“The Jewel of the Kalahari”, “Nature’s Great Event”, “Miracle Rivers”; we’ve heard many terms describing the spectacle that is the annual flooding of the Okavango Delta. It is a World Heritage Site and the largest inland Delta in the world, covering around 15,000 square kilometers of the Kalahari Desert in Northern Botswana.
The Okavango Delta is more than just an amazing sight, it’s an actual miracle. The Delta itself is formed by the Okavango (Kavango) River which flows all the way from the Angolan highlands until it reaches Botswana and fans out depositing about 11 cubic kilometers of water annually! The reason for its miracle status is the timing of these extraordinary events. The rainy season for much of Southern Africa is November – March, however this is actually usually the time of year which experiences the lowest water levels in the Okavango Delta. The real floodwaters of the Okavango Delta only arrive in around May/June, as they have taken several months to flow south from Angola. So, while it’s raining in Botswana it is also raining in Angola, it just takes several months for that rain in Angola to flow to Botswana to deposit the majority of floodwater. This is why, just as Botswana enters its long dry season in April (7-8 months of no rainfall), it is gradually flooded with fresh water…a true lifeline for the wildlife that needs it.
So, let’s crack the myths and understand a bit more about when and where to go!
When is the best time to see the Okavango Delta? Well, the answer depends on what you want to see. If you want to witness the Okavango Delta in full flood, with breath taking waterways, islands and floodplains, then you want to travel between May – August with June/July being the optimum time. If you want to witness the Okavango Delta’s best game viewing, you want to travel between September – October, when it gets increasingly hot and the Okavango Delta starts to dry up. It is during these months that you see the huge herds of elephants and buffalo congregating at the remaining waterholes, while predators lurk in wait. And finally, travelling between November and April is our green season and offers reduced rates with beautiful game viewing. Everything is lush and green from the rainfall, many migratory birds have arrived in the Delta, but the overall water levels of the Delta are relatively quite low and will only rise marginally with local rainfall.
It’s important to remember that the Okavango Delta flood levels vary year on year. Due to longstanding records kept by stakeholders over the years, we can generally have a good prediction of what’s to come once the rainy season nears its end in March. Some may recall the devastating drought of 2018-2019 where the floodwater did not even make it to Maun, and many lodges on the Southern part of the Delta did not receive any water. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, the floodwaters returned to spectacular levels.
WHERE TO STAY:
The easiest way to consider where to say in the Okavango Delta is to divide it in to three regions.
The Okavango Panhandle
As the name depicts, the Panhandle refers to the narrow stretch of Okavango River at the very top of the Okavango Delta, resembling the handle of a frying pan while the heart of the Delta resembles the pan itself. The panhandle is close to the Namibian border. The highlights of this area are the famous Tsodilo Hills, also a World Heritage Site in its own right, where thousands of ancient San rock paintings can be found. There is not very much big game in this area, guests may encounter elephants and hippo and of course incredible birdlife, but the Big 5 safari animals are found further within the heart of the Delta.
The Heart Of The Delta
The Okavango Delta is made up of private concessions which are leased out to lodges that have to follow strict environmental protocols to operate there. It is not uncommon to find only a handful of lodges in a space of more than 200,000 hectares, ensuring absolute exclusivity and perfectly showcasing Botswana’s “High Value, Low Impact” tourism model! Lodges located in these private concessions are usually reached by light aircraft to a bush airstrip. The great thing about staying inside a private concession is the variety of activities that can be enjoyed, such as night drives and bush walks which are not possible inside national parks.
When considering which area to stay in, it’s worth remembering that the further north in the Delta one goes then the more water one finds. Lodges located on the very edge or southern tip of the Delta are generally drier if the flood is lower than average. However in a normal flood the water flows all the way to Maun, encompassing all parts of the Delta. One of the fascinating parts of studying the Okavango Delta is understanding the annual changes and how year on year the formation can be entirely different.
Moremi / Khwai
Within the greater Okavango Delta region is Moremi Game Reserve, a well-known diverse and game rich national park home to the Big 5. Part of the Moremi Game Reserve is accessible by vehicle such as self-drive or guided mobile safari, to the Xakanaxa and 3rd Bridge regions. Chief’s Island, the flagship destination in the Okavango Delta and home to some of Botswana’s most luxurious lodges, is not accessible by vehicle and guests can only fly in there.
The Khwai Concession lies on the very Eastern side of the Okavango Delta and is a much drier landscape. Due to its accessibility and location outside of the national park, Khwai is much more affordable than Moremi and the Delta, so without compromising on game viewing experience the guests will enjoy a great value for money experience.
There are few places in the world that offer such an intimate experience with nature in such an exclusive way. With lodges from as few as 3 rooms to just 12-seater light aircraft transfers, you can guarantee a truly personal safari. The activity variety is vast; horseback riding, mokoro trails, bush walks and even hot air ballooning! As travel during the COVID-19 pandemic goes, there’s nowhere else we’d rather recommend than the wide open spaces of the Okavango Delta.