Sometimes the best way to see nature is by water. Other times, it’s the only way to get around.
More than 80 miles north of Maun, the largest city in Botswana, I’m seated in a mokoro, a type of canoe traditionally dug out of a large tree but more often now made from fiberglass, commonly used in the Okavango Delta to snake around its coiled artery of narrow rivers. Punting me through the shallow waters is conservation biologist and explorer Steve Boyes, standing in the stern, pushing with a long pole, and looking out for hippos and crocs, to which the squat boat is vulnerable to attack.
Boyes’ piercing blue eyes practically radiate from his monochrome khaki uniform, a life spent in the African sun tanning his skin—at least the parts not masked by unruly mutton chops—to match. His South African dialect tumbles as he expressively recounts his war stories. He’s a swashbuckling modern researcher-adventurer, like an African Indiana Jones who, freed from his snake phobia, isn’t crusading for a lost ark, but to turn this hallowed wilderness into the world’s largest swath of protected land.
Tales of a cranky hippo capsizing his boat, a tense face-off with a black mamba ready to strike, and unknowingly sipping coffee with his brother mere feet away from the predatory eyes of a pride of lions are his gondolier’s serenades as he navigates the river’s sharp bends. Venice, eat your heart out.
(Full disclosure: National Geographic covered all travel and lodging expenses for our trip.)
The journey is muscle memory for him. The months he’s spent cruising the river system from its origin in Angola, through Namibia, and into the Okavango Delta of Botswana have fostered an intimacy with the waterway, which he refers to as “mother.”
“She will take care of you,” he tells me, explaining that he begins each morning dipping his hands in the water and offering up a prayer—“I love you. We are coming today.”—before he casts off. “But she will also teach you a lesson.”
We need the lesson, too. While many Americans might be unfamiliar with the Okavango River Basin—the high price point for tourism in Botswana has kept the region from becoming the crowded safari highway you might encounter elsewhere on the continent—it is quite possibly the most important wilderness region in the world at this moment. And it is under threat from two seemingly contradictory forces: human activity and human ambivalence.
Its beauty is one thing: a vast and desolate desert area kept alive by the sprawling tendrils of the river, a web forged by the hippos, elephants, and buffalos who have served over centuries as its de facto construction workers.
It is home to the largest remaining elephant population on the planet, the largest leopard population, the largest buffalo population, and the second largest lion population. In 2014, it became the 1,000th UNESCO Heritage Site designated by the United Nations. Roughly 1 million people and countless animals rely on the Okavango River Basin for water—water that is disappearing at alarming levels as the delta dries up.
Boyes is the spearhead of the Okavango Wilderness Project, the mechanics of which we were in Botswana to learn about. The project’s first, grueling survey expedition is chronicled in the new National Geographic documentary Into the Okavango, which premieres Friday on Nat Geo WILD. The project has yielded a bounty of discovery and science—from new species of animals to data on water flow—and in turn has inspired unprecedented governmental support and cooperation between the three countries that house the delta.
One expressed goal of the project is to create a single national park, the largest in the world, in Angola. Roughly the size of Wisconsin, the park would join areas in Namibia and Botswana to create the largest protected wildlife region in the world: 1,000 miles across three countries.
“This is Africa’s last remaining pristine wilderness,” Boyes says, our mokoro parked on a river bank as he lays out the gravity of it all.
“It is dependent on a river system we do not understand,” he continues. “It is End of Days. It is the most important time to be an explorer. It is the most important time to be a conservationist. It is the last 10 or 15 years. What we protect now is all we’ll have in 2030. We’re in an incredibly important time and we are messing it up. It is our last chance. It’s not too far gone, but we’re not doing it.”
The night before our afternoon on the river, we screen Into the Okavango outdoors at our remote camp near the town of Khwai. Boyes carted in a big-screen TV himself for the occasion—such luxuries are frivolous and typically absent from these camps—with the wetlands, which hours before hosted grazing lions and bathing hippos, serving as the showing’s surreal backdrop.
At one point, a hyena’s howl drowns out the audio. “Yeah, that’s not from the film,” Boyes smirks.
Directed by Neil Gelinas, the documentary charts Boyes’ inaugural expedition with a team of scientists and researchers, including young Angolan marine biologist Adjany Costa on her first trip into the bush, and a local guide named Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha.
The idea was to travel down the Okavango’s tributary system from end to end, surveying wildlife and water levels along the way. The fact-finding mission eventually erupts into an arduous, dangerous feat of survival as the mokoro cruise trundles on to a 121-day odyssey disrupted by life-threatening disease, back-breaking physical labor, and a marauding hippo who threatens to derail the whole thing.
Months before our own, decidedly calmer exploration of the river, we meet with the Into the Okavango team in a different kind of wilderness: a busy Manhattan hotel restaurant during a bustling breakfast shift. Boyes, Gelinas, Adjany, and Water were in New York to launch the documentary at last April’s Tribeca Film Festival, seeing for the first time the impact the film—not to mention the harrowing nature of their expedition—was having on audiences.
Everyone laughs when I ask what their initial expectations were for the expedition. Adjany says she was told the plan was to be gone for 83 days. “The expedition was meant to end the 31st of July,” Boyes says. “We finished I think the 19th of September.”
Everyone’s patience—not to mention physical limits—was tested from Day One of the trip. The spot where the crew was supposed to launch their mokoros in Angola was completely dried up, forcing them to drag their canoes, each weighing more than 800 pounds, over the caked mud for eight punishing, scorching hot days.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” Adjany says of that dubious start, still so scarred she’s barely even able to laugh about it now.
Things hardly became less dramatic once they were afloat.
Rapids were a constant stressor. At one point, one of Gelinas’ drone cameras startled a pack of buffalos. “There was probably 50 of them or something and they come storming at us,” Boyes says.
“Water here saved the day,” Gelinas laughs as Water beams proudly from across the table. He stretched himself to make himself as large and imposing as possible, eventually stopping the herd, Boyes explains. “The rest of us were running. I was out of there already on the mokoro.”
Then there was “croc alley,” a narrow channel where lots of antelope and lechwe cross and a large number of 15-foot crocodiles camp out waiting for lunch. And there is Boyes and his team, inching over these deadly creatures that are the same size as their boats. “Adjany loves doing that,” he laughs.
A major set piece of the film, and something Boyes is clearly still not fully recovered from when we meet in Botswana all those months later, is a heart-pounding sequence in which a hippo pummels a mokoro carrying Boyes and an Australian data recorder, flinging them into the water and exposing them to the water beast’s possible attack.
A biometric watch Boyes had been wearing showed his heart rate spiking to alarming levels twice. The first during the attack and again, and even worse, hours later when he calls his wife and tells her what happened. He estimates that throughout the course of the four months he lost about 10 percent of his body weight, a tightening of his belt that required four new notches.
Everyone’s journeys to the Okavango expedition are rooted in deep, life-long connection. Boyes was a bullied child who found refuge in nature and began exploring it alongside his brother at 5 years old, “constantly searching, getting lost, and freaking our parents out,” he laughs. For Water, this is his home that he’s going to, meeting the custodians of the river that he’s so worried could disappear.
Adjany is a child of Angola’s civil war. Her first memory is the sound of an AK-47. For her, this was the opportunity to get to know the unspoiled beauty of her country at a time of political crossroads, through the lens of nature and science that has become her passion. For the first six weeks, she was the only woman on the expedition. In the film, she refers to herself as the “Marine Bush Lady.” Boyes calls her “Lara Croft of the bush.”
He tells a story about a resupply helicopter that arrived from Angola. Unexpectedly, a big colonel emerges, walks up to him, and says, “I know who you are.” It was Adjany’s father, who had come to fetch her. She told him that she was committed to finishing the journey. It’s an answer he had expected from her, so he gave her a knife that she could tie to her leg and use for protection. “Really,” Boyes says. “Just like Lara Croft.”
The adventure of it all is crucial, blanketing the conservation crusade at the heart of the film with thrills. “If you make it entertaining it is so much more accessible,” Gelinas says.
The science accrued during the trip is astounding. For the first time in 30 years, new species were discovered in that region. The initial report contained 380 pages of all the different species and discoveries. That’s essential information for protecting the delta, and progress they can quantify in their reports and proposals when bidding for the protected national park, which Boyes says will “absolutely” happen.
And as a film, Into the Okavango underlines the ways in which a specific story, in this case saving Okavango’s last remaining untouched wilderness, can have a global impact.
“We’re showing how important the human relationship is to the wilderness, you see how we’re connected to it on a broader scale,” Gelinas say. “Whether it’s Yellowstone or Tierra Del Fuego, these last wild places are important. Somebody’s going to spend $100 million on a Van Gogh painting, but this might make them question that. You can spend $100 million on saving mountain gorillas in Rwanda. What is more valuable?”