Okavango Delta

“The flooded desert – Jewel of the Kalahari”

Discover the Okavango Delta: A Wetland Paradise

The Okavango Delta is a wetland paradise in the otherwise harsh Kalahari that covers the rest of Botswana. Rain waters from Angola slowly make their way south and eventually spill into the desert, spreading out into an alluvial fan and creating one of the last great wilderness areas of our time.

botswana okavango delta khwai leadwood luxury camp 10

The Okavango Delta: Jewel of the Kalahari and UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Okavango Delta – a wetland paradise and UNESCO World Heritage site in the otherwise harsh Kalahari that sprawls across the rest of Botswana. As rainwater from Angola slowly makes its way south, eventually spilling into the desert and spreading out into an alluvial fan – or inland delta – it creates one of Africa’s largest wetlands and one of the last great wilderness areas of our time.

The mighty waters of the Okavango Delta begin life as a small trickle in the highlands of Angola. Gradually fed by seasonal rainfall they eventually burst forth to become the 3rd largest river in Southern Africa by the time it spills into Botswana.

When the Okavango River enters Botswana it slows down and spreads out into a series of twisting channels and lagoons surrounded by dense papyrus reedbeds, an area known as the panhandle. By slowing down and flowing through the papyrus, the water is filtered and becomes crystal clear, forming incredibly beautiful waterways and lagoons, home to a wide variety of fauna and flora.

The Dynamic Ecosystem of the Okavango Delta

Eventually, the main river starts to fan out and the delta’s surface area expands dramatically as the river splits into countless channels and smaller rivers, which in turn, form islands and waterways. The layout of the Delta is incredibly dynamic and changes almost every year due to shifting sandbanks, fluctuations in flood waters, and channel blockages.

Hippos and elephants are critically important to the flow of Okavango Delta’s many channels, maintaining them through their movements, creating new channels as they feed, and even blocking channels through their activities.

The Architects of the Okavango: Termites and Their Role in the Ecosystem

Equally important are the mound-building termites which are the architects of most of the islands within the Okavango Delta. Their towering mounds form the start of tiny islands where nutrient-rich soil is brought to the surface, which in turn is then visited as a perch by birdlife, baboons, and monkeys which leave behind their droppings containing seeds. These seeds germinate and thrive on these nutrient-rich soils with the surrounding water and, soon enough, you have a small ecosystem that slowly expands over the years.

Exploring the Okavango Delta: Safari Destinations and Activities

There are thousands of islands in the Okavango Delta, some permanent and others seasonal as the flood waters arrive inundating the surrounding floodplains. The largest island in the Okavango is Chief’s Island, which is one of the most exclusive and wildlife-rich safari destinations in Africa.

The permanent and seasonal waterways surrounding the islands are the main attraction for tourism with many lodges located on the edge of these pristine waterways or remote islands. The main activities to explore the area are by vehicle, walking safaris, or water activities, often using a mokoro (local traditional dug-out canoe) which can easily navigate the waterways and deep water channels. These activities are conducted by professional guides and local mokoro polers who know the area intimately and are experts in exploring this dazzling region safely.

It’s important to note that the location of each lodge will determine the activities they can offer, and these might also vary at certain times of the year as the water levels fluctuate. Understanding which lodges to visit for certain activities is vital to avoid disappointment – which is where we come in!

Seasonal Dynamics: How Flooding Affects a Botswana Safari

The Okavango Delta region is a true ‘year-round’ destination, however, because of the dynamics of the region and its complex ecosystem, you will experience something different just about every month of the year.

Generally speaking, Botswana and Angola’s rainy season is between November and March, but as mentioned earlier, the Okavango’s main water source originates from the highlands of Angola where the majority of the rain typically falls in January and this water can take months to reach Botswana.

Water from Angola normally reaches the panhandle by May but because the water slows down and has to filter through the dense swamps, progress is slow, and this sees the flood normally peaking in June/July, which is Botswana’s dry season.

But also note that the Delta is enormous, and waters are so slow that it peaks in different regions within the Delta at different times. The rains in Angola also vary from year to year in quantity and timing. This means that predicting water levels and timings of the Okavango is nearly impossible but can only be roughly estimated.

What makes this cycle so incredible is the fact that the Delta’s flood waters peak during Botswana’s dry winter season when there is almost no chance of local rainfall. These floodwaters sustain the wildlife that relies upon them until the next period of rain. If it wasn’t for the floodwater, the area would be devoid of surface water for nearly 9 months, as is the case for the rest of the Kalahari Desert.

Okavango delta botswana seasonal chart2

Accommodation Options in the Okavango Delta

There are plenty of options when it comes to staying within the Delta, but principally it will come down to either the Moremi Game Reserve, which is the largest reserve across these vast wetlands, or one of the private concessions, which range greatly in size.

Moremi Game Reserve: A Protected Wilderness Within the Okavango

About 40% of the Okavango Delta region is covered by the Moremi Game Reserve, a community-owned, but government-managed reserve. Moremi was first established in the 1960s and is incredibly diverse, protecting a wide range of animals and plant life.

Safari Experiences in Moremi

There are two distinct regions in the Moremi. The first is the Mopane Tongue which forms a vast woodland of important mopane trees that borders the southeastern edge of the delta. This area is home to a handful of lodges in the Xakanaxa region as well as a few small public and mobile campsites.

Moremi also extends over the swamps and onto the other notable region, Chief’s Island, which was previously the royal hunting grounds of the region’s chief but was later set aside for protection from illegal hunting activities. Chief’s Island is significant not only because of its exclusivity and incredible wildlife, but it’s also the setting for a project to reintroduce both black and white rhinos into the region.

Moremi being a government-managed reserve means the area follows the standard park rules which stipulate no off-road driving, no driving at night (time restrictions), and no armed walking safaris (with some exceptions on Chiefs Island).

There are 4 ways to go on safari in Moremi:

Fly-in luxury safari

Choosing a fly-in safari to one of Moremi’s luxury tented camps on Chief’s Island or Xakanaxa combines ease of access with the opulence of secluded safari living, nestled in the heart of the delta.

Self-drive camping safari 

Embarking on a self-drive camping safari in Moremi allows adventurers to explore at their own pace, setting up camp in designated public campsites amidst the wilderness.

Mobile tented Safari

Opting for a mobile tented safari offers a blend of comfort and adventure, with exclusive use of private campsites that promise an intimate connection with nature.

Mobile walking safari

Participating in a mobile walking safari with Wild Expedition Safaris  provides an immersive experience, allowing guests to tread softly through the Chief’s Island/Xaxaba region, guided by expert knowledge and the rhythm of the wild.

A different way to safari: Private Concessions

The land surrounding the rest of the Okavango Delta, which isn’t part of the Moremi Game Reserve, is divided into several wildlife management areas (some very large, others fairly small). These are all named “NG(#)” followed by the respective number, such as NG12 or NG32, representing the different wildlife management areas or private concessions. Often the area is given another ‘more marketable’ name such as the Selinda Concession. The wildlife management areas either belong to a concessionaire for an allocated period or a community, which is responsible for the use of the area.

The approach to safari is slightly different in Botswana than in other countries with the tourism model in the Okavango Delta largely a ‘high cost, low volume’ approach whereby the government restricts the number of bed nights/lodges allocated to certain concessions, and the concessionaires prevent more development on large stretches of pristine wilderness. This has led to a much more exclusive luxury safari experience where certain lodges/companies have a huge wildlife area exclusively for their guests to experience.

It goes without saying that the best safari experiences are to be had in these private concessions where you have vast tracts of wilderness to explore with the only traffic being that from your own lodge, or maybe a single neighbouring lodge. Exclusivity does however come with a price tag, which has led to Botswana being one of the most expensive safari destinations in Africa.

Another huge benefit of a private concession is that they are not bound by the national park/game reserve regulations. This opens up a wider range of activities such as night drives, game drives, armed walking safaris, and the use of mokoros. It also allows for guides to off-road (in an ethical manner) for special sightings, which is not possible in national parks. And when a special sighting does occur, the number of vehicles allowed at a sighting is also often controlled by radio which helps to minimise the impact on the wildlife.

There are many different private concessions, so it is very important to know which concession you will be visiting, as some are not so private (many lodges) and others are located far from ideal wildlife viewing areas. It’s best to get in touch with us and we’ll be more than happy to go through your options and explain the benefits and drawbacks of various concessions.

Most private concessions are fly-in fly-out safari destinations, with charter flights departing from Maun airport.

The Unique Khwai Community Concession

Although the Khwai Community Concession (NG19) falls into the private concession category, it is so popular and well known that it deserves special mention. As the name suggests this is a community-run concession managed by the Khwai village and has some of the most incredible wildlife sightings in all of the Delta.

The area is home to several luxury lodges, mobile campsites, and public campsites, which unfortunately makes the area a little busy and not quite as ‘private’ as other parts of the Delta, particularly in the peak season, but the wildlife viewing is of such quality that visitors are often undeterred. Due to the popularity of the area, the wildlife has also become very habituated to humans and vehicles making for a unique insight into animal behaviour. Two of the most popular destinations are the Khwai Bush Camp and the Khwai Leadwood, but we’ll be happy to go through all of your options with you.

The concession shares an unfenced border with the Moremi Game Reserve to the South, with the permanent Khwai river (a finger of the Okavango) as the boundary between the two, and to the north of Khwai is the mopane woodland and Kalahari sands. What makes Khwai such a great wildlife viewing area is that in the dry season, animals from the surrounding dry woodland are forced to the permanent water to drink, resulting in higher seasonal densities of wildlife from the converging habitats.

This, in turn, supports a wonderful population of predators and Khwai has always been known to be reliable for painted wolves (Wild Dogs), leopards, lions, and hyenas, often interacting at kills. As such Khwai is often on the itinerary for most folks visiting the Okavango and from a personal Safari Frank standpoint, some of our best sightings ever have been in Khwai.

Discovering the Panhandle: A Different View of the Okavango

As mentioned earlier, the panhandle is the comparatively thin strip on the northern end of the Okavango Delta just after the river enters Botswana. It consists of the winding main channel of the river, many smaller channels, and large lagoons – all surrounded by dense papyrus reed beds and the occasional densely vegetated island. This area is typically too swampy for many non-aquatic species to thrive (such as the BIG 5), and as a result, the panhandle is not often visited by tourists on a normal BIG 5 photographic safari.

The Panhandle is however an outstanding destination for birding safaris, supporting great habitat for aquatic species and shy reed-loving species among the permanent marshes. Fishing is also great in the panhandle, with the waters often being crystal clear allowing you to see the tiger fish swimming by and boating safaris in the area are a wonderfully relaxing way to see a completely different type of wildlife.

Wildlife of the Okavango Delta: A Diverse and Abundant Ecosystem

Quite simply, few places on the planet offer such a diverse selection of animals as in the Delta. Game viewing is of course one of the main draws and there is an absolute abundance on show, including, lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, buffalos, hippopotamus, lechwes, blue wildebeest, giraffes, crocodiles, spotted hyenas, honey badgers, greater kudus, sable antelopes, black rhinoceros, white rhinoceros, plains zebra, and warthogs. The Delta is also home to one of the largest populations of the endangered African wild dog, one of the most endangered animals on the planet.

You will also find over 500 species of birds in the Delta and it’s not uncommon to see north of 100 different varieties in a single day, including the rare pel’s fishing owl, African fish eagle, Bateleur, and Carmine Bee-eater. If aquatic life is more your thing, there are more than 85 species of fish including Catfish, Tigerfish, and Tilapia.

Accessing the Okavango Delta: Travel Tips and Information

Despite the sense of isolation and wildness, the Okavango Delta is surprisingly accessible. As we mentioned, many arrive in the region by aircraft or helicopter, while other hardy souls choose to travel overland, perhaps even with a stop at Botswana’s other gem, the Chobe National Park, which borders the Delta region.

The border with South Africa is roughly 1000km to the southeast and there are regular flights that connect the major South African cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town to the small town of Maun, which lies just outside the Delta.


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