Described as "the jewel" of the Kalahari, the Okavango Delta is a tranquil and isolated oasis set in Botswana's harsh and arid desert - widely considered as being one of Africa's best safari destinations with its special diversity of fauna and flora.
The Okavango Delta is one of the largest and most important inland wetlands of the world, covering 16,000 km², with 2500 species of plants, 65 fish species, 20 large herbivores and over 450 species of birds.
The Delta is one of the world’s largest inland water systems. Its headwaters start in Angola’s western highlands, which then flows through Namibia (called the Kavango) and finally enters Botswana, where it is then called the Okavango. Seen from space as an emerald swirl surrounded by a parched landscape, the Okavango Delta is an incredible source of life in a country that is 80% arid.
Millions of years ago the Okavango river used to flow into a large inland lake called Lake Makgadikgadi (now Makgadikgadi Pans). Tectonic activity and faulting interrupted the flow of the river causing it to backup and form what is now the Okavango Delta. This has created a unique system of water ways that now supports a vast array of animal and plant life that would have otherwise been a dry Kalahari savanna.
The delta’s floods are fed from the Angolan rains, which start in October. The floods cross the border between Botswana and Namibia in December and will only reach Maun sometime in July. The Okavango River which rises in the highlands of Angola never reaches the sea and flows southeast into the Kalahari. Here it spreads out into a delta formation covering over 15,000 km² with a lush water-wilderness of papyrus swamps, shallow reed-beds and floodplains, dotted with islands and laced with a network of channels and lagoons. This slow meandering pace of the flood is due to the lack of drop in elevation, which drops a little more than 60 metres over a distance of 450 km. During the peak of the flooding the delta’s area can expand to over 16,000 km², shrinking to less than 9,000 km² in the low period. As the water travels through the delta, the wildlife starts to move back into the region.
As this region is referred to a ‘Delta’, the river source does not discharge into a standing body of water like a lake, or the sea. The Okavango is a large alluvial fan, a broad low gradient conical surface, over which the river discharges. The Okavango Delta consists of two regions, namely the upper linear panhandle sections and the lower delta shaped alluvial fan.
As is common in meandering rivers, the channel in the Panhandle is undergoing constant changes. This manifests by the formation of oxbow lakes as well as by the splitting of the channel at several points along its length. The channels are characterized by permanent swamps in which the vegetation is dominated by Cyprus Papyrus. The Okavango River then divides into a number of distributary channels on the alluvial fan shape.
The permanent swamps are characterized by a number of large lakes of which most are ancient oxbow lakes. The lower regions of the delta are seasonally flooded and these are known as the ‘seasonal swamps’. There are three main channel systems which are separated by ‘tongues’ of permanently dry land. These sandveld tongues separate the Thaoge and Jao-Boro systems, whilst Chief’s Island separates the Jao from the Boro system.
The rainfall in the catchment area during the summer months (December to April) is discharged into the Okavango River and peaks at Mohembo, which is at the top of the Panhandle, normally in April. This is when the water level in the Panhandle rises considerably and then filters through the rest of the delta. The seasonal fluctuations in the water level decreases down the Panhandle and in the permanent swamps of the upper reaches of the delta.
The annual seasonal flooding of the delta occurs during July and August, which is a few months after the peak discharge at Mohembo. It takes approximately four months to filter through the Delta from Mohembo to Maun. A lot of the water is lost to ground water re-charge as well as evaporation. During the peak of the flooding the delta’s area can expand to over 16,000 km², shrinking to less than 9,000 km² in the low period. As the water travels through the delta, the wildlife starts to move back into the region.
The timing of the maximum flooding of the Delta is ecologically important. It occurs during the dry winter months, when the surface water in the surrounding terrestrial environments is in short supply. In the past, extensive game migration routes existed due to this, however these migrations no longer occur, but local migration of game into the immediate vicinity of the Delta lead to high concentrations of game during the winter months.
Apart from the beauty of this spectacular wetland habitat, game viewing is excellent throughout the year. The heart of the Okavango is the Moremi Game Reserve. Outside of and around the Moremi Game Reserve are large private reserves (known locally as concessions) that are leased out by the government of Botswana to African safari companies under strict guidelines and carrying capacities (number of guests permitted). These large private concessions offer the highest quality, exclusive safari experience. Guests will explore massive tracts of pristine wilderness and enjoy a feeling of privacy almost impossible to find anywhere else in Africa today. Guests will spend all day on a game drive or on a mokoro excursion and not see another safari vehicle.