What can one man do towards protecting the wild? For starters, your efforts could center around saving Africa’s last remaining wetland wilderness. Then, you could be so relentless in your mission that UNESCO includes your ‘battleground’ in its World Heritage List. Then, you keep at your preservation project until you meet the Minister of Environment and get him to sign a pact on protecting the river system. If that all sounds good to you, allow us to introduce explorer Steve Boyes who has done all of the above and pledged his life to the conservation of the Okavango River Delta.
Located in northern Botswana, this untouched 18,000 square kilometer alluvial fan is the largest of its kind, and is supplied by the world’s largest undeveloped river catchment — the mighty Kavango Basin. The Okavango Delta is home to the largest-remaining elephant population and keystone populations of lion, hyena, giraffe and lechwe antelopes. It’s the size of Texas, and visible from space.
Boyes and his team of scientists are currently on an unprecedented 10-week, 1,000-mile expedition into the Okavango to formally document as much as possible about this wilderness. It’s a scientific investigation — they are establishing baselines for biodiversity so that we have a point of reference when things change, as they inevitably will. This pristine delta and river are threatened by irrigation schemes, agricultural development, hunting, overfishing, mining exploration, poaching, tourism and population increase, all of which have already had an impact.
Every day on expedition we have to be off the water by 4 o’clock, because we typically use hippo paths to travel by day — the hippos use them at night. So well before sunset we’re out of the water and setting up camp. You set your tent up. I say, “I’m going to give you a little three-legged stool. You can take a notebook with you, you can take binoculars, a bird book, a little flask of whiskey or tea, whatever you want. And you’re going to walk off, and you tell me where you’re going.”
You walk and open yourself to the reality of this place. You must feel and recognize the anxiety building inside you. When it becomes too much to go any further — it could be 10 meters, it could be 100 meters, it’s up to you — you must stop. Find a place up against a tree, on a termite mound. Put your things down. And you sit. You’ve seen all kinds of wildlife that day and now, in this remote place, there are ultimate consequences — we must be all very aware of that.
I’ve got a great medical kit and am qualified as a caregiver, but I’m not a medical doctor. We’ve got medical evacuation support: a helicopter could be here in the daytime, within an hour or two, but at night you’re on your own for 12 hours. So you can’t take any risks, and I’m very clear about that. I say, “You’re going to start to see the sun setting — that’s the next source of anxiety. It’s going to build and build until it gets too scary and you cannot handle it anymore. At that point, you walk back to the fire.”
That’s the process of linking a person into that wilderness experience, into the reality of that place they’re in and into themselves. You just sit there quietly and listen. Don’t focus on that feeling of anxiety, just be mindful of it, because it’s telling you when you must go. These are powerful experiences for people, where they get in touch with their own survival instinct speaking to them, as well as a landscape. That can teach you — it is a bit of a cliché — how small you are.
Once you’ve gone through eight days of that, you’ve arrived — it is literally a wonderland, a wilderness beyond comparison. It is thousands of birds, it is hundreds of elephants, it is so many lions at night that you don’t know what to do. They are everywhere. So many hippos. You’ll have a clan of 50 hyenas come at some point in the night, running around the camp, trying to see what is going on
You just respect all wildlife, and you’re safe. Live mindfully and live calm — you’ll be safe.
Read more of Boyes’ thoughts on the wild and find some spectacular pictures of the Delta here.