They Journeyed Into One of the Last Great Wildernesses. Here's How It Changed Them.

A multinational team of conservationists spent a grueling, transcendent four months on a 1,500-mile expedition to save the Okavango Delta—but the mission's just beginning.

Photograph by Pete Muller, National Geographic
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The expedition crew begins a morning on the Cubango River, the swifter-flowing of the Okavango's tributaries. “It’s a unique opportunity in our world now to protect such a vast-impact system,” says expedition lead Steve Boyes.
Photograph by Pete Muller, National Geographic

In northwestern Botswana, the arid ground of the Kalahari Desert gives way beneath the thousand green fingers—an unfurling hand of permanent marshes and seasonal floodplains, knuckled with islands, whorled by shifting channels and streams—known as the Okavango Delta.

The inland terminus of a massive wetland that traces its sources north through the Namibian panhandle to rivers in the Angolan highlands, it’s Africa’s largest intact watershed. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, giving shelter to thousands of unique species of flora and fauna and sustenance to a million people, including indigenous groups whose communities line the rivers and dot the delta. When winter floodwaters reach Botswana, the 8,500-square-mile plain is visible from space.

For some, it’s become the center of the world.

“You feel like you’ve been looking for something your whole life,” says Steve Boyes, a conservation biologist and National Geographic Fellow who has made the delta his life's work. “And then you find it.”

The first time he saw the Okavango Delta, at 21 years old in 2000, the South African quit his job and told his university supervisor, “I’ll try to finish my master’s degree from Botswana, but I’m going. Bye.”

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Raised in Johannesburg by ardent nature-lovers, ornithologist Steve Boyes describes feeling like he'd searched his entire life to find the Okavango Delta.

It was the start of a calling that would eventually lead Boyes—and a team of equally zealous conservationists—to undertake an expedition that, by their own estimation, was slightly insane: to survey the entire system, from beginning to end, in a whole-hearted attempt to learn anything and everything they could use to protect it.

SOURCE TO SAND

Over a decade of fieldwork (during which he did, in fact, finish his master’s, as well as a Ph.D.) Boyes came to realize the only way to preserve the Okavango is to preserve all of it, headwaters to endpoint.

A patchwork of game reserves and other managed areas protect the system’s Botswanan swath. But the delta’s richness obscures its dependence on water management in Namibia, where agricultural irrigation schemes divert and pollute the tributary Cubango River—and in Angola, where a brutal 27-year civil war and its lingering consequences have divorced the southeastern highlands from the rest of the nation, leaving the delta’s vulnerable headwaters to a management vacuum.

Boyes, along with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project he directs, envisions a protected area that spans the entire Okavango Basin in its three constituent countries. But data comes before policy, and they needed data. So in May of 2015, Boyes and a team of scientists and guides set out with literal tons of gear to canoe a 1,500-mile path from the origin of the Cuito River through that tributary’s course to meet the Cubango River, transecting the delta to end at the salt flats marking the delta’s southern edge. [Read more from the magazine on the 2015 expedition.]

watch the trailer

Years in the making, the National Geographic documentary film Into the Okavango premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22 with later showings at select theaters.

The expedition had less than auspicious beginnings.

“Nothing good could ever happen there,” Adjany Costa once said of her country’s common perception of the highlands. An Angolan ichthyologist and the project's assistant director, she remembers how, when she was a young child, the war’s violence reached even to her family’s living room in Luanda, the capital. In the highlands things were even worse. Belligerents on both sides planted land mines throughout the area where the expedition was to launch; over a decade after the conflict’s 2002 end, thousands still remain.

A humanitarian mine removal organization accompanied the expedition to ensure routes were clear. But safely reaching the launch point didn’t mark the end of the challenges: The satellite imagery Boyes pored over for months had hidden the fact that, at its source, the Cuito River wasn’t a river at all, barely a stream, more a trickle through waist-high grass—and impassable by mokoro, the team’s delta-style dugout canoes.

So they harnessed themselves up for eight arduous days of dragging the seven 20-foot boats, loaded with equipment, one after the other through the peaty marshland, collecting data all the while. [Learn how peat bogs can reduce carbon emissions.]

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Adjany Costa, an Angolan marine biologist, collects plant and water samples in the delta's Angolan headwaters. Though her role as assistant director of the Okavango Wilderness Project now combines field work with politics, Costa was a permanent member—and the only female member—of the 2015 expedition; she'll also join this a stretch of this year's expedition.

“We know that we can’t repeat these things, so we gather as much information as possible on the spot,” Boyes says.

As it turns out, “as much as possible” is a monumental volume of data. As the river finally opened to navigability, the information rolled in in earnest. Data pods measured water quality against seven parameters in two-second intervals; scanners imaged the river structure beneath the boats; peat cores were taken; camera traps were set. Boyes, an ornithologist, led the sighting calls—cranes, jacana, and kingfishers, but hippopotamuses and crocodiles and antelope as well—with each observation precisely geotagged. One gigabyte of data, the equivalent of 10,000 emails, was uploaded each day for 119 days.

“I killed a lot of fish” collecting specimens for study, Costa admits ruefully. “I’m not proud of it.”

The team survived a clash with a hippo that capsized Boyes’s boat (which was repaired and back on the water in two hours). They spent nights watching man-made bush fires creep to the far edge of the river, and days fighting through passages choked with trees destabilized by erosion the fires exacerbate. Other days, when the river was broad, their canoes left tracks like handwriting on the aquatic grasses waving beneath the dark, transparent water. And all the while: science.

“It’s just part of your routine,” Boyes says. “Expedition to me is like Groundhog Day: Every single day you do exactly the same thing.”

In September 2015, two months later than planned, the expedition—jubilant, exhausted, ground by the wild to the finest human points—reached the end.

They had collected over 30,000 geotagged sightings, observed 38 species not previously known to exist in Angola, and described 24 species potentially new to science. The next months were devoted to analyzing and reporting on their mountain of data, petitioning government authorities, and planning future expeditions. [See the team's 2017 expedition to dive the source lakes of the Cubango.]

But in many ways, the journey still hasn’t ended.

RARE AND EXCEPTIONAL BEAUTY

The Okavango is an invaluable wilderness. The biodiversity it supports is crowned by the world’s largest remaining population of elephants, whose movements shape and reshape the delta’s channels and landscapes. It’s easy to see why 100,000 tourists a year flock to delta outposts on safari—but it takes a different kind of person entirely to throw themselves headlong into the wild.

“I don’t think I was thinking,” Costa laughs of her decision to join the expedition. For the then-25-year-old scientist, the rough adjustment to field life was compounded by the difficulty of being the only woman on a crew of over a dozen men.

But she too had been hit by Boyes’s delta fervor. Two months in, the expedition crew called a government helicopter to medevac a team member who’d broken his arm in a fall. Costa’s father, a former soldier, unexpectedly accompanied the medics, intent on taking her home.

“He could see I was struggling. Everyone was,” Costa says. “I told him, ‘Listen, I’ve never quit anything in my life. I’m not going to start now.’ He almost cried. I think it made him both sad and proud at the same time.”

Her fortitude impressed Boyes, but didn’t surprise him. “Once someone’s experienced [the wild], they really do repurpose their lives,” he says. “It’s an addiction. It’s family. To be thrust into the present moment by the wilderness … Everything is stripped away. That’s survival. That’s the human experience in the wild, and we’ve become wild.”

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The team gathers over a dinner of rice and beans. “When you sit round the fire at night,” says Boyes, “You can say anything that you saw [that day]—whether it’s a small little white-collared kingfisher or a big fish eagle—and every single person sitting there saw it, because everyone was connected to that moment.”

The Okavango is wild, but for some, it’s not so unknown. The team’s polers and guides—Botswanans born and raised in the delta, including a member of the ba’Yei minority—shared knowledge without which the expedition would have foundered.

PEOPLE POWER

For Costa, the people living along the tributaries’ Angolan banks changed her just as much as the wilderness did.

“This expedition made me a person. I didn’t feel like a person before,” she says. “It wasn’t just the contact with wildlife, it was the contact with my own people … I lived during the civil war, but that is absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what these people have been through.”

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Land mines have killed thousands and injured tens of thousands in Angola, beginning in 1961 during its struggle for independence from Portugal. The 1988 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale—a town on the Cuito River, and part of the Okavango watershed—was the largest battle on African soil since WWII.

Civil war swiftly followed Angola’s 1975 independence from Portugal, as a power struggle between former liberation movements became a surrogate arena for Cold War conflict. To escape the violence, some civilians of the southeastern highlands retreated into the remotest areas, collapsing bridges and living isolated among minefields to the present day.

The crew was a month into the expedition before they saw signs of humans at all: women washing cassava at the river, who ran at the sight of them, and only reluctantly heard out Costa when she followed to explain. Invited back to the village, the crew listened to the chief say, through Costa’s translation, that if he were to ask the government for anything it would be for oil, salt, a paved road, a nurse, and a teacher, in that order.

“It was so humbling,” Costa says. “I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see what these people look like, live like, feel like, think of—it just gave me a greater connection to the whole system and to understand how these people are part of it.” [Meet the journalist who traveled to Angola retracing the steps of a long-lost ancestor.]

“It’s a huge responsibility interacting with people like that,” Boyes says. “Our agenda is to support and assist and learn from them. A lot of people will come down the roads we’ve made with a different agenda.” As minefields are cleared, the highlands become vulnerable to another kind of mine: The extraction of diamonds and oil comprises over half of Angola’s economy.

The Okavango Wilderness Project is working with the Angolan government “to make sure [indigenous villagers’] heritage rights are taken care of,” says Boyes. “To make sure they get to be the custodians of those forests. Which they are. And it mustn’t be taken away from them.”

But Costa admits that “the Angolan government is not used to having a five-armed octopus. We have to give them one thing to do at a time.” While the Project’s political efforts concentrate on establishing a protective legal status for the entire Okavango Basin, those in the field undertake the slow work of building empowering partnerships with villagers in the watershed.

“We started on the low,” Costa says. After years of conflict, the villagers—members of the Luchaze and Tchokwe ethnic groups—had lost their connection to the environment, focusing on survival over sustainable management. Angola, once called “Africa’s living room” for its thriving elephant populations, now has one of the continent’s highest poaching rates.

“We’re trying to bring back their childhood memories of relationships with nature, animals, plants, so they can get a sense of belonging again,” Costa says. “But we’re not imposing changes. It’s giving them all of these tools so they understand the benefits, they understand what’s at stake and how their lives can improve, a future that they can have, and they will make the decisions for themselves.”

While being careful to avoid causing inflation, project researchers arrange homestays, paying villagers for room, board, and laundry. When hiring hunters as guides, researchers offer a set bonus price for each animal they see.

“We learn from them, and we try to give back,” Costa says. The hope, she explains, is that instead of starting destabilizing fires to flush game into traps for sustenance and illegal bush meat sale, villagers will realize a live animal brings more benefit to the entire community. [Meet two young Botswanan men hoping for a new life in the modern world.]

And after a while, the village chief went to Costa with an idea: What if he told his people to stop hunting in a nearby area with a lot of antelope? He was sure the other animals would come back, and the next time Costa visited, they could go and see.

“I almost cried,” Costa says.

CALL OF THE WILD

For the urban billions who are “tired, nerve-shaken, [and] over-civilized,” as John Muir put it, nature can be the greatest antidote. And while tourism can degrade wildernesses, it can also sustain them.

Botswana’s tourism industry is growing, and its game reserves are the primary attraction. The Moremi Game Reserve, which comprises the majority of the Okavango Delta’s protected areas, hosts dozens of temporary camps, accessible by air from the town of Maun. Tourism revenues nearing half a billion annually help preserve the delta’s pristine areas, and provide a model for other countries—like Angola—looking to boost the economy without damaging the environment. [Learn how Botswana became a leader in conservation.]

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The team's mokoros traverse and oxbow bend of the Cuito River. Much more slow-moving than its cousin, the Cubango, the Cuito River seeps from a source lake through old peat bogs, capable of absorbing up to 25 times their own dry weight in water, before forming a river.

For those hungering for a trip to find themselves in the wild, Costa has some advice.

“It’s cheesy,” she warns, “but don’t rush it. Self-awakening happens in a moment you’re not expecting, period. As soon as you think, ‘Oh my god, I have to awake,’ you don’t understand what’s happening around you.”

Instead, she says, “Be present. Live it. Stay there. Understand where you are: How do you belong in that system? How are you part of it? What can you do to be part of it?”

Whether it’s New York or the Okavango, the wild is there. [Explore travelers' top 10 things to do in Botswana.]

“I think it’s a human right to have the opportunity to go into a truly wild place,” Boyes says. “Once you experience that it’s always with you. People ask me, ‘Don’t you miss it? Don’t you want to be out there? Doesn’t it feel strange to be here in the city?’”

No, he tells them. “I’m still there. It’s with me all the time. I close my eyes, I’m there. As long as you’re in the present moment, you can touch a leaf on a tree and feel it. It’s hardwired into all of us.

“I had a wilderness experience yesterday,” he says, “walking on the waterfront in Vancouver. Gulls, crows, pigeons … it’s exactly the same. It’s no different. That’s life on earth.”

The Okavango Wilderness Project begins the Cuando Source Lakes and River Transect in May 2018. Learn how you can support the Project here.