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Okavango: River of Dreams

October 10, 2019

Last month, I sat riveted during the preview of Okavango: River of Dreams, a powerful documentary that chronicles a fascinating cast of animals and their daily struggle to survive in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Right when I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the Okavango, along come my great friends Dereck and Beverly Joubert – legendary conservationists, award-winning filmmakers and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence – with their moving, profound, and deeply intimate account of the place they call home.

Of course, what made this documentary all the more personal to me is that a year into filming River of Dreams, Beverly and Dereck suffered a devastating buffalo attack whilst in the bush. Buffalo (also known as black death) are without doubt the most dangerous of the Big Five – above lion, leopard, rhino and elephant. Beverley’s injuries were incredibly severe in that she was impaled by the animal’s horn, suffered a collapsed lung, and had 21 broken bones in her face as a result. Although Dereck was injured, too — suffering cracked ribs and a broken pelvis — he somehow managed to save Beverly as the buffalo ran off with her. That she survived such critical injuries and that they both recovered to full health in just eight months is a testament to their extraordinary passion for life and the work they have yet to do in Africa.

But it was perhaps the parallels between one of the core characters in the first episode, a lioness named Fekeetsa, and Beverly that really brought home the fragility of life and our environment. After a run-in with a buffalo, Fekeetsa (meaning she who overcomes challenges) suffered a crushed ankle and a dislocated shoulder and yet, like Beverly, she pushed through the pain to survive.

Cleverly, Okavango: River of Dreams is based on Dante’s classic poem, The Divine Comedy.  Each episode echoes a “world” in Dante’s poem — the first part being Paradise (the area closest to the Delta, where water is plentiful), followed by Purgatory (the middle area), and then the Inferno (the extreme heat of the outlying desert area). Through these episodes and locations, the story of the river unfolds with up-close-and-personal cinematography and an incredible soundtrack of rock and metal music.

However, the Okavango is a place like nowhere else on earth: it is both a phenomenon and a conundrum. This unique wetland system (the largest inland delta of its kind in the world) does not simply empty into the sea, but rather, into an arid desert.  Once there, it is trapped to create a vast labyrinth of lagoons and more than 150,000 islands that cover an astonishing 10,000 miles of floodplain. It’s a phenomenon set in motion in March and April every year, when rains in the highlands of Angola flood the Cubango River, which then flows south for some 700 miles, gathering more and more water until it reaches Botswana’s arid Kalahari Desert between June and August. Here, the trajectory of the river is determined by a set of fault lines deep below the surface, which force the waters to split into several channels, thus forming a colossal, fan-shaped alluvial plain. This miraculous occurrence during the dry season means that the Delta attracts around 260,000 mammals as well as 530 species of birds, making it the world’s premier wilderness area. So much so that in 2013 it was voted one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, while in 2014 it became the 1,000th destination to be listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As the founders of Great Plains Camps and the Great Plains Foundation, Dereck and Beverly have dedicated their lives to conservation. Their mission is simple: “You simply cannot be moved to advocacy without love for your topic,” says Dereck. “We’re definitely still romantic in that every day, we go into the bush and fall in love with the puff of condensation that escapes from a lion cub’s mouth in the early dawn.” But the film, with all its evocative examples of this pristine paradise, comes with an overriding warning that as precious as this natural world is, it is also in grave peril. “We are deeply cognizant of the fact that you can’t just show the beauty of nature without highlighting the need to conserve, for these are the critical conversations we constantly seek to create around conservation,” explains Dereck. I couldn’t agree more.

Okavango – River of Dreams will air in the U.S. on Wednesdays from October 23-November 6 on PBS at 8pm EST, as part of the iconic ‘Nature’ series. Make sure to tune in and watch this profound and very necessary documentary. If you’d like more information on the the work that Dereck and Beverly do, or if you’d like to visit their lodges in Botswana, mail welcome@roarafrica.com

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