National Geographic : 2017 Nov
90 national geographic • noVeMBer 2017 offer unusual opportunities. It is ravaged by war but now at peace. From the early 1960s until the start of the new millennium, Angola was high on the list of nations you would not want to visit—un- less you were a mercenary soldier or a diamond buyer. Once a Portuguese colony, it got its inde- pendence in 1975 after a bloody war of liberation, then was wracked by civil war for 27 years, a proxy battleground for the superpowers, pustulated with land mines, a scene of great suffering and strife. But things have changed drastically since 2002, when the rebel party, UNITA, suffered a crushing defeat, after which oil in great quantities began flowing for export and business boomed. “ The most important thing we have to tell the world is that Angola is now a stable country,” the minister of the environment, Maria de Fátima Monteiro Jardim, told me recently at a gathering in Luanda, the capital. “ We are committed to preserving na- ture,” she said. What that commitment will mean to reality on the ground is a crucial unknown. The Boyes team has the blessing of Angolan officialdom, along with international support, to pursue an extraordinarily ambitious study of the Cuito and Cubango Rivers, exploring every mile of them and some of their tributaries, surveying their wildlife, sampling water quality, noting hu- man presence and impacts along the banks, cre- ating a vast and publicly accessible body of data, and trying to comprehend just how the clean wa- ters of southeastern Angola vivify the Okavango Delta in Botswana. These survey expeditions, eight so far, have been arduous as well as thorough. The first began on May 21, 2015, when Boyes and his team, trav- eling with an escort of Land Rovers from HALO Trust, the international demining organization, and a big Russian cargo truck, arrived at the source lake of the Cuito River. They had brought several tons of gear and seven mokoros in which to ferry themselves and their stuff downstream. After paddling the length of the lake on their first day, they discovered that the Cuito at its outlet is a tiny stream, waist-deep but only a yard or so wide, and impossible for navigation by 20-foot-long mokoros. So they dragged the loaded boats down- stream, slogging through high grasses alongside the little band of water, pulling like human oxen, and taking data as they went. These mokoros were fiberglass-and-wood models, not dugouts of ebo- ny or some other tree like the Okavango originals, but were still very weighty when fully loaded. They dragged them each day for more than a week before the Cuito became navigable. Then they climbed aboard, with paddles and poles, but faced a new sort of challenge: crocodiles and hippos. The Cuito along its upper reaches is essentially a wilderness river—clear water, banks lined with reeds, no villages, few signs of humans. On the morning of July 11, 2015, along a broad curve, something plunged through the reeds and into the water just ahead. Boyes, steersman in the lead boat, hollered “Croc,” a relatively routine alert. He ruddered toward the mid-river channel, giving the animal space along the bank. Suddenly a great bulge of water rose beside Boyes’s boat as a distraught hippo surfaced— probably a young male, Boyes thinks. Turns out the right evasive line for a crocodile is the wrong Subsistence fishing has long been important to villagers in the Cuito and Cubango watersheds. With better nets, they now get larger hauls and more fish to smoke and carry by motorbike or dugout canoe to area markets. Boyes and others worry that the harvests may not be sustainable.