Okavango Delta, Botswana: The Complete Guide

Tourist and guide in a mokoro canoe in the Okavango Delta

Bernard Radvaneri/ Getty Images

The Okavango Delta in northern Botswana is one of the planet's most beautiful wilderness areas. Its aquatic landscape goes through dramatic periods of flood and drought; yet an astonishing variety of animals have adapted to the changes making this one of the best safari destinations in Africa. You can explore it on foot or in a 4x4 safari vehicle, or from the water in a traditional dugout canoe (mokoro). However you choose to experience the Okavango, a wonderland of wildlife-filled plains, forests and waterways awaits.

The Annual Flood

The Okavango Delta is situated in the Kalahari Basin and fed by the Okavango River, the third largest river in Southern Africa. Throughout the rainy season the river gets increasingly full, eventually flooding the Okavango at the end of the season in April or May. Due to tectonic activity, the flood fans out across the Delta in different patterns every year, bringing much-need nutrients to the sandy soil and generating a rebirth across the entire ecosystem. During peak flood season, the Delta covers over 8,500 square miles/22,000 square kilometers of the Kalahari Desert.

A Pristine Wilderness

Because of the unpredictable nature of the floods, this vast area has remained largely untouched. The only way to reach many parts of the Delta is by small aircraft and most of the camps are high-end. The expense of a visit to the Okavango has kept the tourist footprint light. Camps are built with eco-friendly principles in mind and the Delta falls under the protection of Moremi Game Reserve and 18 separate Wildlife Management and Controlled Hunting Areas. This has helped keep human impact to a minimum and conserve resident wildlife.

 

An Abundance of Wildlife

The Okavango Delta boasts an astounding abundance and diversity of animal life including no fewer than 160 mammal species. You can find the Big Five here (in particular, the Okavango is known for its leopard sightings). It is also home to one of the richest densities of the endangered African wild dog. Cheetah, hippos, crocodiles, zebra and giraffe are all accounted for, while antelope species include the red lechwe, the sable and the vulnerable topi. The Okavango Delta is arguably the single best destination for birders in Southern Africa with over 530 recorded species.

Keep an eye out for specials like the African skimmer and the Pel's fishing owl.

Moremi Game Reserve

Moremi Game Reserve is the only public reserve in the Okavango. It is relatively small in size yet covers some of the most pristine and ecologically diverse areas of the eastern part of the Delta. It's renowned for its healthy leopard population and is one of the few places in Botswana where you can spot both black and white rhinos. For those planning a self-drive safari, Moremi is your gateway to the Okavango. You can look for animals from your own vehicle and spend the night in some stunning public campsites.

Driving off-road and after dark are forbidden. To enjoy a night drive, you'll need to stay in a private concession.

What to Do

Trips to the Okavango are all about looking for animals and reveling in the region's natural splendor. The lagoons and waterways of the Delta are what makes it unique, and water safaris are an unmissable experience. Many private camps are permanently surrounded by water and only offer boat-based game viewing. Punting silently through the Delta on a mokoro is likely to be the highlight of your trip and is a great way to get close to animals and birds. Depending on where you stay, you can also sign up for horse-back or elephant safaris, walking safaris and conventional jeep safaris.

Keen fishermen can spend hours casting for tilapia, bass and bream. In some areas it's also possible to fish for the ferocious tigerfish - but remember, all fishing in the Okavango Delta is catch-and-release. To get a true sense of the Okavango's vastness, you'll need to see it from above. Get ready with your camera on the charter flight in and out of camp, or save up for a bucket list hot air balloon flight over the Delta at dawn. Several lodges offer the opportunity to spend a night or two under canvas in a temporary camp on one of the islands.

Of all the things to do in the Okavango, this has to be one of the most rewarding.

Where to Stay

Accommodation options in the Okavango Delta range from public campsites to private tented camps and luxury lodges. Top options in Moremi Game Reserve include Sanctuary Chief's Camp and Camp Xakanaxa. The former is a magnificent option located on Chief's Island with a gourmet kitchen and spa. Private pavilions come with their own plunge pool and a covered deck for watching passing wildlife. Camp Xakanaxa is the oldest and most iconic Moremi bush camp. Situated on the banks of the Khwai River, it offers 12 Meru-style canvas tents with en-suite bathroom facilities in addition to a thatched dining room and plunge pool.

Private concessions throughout the rest of the Delta offer the opportunity to take part in walking safaris and night drives. Some of the best lodges include luxury Khwai River Lodge (on the Khwai concession), Gunn's Camp (on the Xaxaba concession) and Duba Plains Camp (on the Duba Plains concession). Gunn's Camp is a water-based lodge that specializes in mokoro safaris, guided bush walks and wilderness camping trips.

When to Go

For the best wildlife sightings, visit the Okavango Delta during the May to September dry season. The dry season coincides with the annual flood and animals are forced to gather on higher ground making them easier to spot. The weather is also cooler, drier and less humid at this time of year with plenty of sunshine during the day. During the rainy season (November to March) the floods recede and many animals leave the Delta area to graze in the surrounding grasslands. Some lodges are unable to offer water-based safaris at this time of year and others close down.

However, the green season is the best time for birding and cheaper rates.

Getting There

By far the easiest way to get to the Okavango is to fly in on a charter plane from Maun Airport (MUB). You will be picked up from the nearest airstrip and transferred to your lodge or camp via boat, mokoro or 4x4. Air Botswana offers scheduled flights to Maun from the Botswanan capital, Gaborone, or from Johannesburg in South Africa. It is also possible to access the eastern part of Moremi Game Reserve by road. There are two gates: the North Gate for drivers coming from Chobe National Park and the South Gate, located 56 miles/90 kilometers from Maun.

Road conditions vary depending on the season and you will need a 4x4.