Pictures Reveal Beauty, Peril in Africa's Largest Wetland

A National Geographic team emerges after grueling months journeying down the remote waters that feed the Okavango Delta.

Steve Boyes and his team of scientist-explorers learned the hard way why hippos are often called the guardians of the river.

The large, dangerous animals “teach you to be very careful as you go along,” says Boyes, who encountered nearly 600 hippos over the course of the expedition that took his team nearly 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) through Africa’s Okavango Delta system.

Leaving in late May in the highlands of Angola, the multinational team reached the end of the journey on Friday at Lake Xau, in Botswana.

During one of the tensest moments of the Okavango Wilderness Project expedition, a hippo lunged at a canoe in the middle of the river, knocking Boyes and another explorer into the water. After terrifying minutes, they made it safely to shore. Later, they patched the holes in their boat.

Boyes, a National Geographic Explorer who's affiliated with the Wild Bird Trust and the University of Cape Town’s Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, led a team of 14 scientists on the journey. Their goal: To survey the region’s rich biodiversity, collect important information about the waters that sustain the Okavango Delta, and garner support for greater protection of the watershed.

Although Botswana’s Okavango Delta was recognized by UNESCO in 2014 as the 1,000th World Heritage Site, its headwaters in Angola are vulnerable to slash-and-burn farming—especially as the ubiquitous land mines laid during the country’s civil war are gradually cleared.

The multinational team supported by the National Geographic Society documented previously undescribed waterfalls and more than 11,000 sightings of wildlife, from pods of 30 hippos to herds of elephants, prides of lions, and dangerous crocodiles up to 23 feet (7 meters) long. The scientists counted hundreds of species of vertebrates, including eight species of fish likely new to science, and more than 500 of plants.

The going was grueling, especially when they had to trudge through thick vegetation pulling their canoes, or mokoros as they’re called locally. Despite the hardships, the only major injury was a broken arm, sustained when a scientist fell from a tree.

Six more smaller expeditions are planned for the region in the next year, to flesh out some of the biodiversity surveys.

The expedition made the front pages of newspapers across southern Africa. The team met with two regional governors and many local people, to share findings and talk up the importance of protection. Boyes hopes responsible ecotourists might one day follow in some of his footsteps.

“Angola doesn’t have the best reputation for accessibility, but we received tremendous support there,” he says.

“I’ve never seen anything like the abundance of life around us,” says Boyes, whose passion for this wilderness is palpable. That abundance includes 2,000-strong herds of buffaloes and thriving elephants who weren’t afraid of people, as they are in much of Africa now because of relentless poaching.

In his favorite moment of the journey, Boyes saw a mother elephant playing with a youngster on the bank of the river, splashing around as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

Follow the expedition on its website, Twitter, and Instagram.