The heat of the day is intense. It’s dry and concentrated, no humidity to be found in northwestern Botswana. As beads of sweat slip down necks and across overheated scalps, Steve Boyes, a South African ornithologist and conservationist, sits at a broad table, tearing at a loaf of sweet bread.
People drift in and out of the open living room at the Khwai Tented Camp in the middle of the Okavango Delta. Some are heading off to their cabins for siesta, others wander over to a u-shaped couch that looks out onto a wide expanse of grass, hippos guffawing in the distance. Boyes is talking about humanity’s future.
“Look,” he says, swallowing, “the way I see it is, we’ve got about 10 years to figure our stuff out, and then in 50 years, depending on how that goes, we’re either all going to be wandering around in white robes, enlightened, or dealing with an apocalyptic hell.”
“Like Mad Max,” I suggest.
“Yes, exactly,” he rips another piece of bread. “Exactly. That’s why I do what I do.”
Boyes, who first encountered the Okavango Delta when he studied Meyer’s parrots for his Ph.D. fieldwork, has made it his life’s mission to conserve one of the last truly wild areas on the African continent — a place with a remarkably high concentration of elephants, lions, cheetahs, and birds. But a place that’s also starting to show the effects of human intervention.
That mission has led him down some fascinating roads, not least of which is his latest role as the star of the upcoming feature film Into The Okavango (which premieres on NatGeo WILD on Friday, December 14 at 9 p.m. ET). The film follows Boyes and his team of biologists, local guides, and international explorers as they set out to the source of Angola’s Cuito River, one of the main arteries of the delta, and embark on a months-long journey into the heart of the Okavango. The goal was to take stock of the health of the river and determine how best to protect the Okavango and its source waters from human activity in the coming years. But the journey was complicated by the turmoil of post-civil war Angola, a nation grappling with an unstable economy and remnants of a brutal conflict. Add to that an entire portion of the trip where scientists and crew had to drag their mokoros (dug-out canoes) along dry land for miles and a run-in with a hippo. These challenges threatened to derail the entire mission.
The trek — at turns wildly dangerous, heart-wrenching, and even triumphant — becomes so much more than field work by the time the team makes their way back into the heart of the Botswanan wetlands. Though the team tracks the health of the delta by counting bird populations, and there’s something delightful about periodic shouts of “squacco!” throughout the film, by the end Boyes’s passion becomes expansive, all-encompassing.
“There are very few moments in our lives that bring us into the present,” Boyes says in the beginning of the film. “The experience of being in one of the most remote places in Africa, the feeling of being cut off from all of those securities and those things we control; casting off into this wilderness.”