On Monday 13th February at 6am we left a wonderfully sunny Nata Lodge on a mission to get to Vundumtiki Island to do two weeks of intensive scientific research into cavity-nesting bird communities, as well as survey wetland bird species along the Maunachira and Kiankiandavu channel systems using mokoros. The expedition team of three comprises myself and my brother, Chris, the “Bush Boyes” and Neil Gelinas, a friend visiting from Washington, D.C., here to assist us with the Okavango Nest Box Project and film daily life on Vundumtiki Island. We knew that this expedition would be an adventure and that the drive out would be tough, but we really had no idea …
The drive from Nata to Maun was uneventful with all of us clock-watching and willing the Land Rover to drive faster and get us there. We were in Maun by 10am and within an hour had done all vehicle checks and repairs to the Landie at Crispin’s workshop, bought fresh supplies, some flashlights, and a cooking pot, and manage to secure the necessary transit permits for the Moremi Game Reserve. While buzzing around Maun in search of these odds-and-ends, we bumped into old friends and made plans to visit them upon our return. We also popped into the Wilderness Safaris office near the Maun International Airport to chat to Kai Collins, their environmental manager, to catch up about research, rainfall and the ongoing research and conservation work of Wilderness Safaris, who, along with the Okavango Community Trust, are our hosts in the Kwedi Concession in the northeastern Okavango Delta. We left Maun around midday after a burger and a beer at Audi Camp. Little did we know …
The drive from Maun to Vundumtiki was without a doubt the hardest of my life on one of the most unforgiving tracks in Africa, the TFC-cutline or “Tsetse Fly Control cutline”.
The drive from Maun to Vundumtiki was without a doubt the hardest of my life on one of the most unforgiving tracks in Africa, the TFC-cutline or “Tsetse Fly Control cutline”. I had driven through the night on bush tracks many times before. I had been overloaded before, seen lots of rain before, done long, deep water crossing before, and been stuck many, many times before, but I had never before had to drive 300 km through what seemed to be an ocean of rainwater arranged into never-ending series of muddy trenches through which we had to blindly maneuver without getting stuck. The three of us were about to be taught a big lesson about travelling through the remote bush during the end of the rainy season.
Soon after we entered the Moremi, we were hit by torrential, thunderous rain. We could only see a few meters in front of the Land Rover, which had started to hemorrhage water through the doors, roof and windows, wetting us and our supplies. As soon as the rainstorm abated and we had crossed the bridge over Kwai River, the crossings began. We became one with the muddy silt and clay in the Mopane woodlands and the mushy “black cotton” soil associated with stands of large hardwoods like False Mopane. We had the constant stress of rain and getting stuck in most of the large crossings. Each hour was filled with our passionate pleadings and shouts aimed at helping the Land Rover Defender 110 churn her way though crossings that had been destroyed by much larger supply trucks. Every time it seemed all hope was lost, or should I say all traction was lost, and that we were going to spend the rest of the night digging and winching. Each time, almost miraculously, the Land Rover eventually dug in, went underwater, or jumped to the side and pulled us out. Doing this hundreds of times over 16 hours tends to tire you out. Each crossing had us cheering the Landie on. Each crossing was very tense, as our dependence of this vehicle became more and more clear to us, as we moved deeper and deeper into this remote wilderness, far away from any assistance. We were on our own in a hostile environment. At each stop we would share a small glass of whisky for the nerves and treasure our progress into the unknown.
We arrived at the edge of a long crossing in front of Vundumtiki Island at 4am on Tuesday 14th. We had crossed hundreds of similar crossings the night before, but now were not confident that we would make it. We decided to rest in the Land Rover until dawn when we would cross the channel on foot to check for holes and gullies that may drown the vehicle. It was at 6.15 that morning that we crossed onto the island, which had not seen people since we were last there to do research in December 2009. As expected, we found “Vundumtiki Paradise” with lechwe, giraffe, kudu, buffalo, and baboons living on this wild, emerald green island. We spent the rest of the day building camp and settling in. The breeze all day was mesmerizing and the slow movement of the clouds in the wind as they built up for the afternoon showers was magical. We were in paradise and all getting very excited at the two weeks of research and survey work ahead.
Today, Wednesday 15th, we are going to check the 50 artificial nest boxes we erected on Vundumtiki Island in 2007. In 2009, we found bush babies, dormice, squirrels, wood hoopoes, hornbills, kingfishers, and much else in our nest boxes. This important research is helping us refine the use of artificial nest boxes as conservation tools in areas where deforestation has removed most large trees, thus rendering hundreds of cavity-nesting species homeless and with less opportunities to breed. Deforestation rates in Africa are twice that of the rest of the world and we need to advance out understanding of the requirements of specialized cavity-nesting bird, reptile and mammal populations.
We look forward to sharing this expedition with all of you, as we share our journey of learning and discovery in the Okavango Delta.
Dr Steve Boyes
National Geographic Grantee
Director, Wild Bird Trust
Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (University of Cape Town)