By Sarah Rose de Villiers
The spirit of adventure does not fade with age, as 66-year-old retired ichthyologist Prof Paul Skelton can testify.
Earlier this year, Skelton spent a month in the uncharted wilderness with explorers, scientists and filmmakers on The Okavango Wilderness Project, an expedition funded by National Geographic and the Wild Bird Trust. On Monday morning Skelton recounted his experience, challenges and treasured revelations in a presentation at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. His story began with a wooden boat and ended with a porcelain bowl – and has all the ingredients of a grand adventure.
The Silently Roaring River
“The Okavango is a magnificent system of lovely, untouched delta – which is rare in Africa,” said Skelton. The project aims to find ways for conserving the treasured delta, especially as Angolan populations expand and place new pressures on the incredible ecosystem. The expedition team consists of 15 individuals with an array of expertise – there are cameramen, writers, scientists, a solar-panel specialist, and boatmen.
As the expedition explored unchartered and undocumented areas of the river, they experienced the strength and magnificence of the Okavango’s river system.
In particular, Skelton emphasised the force of the current and the filtered water. He explained how the summer rainfall seeps into the sand, so that the immense system slowly releases and filters water rather than flooding plains.
“But it was pumping, just pumping down – this is why the Okavango survives today, and this is why it’s such a marvelous system,” he said.
In addition to creating a strong current, the filtering system also cleaned the water.
“The water was so pure – it is the best sand-filtered water in the world. When one of the mekoros capsized, the electronics weren’t even affected because the water was so pure. We just dried off all the parts, and everything worked fine.”
Mekoros are boats crafted from tree trunks – 7 m long vessels that are controlled by a standing boatman with a “ngashi” (a long pole) and accommodate two seated passengers.
“I’d never been in a mekoro before – but now I was spending 12 hours a day sitting in one. I haven’t sat like that since I moved around on my bottom as a child,” chuckled Skelton.
However, sitting in a mekoro certainly proved more pleasant than pulling a mekoro.
“For ten days, we had to pull the mekoros on land,” said Skelton. “I regretfully say that I did not help pull the mekoros because it would have killed me on the first day. It was one of the joys of being a bit older. But the team was amazing. They didn’t complain and their determination to succeed on the expedition was marvelous.”
The expedition members were told that they could only take two outfits, so Skelton carried one clean outfit for when he returned to the city, and he wore the other outfit for the whole month. The clothes were browned by Okavango mud, blackened by burnt bush and drenched from time in the river.
“I left those clothes there, by the way. They were irretrievable, and no amount of OMO could come near to cleaning them!”
Camping and Catching
Every night the expedition would set up camp, office and nets – depending on their expertise.
“I set trap nets every night, and in the morning we pulled them up and analysed the catch before we got going” said Skelton. “It was damp and wet, but it was fun. Some fish were familiar creatures to me, and others you would consider weird and wonderful. It was a lot of fun for me to go back to my roots as an ichthyologist.”
Every night, the National Geographic team would set up offices so that they could communicate with the rest of the world via satellites. They even received a well-wishing tweet from @AstroSamantha – it was a photo of the Okavango from space.
The Barren Landscape
“By and large it was very barren – it was just grass and forest. In ten days of walking in the bush and the grass, I saw only two snakes,” said Skelton. “The only way out of the forest, as I later discovered, was by helicopter. Even then, we flew for an hour and a half but could only see forest for that entire time.”
“The most amazing thing is that we only saw the indigenous people for the first time after 10 days.” Until then, the only evidence that they shared the land with other humans had been burnt bush, which was cleared by the indigenous people to make hunting easier. The expedition had also seen the indigenous people’s fishing traps – contraptions that required no wire or netting, but only natural materials.
“We were communicating with astronauts from land where people were living in the same way that they had been living for centuries,” Skelton said.
The Rhythm of the Life
“It was one of the most fantastic months of my life – it was a full lunar cycle and I lived by the rhythm of the day,” said Skelton. “It was so rewarding for me and I felt a retouch with nature – it was marvelous.”
But unfortunately, Skelton’s expedition was cut short by a collapsing branch.
“I was setting my net, as I always did. The current was pumping and I was in the middle of setting the net when the branch I was standing on gave way and collapsed. I fell down and when I tried to help myself up the bank, I couldn’t move my shoulder. I thought it was broken.”
He had paralyzed the nerve in his shoulder, and had to be evacuated by helicopter the next morning.
“I was so enjoying the trip and to leave in that fashion was a blow to me,” said Skelton. “But I was actually quite grateful to be rescued. Three months probably would have killed me and this would have been a funeral.”
Returning on the Royal Throne
After the helicopter flight, Skelton was supposed to board a plane to the next big city.
“I was due to catch a Boeing 737 down to Luanda as part of a routine scheduled flight. But I got to the airport as they were closing the door to my flight, which wasn’t any help to me.”
The next scheduled flight was in three days time. The only other flight was the Learjet that belonged to the governor, who was leaving for Luanda that afternoon. The governor had previously visited the expedition in his helicopter, and remembered Skelton as “ah – the fish man!” So Skelton was able to board the jet – albeit without his luggage and on a most unconventional seat.
“I sat on the royal throne of the Learjet, and that’s how I got home,” laughed Skelton. “That was a more comfortable seat than I’d had for the last month! I was so grateful to the governor for allowing me to sit on his toilet.”
Though it may not have been the expedition he planned, Skelton certainly returned with a wonderful story and an ageless appreciation for adventure.