Described as “the jewel” of the Kalahari, the Okavango Delta is a tranquil and isolated oasis set in Botswana’s harsh and arid desert – widely considered as being one of Africa’s best safari destinations with its special diversity of fauna and flora. The Okavango Delta is one of the largest and most important inland wetlands of the world, covering 16,000 km2, with 2500 species of plants, 65 fish species, 20 large herbivores and over 450 species of birds. The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s largest inland water systems. Its headwaters start in Angola’s western highlands, which then flows through Namibia (called the Kavango) and finally enters Botswana, where it is then called the Okavango. Seen from space as an emerald swirl surrounded by a parched landscape, the Okavango Delta is an incredible source of life in a country that is 80% arid.
Millions of years ago the Okavango river use to flow into a large inland lake called Lake Makgadikgadi (now Makgadikgadi Pans). Tectonic activity and faulting interrupted the flow of the river causing it to backup and form what is now the Okavango Delta. This has created a unique system of water ways that now supports a vast array of animal and plant life that would have otherwise been a dry Kalahari savanna. The delta’s floods are fed from the Angolan rains, which start in October. The floods cross the border between Botswana and Namibia in December and will only reach Maun sometime in July. The Okavango River which rises in the highlands of Angola never reaches the sea and flows southeast into the Kalahari. Here it spreads out into a delta formation covering over 15,000km² with a lush water-wilderness of papyrus swamps, shallow reed-beds and floodplains, dotted with islands and laced with a network of channels and lagoons. This slow meandering pace of the flood is due to the lack of drop in elevation, which drops a little more than 60 metres over a distance of 450 kilometres. During the peak of the flooding the delta’s area can expand to over 16,000 square kilometres, shrinking to less than 9,000 km² in the low period. As the water travels through the delta, the wildlife starts to move back into the region.
As this region is referred to a ‘Delta’, the river source does not discharge into a standing body of water like a lake, or the sea. The Okavango is a large alluvial fan, a broad low gradient conical surface, over which the river discharges. The Okavango Delta consists of two regions, namely the upper linear panhandle sections and the lower delta shaped alluvial fan. As is common in meandering rivers, the channel in the Panhandle is undergoing constant changes. This manifests by the formation of oxbow lakes as well as by the splitting of the channel at several points along its length. The channels are characterized by permanent swamps in which the vegetation is dominated by Cyprus Papyrus. The Okavango River then divides into a number of distributary channels on the alluvial fan shape. The permanent swamps are characterized by a number of large lakes of which most are ancient oxbow lakes. The lower regions of the delta are seasonally flooded and these are known as the ‘seasonal swamps’. There are three main channel systems which are separated by ‘tongues’ of permanently dry land. These sandveld tongues separate the Thaoge and Jao-Boro systems, whilst Chief’s Island separates the Jao from the Boro system. The rainfall in the catchment area during the summer months (December to April) is discharged into the Okavango River and peaks at Mohembo, which is at the top of the Panhandle, normally in April. This is when the water level in the Pandhandle rises considerably and then filters through the rest of the delta. The seasonal fluctuations in the water level decreases down the Panhandle and in the permanent swamps of the upper reaches of the delta. The annual seasonal flooding of the delta occurs during July and August, which is a few months after the peak discharge at Mohembo. It takes approximately four months to filter through the Delta from Mohembo to Maun.
The timing of the maximum flooding of the Delta is ecologically important. It occurs during the dry winter months, when the surface water in the surrounding terrestrial environments is in short supply. In the past, extensive game migration routes existed due to this, however these migrations no longer occur, but local migration of game into the immediate vicinity of the Delta lead to high concentrations of game during the winter months. The Delta is home to over 140,000 people, 50% of whom live in villages with less than 500 inhabitants, living off the goods and services the delta provides. Their livelihoods are closely interwoven with the diversity of natural resources Apart from the beauty of this spectacular wetland habitat, game viewing is excellent throughout the year. The heart of the Okavango is the Moremi Game Reserve. Outside of and around the Moremi Game Reserve are large private reserves (known locally as concessions) that are leased out by the government of Botswana to African safari companies under strict guidelines and carrying capacities (number of guests permitted). These large private concessions offer the highest quality, exclusive safari experience. Guests will explore massive tracts of pristine wilderness and enjoy a feeling of privacy almost impossible to find anywhere else in Africa today. Guests will spend all day on a game drive or on a mokoro excursion and not see another safari vehicle. As the Okavango Delta always has a certain amount of water, water based activities are on offer at many of the safari camps situated in the delta. A mokoro safari is a definite ‘must do’ for all guests visiting the Okavango Delta – a dug out canoe which is ‘poled’ along by your guide is a favourite method of exploring the waterways. Motor boats operate on the main waterways and lagoons.
Traditional 4×4 Game viewing vehicles are used on the main islands, with night drives available in the private concession areas – not allowed within the National Park. Walking safaris are very popular in the Delta – the feeling of being on foot in Africa’s wilderness, exploring the flora and fauna is a remarkable experience – perhaps the most exciting way of viewing game – stalking and tracking wildlife with an expert Guide. The Okavango Delta provides a true big five safari experience, with vast herds of elephant, buffalo and hippo making this fertile region their home, as well as numerous antelope, giraffe and zebra, followed by lion, leopard, cheetah and the stealthy crocodile. The delta environment has large numbers of animal populations that are otherwise rare, such as red lechwe, sitatunga, wild dogs and wattled crane. This area is a popular destination for bird watchers with over 450 species recorded, including many Okavango specials and lots of migrants during the summer months.
There is a wide variety of accommodation on offer in the Okavango Delta which caters for various budgets and interests The Botswana Government are anxious to avoid the mass tourism that has been allowed to spoil other areas of Africa, but also to protect the fragile eco-system that is the Okavango Delta, so they have set up a policy where only a minimum amount of beds can be sold in the Okavango Delta. There are no public camping sites within the inner delta. Almost the entire Delta is only accessible by light charter aircraft. Most of the lodges have their own airstrips or share the airstrips with other lodges in the area. As the Okavango Delta is an exclusive destination, it remains relatively wild, unpopulated and untouched.