Emotions swirl as the current at my feet. Everyone looks so young, so charged, so immortal. I was once at such a place, standing on the banks of an unrun river, wild with anticipation, vested with a feeling of launching into something exceptional, something archetypical, beyond normal lives, discovering as the 19th century seekers of the source of the Nile. Downstream, so many wonders, so many dangers, so many moments of sublimity; and then the shock and gloom of injury and death. It was like volunteering to go to war, with full expectations that we would win; but with reality sometimes different. “Hope is the last thing to die,” goes a popular Angolan saying. I was awakened last night by the shrinking of history’s clock, but here the eyes are glazed with hope, the same optics through which I stared at so many beginnings.
I have entered the museum of my youth. I mingle with the expedition members, Brits, Americans, Germans, South Africans, Namibians, Botswanans, Angolans, researchers, scientists, a social media manager, an Emmy-nominated film producer/director, a Zimbabwean river guide who rafts the Zambezi below Victoria Falls, a sketch artist along the lines of Thomas Baines who accompanied David Livingstone on this exploration of the Zambezi in 1859. They have sponsors, some of transparent intent, National Geographic, The Wild Bird Trust, and The HALO Trust (the organization that clears land mines); others perhaps opaquer, such as DeBeers, with its past complicity in apartheid and blood diamonds. But at Sobek we had a similar range of supporters, from The Sierra Club to RJR Nabisco, The Smithsonian to the CIA.
The river at which we are standing is the Lungwevungu, and the team hopes to rewrite Wikipedia, which claims the source of the Zambezi is in North-Western Province, Zambia. They intend to make the first descent of what they believe is the true source…. the farthest contributing stream from the mouth in Mozambique on the other side of the continent. There is no universal agreement on what defines a true source. Some argue it should be the tributary that offers up the greatest volume, as the Blue Nile does when it confluxes with the White Nile in Khartoum, where the combined flow becomes the Nile proper. Others crown the White Nile with the title, as its waters bubble up hundreds of miles further away than its sister stream.
But this expedition is part of a larger scope, called the Okavango Wilderness Project, which intends to survey the many lakes, streams, swales, and rivers in the Angolan highlands that make up the life-nurturing watershed for both the Zambezi and the Okavango River, which decants into the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, finally sinking into a sea of sand. The Okavango Delta is one of the greatest cradles of biodiversity on earth, with hundreds of species of birds, plants, and wild animals. It is Africa’s last remaining and largest intact wetland wilderness. The greatest concentration of elephant thrives here, some 130,000 by some estimates. There are towers of giraffe, dazzles of zebra, bloats of hippo, crashes of rhino, confusions of guinea fowl, flamboyances of flamingo, and over a million humans who depend upon these waters. UNESCO recognized the Delta as the 1,000th World Heritage Site in 2014.
If the upstream spigot were to be turned off the results for all the life in the Delta would be devastating. Not to mention the economic consequences, as tourism and its supporting networks make up some 11% of Botswana’s GDP.
The goal then is to champion a network of protected areas that create a corridor from the Angolan sources to Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Zambia’s and Zimbabwe’s Zambezi. Tourism could be a key.
The water tower is about the size of England, and just as green, but it is a land that time forgot. Its ontogénesis is more paleolithic than neoteric. Its vast peatlands could be Scotland of 10,000 years ago. For the duration of Angola’s civil war there was little to impact the righteous flows of the Okavango headwaters. In many ways this was a proxy war, democracy versus communism, the Soviet Union and Cuba verses South Africa and America. Battles were fought across its banks and bogs; an estimated 500,000 Angolan lives were lost. And an unknown number of land mines were scattered throughout the watershed. By some twisted piece of fate, the land mines kept development and human interference at bay, and the water ran full and clear into the cupping hands of the Delta.
In the midst of Angola’s civil war, the HALO Trust began its clearance work. Princess Diana lent her presence and influence to the cause in 1997, just months before her death. Wearing a protective head visor and anti-armor vest, she walked through an active Angolan minefield. She pushed a button and detonated a mine in front of the press. “One down, 17 million to go,” she honeyed to the cameras. The UN at the time estimated some 20 million land mines in Angola. Others who have been on knees on the ground deactivating, have more conservative numbers. The Swiss NGO Foundation Pro-Victimis figures up to 600,000 mines have been cleared and destroyed to date, but an estimated 300,000 remain. There may be more to be found, in line with Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns.’ HALO publishes maps of the cleared areas, and much of the Okavango watershed is now safe to wander…or develop.
My presence in this outlying piece of Africa traces to a dinner I had in 2019 in Venice Beach with Chris Boyes, who had been part of the National Geographic-sponsored survey expedition that made the first descent of the Cuito river, which spills from the coy source lake that is farthest away from the inland Delta. His older brother Steve, a South African conservation biologist, conceived and led the expedition, which identified several new species in this little explored plat of Africa.
Chris came to me to describe threats to the Okavango Delta that seemed to be fermenting up in the Angolan Highlands, everything from accelerating deforestation to giant agro-schemes to mining to poaching to hydro projects backed by the Chinese. Angola has been battling corruption since its independence, and for some exploitation of the vast untouched watershed in the southeastern swaths of the country is irresistible.
An economic alternative that could indeed help preserve the water tower region is tourism. When I co-founded Sobek with my high-school friend John Yost in 1973, we did not imagine our little idea to explore and share the remote wilderness areas of the world would become a force in tourism. But many of our excursions into unknown waters, deserts, rainforests, and mountains became iconic, and today millions annually commit the sins of adventure travel, many following in Sobek’s footsteps. Our first descent of the Zambezi from Victoria Falls to Lake Kariba in 1981, with the support of National Geographic and ABC Television, took a while to catch on, what with land mines lining the shores and aggressive crocs and hippos in the river, but ultimately it took off, and is now the most popular adventure tourist activity in the region.
So, during our meal I agreed we would try to put a trip together, bringing the first tourists ever to the Water Tower, providing proof of concept that non-extractive economic alternatives could be viable. Certainly, the halls of power in Luanda know of the hundreds of millions of dollars realized in tourism income in nearby Botswana. Why shouldn’t that be replicated in Angola?
There were, however, several challenges with this concept. The first being the conspicuous lack of charismatic megafauna in Angola. The country once teemed with the classics: elephant, lion, giraffe, rhino, buffalo, zebra, cheetah, and a panoply of antelope, including the Angolan giant sable. But, as Colin Bell, co-founder of Wilderness Safaris in 1983, told me, “All wars in Africa start in the National Parks. Firstly, the troops need to be fed, and the pickings are easy. But also, wars are expensive, and one way to finance is by selling poached ivory and endangered species.” So, after 27 years of civil war, most of the wildlife was either killed, or fled to neighboring sanctuaries, such as in Botswana.
When most tourists come to Africa, they come to see the wildlife. So, for the moment, that was off the table when designing a trip.
Another challenge was the expense. Angola, which has significant oil reserves, is among the most expensive countries in the world to visit. But more than that, there are no support services in this part of Angola: no lodges, no restaurants, no safari vehicles, no guides, no infinity pools. There are no commercial flights, and no airports at the source lakes. The only way to visit the Water Tower region in a holiday time frame would be by helicopter, and the helicopter would have to fly from Botswana almost 500 miles to the north. And the only helicopter available for such a journey would be a Bell 407, which seats six, including the pilot, so any tourism pioneering would have to be with a small group. That put the tab per person at around the cost of a new electric car.
The last major obstacle was the two-year travel interregnum imposed by Covid 19. So, while we unpacked this plan in 2019, it was not until June of 2022 that we finally confounded the challenges and set off on an exploratory of potential consequence. There are six in the helicopter as it shudders northward, Mark Schneider, who traveled with me on pioneering trips to North Korea and Saudi Arabia; Robin and Bob Ebinger, who recently returned from an MT Sobek adventure in Sudan; Daniel Williams our pilot, who did a hazardous stint flying miners in the DRC; and Kai Collins, a Botswana-born conservation biologist with a special focus on threatened species, and the impacts of climate change on ecosystems. He has been surveying for the Okavango Wilderness Project for the last 3 ½ years, and was last year attacked in his tent while on survey by a rogue elephant who gored him, tossed him 30 feet, and left him near dead. Now he’s back on the horse, and when an elephant approaches to within inches of our lodge deck in the Delta, Kai doesn’t flinch.
As per Angolan requirement, we take our PCR tests in Maun, then wend our way up the panhandle of the Delta stopping for exit visas in Shakawe, and then to Rundu in Namibia for refueling. Rundu is at the doorstep of the Caprivi, the narrow neck of land acquired by then German South West Africa, now Namibia, in 1860 in order to provide access to the Zambezi River and a supposed route to German Tanganyika on the east coast of the continent. Victoria Falls put paid to that navigational dream, but the strip remains and holds the wildlife rich Bwabwata National Park. We see parades of elephant, pods of hippo, herds of antelope and stacks of termite mounds before our border crossing.
We enter Angolan air space and maneuver north to Cuito Cuanavale, where the eponymous source rivers meet, and where the largest tank battle in Africa since WWII took place between 1987 and 1988. From the pitch runway we can see the upper sections of a monument to the battle, a colossal black AK-47 built by North Korea. “No pictures while on the tarmac,” Kai instructs.
Back in the air we turn with the glassy ribbon that is the Cuanavale, one of the major source fountains. Much of this area was known as terra do fim do mundo – the land at the end of earth. And until recently, it was as wild and unaffected as earth’s first morning. But now, on all sides we see fires burning the woodlands. With the war over, and areas cleared of land mines, villagers have taken to large-scale burning. Trees regrow after natural fires, but man-made burns inhibit the natural order. Forests that once held and regulated moisture, once scorched, will no longer make the healthy feed to their rivers.
We angle and tend up to the mother lake of the Cuanavale, a glass that has tucked itself outside of time’s crashing momentum. The translucent waters that percolate from this lake will arrive in the Delta six months from now.
It is here we land in a field of tall grass.
This secret heritage to the Okavango is shockingly beautiful, and more so because of its absences. There is nothing manufactured in any direction, no sign of human habitation now or ever, just a chorus of miombo trees and a little lake shimmering as though dipped in a bowl of crystal. It harbors a single chthonic crocodile, and a cryptid monster called Mukisikisi, so says Kai. It was near here in 1955 that the largest elephant ever hunted to that point was bagged, and now stands in the center rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. There are no signs of elephant of any size now.
We trek from the landing site down a fine-sand path inked with afternoon shade and meet Scotland-born single, a former British Army Officer and demining expert who was the HALO Angola Program Manager during Prince Harry’s 2013 visit to Cuito Cuanavale. The human bonding that results from jointly stepping through land mines happened, and Prince Harry invited Gerhard to the Royal Wedding in 2018, for which he had to source attire not in his sapper closet, a proper morning coat.
Gerhard is providing support for our little groundbreaking safari, including recruiting villagers from the source lands, called the Lisima Landscape (“source of life,” in the local vernacular). Gerhard is training them to assist this exotic species called tourists. He purchased new tents, and showed the Angolans how to set up, how to dig latrines, and turned their cooking skills to new grubery, including English breakfast and saignant steak dinners (most eastern Angolans eat funge, cassava flour porridge, three times a day). Everything Gerhard brought to this outing is hard to find in this part of Angola, but he did, including sleeping bags, solar powered lamps, camp chairs, peanut butter, bacon, gin & tonics, and a 12-year-old bottle of Glenmorangie scotch.
The shuttles of a cold dawn nudge me awake. Outside the canvas tent I watch billows of mist smoke across the lake. Above the brume, hornbills wheel with elegance and bateleurs souse about as though drunk.
Gerhard piles us into a couple of Land Rovers on loan from HALO, and we trundle down a track to a rusting derelict T-55 Russian tank and a battered BMP-2 personnel carrier, casualties of the war. The Regan administration and CIA-backed UNITA hid in this solemn assembly of trees as it made repeated well-armed attempts to seize power from the ruling Marxist-Leninist party, the MPLA. When the Portuguese hastily withdrew from their second-largest colony in 1975, they left a power vacuum that triggered an internal war for control of the country. After almost 30 years of conflict, the civil war ended in 2002 after UNITA’s leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in battle in the province of his birthplace, not far from here. With weapons laid down, Angola emerged as a relatively stable constitutional republic governed by the MPLA, which remains the dominate party today.
After a quick lunch and a Cuca cerveja we take flight again, crossing small knolls and hommocks into the Zambezi watershed. The flight is thrilling for the infinite sweep of first-growth forest, the green lung of Africa. Though Kai interrupts the revery by pointing out the intermittent stands of rosewood, saying the Chinese have an insatiable appetite for the dense, dark hardwood, which they use to craft classical furniture and décor. Villagers are contracted to illegally harvest, to meet the booming Asian demand. With this dialectic, a textured carpet of trees with invisible axes at their trunks, we pass over several lakes that look like human eyes glittering or brooding, as the mood strikes. The enveloping fields look young and green, as if they were breathing in the warm sun. You would never think that this land had ever been a battlefield, and the rivers tank traps.
The ride is smooth, as Daniel is the precision pilot, creasing the sky with a steady hand on the stick. Only once did he scare. We flew over a region that hosted yet another of the large battles in the civil war and looked down at the rusted hulks of blown-up tanks, and the twisted remnants of two downed helicopters strewn over the peatlands. Not long after, with a sudden jolt, the helicopter pitched steeply to the right, then sharply to the left. It felt as though we were out of control or were hit by a surface-to-air missile. There were involuntary vocalizations, white-knuckle grips, and thoughts of Almost Famous confessions. I lamented for a second that this would be an awful way to die after a half century of hairy explorations. Then, just as suddenly, the helicopter was back upright and sailing straight. “Sorry,” said Daniel. “It was a bird. A big bird. I had to dodge it. A bird like that can bring a chopper down.” Calming words but words that put us all on high alert for wayward fowl for the rest of our airtime.
In the soft pool of afternoon light, we spot the yellow tents and a fleet of mokoros, traditional dugout canoes, at the river’s edge, and we circle around a couple times and land. The team members are busy preparing for tomorrow’s launch, readying to wrestle nine boats some six weeks and 600 crooked miles to the Zambian border. But they seem also glad to see drop-ins as they know they will be stuck with team members for the next several weeks. Steve Boyes, the visionary leader of the Project, has been dealing with health issues, and is not present, but is reportedly on the good recovery road and plans to join downstream. In his place is Rainer von Brandis, with a doctorate degree in nature conservation, and Kerllen Costa, an Angolan scientist whose sister was featured in the National Geographic film, Into the Okavango, and became something of a celebrity and government advisor.
Rainer and Kerllen approach Kai and Daniel and ask if they can borrow the helicopter for a short recce. They say there are rapids not far downstream, and the plan had been to portage, but some local villagers warned there are land mines along this stretch. This cautioning brings me back to our first descent of the Zambezi below Victoria Falls in 1981, just months after Zimbabwe emerged from white minority ruled Rhodesia. During the 15-year civil war land mines were planted up, down, above and below the Batoka Gorge of the Zambezi, a stretch sliced with huge rapids. So, we recruited two former Rhodesian Army sappers to join the descent, and every time we pulled into a beach to camp, they would sweep the sand first before we made a step. But there are no sappers here and now, so the expedition is concerned.
Hearing this I immediately offer to join the recce. “I can read water,” I offer. But the offer is declined. I remember so many years ago when I set out with a Sobek team to make the first descent of the Çoruh River in eastern Turkey. The classified topo maps we had secured from the C.I.A. suggested a steep gradient, making large and difficult rapids likely. But as we prepared to launch an elder from the neighboring town came to me and advised we not attempt to run his river. He had walked up and down the river all his life and he pronounced it unnavigable. “You will die,” he announced, “Unless you take me with you.” In my own youthful arrogance, I felt I knew more than he, and we launched and spun into the muddy flux, waving goodbye to the elder on the banks. We survived (though the Çoruh did not…it has sense been dammed). Our hubris did not kill us that time; but it would get us later.
A fish eagle is disturbed from its treetop perch signaling the helicopter return. The machine lands gently, and the scouts jump out to announce the rapids runnable, so the team will not have to portage through a field of land mines.
I so envy the crew and their embark on a passage that might make a difference, and I hope they land buttered-side up. But I also recognize that my little six-person aerial, lake and land tour could be the tip of the spear drawing international visitors to these wonderlands, giving policy makers and the Angolan people economic reasons to protect their vital water resources.
Now Daniel is waving me to the helicopter, as it is getting late. I take one last long look at the clear-flowing Lungwevungu. It looks so tempting. A big part of me wants to jump in a boat and head downstream.
But I turn to step up the hill to the waiting helicopter. I’ve traveled down unsailed canyons so many times before, and I need to appreciate that, against some odds, I made it out the other side. There is a huge measure of luck in any life, but also, in some, there is an art of living dangerously.
Excerpted from the upcoming book, The Art of Living Dangerously
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