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Africa's Miracle Delta On Assignment

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Africa's Miracle Delta
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Africa's Miracle Delta @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Kennedy WarnePhotographs by David Doubilet



When Botswana's seasonal floodwaters transform a parched plain into Africa's largest oasis, there's no better time to slip beneath the surface of the Okavango for a look around. Just watch out for the crocodiles.



Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

The waters of the delta are full of crocodiles. The Bayei people, one of several Okavango tribes, say as much in a poem they teach their children: "I am the river. My surface gives you life. Below is death." For photographer David Doubilet and me, going below the surface was an essential part of our work. We wanted to see the delta as few had dared to see it before—a croc's-eye view. People in passing boats, noticing our wet suits and scuba gear, didn't hesitate to give their opinion on croc-watching: They tapped their temples as if to say, you're out of your minds. Perhaps we were, but it was winter, and we reasoned that because crocodiles are reptiles, their metabolism would be sluggish. Torpidity was certainly to be hoped for in a 15-foot (five-meter) reptile with teeth as big as thumbs.
 
The larger crocodiles spent much of the day basking on the riverbanks in well-used haul-outs, usually with chutes down which they slid into the water if disturbed. Some lay with their mouths open, a behavior once fancifully thought to allow a "cleaner" bird to pick the meat from between their teeth but now considered an aid to regulating body temperature and a way of relaxing jaw muscles. In the cool of the night the warmth-loving crocs came to life for the hunt, floating at the water's edge. Their eyes gleamed blood-red in our spotlight as we motored up the channel.
 
Although Nile crocodiles are one of only a handful of predators that actively hunt humans, I figured that if I initiated an encounter, thus denying the animal its advantage of surprise, I would retain the upper hand. And so one night I slipped into the water to observe a six-foot (two-meter) croc that had submerged as our boat approached. Pulling myself through a tangle of water lilies, I reached a position directly above the crocodile, then dived down for a closer look.
 
Magnificent! The vivid black-on-fawn markings; the two lines of upraised scutes on the back, merging into the serrated keel of the tail, jagged as a ripsaw; the gorgeously veined irises of the unblinking eyes; teeth like a white zipper. I was less than two feet (one meter) from the animal, and my nervous system was awash with the adrenaline of the moment.
 
The crocodile moved. I followed it through the underwater foliage, playing my torch beam on its squat, muscular legs. Then, with a scythe of its tail, it sped away into the deep.
 
Crocodiles are the delta's most feared aquatic predator, but locals say that hippopotamuses cause more deaths and injuries. Accidental meetings in narrow channels are often the trigger for an attack. Hippos can bite a canoe in half with one snap of their jaws, and their teeth can puncture an aluminum boat as if it were a beer can. The two-ton vegetarians aren't slowpokes, either. Guy Lobjoit, an Okavango fishing guide, told me he once had a hippo keep up with him while he was doing nearly 20 miles an hour (30 kilometers an hour) in his runabout. "The boat was planing, and this thing was pushing up a bow wave right next to me," he said. "Gave my ticker a bit of a flutter."


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Sights & Sounds
Join photographer David Doubilet on this spectacular underwater adventure.

Wallpaper
Decorate your desktop with an image of an elephant enjoying a little lightweight water fun.

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting-room floor is this month's Final Edit, an underwater image of two sets of very different limbs.



More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Stiff Lower Lip Gets Dinner

One of the more recognizable members of the wondrous hodgepodge of Okavango Delta wildlife is a bird called the African skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris). First off, its brightly colored orange beak has a lower mandible that is longer than the top one. This isn't for display or to attract a mate, the reasons often behind unusual beaks (think puffins). Rather it's all about food.
 
With its long wings, the tern-like skimmer flies inches above the river surface. Tilting its head down, it opens its beak and trails the elongated lower bill in the water. Skimming along, the bird snaps its beak shut the second it hits a fish—and, behold, dinner.
 
As is often the case these days, this magical sight is in danger. There are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 African skimmers left, with numbers continuing to fall. Lack of fish isn't the problem. Skimmers nest on sandbanks in the river, but these are increasingly becoming flooded due to damming and poor farming practices, leaving fewer places for the birds to nest.
 
—David O'Connor
Did You Know?

Related Links
Wetlands in the Kalahari
www.wits.ac.za/geosciences/okavango/wetlands.htm
Learn more about the Okavango Delta and its workings from one of the leading experts on the river.
 
Tiger Fish
www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?genusname=Hydrocynus&
speciesname=vittatus

A great site to read about this mean-looking fish, a voracious predator.
 
Botswana Government
www.gov.bw/tourism/index_f.html
The Government of Botswana's tourism site is a perfect place to begin your planning for a trip to the delta, with links to everything from culture, flora and fauna, to entry requirements.
 
Popa Falls Project
www.nampower.com.na/nampower2004/projects/popa/index.asp
This dam project is mentioned in the article. Many believe that, if built, it will disrupt the flow of sediment—an essential part of the ecosystem—to the Okavango Delta.

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Bibliography
Livingston, David. The Life and African Explorations of David Livingston. Cooper Square Press, 1874.
 
McCarthy, T. S., and Ellery, W. N. "The Okavango Delta." Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa. (February 1998), 157–82.
 
McIntyre, Chris. Botswana: The Bradt Travel Guide. Bradt, 2003.
 
Dangerfield, J., and others. "The Mound-Building Termite Macrotermes michaelseni as an Ecosystem Engineer." Journal of Tropical Ecology (1998), 507-20.
 
McCarthy, T., and others. "Seasonal Flooding in the Okavango Delta, Botswana—Recent History and Future Prospects." South African Journal of Science (January 2000), 25–31.
 
Ross, Karen. Okavango: Jewel of the Kalahari. Struik Publishers, 2003.

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NGS Resources
Godwin, Peter. Wild at Heart: Man and Beast in Southern Africa. National Geographic Books, 2002.
 
Conniff, Richard. "Africa's Wild Dogs." National Geographic (May 1999), 36-63.
 
Chadwick, Douglas. "Safari to Botswana." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1995), 78-95.
 
Eckstrom, Christine K. Forgotten Edens: Exploring the World's Wild Places. National Geographic Books, 1993.
 
Lanting, Frans. "A Gathering of Waters and Wildlife." National Geographic (December 1990), 2-37.
 
Lee, Douglas. "Okavango Delta: Old Africa's Last Refuge." National Geographic (December 1990), 38-69.
 
Zich, Arthur. "Botswana, the Adopted Land." National Geographic (December 1990), 70-97.
 
Fisher, Angela. "Africa Adorned: A Continent Speaks Through Its Decorative Art." National Geographic (November 1984), 600-33.

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