminalia), they must physically feel it … stroke their hands up and down … connect with it spiritually. If the poler feels a connection with their nkashi, it will shape itself to their thrust, allowing its handler to cut through the water all the more deftly.
To navigate, the expedition uses both modern GPS technology and “human GPS”—an ability possessed by experienced polers who know the intricate waterways of the Okavango Delta by heart. These are the people whose ancestors are buried on the Delta’s islands. They grew up surrounded by water, and learning to pole was like learning to walk. The river has given them everything―from food to education to recreation. This knowledge is generational, but fleeting—if it’s not passed down to younger generations and practiced regularly, it will likely disappear. Project leaders recognize this, and have made it a practice to pair local veteran polers with younger polers so this invaluable indigenous skill set can be passed down proactively. This is why Oarabile Xhao, a youthful poler from Jedibe village, joined the expedition with his grandfather, the legendary poler Comet Sairuku; now an elder will pass this Okavango Delta legacy to yet another generation.
Expeditions are normally comprised of around eight mekoro carrying 16 people representing different disciplines, each has a specific role to play for the success of the expedition. There are various scientists, bush guides, local elders, storytellers, and strong young polers like Xhao, whose nickname, “Yamaha,”―after the boat engine brand―reflects his strength and speed in the water.
A key daily activity is surveying wetland birds: their numbers can indicate the overall health of the ecosystem. As the expedition team’s mekoro snake through the river bordered by thick papyrus, a call from inside the bush cries out “cheeew-t-t-t-t treew, t-t-t-t-t-treew.” The first in the crew to hear this birdcall shouts, “Black crake!” To which the designated scientist responds, “Copy!” The species name is then entered into a database using a specialized research tablet. Later, on the open floodplains, an African fish eagle sitting majestically atop a tree on a distant island is spotted by National Geographic Explorer Gobonamang “GB” Kgetho, a particularly sharp-eyed poler. Perhaps the bird’s mate on the other side of the river will call out to its partner with a distinctive “wheee-ah-kleeuw-kleeuw-kluuu”: One more for the survey.
It isn’t just wetlands birds that are spotted and recorded―all life along the river, including people, is included in the researchers’ long list. Along the nearly 300-kilometer (185-mile) expedition route, there are specific sites from which scientists will collect data each year, including water quality and vegetation status.
Wildlife counting really gets dramatic when the team reaches an area called the Mombo plains on Chief’s Island. This is where we observe hundreds of whistling ducks taking off from a riverbank, where, just beyond the waterline, hide big crocodiles. Hundreds of red lechwe crash and splash as they spring up and down in the river across our path. Large herds of elephants feed and drink. Older members of the herd are calm knowing that they are safe interacting with humans in the Okavango Delta, while the younger ones, still unsure of the humans in mekoro, sometimes startle their parents and cause the whole herd to run. Some older bulls do not like to give way, having us move around them instead.
It’s important to keep an eye out for hippos. Especially sleeping ones. Polers have a complex relationship with hippos: They appreciate them because hippos are the engineers of the waterways—creating and maintaining them as they forage and eat, but when a hippo sleeping in the water is disturbed by a mokoro, the encounter can end with a capsized boat―or worse. Luckily the team’s extraordinary polers can often detect hippos underwater, and they possess almost superhuman reaction times when we do encounter a hippo. Expert polers like National Geographic Explorer Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha are always alert: Even when at the back of the mekoro formation, Setlabosha is able to spot suspicious ripples ahead and warn the front.
We are usually in the water between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Some days are bliss as we glide through beautiful channels with crisp, clear waters carpeted with blooming water lilies. Other days we might spend hours battling through a vegetation blockage on the river. But the most difficult days are when the survey route runs dry, and we must portage our fully-laden mekoro over land using harnesses.
At the end of each day, we find an island to serve as our home for the night. A good camping space is an area shaded by trees like the jackalberry, water berry, or fig. Campsites with expansive views of the river and lots of palm trees tend to be team favorites—here, scientists can upload their daily data while the rest of the team prepares for the night. Elephants like to move through these areas while feeding, creating stunning scenes at twilight when both palms and elephants are silhouetted against beautiful light.
At night everyone responds to a call of “Grubs up!” announcing that dinner is ready with an equally loud “Copy!” before gathering around the campfire. Dinner is always rice and beans―although, the kitchen team is quick to point out, dinner is sometimes beans and rice.
The best nights are under clear winter skies when there is no moon. On these dark nights in the bush, there is no light pollution to obscure the most vivid star views. It is beautiful. And then comes the distinctive nighttime soundtrack of the African bush—grunts, chirps, shrieks, laughter, squeals, growls, buzz, howls, trumpets, and, of course, the mighty roars of the lion kings. Safely in our tents, we often host visitors at night. Sometimes hyenas are snooping for anything to chew on (we are advised to never leave shoes outside our tents). And on some nights, lions visit. When a lion roars near your camp at night, it is quite the experience: You can feel the vibration through the ground―and in the deafening silence that follows, you can hear your own heartbeat clearly.
But joy arrives in the morning when the dawn chorus welcomes the sunrise to announce another beautiful day for poling through the Okavango Delta. Finally, this expedition―and our journey―end in Maun at the Botswana Wild Bird Trust’s Nkashi Knowledge Centre. This is where, after customary celebratory hugs, we finally enjoy the much anticipated “burger and beer” meal—a tradition that we’ve adopted from project leader Dr. Steve Boyes, who embarked on the first transect in 2010 with a small team that included poler and guide Gobonamang Kgetho. Now the science team is able to send their samples to labs to study the health of this incredible wetland and record their findings. Their research will help to increase scientific understanding about the wildlife species that call the Delta home, how they interact, and how any changes in the water supply could be affecting it. This is how we monitor the heartbeat of the Okavango—to work toward ensuring its permanent protection.
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