Formed by the Okavango River (“the river which never finds the sea”), the Okavango Delta is the biggest inland delta on the planet [a delta is a geographical feature, usually in the shape of a triangle, or a fan, formed when a river deposits alluvial sediment at its mouth]. Situated in the northwestern part of Botswana, it is a stunning oasis in the desert that boasts one of Africa’s top safari experiences.
One of the world’s great tracts of wilderness, the Okavango Delta is unique. It comes into its own just as the waters from Botswana’s summer rains begin to ebb, in the southern hemisphere autumn. During the months of April and May, and into the winter, these waters flow inexorably through the sands of the Kalahari Desert, covering a distance of some 1300km, transforming an arid, scrub-covered expanse into a waterworld teeming with an abundance of animal, bird and plant life. The floodwaters attract wildlife – animals and birds – from all around.
The Okavango Delta is home to the “Big Five” game animals of Africa – the lion, African leopard, African elephant, black rhinoceros and the African buffalo. The reintroduction of rhinos into the local ecosystem, a process initiated at the start of the 2000s (back when all rhinos here had been poached out of existence), has proved successful – there are now 35 white rhinos and four black rhinos, all breeding and all roaming freely. Indeed, local endeavours in wildlife management and conservation in the Okavango Delta have been praiseworthy.
Often referred to as the “Jewel of the Kalahari”, it is one of the seven Natural Wonders of Africa. Not surprisingly, it is a magnet for lovers of wildlife. The Okavango Delta has also been designated a Ramsar Site under the international convention on wetlands.
The Okavango River is the only remaining part of Makgadikgadi, a lake that once covered the middle expanses of the Kalahari Desert (which makes up more than half of Botswana). The patterns of flow, distribution and drainage of the river’s waters have, over the centuries and stretching back into prehistory, been continuously evolving on account of constant tectonic activity. This is because the Okavango River is at the southern extremity of the Great Rift Valley, located in an area that is known for its faults. The region of the Delta is still prone to instability, occasional plate movements and minor tremors resulting in snail-paced changes to the region’s geology.
The Okavango Delta is the consequence of the River Okavango, Africa’s third largest river, rolling into the Kalahari Desert – around 11 cubic kilometres flow, almost incessantly, into the Delta annually. This riverine ecosystem is made up of flood-plains, swamps and reed beds, dotted with islets and lagoons, and criss-crossed with waterways of varying sizes and tributaries of the River Okavango.
The Delta, situated in the heart of the Kalahari Basin, is made up of three main areas – the Panhandle, the Delta and the dryland. The river is at its deepest and widest in the Panhandle, resulting in generous, and regular, inundations of the surrounding marshland. The swamps are rimmed by stretches of forest (the tall trees here giving sanctuary to the larger game animals), beyond which is the savannah (where you will find game in bigger numbers).
The annual flooding, most of it arriving via the rains that fall in the Angolan mountains and highlands, contributes in a big way to the volume of the Delta’s waters. The flood crests in the dry winter months, from June to August. During these months, the Delta can expand to as much as three times its usual size – it’s in this season that one of nature’s most wondrous phenomena can be experienced, wildlife in the thousands converging on the Delta from places many miles away, a plethora of species of animals and birds enticed by the waters of the Okavango.
The biggest of the Delta’s islands is Chief Island, which is where much of the wildlife and birdlife congregates when the waters swell. The Delta’s total area is 15,000sq km (approx.) but during flooding – and also in excessively wet years – it has been known to increase to 22,000sq km (approx.).
This astonishingly verdant expanse in the midst of a desert receives torrential rains during the summer months, between December and March (approx. 450mm); temperatures in summer can reach as high as 40C, with humidity oscillating between 50% and 80%. Days in late summer and autumn are warm (max. 30C) and nights pleasant, while winters (June to August) sees sunny and balmy days but chilly nights (temperatures hovering around freezing point). It gets hot again during spring (September to November), which is also known as the “green season” in Botswana, when thunderstorms can emerge suddenly out of cloudless skies.Flora and Fauna
The Okavango Delta is home to bountiful resident and migratory wildlife and birds. Among the animal species (of which there are approximately 150) that can be spotted are the African bush elephant and the African buffalo; lions, leopards and cheetahs; giraffes, zebras and rhinoceroses (white and black); springboks, wildebeest and antelopes (Greater Kudu, impala, lechwe, sable, sitatunga), and Cape baboons and crocodiles. The African wild dog, an endangered species, can also be sighted (usually in packs). The animal you’ll see in the biggest numbers, however, is the lechwe – it is estimated that there around 60,000 of these antelopes in the Delta! Antelopes, alongside elephants and giraffes, can be seen just outside of the Delta’s band of forests, on the savannah.
Among birds, the Okavango Delta is home to the Pel’s fishing owl, a rare species that conceals its presence during the day, and the equally elusive slaty egret. You will also find the sacred ibis, ostrich, the Hammerkop (a wading bird), African fish eagle, lilac-breasted roller and crowned crane – altogether, there are almost 500 species of birds (resident and visitors). The Delta is also home to more than 70 species of fish (including the tigerfish, catfish, bream and tilapia), and 1300 species of plants. Flora is dominated by one species of tree, the tall and graceful Mopane (also called the balsam/butterfly/turpentine tree), and two swamp plants, the papyrus, tall and reed-like, and the phoenix palm.
Even on a continent famed for its game reserves, the Okavango Delta is among Africa’s top destinations for spotting wildlife and birdlife. The larger animals, in search of pastures for grazing, head towards the verdant areas encircling the Delta during the wet season, but return to the Delta in the dry season (winter). For those on the lookout for big game, the best time to visit is during the months of July and August (elephants and buffalos can be sighted year-round). For birders, October offers opportunities aplenty, for it is at this time of year that birds breed and nest.
How to reach
The base for safaris into the Okavango Delta is the town of Maun – located in the Kalahari Desert, Maun is Botswana’s “tourism capital” and the country’s fifth most populous town. Fly into Johannesburg, South Africa, from where you can catch local flights (90min) to Maun – light aircraft connect Maun to the Delta. By road, the journey takes approximately five hours (the roads are of a pretty good quality).
Float unhurriedly in a mokoro (a vessel that resembles a dugout canoe), accompanied by kingfishers, frogs and dragonflies; this is the ideal way to experience the pristine landscape of the Okavango Delta. One can also experience this biodiversity-rich marshland on the back of an elephant.