Friday, May 27, 2011

Into The Wild Future of the KAZA Park

This picture embodies the essence of the Okavango for me: Forging a future for the area that sees communities of people and nature working together for a common good.

Our Camp just after sunset under the Jackleberry Tree deep in the Okavango Delta.

We made it into the Wild once again.

The northern heart of the Okavango Delta is a wilderness of papyrus and grass dotted with small islands. During high water, like there is now, the islands shrink and the animals are pressured into smaller areas, becoming more crowded. The larger islands are to the south of us, and most of the larger predators have followed their prey species there.

I was just awakened by the odd sawing sound of a leopard prowling around our camp under the Jackleberry tree.

We cleared the area under the tree yesterday of all the elephant dung that had accumulated here since Max camped here a year or so ago. As we were cleaning his loo, so to speak, a large old bull came walking through the water towards us, veering off as he realized his favorite poo-ing spot was taken up by a bunch of pesky two legged critters.

We followed him in the Makoro canoes, listening as his powerful legs surged loudly through the water near us. We beached the canoes once he was up on the island and carried on foot. Tracking a large bull elephant on foot on a small island is not difficult but does have its obvious dangers. Seeing wildlife from the safety of a big metal vehicle is all well and good but there is nothing like walking up to them on African soil, an appropriate surge of adrenaline in the veins, and a clear eye out for an escape route.

Its time to get up. Dawn has arrived and our biological clocks have long been reset to the natural rhythm of the night and day. I have been recording the dawn chorus of birdlife on my sound machine, and although I missed the leopard sounds, maybe I will catch them tomorrow morning if he is back.

We are in the Jakotsha Communal Trust lands on the far western edge of the Moremi Wilderness Reserve. Here there is the possibility of seeing pretty much every large African mammal, as well as a bewildering array of birdlife, snakes, insects and of course lots and lots of trees.

Max, our guide, said this was grass snake but it looks remarkably like a Green Mamba that I filmed in Mozambique last year (LINK HERE).

Our second day in the heart of this vast wilderness started with this journal entry, and we went for a nice long walk in the morning to scout out the island.

The island is about a mile long and half a mile wide, covered with trees and shrubs, and dominated by the magnificent Baobabs.

Baobabs are an amazing tree species. They store water in their trunks, swelling during the rains and then shrinking during the long dry season, looking old and wrinkled by the end of it. They resemble an upside down tree with the roots sticking upwards. Their bark is shiny, and in a further backwards way, they blossom during the dry season and often shed their leaves during the rains, unlike virtually any other green growing thing in the region. Towering above most other trees they are an unmistakable symbol of Africa. Fortunately for them, their wood is useless for building and fire making. Its more like a stringy fiber. This fiber was used for thousands of years by Africans to make surprisingly strong and soft fabrics. The trees were harvested while standing, then regrew their skin. Many old giants still bear the scars of this sustainable use, but there are other reasons for those scars too.

The author in an ancient Baobab Tree, scarred by elephants and hollowed by time, which served as a shelter from two large bull elephants.

Baobab trees are an important part of most southern African ecosystems and here it is possible to see the ancient role they played in the wild cycle of the African bush. They provide a soft fibrous food with high water content for elephants, especially during the long dry season. In areas of Africa where the elephant has long disappeared the scars they left on the many old baobabs can be seen centuries later. Their fruit is edible, and has a high level of vitamin C. The oil from their seeds is widely appreciated in the cosmetics industry today for its moisturizing properties, and many forest communities have started preserving their baobabs and selling the fruit to international buyers. The elephants and many other animals are clearly the big beneficiaries of this abundance in the Okavango, the hard shells of the fruits are scattered everywhere, cracked open and looted for their treasure.

Baobab Trees, like the elephants that feed on them, are pillars of the Okavango Delta's Ecosystem.

We took refuge inside an old Baobab while two large old bull elephants passed nearby, and this was not an isolated use. In Mozambique and Zimbabwe I have seen many big old Baobabs used as places of refuge from marauding armies and animals alike. People have built bars and cafes into the big ancient trunks, and there is a local belief in Malawi that the trees harbor the spirits of the ancestors who sheltered under their boughs in ages gone by.

Our days were full in the Delta. We traveled to nearby islands for walking safaris with Max, who showed us local salts, how to harvest waterlily blossoms, how to use the stems of the plant for a filtering drinking straw, and where to catch a safe swim... safe at least from everything except leeches.

Carl liked eating the succulent inner stalks of the papyrus that tickled our faces as we swept by the in the fiberglass Makoros, but the little sand fleas liked eating him more. He bore the bites for two weeks after our trips, hundreds of them on each leg that drove him nearly mad with the itching. Clearly he was tastier than Martin and I, who did not get bitten by anything other than the odd leech and sole mosquito.

The cycle of life: Carl eats the Papyrus that house the bugs that ate Carl.

The protection this place receives today is clearly not sufficient for it's long-term survival. There is virtually no government oversight. There are signs of poaching, overfishing and unsustainable timber harvesting. Max and the other community members we talked to all agree that the creation of the KAZA (Kavango Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area) is an important step in the preserving the area. Max would like to see permit systems developed that are more enforced, community protection units formed that patrol the area, and a stronger central trust system with real power to protect their natural heritage.

Clearly the community trust system in Botswana has been working up to a point, where communities feel ownership over their resources, and want to preserve them. I was surprised and heartened to hear not only that Max and the other guides support these initiatives that are supposed to be part of the larger park plan, but that they had their own ideas that went even further.

Sitting under the big shady Jackleberry tree during one of our last days in the Delta, Max explained: "We are the only ones who can look after this place, and we need to make sure we benefit from the use of it, then the people will stop poaching the fish and animals." The wind blew lightly, bringing the essence of the Okavango with it. "Five years ago, we would have seen lots of fishermen here, that has been stopped by us, without Geoff Randall's Makoro Project, this very tree would have been cut already...We can make a difference here, and we will make more of one in the future with help and better organization, -we know we can do it, who else will?"

The long trip out of the Delta took us two days, and we made it back to my Landcruiser, the Hog, without any trouble. But that pesky old clutch barely got us to Windhoek, Namibia where Carl and I, together the help of the high-lift jack at Wild Dog Safaris lifted the truck and changed the clutch. Sparing you all the gruesome details, eleven hours later with our friendship still intact, we had the clutch replaced, the gearbox back in, and the truck rolling again. I said goodbye to Carl and Martin, two of the best partners ever, and picked up a new crew for two weeks into the wild and wet river valleys of Namibia.

Max, right, poles us through the Hippo Pools at sunset into the heart of the Okavango Delta.

The proposed KAZA park plan.
John Barbee, my father, who is a constant source of inspiration and motivation suggested I put in a map of the park so everyone could visualize what this protected area bigger than Italy will look like.

The Documentary that our team has been making on the KAZA park will be shown later in 2011 on LinkTV.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Okavango Delta - Inspiration and Motivation

click on them to enlarge the photos

Driving through the floodwaters with a bad clutch to the place we will leave the Hog and start our transfer to Nguma Island Lodge in the Okavango Delta.

Loading up the canoes and boats for our first transfer. We then unloaded onto one of the lodge's trucks, drove about four miles, then loaded everything back onto more Mokoros for the final leg to the camp.

Martin and Carl's first-ever time on a Mokoro, Carl's shirt reads: "The Kalamari Dessert" in spray paint.

Into the Delta.

The Okavango Delta is a symbol of the types of problems and successes facing the future of the proposed Kavango/Zambezi (KAZA) transfrontier peace park. This vast area is one of the largest inland deltas in the world, the largest swamp in the southerm hemisphere, and the numbers help tell the story. The Okavango Delta fluctuates between 6, 000 to 8,000 square kilometers during the dry season, swelling to 15,850 square kms during the flood, which is happening now.

The Kavango River flows from the Angolan highlands 1100 kilometers away, then through Namibia and out onto Botswana’s Kalahari Desert in a huge alluvial fan. It never reaches the sea, but languishes in the hot dry air creating an unique habitat for an amazing array of birds, plants and wildlife. There are 150,000 little islands dotting the Delta, which get bigger or smaller depending on the time of the season.

Only a small part of the Delta is actually protected by a designated National Park. Moremi National Park is in the central northeast of the Delta, and with Chobe National Park to the west, covers about a third of the Delta’s area. The rest is not totally unprotected, but maintained by a community concession type of system that allows mixed use of the land, isles and wildlife. Some of these activities include hunting, fishing, and even wood cutting.

Our last transfer to Nguma Island and the first time we meet Max, left, who became our guide and dear friend over the next five days.

The future of the Delta is in doubt. These are desert countries, and this is a lot of water. There have been many plans to divert or utilize the flow of the Kavango River which would dramatically change the nature of this dynamic system. One of the reasons behind the creation of the KAZA is to protect this ecosystem, and make it work for the communities that live along side of it. That means that community concessions must play a vital role in protecting it, probably a bigger role than they are playing now.

Our trip combines elements of community conservation systems, private lodges, and local people who will guide us through this fascinating place.

Nookie and Jeff Randall started Nguma Island Lodge years ago in the upper northwestern part of the Delta, near the town of Gumare. They bring in tourists during the high water season with a series of boat and truck transfers that really create a feeling of isolation. Their gorgeous lodge rests on the edge of Nguma lagoon, and they cater for tourists of all sorts, even campers like us.

They also enjoy a successful public-private partnership with the local Jakotsha Community Trust, who run the NG 24 Concession in this part of the Okavango Delta. The polers they employ all come from the local community, and far from being simple men who push a boat, these guides are encyclopedias of knowledge about the animals, plants and issues affecting the Delta.

Geoff, Nookie’s husband sadly passed away a few years ago, but some of the projects he started live on. An avid outdoors-man with a love for nature, he saw that increased tourism for the Delta was difficult for one very obvious and important reason. The boats, called mokoros, that people use to get around in the thick reeds are long, and thin, and traditionally made from big hardwood trees.

The delta is a swamp dotted with islands, and on these islands are a limited number of trees, but the number of tourists wanting to see the Delta is increasing exponentially. So the people of the communities were cutting down old trees that anchored the islands in the shifting waters, and using them to make boats that lasted about three years. This was clearly unsustainable, and after many attempts to get government oversight onto the problem, Randall and his team of local guides had an epiphany, why not make replica boats out of fibreglass?

And so began a period of experimentation in making makoros that look and feel like wood, but are lighter, stronger, and far more durable that the wooden ones that were made traditionally. His final product is a masterpiece of innovation and appropriate technology that has changed the face of transport in the Okavango Delta, and probably saved thousands of vital trees. Their lifespan is unlimited, since they can be fixed simply, and they are perfectly water-tight, so the bums of high-dollar tourists don’t get damp while out on a makoro safari. They are easier to pole as well and can carry a much higher payload, with a minimum of effort.

Before my readers start to talk about the environmental impact of using polymer and glass-based fibre systems, keep in mind that two well-ventilated and well maintained shops can and did supply virtually the whole Delta with these mokoros, and if Nookie has her way, they will again. Geoff fixed any fiberglass mokoro for free if someone brought one in, essentially guaranteeing them for life.

Matshelo (Max) Thokabotshabelo has been poling the waters of the Okavango since he could walk. He and all the other polers I spoke to agreed that Geoff Randall’s mokoros are the most sought after things in the Delta. Sometimes their own boats are even stolen the demand for them is so high. Standing under a gorgeous Jackleberry tree, Max maintained that without Geoff’s boats, trees like this would be a thing of the past, “The people would have taken down this tree years ago if it wasn’t for Geoff and Nookie, everyone now wants a fibreglass Mokoro, and that is good for our trees”.

It is a rare look at a can-do project in Africa that works, and something that the KAZA program coordinators should look at for inspiration.

Our bushcamp, with the tent where I wrote the journal entry at the end of this story in the middle of the frame behind Carl and Martin.

We woke up this morning on Nguma island in our little bush camp near the main lodge, The guys are outside my tent getting our things packed and ready to board a boat with three of Geoff’s fiberglass canoes on it. We will get transferred into the northern part of the Delta for a three day trip with the local community guides from the Jakotsha Trust. Hopefully we will get out there, wont get stung by any more bees, and come back with a pile a memories and new experiences. The birds are singing a loud dawn chorus and I am excited about everything. It is days like this that make doing this job ever-so worth it. Nothing to worry about except the nature around us, where we will camp, whether we have enough food, how our beer supplies are doing. This is the basics, the things humanity evolved worrying about. Far from cellphones, unit trusts, bills and everything that makes us forget that we are just animals living on borrowed time, on a borrowed land.

Sunset over Nguma Lagoon from our bushcamp near Nookie and Geoff Randall's Nguma Island Lodge.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Out of the Pans, Into The Fire

Martin at Jack's Camp.

On our last day in the Pans, sitting back next to the fire at our little bush camp, we poured some hot coffee and waited for the sun to go down so we could walk to the brush covered hill overlooking a wet spot in the pans and maybe see some game at sunset. It had been a gorgeous day, not much driving, and lots of bird watching. We had seen some spoonbills and a group of dozens of young Lappetfaced Vultures, as well as many others. The three of us had bonded over the last few days and were looking forward to being in the Okavango Delta. For Martin and Carl it would be the first time, and they had no idea what to expect.

Martin sat forward in his camp chair, and smilingly slapped his leg, "ouch!" another bite of something small...then he saw it was a strange type of bee. He laughed a bit, said good thing he wasn't allergic, pried out the stinger and thought not much more about it. Fifteen minutes later the aggressive poison had raised huge welts, and fifteen minutes after that it became clear he was indeed having his first allergic reaction to a bee sting.

I had carelessly given away my antihistamines two weeks earlier in Cape Town, and not thought to replenish them. I am not allergic to anything and both Martin and Carl thought the same. Even the most well prepared expedition can come up short, however, and now we were in what could be very serious trouble. We were at least two hours hard driving from the nearest clinic, and maybe more. Fortunately we were near Jack's Camp, one of the oldest bushcamps in the Magadigadi Pans, and a five-star fly-in safari destination of some repute. I felt confident that they would have oral and inject-able solutions to Martin's increasingly perilous condition.

Leaving Carl at the camp, we jumped into the truck and I made all safe haste for Jack's, about six miles away. By the time we arrived Martin was struggling but still on his own feet, and within five minutes he had antihistamines in his body. The young but capable staff had a doctor on the radio, and in case of need a medical evacuation flight sitting on the dirt runway.

Thankfully within the hour Martin was stabilized and looking much much better. We arrived back at our camp just after sunset, to a great reception from Carl who had been very worried. There are now both inject-able and oral antihistamines in my medical kit, and from now on they will be fresh and available for future need.

This is a clear illustration of some of the dangers inherent in being alive in the bush. Most people live within thirty minutes of medical help. Once you go beyond that it is necessary to be prepared for most eventualities. I have a wilderness medical certificate, and Martin is a qualified veterinarian, and both of us thought we were covered, because our past experience showed we were not allergic to bees. I carry an extensive medical kit that will take care of most problems in the bush, at least until we can reach a hospital. Yet we did indeed come up up short. The lesson to learn is: Prepare for every eventuality that you can.

We would both like to extend our heartfelt appreciation for the very professional staff at Jack's Camp and the way that they reacted in such a helpful manner. Martin also should be commended for keeping calm, keeping watch over his symptoms, and remaining positive.

After a rest day in Maun near a critical care facility to make sure Martin was indeed fine, we headed up into the Okavango Delta.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Botswana's Magadigadi Pans and Khubu Island in Pictures

Another Desert Campsite near the Pans.

Lappetfaced Vultures take flight in the Magadigadi National Park in Botswana. The Vultures are an indicator species, and a thriving group of juveniles like this one shows that the ecosystem here is very healthy.

The Granite bedrock of Khubu Island, in the Magadigadi Pans. The Island is still a spiritual center for the both the San Bushmen and the local community.

Travelling across the Pans can be very dangerous in the rainy season. Its best to never leave the main roads, or else you run the rick of slipping into the primordial ooze that lurks beneath the crusty clay.

The Magadigadi Pans National Park, only covers about a third of the pans' area. Here on its Eastern edge our desert campsite, with the Southern Cross on her side above us.

In the shadows of a Baobab Tree, Khubu Island's isolation is ending. This one-time island in a lake is now an island in the vastness of the Pans. It's serenity and beauty draw thousands of tourists a year, who bring in revenue to the local community.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Into the Wild: The Magadigadi Pans

Khubu Island, in the Magigadi Pans of Botswana. The island was originally populated by a San Bushman people which followed the Leopard Scorpi tradition, and then later in the 1500 and 1600s by a vassal state of the Great Zimbabwe Empire called the Monomatapa. The proposed Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) will encompass an area the size of Italy through five African countries. The park's core area is centered around the Okavango River and the Delta, which currently has only limited protection.

Into the Magadigadi Pans- Community Based Conservation.

We made it out of Johannesburg on Sunday the 10th of April, traveling in the Hog, my Toyota Landcruiser Diesel 4x4, which is one of the most economical and hardy 4x4s in the world. If anyone has an electrical 4x4 that can drive at least 200 miles in one charge, I would much rather use that, but for now this is our moving platform.

Martin and Carl, my two travel companions, arrived at my garage at around 9am, but it took us about three hours to get our packing system set up and get on the road. We arrived at the Botswana border at around 4pm, and headed up to the farm of a friend where I had worked before on a solar energy project. See that story here.

The next morning we awoke to the sound of goat bells clanking in the still air, and we had coffee with some other farmers in the area and talked about the recent rains, which have been very good. In Botswana the currency is called Pula, which means rain. Clearly in a desert country like this one rain is everything. But the rains which everyone lauded however might complicate the road ahead for us. We are headed into the Magadigadi Pans, a place which fills with water in the rains and becomes one of the most important areas for waterbirds in Africa. We are also trying to get into the top of the Okavango Delta, and already our contact there has suggested in a text message that we may not be able to drive there at all, but she will try to arrange a boat along what is usually a dirt road. So the talk with the farmers was hopeful for Botswana, but slightly disturbing for three adventurers who have only one car and eleven days to travel thousands of Kilometers on rough dirt roads which now may be impassable.

We are returning to the Kaza Park area to investigate further the long-term project I am doing about this most grand of conservation projects for television documentary I am making with in the United States. The documentary explores how the project is evolving, and the future of tourism and development in Africa, and will answer questions like: How will communities live with wild animals? How will they benefit from tourism? How will the Park change what is happening on the ground today?

On Khubu Island, the Magadigadi Pans’ main tourist attraction, the community has been involved in a local tourism project for eleven years. The Peace Parks Foundation, who is facilitating the dialogue between the five countries that are part of the Kaza Park, brought the Khubu Island community members to the latest planning session in Botswana’s capital Gaborone, in order to learn more about how they have created one of the most successful projects of its kind. So we are headed there today to find out from the main guide there, nicknamed Dragon, what role communities like his might play in the greater KAZA Park.

So after a long day on the road, and a night in the Pans, we arrived at Khubu Island, happy to find the road clear of the great pools of water that collect here during the rains. The place is treacherous for driving at the best of times, but when water permeates the pans, even solid flat soil can become quicksand under the vibrations of the Hog’s tires.
What we learned at Khubu is encouraging, and if these lessons can be learned by the KAZA park creators, then there is a good chance this huge project will be successful.

The fees at Khubu Island go strait to the community, and under a large Baobab tree, Dragon explains how the community would like to see the KAZA park benefit them. The first way, they want to see more wild animals in their area. This is surprising, since most rural communities in Africa are at odds with wild animals. Dragon explains that in fact, many of the people who were responsible for the decline of the wild animal populations around the island were now sorry they had killed them. He and the other community members want more tourists, they can see how tourism money has assisted them, and they know that with lions and elephants and large game in the area, they would have even more visitors. The visitor fees provide cash for a local school, a clinic, and a cellphone tower for communication. It’s very encouraging to find on the ground an “ownership” feeling over the tourism resources in the area, and a willingness to embrace greater conservation measures in order to bring in more cash to an isolated community like this one. Most importantly, Dragon explains that ten years ago, the community had no interest in seeing wild animals in the area and instead wanted more goats and cows on low interest loans from the government. That this is not the case today speaks volumes about the success of this community based tourism model that will hopefully be replicated and be pivotal for the future of the KAZA park.