Channels, science and space…

This is a post from the field on a National Geographic supported expedition to explore the Okavango River system from source to sand. 90 days, 1,000 miles, 3 countries, 2 rivers, 31 adventurers, 100% open data. Join us in real-time as we explore the beating heart of our planet.

It is expedition day 15. It has been a hard few weeks since my last post — felt quite helpless as the river-based team struggles to get clear of the source of the Cuito and had to keep up the moment for the land-based science team to continue on schedule… but all is well, here is an update…

The river-based team…

The river-based team, having launched on 22 May, have struggled to leave the source of the Cuito River any reasonable distance behind them. It is bitter sweet for them however.

Camp alongside the beautifully clear channel (John Hilton)

They have spent every day alongside a pristine, clear, distilled water-like channel which is deep enough that it comes up to a man’s chest. So moral is good because they can drink, cool off and bathe easily in this channel in between bouts of pulling the mekoro over bends whose radius is simply too tight to pole the 6m (18ft) water craft around.

In the past week they are on a much wider channel but a new challenge in the form of overhanging vegetation is thwarting their efforts in covering the ground necessary to achieve daily distance goals they have set.

They’ll soon be on the “open water” though, so all is well.

The land-based team…

As part of my role as #okavango15 expedition planner I have been ensuring that the land based science team is continuing on as planned for their respective surveys.

Travelling the road back to Kuito (John Hilton)

After having left the source, we travelled back to Menongue via Munhango and Kuito and set up for daily survey operations around Menongue for a few days. Again we have been graciously hosted by The HALO Trust here in Menongue and it is starting to feel like home! Thanks to Tim and Toni for this!

Bill injecting preserving fluid into his specimens (John Hilton)

Here is Bill Branch, Curator Emeritus of Bayworld in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, processing some of his herpetological samples which he’s collected around Menongue. Bill has had a long career as a herpetologist and is an absolute fountain of knowledge.

He is also a National Geographic grantee and guides numerous departures for their Expeditions division.

We took a field trip down to Cuito Cuanavale which is 190km south-east of Menongue in order that I could do some reconnaissance of the area which will be a key landing site for the river based team on or around 19 June. Here the Cuito and Cuanvale rivers confluence and the river is wide and winding as it progresses onwards towards it confluence with the Cubango River around 460km as the crow flies.

Local people using mokoro with a paddle-like pole on the Cuito River at Cuito Cuanavale (John Hilton)

We had some amazing opportunities to survey the area and were once again escorted by HALO Trust as this is the site of a fierce battle during Angola’s Civil War and as a result the town is the most mined in Africa! We were thankful for HALO’s on the ground knowledge, as this is an active area where they are clearing mines.

David collecting plant samples along a tributary of the Cuito River (John Hilton)

Here is David Goyder, Research Leader for Africa and Madagascar at the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, collecting plant samples along a small tributary of the Cuito River just south of Cuito Cuanavale. He’s been to Angola a few times before and as a result this expedition is allowing him access to new areas as well as access to previously studied areas in order to gather comparative samples.

Fundamentally our project is a wetland bird survey of the Okavango Delta. As part of #okavango15 we will cross the Delta on our research transect for a 6th time. There will be 3 more crossings of the Delta over the forthcoming 3 years, ending in 2018.

We will be tagging on expeditions such as this year to survey critical components of the Okavango River’s basin and the rivers that contribute to inordinate amounts of water than flow out on the sands of the Kalahari Desert forming the Okavango Delta.

If you didn’t see it, here’s an image taken a few weeks ago by Space station astronaut Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha), she took this just for our expedition — quite unbelievable. (I have edited her photo so that it has north orientated somewhat up).

The Okavango Delta photographed on 25 May 2015 by @astrosamantha

So for the Wild Bird Trust the birds of the river system are important. We will use them as indicators of change, after all as my colleague @drsteveboyes says — “Birds can choose with their wings”. So if systems change, the prevalence of birds, and specifically wetland birds, will too.

Maans birding along the edge of the Cuito River (John Hilton)

It is therefore important for #okavango15 that we lay down a baseline, and to that end we invited Maans Booysen, specialist bird guide and naturalist, who runs is own tour company WETO. Here is Maans along the banks of the Cuito River at Cuito Cuanavale as he stalks around looking for sightings of birds he has not yet recorded and which he will attempt to photograph for record keeping purposes.

We are very fortunate to have the privilege of working with these specialists and they have already made our data set richer. We will be compiling a technical report that will cover all of the disciplines of science which #okavango15 will incorporate. This will be translated into Portuguese for presentation all the interest authorities and organisations in Angola, as well as in Namibia and Botswana too of course.

From my desk here in Menongue, Angola I greet you all well and look forward to updating you on the arrival of a further 4 members of our science team soon!

‘Bye for now!

John Hilton is a Trustee and Commercial Director of the Wild Bird Trust which administers the Okavango Wilderness Project in collaboration withThe Office For Creative Research, a project generously supported by theNational Geographic Society.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.