The Okavango Delta is one of the most magical places on Earth. Yes I am biased, (this is my home!), but I challenge any of you to visit and think otherwise. I live in Maun, a bustling tourism hub that grew at the gateway to the Okavango Delta to furnish high demand for travel in to the remote bush camps in the area. Made up of a myriad of waterways, islands and floodplains and home to the Big 5, there are few scenes that will take your breath away more than an aerial view of the Okavango Delta in full flood. Maun itself is a fun, dusty town built around the Thamalakane River, close to the end of the flow of the largest inland Delta in the world. It is full of inspiring and interesting people who all share one goal – to spread the passion for Botswana to the lucky few that get to visit. Whether you grew up in Maun or somehow found yourself there by accident or through a series of unexpected events, the place tends to stick to you like glue. I believe it’s due to a combination of the beauty that’s on its doorstep and the fun and adventurous people that call it their home.
If there’s anything that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us it’s that even though we humans like to believe we have control over everything, sometimes Mother Nature likes to turn around and prove who is boss. The Okavango Delta is a prime example of this. It is formed by rainfall in Angola that falls between the months of December – March and then flows in rivers for thousands of kilometers to Botswana over the course of several months. Miraculously, this means that the Okavango Delta fills with water at the driest time of the year, the start of winter in May, bringing much relief to the wildlife and residents in the area. It usually takes several more weeks before it reaches Maun in June / July, rising for a couple of months before receding in August / September.
An aerial view of the Old Bridge in Maun, a national monument, as the floodwater first reached it in May 2020. Credit: Mike Holding
The Okavango Delta water levels are mostly dependent on rainfall in Angola as well as in the local catchment area. But it is also thought that tectonic activity has an impact on the direction and speed of flow in the Delta which is why in some years the Eastern side of the Delta experiences greater volumes of water than the West. Most of the time, when the flood levels start to recede, the water levels go down but never low enough to completely dry up, which means that Maun will almost always have a Thamalakane River flowing through it.
However Mother Nature wanted to teach us one of her lessons when both Botswana and Angola experienced very poor rainfall during the 2018-2019 green season. As a result, 2019 saw the Okavango Delta record one of its lowest floods on record. The floodwater didn’t even reach Maun which meant that the Thamalakane riverbed was dry for close to 18 months. There is something quite harrowing about living next to a dry riverbed. This was devastating for the local wildlife, both domestic and wild, as the struggle for survival played out for all to see. That being said, some of the most breathtaking game viewing was witnessed as vast herds of elephants and buffalo were seen congregating at the few remaining waterholes as predators lay in wait, sights that would normally only be witnessed in the hot month of October were suddenly being seen all year round. While tourists initially struggled with the concept of not seeing vast wetlands of floodwater, they were soon reassured by the phenomenal game viewing and the opportunity to access so much more of the Delta which is normally under water.
A scenic flight over the Okavango Delta provides spectacular views.
As a dry and arid 2019 came to an end we waited with great hope to see what the 2019-2020 rainy season would bring. When those first precious raindrops fell you could almost feel the exhale of breath in the community as everybody prayed for good rains, and yes we were blessed. The arrival of the Okavango floodwaters to Maun is always an exciting time, but in 2020 it felt even more poignant as it was the first time in years that the water would arrive on a completely dry riverbed. Local pilots were able to give daily updates on the location of the headwater and its expected volumes, spreading excitement across the community. At the same time, Botswana entered lockdown as a result of the pandemic, and this little bit of excitement about the arrival of the flood kept everyone motivated with a glimmer of positivity amongst an otherwise very worrying time. It was refreshing to have something good to focus on, like the week building up to Christmas when you know your presents are coming and you only have to wait in anticipation for them! An informal “bet” began amongst the Maun community as to when the headwater would reach the famous Old Bridge and all gambles would be pooled and donated to a local charity. Down to the very minute, residents could bet on a date and time that the water crossed the “finish line”. In the middle of the night in May, earlier than usual for the arrival of the flood, relief ensued around Maun as everybody was overjoyed to witness this phenomenal flood of water arrive and replenish a parched landscape. Within a matter of hours, dust became fresh pools of Okavango water until an entire river was once again flowing through our town. Many local people believe the headwater is sacred and they rushed to bathe in or drink it. Before long, the dusty dirt roads that had been created as short cuts to drive across the dry riverbed vanished under huge volumes of water and the regular mokoro taxi river crossing polers were back in business. I have to say, it was one of the most moving moments I have experienced as people came to witness the water arrive and celebrate with joy. To see the impact that one of Earth’s natural resources has on a community was uplifting and a serious reality check for our otherwise less significant concerns.
The Okavango Delta in full flood
While Botswana and the rest of the world came to the realization that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international travel would be far more impacting and long term than we ever imagined, it was a bitter sweet moment to witness the Okavango Delta experience one of its biggest floods. The sad realization that potentially no international tourist would see this natural phenomenon in 2020 overshadowed our personal relief of the positive impact this world heritage site has on local people and wildlife. However with darkness comes light and with disappointment comes hope. Maun without a river is like a burger without the patty or a steak without the chips, there’s something pretty spectacular missing from the dish…
Maun is one of the most quirky and interesting places you will ever visit. It is full of amazing people, with fascinating stories and a great passion for sharing their country with others. Almost everybody in Maun is employed directly or indirectly in tourism and we have all watched the devastation that the pandemic has brought here. It’s difficult to predict the future during these uncertain times but what we do know is that the world has a funny way of showing you another hand of cards when you least expect it. The tourism industry is strong, the people are the most resilient I know, and we will get through the drought once again!