After last year’s expedition both myself and Chris, the “Bush Boyes”, decided to “pole” the whole way from Seronga to Maun using traditional “ngashis” (specially-crafted poles made from long silver Terminalia stems) and adhering to the techniques, attitude and customs of the Bayei “River Bushmen” that we had come to know over the last 10 years. This year, I poled Kirsten, while Chris poled Gobonamang Kgetho (“GB”). GB had led the first two expeditions and now was going to continue our instruction on the ways of the Bayei, while teaching us how to navigate the channels, floodplains, lagoons, hippo paths, papyrus swamps, and reed beds of this vast, infinitely flat, wetland ecosystem. Throughout the expedition everyone involved maintained a clear focus on the task at hand, fostered a connection with the changing wilderness surrounding them, and opened themselves to the experiences that feed our passion for the African bush, a passion that has forever connected our life paths with the exploration and conservation of Africa’s last wild places.
<Chris Boyes, sea turtle biologist and explorer, shares his views on our expeditions across the Okavango Delta> “The main ethic around this expedition was to minimise the human impact on the studied environment, while gathering valuable, accurate and comparable scientific data to add to the accountable worth of ecosystems like the Okavango Delta.
To achieve this, our first decision was to use self-propelled crafts to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels and minimise the noise pollution generated. The makoro, used for hundreds of years by the Bayei tribesmen for the navigation of waterways of southern Africa, was the perfect candidate for this craft. On an expedition into a wilderness area like this there are no places to resupply, so all that is needed for surviving 18 days must be taken along from the beginning. All consumerables on the expedition where biodegradable or reusuable. The only product we could not find a good biodegradable alternative for was water-resistant sunscreen, otherwise all toothpaste and soaps were 100% biodegradable. All batteries were rechargable, and solar panels were used to do this charging. Whereever possible, a great effort was put into sourcing everything locally produced. Wholesalers and distributors were approached directly to minimise and eliminate unnecessary packaging. All containers taken on the expediiton were reusable, and any un-reusable packaging was recycled before the expedition, so no waste was generated in the wilderness.
This expedition displays a simple, healthy way of living where no real quality of life is lost in these remote areas. Anyone can learn from this to incorporate in their everyday lives to minimise their impact on the planet. Sometimes it takes going to a place where you are forced to live the simplest of lives to realise how little you need to be comfortable, healthy and happy.”
On our expeditions GB often speaks of the Okavango Delta surrounding us as the “mother of his people”, giving them shelter, feeding them, providing boats, wine, and everything else. He shared concerns about the future of the Bayei should the Okavango Delta be threatened by developments upstream. Dams and agricultural development in the Angolan catchment or hydro-electric and irrigation schemes on the Okavango River itself would be the end of the Okavango Delta as they know it. GB’s father, Mr Kgetho Kgetho, joined the support team and shared with us an iron will that saw him cross the Okavango Delta after only recently recovering from tuberculosis at the age of 68. On our last day coming into Maun on the 4th July 2012 some children on the river bank 10km from Maun shouted out, “Makgoa, makgoa!!” (“Foreigners, foreigners!!”) when we poled past at a great clip trying to make it all the way to Maun. Mr Kgetho instantly retorted: “Ga gona makgoa. Bayei hela!” (“No foreigners. Only Bayei!”). This was a huge compliment from the oldest man on the expedition. The sentiment was echoed by the other Bayei polers and expedition members that had hoped to hear this one day. Chaps, Tom, Justin, Kgalalelo (“KG”), Mr Kgetho, and GB were the true ambassadors of this Okavango Delta we were studying. I have spent 10 years working in the Okavango Delta and did my PhD there, but still am just starting to learn the calm, selfless attitude of acceptance that you need to cultivate in yourself to exist sustainably in the wilderness. Bush skills and knowledge are one thing, but living and existing at one with nature is something completely different. It will take me many, many more mokoro expeditions across the Okavango Delta with these “river bushmen” before I will be able to proudly shout out: “Ga gona makgoa. Bayei hela!” This year we poled all the way across the Okavango Delta in 18 days. We are already making plans to take what we learned this year and attempt to navigate the over 300km meandering route all the way to Maun in 30 days, while supplying ourselves predominantly from the delta, depending on bartering with local fisherman, fishing with nets, and gathering water lily bulbs and seeds, for sustenance.
On the 17th June 2012 we struck out from Seronga on a journey through the heart of the Okavango Delta all the way to Maun over 18 days. No one knew what to expect on this research expedition into an untouched wilderness where we hope to learn new secrets about this little-known inland delta, the beating heart of the Kalahari, visible from space. We have many more research expeditions across the Okavango Delta to complete in the years ahead. I very much doubt that I will ever stop going on these expeditions. The next few blogs are an account of some of the events, discoveries, experiences, realizations and discussions that occurred during this 18-day journey through the wilderness with Kirsten, Chris, GB, Chaps, Tom, Mr Kgetho, Justin, KG, Pete, Giles, Cliffy, Comet and Judge…Dr Steve Boyes
See the blog for last year’s expedition: