Okavango Wilderness Project: 2018 Cuando River Megatransect

April 5 2018
land

After already paddling 4000km of river within the Okavango River Basin since 2015, the Okavango Wilderness Project continues its research and exploration of the Greater Okavango-Zambezi System by following the waters of the Cuando River, approximately 2000km, from their source in the Angolan Highlands, through Angola and Zambia, down to where they dissipate into the Linyanti Swamps of Botswana and Nambia.
This is one of the remotest regions in Africa, and with our team of scientists, explorers and storytellers, we strive to share the unique beauty and significance of this pristine area. Please join us here and on our Instagram @intotheokavango and Facebook Okavango Wilderness Project platforms to get the whole story!

April 5 2018

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Mission Underway

After losing our solar regulator the day before in a brutal capsize, we spent the morning trying to juice up our solar panels wringing the most of the morning sun. On days like today, we luxuriate in the extra time this gives us for personal indulgences - like washing clothing smudged and smashed with days’ worth of river dirt, taking an extra long wash by an aqua-hued inlet and reveling in having the sun dry us off in just the short stroll back to our tents. Even spending a few minutes longer by the breakfast fire nursing our tin mugs of steaming coffee in the quiet company of our fellow team mates.


Back on the water, after just a few hours on the river ploughing through more waterberry trees, we came to an impasse. Drone footage revealed our worst nightmare - an underwater forest so thick and entangled, the river is all but invisible from the sky. Our only option is to portage - no easy decision, but we have to proceed in the face of this seemingly insurmountable challenge. Tomorrow we will start hauling each of our six mokoros over land until we hit an open flood plain, which might take days. To do this the team will burn more calories and need considerable more food - a concern for our camp managers who must calculate rations to last us till we reach the confluence almost 200kms away. The tightrope between exhaustion and energy is a wobbly one: eat too much and we’ll run through our food supplies before we reach the confluence. Ration the food too much however and we won’t have enough energy to drag 300kg mokoros through swamp-like grass that gives with every step and catches at our feet like quicksand.

Preparation Stage

50kms down. 193kms left to go till we meet team #cuando18 at the confluence.


If it sounds like we’re not covering much ground, it’s because we’re not: we’ve made under 2.5kms in two days. The waterberry trees continue to dominate our life on the river and thus our updates. Watch the drone footage as it pans out till the end and you’ll see the scale of our challenge in getting through them. Like a hydra, just as we finish hacking a tunnel through one patch, half a dozen more sprout ahead.

Today, barely 900 metres after leaving camp, our head mokoro manned by me and Frowin Becker got taken under by a waterberry tree, resulting in our second capsize so far. Team members plunged into the cold waters of the Kembo, trying to prevent gear and themselves from being swept under in the current while trying to haul the rest of the several hundred kilos to land.

These incidents are sobering and rattling even for the most experienced among us but a few hours later, with all our gear lying across a bank of thick golden grass, and thimble-sized butterflies flitting across soaked clothing, we realised with considerable relief we’d lost just a solar regulator. I broke into “Always look on the bright side of life” and with that tune lifting our spirits the team got back onto the water, back to the river that was slowly starting to absorb us into its beating flowing heart.

From the #kembo18 river team: 50kms down. 193kms left to go till we meet team #cuando18 at the confluence. If it sounds like we’re not covering much ground, it’s because we’re not: we’ve made under 2.5kms in two days. The waterberry trees continue to dominate our life on the river and thus our updates. Watch the drone footage as it pans out till the end and you’ll see the scale of our challenge in getting through them. Like a hydra, just as we finish hacking a tunnel through one patch, half a dozen more sprout ahead. Today, barely 900 metres after leaving camp, our head mokoro manned by Chris Boyes and Frowin Becker got taken under by a waterberry tree, resulting in our second capsize so far. Team members plunged into the cold waters of the Kembo, trying to prevent gear and themselves from being swept under in the current while trying to haul the rest of the several hundred kilos to land. These incidents are sobering and rattling even for the most experienced among us but a few hours later, with all our gear drying across a bank of thick golden grass, and thimble-sized butterflies flitting across soaked clothing, we realised with considerable relief we’d lost just a solar regulator. Chris broke into “Always look on the bright side of life” and with that tune lifting our spirits the team got back onto the water, back to the river that was slowly starting to absorb us into its beating flowing heart. From footage by Jesse G.

Posted by Okavango Wilderness Project on Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Water berry trees: 2. Kembo team: 0.


In the battle to push past water clotted with water berry trees, the team experienced its first full capsize today, sending people and supplies overboard and the team scrambling to save food, cameras and tents from rapidly drifting away with the current.

The photo below, taken moments after, shows the entire contents of a single mokoro laid out to dry, including a few days worth of red kidney beans and split peas drying on a solar panel.

A capsize is never to be taken lightly and an ever looming threat - other than slowing us down as we race to meet the Cuando team at the confluence, we risk losing vital supplies - the scientific and media equipment, the inverters and solar panels that keep us running and necessities like food that all need to be aired and dried before they can be repacked.

At the end of a day like today, with significant damage to some of our equipment, we are reminded that nature is our master and muse, driving us ever forward as much as it holds us back and making us grateful that even amidst the craziness, there is humour, bonding and always a hot dinner of beans and rice waiting.

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The Cuando River System


As the Okavango Wilderness Project, you might be think why we are leaving the Okavango River System for the very first time and moving to explore and document the state of the Cuando River System?

Firstly, the Cuando is not completely unrelated to the waters of the Okavango. On years of substantial flood events, the waters of the Linyanti Swamps, the terminus of the Cuando River, are connected to the Okavango via the Selinda Spillway. The main outflow of the Linyanti Swamps is the Linyanti river, which connects to the Chobe river and onto the Great Zambezi river. In the distant future to us, and shortly in geological terms, all these waters will get increasingly related, as the Zambezi continues its 100 000 year progress in capturing river further to the west and feed its insatiable appetite for water to take east to the Indian ocean.

Secondly, the Cuando intersects some of the remotest regions of Angola and Zambia, with incredible potential for large scale conservation efforts to rival Africa’s greatest.

The Okavango Wilderness Project has identified the 120 000 sqkm region where the headwaters of the Okavango, Cuando, Zambezi and Kwanza rivers originate, as key to the long term conservation goals of these systems. The proposed protected area is being coined “Lisima Lwa Mwono” the Fountain of Life in the local Luchaze dialect. The Cuando and it’s most western tributary closest to the Okavango, the Kembo river, pass directly through the central and south western part of this proposed area and are suspected to be furthest away from human activity, with the highest potential for greater numbers in megafauna.

Join us as we find out!

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Expedition Background

The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project is a research and exploration project, gathering the relevant baseline data in order to support the current and proposed protection, conservation and socio-economic upliftment within this undeveloped system.
The project was borne from the Okavango Wetland Bird Survey, a 9-year annual research survey started by Steve Boyes in 2010. The aim was to document the wetland birds along a transect across the Okavango Delta, north to south, from dug-out canoes (makoro), and use the wetland bird to gauge the health of the system. In 2013, Steve Boyes was made an Emerging Explorer with the National Geographic Society, and the awareness around this project of small beginnings was rapidly growing. Our own awareness of this incredible, pristine system was also rapidly growing over years, and with this the growing need to know more about where this water originates. Come 2015, with the support of the National Geographic Society, we were heading up to the Angolan Highlands to learn more about where this water comes from, and to follow its flow 2500km, through 3 countries, the Okavango Delta and ending in the desert, the Okavango Wilderness Project is born! Since the 2015 megatransect of the entire Okavango system along the Cuito River, 2500km, the project has surveyed the Cuanavale and Cubango Rivers, a further 1500km of river, and spent months in the landscape learning more about the flora, fauna and people of this region.

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Excellent, Chris! Can’t wait to follow along here.

Welcome!

I look forward to seeing your expedition unfold!

Thanks so much everyone! Really excited to share our work with the Open Explorer community, and also get involved with some of the other awesome work being shared on this platform! Looking forward to it!

This is an incredible expedition and I am so excited to follow along!

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