A splash of life in the Kalahari Sand Basin
In northern Botswana, the Okavango Delta is surrounded by the dry Kalahari sands. This vast sprawl of grassy plains floods seasonally, fed by water from Angola two countries away to create a lush water wonderland—supporting an abundance of wildlife and a tourism industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A wildlife wonderland
Zebra and impala are just some of the inhabitants of this vast open wetland. While most delta systems run into the sea, the Okavango River radiates out over dry land, creating an inland delta that shape-shifts each year. Seasonal infusions of floodwater support wildlife unrivaled in the region and otherwise unable to exist in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. One of these animals, the plains zebra, is so distinctive that it even appears on Botswana’s coat of arms.
The perfect storm
Lightning fractures the sky above the Angolan highlands during a rainy season storm. Hundreds of kilometers away from the Okavango Delta, this is the dramatic birth of water that becomes the lifeblood of the Delta. It seeps into the moist Miombo woodland earth—a place locals call Lisima Lya Mwono, the “Source of Life”— before releasing into source lakes feeding the rivers that snake their way into the Okavango.
One of the rivers emerging from the Angolan highlands, the Cuando, often carries a deluge of water through the Okavango Basin. Like the whole river system that feeds the Okavango Delta, this lifeline is under growing threats of deforestation and land clearance for agriculture—practices that are putting the future of the Delta at risk.
Exploring the Okavango
Since 2015 the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project team has been exploring the Okavango Delta and the river systems that feed it. Here, during a 2018 expedition, a low flood pulse allowed exploration of the northern and eastern reaches, a new route for the team and a region of the Delta seldom visited by humans. The researchers traveled hundreds of miles in mekoro (dugout canoes) conducting surveys of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, insects, and hydrology, which resulted in multiple discoveries of species new to science and an even more persuasive case for preserving the pristine wilderness around them.
National Geographic Explorer Steve Boyes and his brother Chris Boyes cautiously discourage a large lone elephant from charging the team. The Okavango Delta and the regions around it are truly wild, so the team must be prepared for wildlife encounters at any time. In a potentially life-threatening situation, it’s important to stay calm. Team members know how to read an animal’s body language and anticipate its intentions. In this case, Steve and Chris both make themselves look as large as possible to persuade the elephant to stand down and not charge.
Beware the deep
While life can be contemplative on the water, it isn’t only on land that the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project team needs to be wary of wildlife encounters. Hippos can be found along―and in―most freshwater systems in sub-Saharan Africa, and they can be more dangerous than crocodiles if they attack when startled. Their substantial heft makes short work of flipping a delicate little mekoro, something Steve Boyes is all too aware of, having been upended and thrown into the water by an unhappy adolescent.
A quick dip
Jeremias Kwatoco, an Angolan poler with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, has his own technique for drinking water straight from the river. After 16 days on the Cuando River and a couple hundred kilometers downstream from its source lakes, the water is still clean, clear, and delicious. The team never has to worry about carrying water, or even using cups: Anyone who wants a drink need simply dip a hand over the side of the boat.
A partnership for prosperity
Having worked in partnership with the people of Botswana for over 50 years, diamond company De Beers is committed to ensuring that every diamond they discover creates a lasting positive impact for people and the planet. That’s why De Beers is joining National Geographic in its work to preserve the source waters of the Okavango Delta. Through Okavango Eternal, De Beers and National Geographic will work together to protect this natural wonder and support communities―from Angola to Botswana―to build livelihoods and achieve prosperity in balance with the natural world.
Explore Okavango Eternal here.