The Okavango, in southwest Africa, is a very special river.
It is born in the highlands of Angola – but, instead of flowing towards the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, it runs inland. After more than 1,500 kilometres, the waters of the Okavango create a huge river delta before disappearing into the Kalahari Desert. Much of the water evaporates in the intense sun, and the rest of it seeps into the parched dry sands of the Kalahari.
The Okavango Delta is a true natural wonder – an unlikely oasis, a lush paradise in the middle of a hostile desert, that supports and feeds an incredible abundance of wildlife.
This three-part blue-chip series presents pure nature at its finest. The Okavango Delta covers about 15,000 square kilometres, but after the floods of the rainy season it can even grow to around 20,000 square kilometres – almost the size of New Jersey.
It starts with a single drop of water, exploding against a rock in the far Angolan highlands. The drop is joined by zillions more, and together they tumble down a waterfall, rushing, swirling, heading southeast. This droplet will live above ground for just six months, from splashing onto the dry rocks, joining a rushing river system which then slows down as it meets the huge flatland, and then to the very end of its life as an Okavango droplet – either evaporating up into the sky, or seeping down into the dry Kalahari sand.
The Okavango is shaped by many natural forces, which have a huge influence on the mighty river system, and its geography is split into three parts. From its source in Angola, the river crosses Namibia to the panhandle in Botswana. Here, the river is slowed down, meandering and fanning out over the flat area, depositing all its nutrients, supporting the plant growth and making a rich home range for the big game. And then, finally, the river forms fingers, extending beyond the formal Okavango and reaching far into the desert, influencing the great migrations and creating a home for many of Africa’s animals.
The wildlife characters in this extensive three-part documentary range from the familiar big heroes to the small wonders of the animal kingdom. By carefully selecting the animal characters, we will tell their powerful stories and understand their fascinating personalities. All these animal characters depend on the river system and its natural course. The continual ebb and flow of the Okavango means that these animals must continually adapt to a changing environment.
In Botswana, we’ll see the painted dogs, hunting along the river’s edges, and now the most numerous population in the whole country. We’ll meet some very adaptable lions – which have learned to swim in the Okavango river.
Leopards laze away the days, waiting for the Sausage Trees to bloom and flower and lure their prey to come into range to feed on the lush plants. And Letchwe antelope splash, run and fight in the shallow waters of the river, enjoying the cool the water brings in the searing desert heat.
Hippos actually alter the channels of the river, and can be seen from far and wide, even from the air – while to catch crocodiles in their natural surroundings, we will have to get close, even venturing underwater to reveal their hidden lives.
Apart from the famous predator-prey relationships – the hunters and the hunted – different animals play their own part in keeping the system working. By forcing their way through the water channels, hippos keep them open and accessible to other animals – as do elephants. They feed on palm nuts and distribute their remains to new areas, spreading the palms around the Okavango ecosystem. The palm trees in turn offer a home to roosting vultures and fish-eagles, raising their young.
Lions on the hunt chase the buffalo, and keep the herds on the move. This pressure from the lions forces the herds to migrate further, breed faster, and by feeding on different parts of the Okavango’s vast area, they avoid getting sedentary and too accustomed to one place.
Termites are always busy. Their continual feeding, burying, fertilising and building changes the landscape itself, even creating the islands of the Okavango – which, in turn attract wildlife like Letchwe antelopes. And these large herds again attract wild dogs and cheetahs.
But the river doesn’t always offer a safe haven for fleeing animals, as crocodiles might be lurking in the depths of the water, waiting to snatch an unfortunate victim.
Every encounter generates its own story, not just for the characters but also creating change in the river itself and the ecosystem. It’s a cycle that has repeated itself for centuries, and will do so for as long as this paradise exists.
The Okavango has been the centre point of exploration in Southern Africa for over 200 years. Many explorers came to this river and were caught in its spell, often leading to great revelations – or fatal consequences.
Frederick Courteney Selous, a 19th century British hunter and conservationist, steered a course in completely the wrong direction, reaching the Makgadikgadi Pans. He nearly died, and he lost half of his party – until, in the distance, they saw a mirage. It was a gigantic baobab tree, which saved their lives, and is still there today.
These examples are just a few among countless others, showing that the Okavango is one of Africa’s greatest rivers. It has its own moods and personality – sometimes it feeds, sometimes it starves, it is the character of its own story. Like other African rivers, the Okavango has its very own ghosts and demons, its moodiness lurking in its deep dark waters.
The vast river system provides a beautiful stage for a drama of untouched nature, a portrait presenting all the richness and beauty of the Okavango. All the characters’ stories are told against the backdrop of their relationship with the water and their contribution to the river system. All the energetic, never-ending circle of life and death occurs in a truly natural paradise.