Okavango Delta, Botswana

A Guide to the Okavango Delta

Okavango Delta lion, Botswana
Getty Images/Daryl Balfour

The Okavango Delta in Botswana is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth, filled with more than 122 species of mammal (including the rare wild dog), over 440 species of birds, 64 species of reptiles and  71 species of fish. It's paradise for anyone looking to go on safari. During the flooding season, the Delta covers over 22,000 square kilometers of Kalahari desert. The Okavango Delta is made up of wetlands and drylands, with palm and papyrus-fringed waterways leading to islands created by termites over thousands of years.

There are plains, forests, and lagoons all filled with wildlife, it's a truly magical place. You can enjoy safaris on foot, in a 4x4, in a traditional makoro (dug-out canoe), or boat. 

The Okavango Delta is situated in the Kalahari Basin in northern Botswana. It is fed by the Okavango River (third largest in Southern Africa) which receives much of its water from the Angolan Highlands. The annual floods generally arrive just as Botswana's rainy season has come to an end (April, May), revitalizing this huge, diverse eco-system and bringing much-needed nutrients to the sandy soil. The floods fan out in different patterns over the eco-system every year, as plate tectonic shifts change the landscape regularly.

The Savute channel, for example, remained dry for decades, and suddenly filled up again due to tectonic activity underground a few years ago, attracting new wildlife to the area. 

Because of the water, the constant shift in the floods, this vast area has remained largely untouched for thousands and thousands of years. The tourist footprint is light here, as the only way to get around to many of the areas in the Delta, is by small airplane. Botswana has carefully managed its safari sector and most of the camps are built on eco-friendly principals, and tend to be on the higher end of the luxury scale. This has helped keep human impact to a minimum, and wildlife to a maximum.

 

The Moremi Game Reserve

The Moremi Game Reserve is the first reserve in Africa established by a local community who were concerned about the depletion of wildlife due to hunting and the establishment of more and more cattle farms. The Batawani community under the leadership of Chief Moremi's wife, declared the area a protected wildlife reserve in 1963. Today the Moremi Game Reserve covers some of the most pristine and beautifully diverse areas in the central and eastern part of the Okavango Delta. It is also one of the few areas where you may see black and white rhino in Botswana, as they have recently been re-introduced.

The Moremi Game Reserve is one of the few areas in the Delta where you can enjoy self-drive safaris, with public camp sites located in some gorgeous areas. Unless you are staying in a private concession, you are not allowed to drive off-road, nor at night. I suggest spending a few nights at a camp in the Moremi Reserve in combination with one or two other camps in private concession in the Delta.

Best Time to Visit the Okavango Delta?

For most wildlife-rich areas, we suggest visiting during the dry season as water becomes scarce, leading to a higher density of wildlife in areas with a good natural water supply. Obviously, there is plenty of water year-round in the Delta, and in fact the more water, the denser the wildlife population becomes in certain areas, as dry land becomes more scarce. This happens to coincide with the "dry winter" season, so like many other parts of Africa, the best game viewing is from May - September.

I've visited the Okavango Delta several times during the "wetter season" in November and December and had incredible wildlife sightings. So don't avoid the "green season" by any stretch, it just happens to actually be "drier" as the floods have receded this time of year. Check out the  best time to visit Botswana

What Can You Expect to See on Safari in the Okavango Delta?

With the variety of wildlife and numbers of animals in the Delta, a 3-4 night safari in the right location can yield an incredibly rich safari experience. The birds alone make the whole area spectacular (even if you never thought of yourself as a birder). The "Big Five" are present, but it is very unlikely you will see rhino. However the sheer number of leopard easily makes up for this, and of course, the wild dog, which although extremely rare, is present in large numbers here. There are huge herds of elephant, buffalo, giant pods of hippo, plenty of giraffe, lion, zebra, cheetah, and of course ungulates in all shapes, forms and sizes.

One of the unique aspects of the Delta is, of course, the water, and there are several excellent camps that are permanently surrounded by water. Please note these camps don't always offer game drives, but rather your wildlife viewing is either by boat or mokoro (dug-out canoe). You will not see as much wildlife from the water, but the birding is fantastic. Add two nights at a water camp for the beauty, peace, and tranquility .. but make sure you also include a land-based camp to avoid disappointment.

My Personal Favorite Places to Stay in the Okavango Delta

Machaba Camp - Located in the Kwhai concession this wonderful camp offers the best value for money. It's luxurious without unnecessary frills, the guides and staff are excellent, and it's truly eco-friendly. Look out for Little Machaba coming in 2015!

Xakanaxa Camp - One of my very favorite bush camps, the location in the Moremi Reserve is stunning, right on the water. The sheer diversity of the game drives here is unparalleled, with gorgeous lagoons, pools, forests, plains .. all filled with wildlife. The staff are wonderful the guides are excellent, it's also great value for money.

Tubu Tree Camp - Located on Hunda island, Tubu Tree and Little Tubu offer fantastic wildlife viewing on this private concession. Both camps are beautifully designed and very comfortable, the staff is warm, the guides are some of the best I have encountered (hello Cruise) and management is excellent. The sleep-out option is a "must".

Kwestani Camp - Wonderful camp on the Jao concession, getting a renovation in 2015 which will make it even better. The management couple here make it an unforgettable experience, free photography lessons anyone? All water activities available as well as game drives on both Hunda Island and the Jao concession.

Jao Camp - The perfect camp to save for last on your Botswana safari, it's so beautiful, you won't even feel motivated to leave your room (or the Spa) to head out for a game drive. Excellent sleep-out option as well, fantastic food, wine ... and the rooms and main areas are so, so beautiful!

Sanctuary Baines - Wonderful intimate camp with one of the best activities on offer - the Elephant Experience! Great game viewing on this private concession, roll out your bed to sleep under the stars, or relax in your tub on your private deck - awesome!

Jacana Camp - A wonderfully intimate water-based camp, also had a recent renovation and is looking great! Enjoy outings on a mokoro or boat to view the Delta from the water. Game drives are possible usually during the summer months (November - March).

Unique Experiences in the Okavango Delta

  • Okavango Delta views from the sky - get your camera ready when you travel from camp to camp in your light aircraft!
  • Elephant Experiences - at Abu and Baines...
  • Horseback Safaris
  • Heronries - several camps (see Kanana) have access to fantastic heronries ...
  • "Sleep-outs" - many camps offer "sleep-out" options, do it!!
  • Makoro and water-based safaris
  • Fishing - ask to fish (catch and release) at any camp offering water-safaris. The Delta is filled with tilapia, catfish, pike and more.