Ralph Gardner Jr: Botswana Behind The Scenes

Oct 12, 2019

If things like impeachment inquiries, trade wars and climate change are getting you down I’d like to suggest a good nature documentary. Actually a three-part miniseries that PBS is airing starting October 23rd.

It’a called Okavango: River of Dreams and it’s by my friends, Emmy award winning filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert. The Okavango Delta is a lush oasis in northern Botswana, home to some of Africa’s largest elephant herds and big cats.

While the cinematography is spectacular -- how the Jouberts tracked the lives of everything from lions, to crocodiles, to colorful carmine bee eaters on the land, through the air and underwater will leave you scratching your head -- it’s the couple’s backstory that’s the most intriguing of all.

I actually did a WAMC commentary on the Jouberts in February of 2017 when they were last in the U.S. promoting “Soul of the Cat”. That was a documentary that explored the similarities between house cats and their much larger cousins in the wild.

“The only difference is scale,” Dereck told me at the time. “So if little cats were as big as big cats we’d be in trouble.”

Much has happened in the Jouberts’ lives since I last saw them, not all of it pleasant. The couple was attacked by a crazed water buffalo only weeks after we met, injuring both of them and almost killing Beverly. She spent three months in the hospital recuperating and then months of physical therapy after that.

Indeed, the miniseries – with episode titles such as “Paradise,” “Limbo,” and “Inferno” -- doubles as a metaphor for the couple’s journey before, during and after the attack.

The “Paradise” episode actually follows a lioness who was mauled by water buffalos and left for dead, yet somehow survives and, while disabled, manages to raise her cubs.

If their own attack wasn’t traumatic enough Botswana had been one of Africa’s few good news stories when it came to protecting the continent’s dwindling elephant and lion populations from poaching and habitat loss. But a new president has lifted the country’s elephant hunting ban, reintroducing hunting quotas for the first time sine 2014, and threatening to destroy the progress that’s been made.

So there was a lot to talk about when I met up with the Jouberts before a recent screening of Okavango: River of Dreams.

It was hard to listen as they dispassionately recounted their run-in with the buffalo. But it also served as a tribute to their courage, triumph over the odds and most of all love.

For all the lovely nature shots, the intimacy, and the subtle though never lecturing summons to save the planet that distinguish their work, the part of the first episode that intrigued me most was where Dereck and Beverly briefly discuss how they live and work together in the bush. Often spending months tracking and filming a single animal.

Turns how Dereck has his side of the Land Cruiser, Beverly hers. If that’s not a metaphor for a successful marriage I don’t know what is.

“Three seconds can change your life,” Dereck said of the evening they were on their way to dinner at one of the conservation resorts they run in Botswana. “This buffalo came out of nowhere.”

The animal cracked three of his ribs and his pelvis. But he was the lucky one.

Beverly told me: “I remember waking up thinking, ‘This is a dream; I’m riding an animal.’ But the next minute I realized the buffalo had followed through.”

By that she meant that the animal had taken off with Beverly impaled on his horn.

Dereck got up – the pain hadn’t kicked in yet – chased after his wife and took a flying kick at the animal; it flicked Beverly off to pursue him, knocking him over before running off.

Dereck picked up his wife and carried her back to camp.

But their odyssey was only beginning. They had to wait eleven hours until they could be airlifted to a hospital in South Africa where 21 hours of surgery by seven different surgeons followed.

“It’s made us more determined,” Beverly said of their recovery, return to Botswana, and conservation initiatives they’re leading such as Rhinos Without Borders. That’s their mission to airlift one hundred rhinos from South Africa to Botswana where they’re safer from poachers; at least they have been until now. 87 rhinos have been relocated and 27 rhino calves born.

“We realize life is precious and short,” Dereck added, of the documentary’s theme. “We’ve almost related it to the planet and looking at the vulnerability of the planet.”

Eight months later – Beverly couldn’t fly until then – they also returned to the scene of the attack. In the meantime that water buffalo had died, after being darted to remove it from the resort, and an autopsy revealed that it  was suffering from an infected wound, probably at the hands of another water buffalo. That may have contributed to his crazed condition.

“We went straight back to where the accident happened,” Beverly said. “I felt like I just wanted to come to terms with it and then Dereck and I walked it together and we straight away started filming a herd of buffalo and I focused on all the horns. That was all part of healing.”

But rogue animals aren’t the only threats they’ve faced. They’ve placed themselves in new peril by speaking out against the policies of Botswana’s populist government.

“I think what’s going on in Botswana has got very little to do with elephants to be honest,” Dereck said. “It’s about politics. Elephants are getting caught in the crossfire.”

There’s word there will actually be a fourth episode of Okavango: River of Dreams. It will be about the making of the documentary. My hunch is that it will be the most revealing and moving of the entire series.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.