Full EpisodeOkavango: River of Dreams - Episode 1: Paradise

Explore the landscape and wildlife of the Upper Okavango River, where the deep water shows elephants swimming and carving channels through the reeds and papyrus, setting small birds afloat to drift past hippos and crocodiles. A lioness severely injured by a buffalo is left for dead by her pride. Now disabled, she must survive in the swamp alone, hunting to feed her little cubs.

Transcript Print

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ABRAHAM: There is a place in Africa where everything lives in a perpetual state of tension.

♪♪ ♪♪ There is a pride of lions here, and they know they have pushed in to the swamp too far today.

It's a place of color, of immense beauty, of abundance.

♪♪ ♪♪ The lions are on a quest through this heritage to the world -- a precious jewel in our hands... [ Elephant trumpets ] ♪♪ The water here connects everything -- it is freedom for some, it imprisons others.

It is the center, the giver of life, the cause of ancient feuds.

♪♪ As we travel through its veins, we will understand it is one of the greatest rivers on the planet, and everyone wants something from it.

♪♪ EURYTHMICS: ♪ Everybody's looking for something ♪ ♪ Some of them want to use you ♪ Some of them want to get used by you ♪ ♪ Some of them want to abuse you ♪ ♪ Some of them want to be abused ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ABRAHAM: The first chapter of our story begins right here, in Southern Africa.

As the water flows strongly into Botswana, it forms the pan-handle shaped Upper Okavango, the deep water.

It is pristine, wild, and remote.

It is one of the three distinct faces of the river.

This is paradise.

♪♪ A lioness leads her pride into one of the most dangerous hunts a lion can take on -- buffalo.

♪♪ At least one of them has no future... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ but it's often the one you would least expect.

♪♪ No one would have predicted that her day would end so badly.

♪♪ The lioness' pride waits for days, but then finally moves off, leaving her for dead.

♪♪ Her shoulder is injured, her ankle shattered, but her story is far from over.

Hers is just one of the intricate stories in this complex wonder of the world.

♪♪ [ Thunder rumbles ] [ Thunder rumbling ] One major character is the river itself.

Its own back story starts months earlier.

Rains at the source 500 miles upstream start a massive push of some 3 trillion gallons of water each year.

It takes a single raindrop six months to travel the full course of the Okavango, each drop adding to the epic story of this river.

MAN: [ Singing in native language ] ABRAHAM: And so begins a journey that is legendary, passing through secret underwater windows.

It goes down the labyrinths of monsters.

♪♪ It takes us over the bones of those that did not survive the last flood, capturing their nutrients, passing them downstream to those that can use them, and on to one of the greatest wonders of Africa.

♪♪ ♪♪ There are always consequences.

Every action has a reaction.

Like a Stradivarius violin, plucked at one end, it shivers on the other.

♪♪ The injured lioness is slowly recovering her strength.

It's been weeks.

A lot has changed since the buffalo attack.

[ Lioness roars ] ♪♪ It's as if she's woken in a completely different world.

♪♪ The flood has come in, cutting her off from her pride.

That will make her life difficult.

♪♪ ♪♪ She's finally gained enough strength to start hunting in the overspill from the river.

But she's a lone huntress with a handicap.

Her dislocated shoulder has been eased back, but her shattered ankle is still healing.

♪♪ But she's got another reason for staying alive.

[ Lion cub growls ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Somehow she's managed to keep them alive and secured them on the edge of the river where almost no one goes.

[ Lion cub growls ] There is a name in Botswana -- Fekeetsa -- it means overcoming a handicap, a challenge.

[ Lion cub growls ] Fekeetsa, as we will call her, is a caring mother.

There is an unusual bird in the swamp, one that, unlike Fekeetsa, leaves her young the minute they hatch.

They live in among the small nymph-like flowers.

Each dawn, skirts made from soft petals open as the nymphaea water lilies awaken.

Their leaves, flat buoyant pads, set the stage for a pair of gangly chicks.

Day-old African Jacanas already know where the food is... ...and they get there on oversized feet they'll have to grow into one day.

♪♪ They're not ideally adapted for running or flying, but getting around on floating lilies, that is their speciality.

♪♪ It helps that they weigh just a few ounces.

♪♪ The twins have no perception of the danger beneath the lilies.

♪♪ ♪♪ Without a mother, two tiny fluff balls with long toes wandering around on a thin platform of lilies won't last very long out here.

♪♪ ♪♪ But Jacana mothers always abandon their chicks as they hatch, and leave them entirely in the care of the males.

The father has his own floatation issues to deal with, but he keeps up with them, watching for anything suspicious in the water.

And there it is... ♪♪ ♪♪ With a coded chirp, he calls his chicks to him.

[ Jacana chirps ] It's not just to hide them from the crocodile.

He has to move them to safety.

And the best way for him to do that is to tuck one under each wing and walk them out of danger.

♪♪ ♪♪ Keeping the kids quiet in a dark place is always a challenge.

Those that survive here are the ones that are most aware of the sinister hiding in the beauty.

Sometimes the threat comes from a different direction.

In an instant, the Jacana family's floating home can be destroyed by a giant, himself only looking to stuff in as much high protein from lilies as he can possibly manage.

So, it's off on a dislodged island to the next location for them -- a vagabond's life.

♪♪ But if there is one single 'designer' of paradise here, it is these giants, as they glide through the vast reed beds that surround the river.

Their dominance of this entire system is established with each step they take.

They smash open paths, and eat their way through the soft vegetation, carving channels that the water flow follows.

[ Elephant growls ] Their constant movement leaves behind them bigger and bigger highways in the reeds, creating a mosaic of paths right across the Okavango.

It's landscape architecture on a grand scale.

♪♪ Elephants are the real gardeners of Eden.

♪♪ [ Elephant trumpets ] ♪♪ They come for what the river provides for them -- food and water -- but they change the river itself, the direction, the speed of the flow.

♪♪ It's the perfect partnership, because the river thrives on change, and elephants provide that.

But it's not just the river they disrupt.

Their feeding dislodges clumps of reeds and papyrus to float off downstream.

As the debris drifts off, it carries local residents like Black Crakes on a new journey.

Crakes don't fly well, so the whole family relocates in the hope that the island will get stuck in the stream and they can leap to the mainland.

♪♪ Elephants drift nonchalantly from island to island.

Their sudden and silent arrival surprises some young lions.

[ Lion growls ] Dry ground comes at a premium in the swampland, so the lions give it up reluctantly.

[ Elephant growls ] [ Elephant trumpets ] But there is no doubt at all who the real masters of the swamp are.

[ Elephant growls ] ♪♪ ♪♪ As the elephants charge through the water, they add yet another benefit.

The reed beds filter out minerals in the water.

Wading elephants churn it all up, and that releases nutrients again.

This 'freshwater plankton' connects the entire underwater food web.

That is good for everyone... ...even the monsters of the deep.

♪♪ ♪♪ And then, the water starts to vibrate.

Another major force is on its way now.

Catfish, called barbel here, arrive in their millions, at the head of the flood, feeding on anything and everything in their path.

♪♪ ♪♪ It's a madness of fish... ...and it disturbs everything.

♪♪ ♪♪ The barbel run is like a tsunami, as they come alive from hidden channels and out of isolated pools, unlocked by the flood.

They chase smaller fish into the hidden corners -- and when those are full, out into the air.

Herons, egrets, and storks have followed the bubbling waters, waiting for just this moment.

[ Birds calling ] The catfish are both hunters and hunted.

From elephants to barbel to the oldest predator on the planet, the nutrients are handed on again and again.

And as quickly as the wall of barbel arrived, it passes on downstream as if riding a gentle wave of rising water.

♪♪ Stragglers test everything they can -- a little late for the main feeding frenzy, and with no concept of where not to poke their noses.

♪♪ ♪♪ Barbel are resilient opportunists and one of the most prolific fish in the delta.

Wherever they go, they leave disturbed water that others take advantage of.

♪♪ Tiger fish follow on, attacking those weakened by the chaos.

To drop your guard in these waters... is a mistake.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Mid-flood is the best time for fish eagles to nest.

[ Birds calling ] ♪♪ All the way down the flooded Okavango, the river energizes and feeds life as the deep water pan-handle winds its way through a sea of reeds and papyrus.

In this upper part of the river, only very specialized adaptors can survive.

One fits in perfectly to the deep reed bed habitat.

♪♪ This is one of the last refuges of the very rare Sitatunga antelope.

Shaggy coats fleck off the damp.

Long hooves, much like the feet of the Jacana birds, support them as they wade in mud or over reeds.

But they are not alone.

When it's high flood, the water is icy cold.

It keeps everyone on their toes.

They don't love it -- for some reason, baboons don't like getting their fingers wet.

♪♪ But the baboons are heading for the island forests because the fruit is on the islands, not in the swamp.

♪♪ ♪♪ They're edgy in the open, making mistakes.

That doesn't go unnoticed.

♪♪ Getting left behind is always unnerving.

♪♪ ♪♪ Today, it was the crocodile who was distracted.

♪♪ Things are seldom predictable in this complex and magical world.

♪♪ In the chilly mornings, air turns to moisture.

Droplets hang in the air waiting for the sun, or rise as if the very land was alive, exhaling warm breath.

♪♪ ♪♪ A blanket of fog hides Fekeetsa and her cubs.

But when she looks around, it's at a shrinking territory, as the land disappears under the water.

Her cubs are growing up on the island she's on, building their confidence.

But she'll have to move them at some point.

It will be months before the flood starts to drop.

♪♪ The water may look like a lifeline, but it isolates islands.

Prey can be sparse, leaving a sterile hunting ground.

♪♪ Swimming across this fast flowing water would be foolhardy.

So, Fekeetsa adapts to hunting the fringes of the flooded river.

Being in the water takes the weight off her broken ankle.

It eases her pain.

The surge of water has pushed lechwe antelope her way.

But she's just not good at running anymore.

With her injury, she'll have to develop different skills.

So, she starts to hunt from the water.

They won't expect a lion to come at them from there.

Today, she's got even bigger problems.

The herds of lechwe have attracted a new pride of lions.

They're not as used to the water as she is.

But these scared cats are still a major threat to her and might even kill her cubs.

♪♪ She'll lie low.

The river is difficult to contend with -- its volume, its unreliability, its strength, its surprises.

♪♪ It puts everything under pressure.

♪♪ ♪♪ Run in on a tense, vulnerable lion and risk an eruption of retaliation from this well-designed killer out of its comfort zone.

♪♪ These new lions have a male with them, even more reason for Fekeetsa to stay hidden.

But it's for the riches out here that these lions have risked the dangerous crossings.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The big lioness is successful.

But she's not comfortable in the water.

She's not a swamp cat.

But the threat to her kill doesn't come from in the water.

♪♪ [ Lion growls ] Their own male claims the rewards of her spectacular efforts.

[ Lion growls ] The pride came a long way for this.

But perhaps they will just keep moving on, and leave Fekeetsa in peace.

The water continues to flow strongly all the way down the pan handle for nearly six months.

Just downstream from her island, the river passes fields of water-bird rookeries.

They nest high for safety.

But fish eagles hunt into the high trees as well, so there is always a chaotic tension around these nesting sites.

These congregations of hatching chicks give back to the river as well, as droppings and shells are discarded.

A freshwater crab feeds on the sudden gift of calcium... ...and steals away before he can be raided, too.

The steady supply of tidbits from above makes it worthwhile for smaller fish to start nesting.

They'll be successful if they can stay out of the jaws of the tiger fish.

Life under the rookeries is rich and varied because of the constant feed from above.

[ Birds calling ] No one is ever totally safe or secure, perched up high over circling crocodiles.

Today, they dropped their food.

Tomorrow it may be a chick from a nest.

Everything seems to be in a constant state of interaction, often in the strangest of ways.

And it's all centered around the Okavango itself.

It is the single thread that connects all these characters, and all life here.

So, a place in the river's tender embrace is worth fighting for.

[ Hippo growls ] [ Hippos growling ] The river's constant change throws territories up in the air.

Bull hippos find new pools in the flood, only to find that someone else has had exactly the same idea.

Mostly, these fights are about noise and display -- making a spectacular splash, staking that claim.

♪♪ ♪♪ Here, some victories are hollow, because these highly contested pools will ultimately ghost away anyway.

[ Hippos growling ] At night, a whole new world exists.

♪♪ ♪♪ The diamonds at the feet of giants are an outbreak of scavenger beetles.

They've been revived from months in hibernation in the mud, and triggered by the flood and the moon, released into a mating frenzy, to find that ideal mate in a crowded pond while they still have time.

♪♪ ♪♪ As Fekeetsa's cubs grow, she has to find more substantial food.

♪♪ The rising water pushes insects into the air -- a profusion of living confetti.

♪♪ ♪♪ It is, for just a moment, a vision of Eden -- a place where the large tolerate the small, where food is plentiful... where at the height of the flood, there is abundance.

It feeds residents and attracts travelers from afar.

♪♪ [ Bird calling ] One very special family is awake and getting ready for the day ahead.

She has come here to breed.

African Skimmers select the exposed sand banks along the Okavango as safe havens.

Despite the odd clumsy take off, these are some of the most elegant birds on the wing here, and when they take to the air to start fishing, it is with aerial precision.

They skim the mirrored surface with long lower beaks.

It is high-risk fishing.

They blindly feel for fish with their extended bottom beaks, and if they detect one, they grab it.

If it's too big, they can snap a neck.

[ Crocodile growls ] [ Birds chirping ] One-day-old chicks don't yet have the discipline to stay where they've been left.

But there are now fewer than 20,000 African Skimmers on the planet, so the stakes are high.

Each chick that returns to the warmth of protection is important to the entire species.

♪♪ ♪♪ Everyone that tunneled his way to safety is worth his voice in gold.

♪♪ ♪♪ As the water glides across Northern Botswana towards the middle of the delta, it starts to slow and widen.

♪♪ Fekeetsa, easing her leg, as she wades through the swamp again.

It's her special technique.

♪♪ ♪♪ She tests the breeze on her face.

♪♪ One of the disadvantages of living on a small island in the Okavango is that the prey starts to recognize your handicaps.

The local lechwe herd knows her well.

Their numbers embolden them to follow her closely.

The familiarity may be their downfall.

♪♪ Fekeetsa isn't thinking of them.

She is observing, calculating, mapping.

She systematically checks each tiny island in the swamp.

♪♪ She's meticulous.

♪♪ It's a process that takes hours through the heat of the day, and over an exhausting 8 miles.

♪♪ ♪♪ And this is what she is after.

It's the season of lechwe births.

Each cluster of sedges, every bushy outcrop is now a larder of the vulnerable.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Fekeetsa has finally managed to work this flood and turn it to an advantage.

♪♪ ♪♪ This calculated hunting through the swamp is more typical of a leopard, a solitary cat.

But she forges through the pain, a lioness determined to bring home the food she and her cubs so desperately need.

And she does it all alone.

♪♪ It takes her hours to drag the kill back to the cubs stowed safely in the fringe of the Okavango -- a story of overcoming challenges.

♪♪ The river cuts through Fekeetsa's reed hideaway for months, force feeding the delta with nutrients, triggering cycles of breeding, creating life.

But soon, it also brings conflict.

Necessary conflict in the case of the fish eagles.

Their breeding cycle has been perfectly timed.

As the juveniles emerge, the water is spreading into the flat shallows.

Here, barbel are easy hunting for the young birds.

But growing up at home will simply crowd the territory, and the adults chase them off.

Their success is in having fledged a new clutch into the Okavango to make their own stories.

[ Birds calling ] ♪♪ As its passengers float gently downstream, the river starts to change.

♪♪ At some point, the fast-flowing river changes its entire nature.

As it turns the final bend on the pan handle, it suddenly slows down, because it spreads out into the flats.

♪♪ It presents a new, different face of the river.

It morphs into a slow-drifting realm on top of a bed of sand, the same Kalahari Desert sand that extends beyond the reaches of the Okavango far to the south-east.

The sudden change in water speed deposits the collected nutrients that now feed everything.

Migrants in scarlet are nesting.

Carmine bee-eaters are thought to be harbingers of change.

Certainly, their arrival seems to be perfectly timed.

[ Thunder rumbling ] When the skies are ripped open, the colony senses what this might bring.

♪♪ The Carmines follow the smoke to the most intense forced flush of insects they could hope for.

♪♪ It's a dance with death, where a sudden gust could capture a bee-eater and throw it into the flames.

♪♪ The young fish eagles are given a final nudge to fly free... ♪♪ ♪♪ Reeds packed with oils explode all around them.

The fire plays a role together with the river, as flames split seeds open, and those seeds fall down into the swamp to soften, to tumble downstream and grow.

♪♪ The deep water between the fire and Fekeetsa will keep her safe.

But danger may come in a different guise.

Two new males strut into her territory in the swamp, following the smell of opportunity that is their birthright to fight for.

♪♪ ♪♪ They might be her downfall, but they may also be her salvation.

If they accept her cubs, the new males could help her form a pride again.

But she's not taking any chances, and the river doesn't care, one way or another.

For now, the lone mother may have a handicap, but it is not in reading the lay of the land when it is right in front of her.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Fekeetsa, the survivor, is risen from the ashes.

But while the fires run their course above the ground, they are now driven down into the root systems of the reeds and papyrus to burn underground for years, even decades.

From here, the river moves on under this smokey blanket, traveling as it has for 60,000 years towards the fan-shaped delta, where it spreads out, introducing us to even more characters who will use the river, be used by it, succumb to it, or thrive on it.

♪♪ [ Elephant trumpets ] This is its second life, the 'middle world' -- a completely new face of the Okavango, this river of dreams.

EURYTHMICS: ♪ Everybody's looking for something ♪ ♪ Some of them want to use you ♪ Some of them want to get used by you ♪ ♪ Some of them want to abuse you ♪ -'Nature's' journey into the Okavango continues.

In this realm, water connects everything.

To survive, you must adapt.

From elephants, the architects of this Eden, to the endangered predators, no one can predict their fate in this river of dreams.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪