Flying over the Okavango Delta is an incredible experience. The sheer size of the delta is hard to grasp when viewing it on a map or Google Earth and it seems endless when viewing it in person. When fully spread out it covers an area nearly 155mi by 95mi with 290 billion gallons of water. The elevation change over this huge area is only about 215 feet so that means the water slowly creeps in over months to reach its furthest extent. What would otherwise be flat Kalahari dessert is a rich mixture of grasslands, woodlands and papyrus swamps which consume some 60% of the waters with the rest mostly lost through evaporation. It’s heaven for wildlife and a real treat for any visitor.
I traveled around extensively within the area and instead of getting lost in the details of each area I’d like to provide some basic observations about what to expect and how to plan for seeing this impressive ecological phenomenon on your Botswana safari.
Complexity: This ecological system is incredibly complex and impossible to predict from year to year. When the rains come, their duration and volume affect the extent of the flooding. Additionally, there are several active faults and alluvial deposits lying under the Kalahari sands which can change the direction and pattern of the flow of water. The last variable, wildlife, is intimately linked to the land and environment and is also in continuous flux. When the waters move in the wildlife moves out and when the waters reach their peak and begin to retreat they move back in to take advantage of the fresh growth. Since nothing is static and there are so many variables at play an area known for wildlife concentrations one year may not be the spot the next year. For example, a lodge known for a large wild dog pack could be out of luck in the next years depending on whether the pack splits, migrates or gets run off by other predators. It’s a constantly changing system which makes it a thrill to visit and learn about.
Wildlife: For the most part wildlife observations in the Okavango tend to be intimate and in smaller numbers. Group sizes for both predators and their prey tend to be lower in numbers versus other wildlife areas in Africa, such as the vast Makgadikgadi Pan or Serengeti, which can support large migrations of zebra and wildebeest. You may have to work a little bit harder to get your sightings but that’s arguably the best part. This area has no fences and the wildlife isn’t stocked or reintroduced (save for Wilderness Safaris’ recent heroic efforts to bring rhino back to Chiefs Island). The sheer diversity of wildlife species that are possible to see and in such an authentic and open wilderness setting is the real essence of the Delta. I didn’t see an impala being chased by a leopard begin chased by a lion while being corralled by a pack of wild dog; but I did see each of those species individually due to the tenacity and excellent tracking ability of my guide. So you have to be okay knowing that you may not see it all, but with a little bit of luck what you do see will certainly be worth it.
Land and Water: The landscape is a tapestry of waterways and islands both large and small and some camps are land only, some water, and some both depending on the time of year. On safari at a water based camp you’re primarily traveling by mokoro (traditional canoe that is poled by your guide) a lovely way to travel and by boat with your main wildlife sightings being elephants, lots of birds, hippos and occasionally some predators if the come down for a drink. Your land based camps are where you’ll usually get your best game viewing for larger species such as impala, kudu, bushbuck, elephants, lion, leopard and wild dog just to name a few. I think two nights in a water camp followed by 3 nights in a land camp is a great way to cover both parts of the Okavango experience. Some camps offer both land and water experiences but their abilities to do so fluctuates based on the water levels.
Nature AND Wildlife Enthusiast: The Okavango is such a stunning place not only for its wildlife but more importantly for its fragile and unique ecosystem. If you only want to focus on seeing the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, cape buffalo) then visit one of the awesome private game reserves in South Africa. However, if you also appreciate learning about all the plants, birds and geologic history of a pristine and dynamic ecosystem then the Okavango will more than delight.
Private Concessions: The vast size of the Okavango offers both wildlife opportunities within National Parks such as the Moremi and further North to the Chobe National Park as well as a number of private wildlife concessions. We favor the private concessions when planning our safaris as they offer access into the more prime wildlife areas of the Delta, have regulated numbers of guests and camps, the most veteran and skilled wildlife guides, offer night drives and allow guests to travel off road (when wildlife has been spotted or tracked) to see wildlife up close and get that perfect photo.
Wet Season (Dec-April) vs Dry Season (May-Nov): There is no question that the dry season offers the best wildlife viewing experience wether you are in the Okavango Delta or anywhere else in Africa. In the dry season, standing water which was available in the wetter months has disappeared and the grasses have all dried which forces wildlife to move towards the water. Also, in areas with mopane (much of the delta) the leaves turn brown and fall off by mid-June which greatly increases your ability to see the wildlife. The advantages of the wet season is first and foremost the price as most camps either close or are steeply discounted. The wet season also offers the best birding and the air is clearer so it’s excellent for photography. Wildlife is present but trickier to locate and see through the bush. Late May can be a particularly advantageous time to travel as you get the shoulder season rates and the landscape is nearly in full swing for winter. October, while the absolute hottest time in the delta, is the most productive time to see wildlife.
Visit the Okavango Delta on our safaris in Botswana
Check out more from my recent safari in Southern Africa:
Keeping it wild,
Wildland Adventures' Africa Program Director