Into the Okavango

The interior of the famed Castro Theatre is arrestingly ornate. Cast in plaster, deep red paints the ceiling, as ropes, tassels and a luxurious chandelier hang from above. The towering screen commands the stage and sitting front and center lies a 40-year-old Wurlitzer organ. The crowd stirs with excitement and whispers of anticipation spread throughout the audience. Tonight is the opening night of the San Francisco Green Film Festival.

Into the Okavango Documentary Film

Transitioning from my time in the grassy plains of Botswana to the rolling hills of San Francisco, I figured what better way to appreciate both than to attend the preview of the opening night film—Into the Okavango. The Okavango in northwestern Botswana is a vast river delta made up of a complex system of waterways and grassy plains. Small winding waterways weave in and out of the reeds where elephants wade. Zebras flock to the streams, with darting glances scanning for other visitors at the watering holes. Mokoro canoes glide along the water’s surface as the sun turns the horizon a deep shade of orange. The land is rich with life and species inhabit almost every part of the expansive delta– in Botswana that is. The thriving wildlife begins to disappear as one heads north. Partnering with National Geographic, conservation biologist Steve Boyes sought to explore the root of the delta’s water source and made the lengthy and dangerous trek to Angola. Thus began Into the Okavango.

Gathering an international crew, Boyes set off, with the beginning of the film documenting the arduous journey to find the beginning of the Cuito River, eventually venturing to the intersection of the Okavango and Zambezi basins. With bird populations serving as an indicator of vitality and environmental health, few bird sightings affirmed prior worries. The northern part of the delta was quenched with trees choking the water flow. After the flooding season, the water in the southern part of the delta recedes, leaving moisture behind in the soil. This residual water creates rich soil and land that is locally called molapo. Heavy peat defines the soil type within the delta, serving as a carbon sink. However, with peat soil drying due to a lack of water flow, cracks develop and fire ignites the delta’s plains. Slash and burn agriculture and hunting methods used among local tribes only exacerbates issues of fire. A classic tale of human caused degradation and changing ecosystems has descended upon what is often referred to as Africa’s last eden.

The sunsets over the horizon of the Okavango

As one of the two lifelines, the Cuito River serves as half of the water source to the edenic landscape. The other, the Cubango River, is encroached upon by continuous development and poor management. The Cuito is simultaneously threatened to due erosion and ecological change, caused by the fires that now plague the Okavango. With the protection of these two rivers, over 45 percent of the Okavango’s water source would be secured.

As we floated in and out of the reeds and grasses of the delta, hippos poked their heads up above the water’s surface. Elephants grazed nearby and antelopes, giraffes, wild dogs and wildebeest roamed in the distance. Africa’s last eden thrives in parts, but without a protected water source, here too species will begin to vanish. In the velvet seats of the Castro Theatre, a journey into the Okavango spread light on these issues.

The closing red curtains fell over the screen and for a night, I was transported back to the Okavango.