A byword in African safari, the Okavango Delta is one of the world’s largest inland water systems and supports an extraordinary diversity of wildlife. This labyrinth of lagoons, lakes and hidden channels is trapped in the parched Kalahari desert, making it a magnet for the wildlife who depend on its permanent supply of water.
Dubbed ‘Africa’s Last Eden’, the delta embraces a part of the richly diverse Moremi Game Reserve – one of the few places in Africa that’s home to all of the Big Five.
When the delta floods from the rains, the area can expand to over 17,000sq.km., and large numbers of wildlife starts to congregate on the edge of the newly flooded areas.
With its headwater starting in neighbouring Angola’s highlands, it flows through Namibia before entering Botswana, where it is called the Okavango. Without this river, this area of Botswana would have otherwise been a dry Kalahari savanna.
The unique feature of this river is that it takes almost 9 months for the water to reach the bottom from its source due to the lack of elevation. By the time it reaches the Kalahari, over 95% of its water would have evaporated. The Okavango’s water is remarkably clear, due to the fact that it passes through very sparsely populated areas on its journey from Angola.
The delta’s floods begin with Angolan rains (October to April) which cross over to Botswana and Namibia by December, reaching the bottom end of the delta (at Maun) sometime in July.
There are 3 geographical regions of the Okavango: the Panhandle, the Delta and the dryland.
Beginning at the Okavango’s northern reaches at Mohembo, the Panhandle extends down for about 80km. The deep and wide river, with perennially-flooded swamps, is ideal for fishing and birding excursions. The vast papyrus beds and phoenix palms also flank the colourful villages that line its western fringes.
The fan-shaped Delta is where the waters spill over the landscape, creating stunning mosaics of channels, lagoons, ox-bow lakes, flooded grasslands and thousands of islands. At the Delta’s lower reaches, the perennial swamps give way to seasonal swamps and flooded grasslands, leading to the dryland.
The dryland itself has 3 major features: the Matsebi Ridge, Chief’s Island and the Moremi Tongue. Among the acacia and scrub bush, this is the region where large numbers of mammals retreat during the dry winter months. Not surprisingly, the Delta and dryland areas are ideal for game viewing, birding, and boating.
The diversity and numbers of animals and birds can be staggering. The Okavango counts 122 species of mammals and 444 species of birds. A successful rhino reintroduction programme has increased the population of White Rhino to approximately 35, and Black Rhino to 4.
On the mainland and among the islands in the Delta, big game like lions, elephants, buffalo, hippos, and a variety of antelope are here in droves. The same goes for smaller animals like the warthog, mongoose, and monkeys. In the indigenous forests of the Delta and its islands, and along the floodplains of water and sand, more than 400 species of birds flourish.
The winding Okavango spreads through tiny channels that weave among walls of papyrus reeds and into an ever expanding network of smaller passages. The most iconic way for wildlife viewing in the Okavango is along the water in a traditional mokoro – a dugout canoe which is punted by bamboo poles by guides from the local tribes along the numerous waterways. The mokoro glides along the silent surface, with the waters occasionally punctured by curious hippos (they’re used to visitors). On the banks, wildlife like crocodiles, elephants and ungulates like kudus are not uncommon sights.
On solid ground, game viewing can be done in 4WD vehicles on the main islands (night drives are available in the private concession areas) or on foot via walking safaris that are available from most camps and lodges in the park. Perhaps the most majestic way of exploring the Okavango is on the back of an elephant at Randall Moore’s famous Abu Camp.
While game viewing can be done from the air on a light aircraft and helicopter, hot air ballooning is prohibited.
During the flooding, the areas surrounding the delta will begin to dry out, driving the wildlife to the edge of the newly-flooded areas between May and October (winter). This is the best – and most popular – time for wildlife viewing, and the risk of malaria is at its lowest.
The best time for birding in terms of spotting the greatest variety of species, is during the rainy season (November – April) in summer, when the migrant bird populations return. However, greater numbers of birds come in the dry winter months around permanent water sources where pools are drying, feeding on the trapped fish and shellfish.
The Okavango doesn’t really cater for the budget traveller, in a bid to protect the fragile eco-system that is its main tourism draw. The government achieves this by making the Okavango an expensive and (relatively) difficult place to visit – the government-owned Air Botswana is the only carrier that flies into Maun (the ‘gateway’ to the Okavango Delta) from major hubs, with the corresponding fares being high.
A number of private, high-end safari lodges and camps have been established in and around this watery wilderness either within the national parks or on private concessions. These can be found in the game-rich Moremi Game Reserve (bordering the Delta), nearby Chobe National Park and Linyanti Wildlife Reserve.
Very few of these camps can be reached by road, meaning the only way to reach certain accommodations is via light aircraft from Maun or Kasane.