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Source to Sand

Source to Sand

Jan 2017

Words Dr Steve Boyes

Along with a team of scientists, engineers, river bushmen and adventurers, Dr Steve Boyes journeyed down Angola’s Cuito River on an unprecedented 2 500-kilometre-long expedition.

It’s been only six weeks on the mighty river. The daily routine on the water is turning into a mind game. Where are we? In which direction are we going? How much longer can we do this? An intoxicated river, going in circles, side to side, rocking and bouncing between its supporting banks; powerful as it cuts cliffs into the hills and throws up rapids for us to ride. The now vast reed beds are impossible to camp on. Our satellite imagery doesn’t help. We have to trust that each day will deliver us safely.

This journey began in one of the remotest places in Africa: the source of the Cuito River, in a landscape preserved in time by war, and nearly impassable due to live landmines. Our purpose was to better understand the intricacies of this wetland wilderness and how to protect it. The HALO Trust, a humanitarian demining non-governmental organisation, established a safe access route to the river’s source; at sunset, on 21 May 2015, the source lake was revealed to us. 

For the first eight days of our journey, the river was too shallow and narrow to navigate, leaving us with no choice but to pull our fully loaded mekoro (the Setswana word for the traditional Ba’Yei river bushmen’s dugout canoes) alongside the channel. We trudged through steep valleys and marsh sedges, hoping to find navigable water.

On 1 June we came to narrow water, cutting and scratching our way past trees and makeshift bridges. Stingless bees, heat, rapids and physical hardship assailed us. It took a Herculean effort for us to dig deep in order to find the energy to push forward each day, waiting to find the big river, hoping it was around the next bend. The days seemed endless. The journey had thus far been tough—beyond what we’d anticipated—but the growing river was preparing us for what lay ahead. 

Our goal was to pole ourselves to Lake Xau, close to the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, by the end of August—assuming, of course, that the seasonal Okavango Delta floods would be good this year and water would reach our final destination. This would be the first ‘source to sand’ expedition of this river system. 

In 2014, the Okavango Delta was proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage Site. That same year, I established the Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP) with the aim of continuing research and advocating for the protection of an entire system. It was not enough simply to protect the delta. In order to sustain its livelihood, one had to look upstream—into Angola. Following months of discussions with potential donors, National Geographic agreed to assist with funding to undertake a four-month expedition to expand our conservation efforts north to the Angolan highlands where the life-giving floodwaters of the delta originate.

Seven mekoro and hundreds of kilogrammes of food supplies, advanced research equipment, batteries, cameras and expedition gear were packed into vehicles. Months of logistical planning and bureaucratic administration went into ensuring this expedition could happen. I gathered together a team comprising scientists and explorers from Angola, Namibia, Botswana, England, Australia and South Africa as well as local experts—a multicultural, best-of-the-best team; it is only a group like this, and collaborations with our partners, that will give us the ability to save this place. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens recently identified this area of Angola as the “least sampled location on the planet for botanical diversity”. 

In addition to the scientists, five Ba’Yei polers from the village of Seronga in Botswana accompanied us to assist with the poling of the mekoro, but also to be our river ambassadors: the people of the delta, meeting the people of the river. They are the first Ba’Yei to set eyes on the source lake of the Cuito River. In the upper catchment, none of the local communities has ever seen or met people from the outside. They have no links to government, and all have been excited to meet us. It has been a privilege to meet these people of the river and gather local knowledge from them. 

We were all aware of the safety risks on an expedition like this; however, having poled through the delta every year since 2010, we felt very comfortable in our mekoro. On 11 July, an unprovoked hippo attack sent my mokoro flying, two tusks pierced the boat and all the gear was lost. A frantic swim to the shore ensued, my heart racing—but thankful that no one was injured. I was grateful to that hippo. It reminded me never to become complacent. Stay in the present moment and never forget where you are.

On day 45 of our mission, we reached the town of Cuito Cuanavale, where we briefly stopped to rest. There were locals everywhere. “Bom dia!” all day. These must be the friendliest people in the world. 

Almost 30 years of civil war in Angola depopulated the landscape, leaving it with one of the world’s highest concentrations of landmines and very few animals. The wildlife is, however, returning. So are the people. We need to act now to protect this river system. If developmental projects such as new infrastructure, mining, irrigation and agriculture are undertaken without consideration for the environment, then the system is at risk. 

We reached Namibia on 1 August after some 67 days in Angola, where the Cuito joins with the mighty Cubango and flows through the Kavango region, past settlements and tourist lodges before entering the panhandle in Botswana. Here the team spent a night of celebration in Seronga, the home village of the Ba’Yei polers. From there the river changes once again, spreading its waters into the delta, welcoming wilderness and wildlife into its haven. 

The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s true wilderness areas. You can feel the heartbeat of the planet here; you can feel the pulse of Africa. The journey through the delta was magical, a paradise unfolded as the diversity of animals appeared around every corner: elephants, buffalo, red lechwe, monkeys, birds, insects… it’s almost indescribable. While the water levels were low, our energy levels were revived; and though we once again had to don the harnesses and pull our way through the reeds, having the animals for company was sheer pleasure. We recorded high numbers of birds, some awesome night sounds including the roar of lions, and experienced a warm welcome from a herd of elephants that came as close as four metres from us to drink water and to play.

In early September we reached Maun: a dusty town, a safari hub and an aptly nicknamed “donkey town”. It offered a chance for us to resupply, eat something other than rice and beans, and prepare ourselves for the final push. Fortunately, our timing was perfect and water levels allowed us to continue down the Boteti River, past villages, roads, fences and livestock, and into Lake Xau, to the furthest point from the start of this water journey.

Here lie the waters of the Cuito, the Cubango, the Okavango and the Boteti: the water through which we had travelled, had studied, had learnt from and which had sustained us. An air of calm surrounded our team and our welcoming party as we shared our final bonfire meal. After 121 days and 2 560km, we had completed our mission. We had met the people of the river and uncovered its secrets, and now want to ensure one of the most pristine river catchments can show the world the way things could be. 

The expedition’s scientists have already found many species of fish, aquatic insects and plants. Some of the species are new to that part of the river and some include new subspecies. From so far north in this forgotten land, we have confirmed the presence of lion, leopard, hyena, wild dog, bush pig, numerous antelope, and more. We have recorded high numbers of wattled crane, crocodile, tiger fish and hippo in the river system. We have even come across an undocumented and unnamed waterfall in the upper catchment—a true hidden treasure that needs protection.

Amid the many hardships, we found success. The project has been accepted wholeheartedly by Angola, Namibia and Botswana. We have been endorsed by the president of Angola, and met with two governors and the minister of the Environment Department. There’s an incredible diversity and abundance of life in this landscape, and its fate lies with the Angolan government and its people. I’m committed to preserving the Okavango River in its current state by empowering governments with the information they need to support sustainable development and wildlife conservation. 

From the outset, this expedition has been about collaboration, research and open-source data. The team has offered a live data expedition for the world to experience, by sharing all biometrics, sights, sounds, scientific findings and movements in real time via satellite, and uploaded to our website: Anyone can follow along with updates on social media via @intotheokvango on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All data is open source, available to anyone, any time, and can used by other scientists and research organisations around the world. 

The progress we’ve made so far is encouraging, and this momentum needs to be maintained if we are to deliver a conservation plan that protects these fragile landscapes in perpetuity. Our project partner, Dr John Mendelsohn, sums it up: “In 10 years’ time, when someone says they’re going to the Okavango, they will be talking about the entire river basin, not just the delta. Only through shared benefit from the river and tourism development in Angola will this enigmatic river system remain intact for future generations.”

Founder and project leader of the Okavango Wilderness Project, Dr Rutledge S. Boyes is also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer; scientific director and trustee of the Wild Bird Trust; and a research associate of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. He can be emailed at: [email protected].

#Cuito2016 and #Cuanavale2016

Following on from the surveys conducted as part of #Okavango15, we focused our research on the upper catchment in Angola. From February to May 2016, a new expedition took place, bringing the science team back to this magical place to investigate life in the wet season. 

New research activities include 45 camera traps, 66 Sherman traps, new nets and harp traps, pitfall and light traps, DNA sampling from bushmeat markets, and socio-economic questionnaires. We have a mobile studio for species photos, underwater housings for DSLR cameras, hides, and specialist camera traps to better document and capture these discoveries. We anticipate new species of bats, insects, spiders, small mammals, reptiles, small antelope, fish, frogs and plants. Several fish species are being exported live to labs in South Africa for study of their breeding cycles.

We also have three Ba’Yei river bushmen from the Okavango Delta (Botswana) and three Angolan research assistants from the Ministry of Environment to assist in the field. The OWP and National Geographic Soceity are establishing an unrivalled baseline biodiversity data set for the Okavango River Basin in a short space of time. We are demonstrating just how valuable and unique the upper catchment really is, as part of an accelerated process toward meaningful protection.


Source: The Intrepid Explorer


The Intrepid explorer