The Okavango River begins its swirl through southwest Africa in the highlands of Angola, and remarkably, runs inland, to the east. As the river progresses into Botswana, its waters reach a tectonic trough in the centre of the endorheic basin of the Kalahari, causing the river to burst into bounteous fractals that form the Okavango Delta – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Befitting a river of such geographic wonder, comes a unique documentary series, which, by positioning the Okavango itself as the central character, becomes a gorgeous profile of the lifeblood of Africa. Award-winning filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert have delivered on their expansive quest to document the seasonal wellspring of the great Okavango River.
The series is a biopic of the Okavango’s annual life cycle. The clap of thunder in January and February augurs an annual deluge of rain, which causes 11 cubic kilometres of water to spread across a 15,000 km2 area. From there, the nine-month journey of the floodwaters, from the source to the bottom of the delta, gradually invigorates the land. The filmmakers tell the story of the complex web of life in the region; the relationships between species that are dictated by the seasonal flows of the river. Wading elephants churn reed beds to release nutrients, creating a surge in the numbers of plankton that, in turn, benefits the entire ecosystem. The rivers’ flow deposits nutrients to vivify plant and insect life, creating a cascade of energy that supports the grazing of birds and mammals.
As we learn of this ancient energy flow through the biome, vignettes of the regions’ character charm our screens. We witness one lioness’s remarkable resilience to provide for her cubs while carrying a broken ankle – the result of an attempted buffalo kill. Adaptation in motion, the lioness learns to hunt from the water, as we see in real-time how geographic features influence animal behaviour.
As time passes, the retreat of the flood alters the delta’s shape, revealing softer, greener grasses. Termites, which once refracted the light of sunset in their flight, eventually take shelter in catacombs beneath the mammal’s feet. Their underground excavation creates permanent islands in the delta, which are colonised by palm trees – the fruit of which germinates at the exact temperature of an elephant’s gut. As elephants feed on palms, their sugar highs rampantly distribute the seeds across the region to set the cycle of providence in motion once again.
Few documentaries have portrayed the nature of a geographic marvel with such artistic flair. Compositions stun the senses; silhouettes form surrealist etchings on the landscape that transport us to a land of magisterial beauty. The cinematography is unrushed and meditative, echoing the dedication of its makers.
In the final chapter, the river runs its course; water becomes scarce in the annual drought; wildlife disperses to the outer regions of the delta in search of food; and nomadic hunters rise to the fore. Nutrients are locked away deep in rhizomes – buried grass roots waiting for the trigger of the wet season to unearth. The drought causes fires to ignite in the underground heat – an inferno that cycles nutrients as it rages. With scarcer feeding opportunities, the dry season pushes species into closer, tenser proximity.
Yet, for all the jaw-dropping cinematography and charm of the species that grace our screens, it’s the beauty of the river’s story that captures us. Anyone with an interest in ecology and ecosystems will be fascinated by the latticework of life that the Okavango breathes along its course.