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Botswana - Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is born in the distant mountains of Angola, where mountain streams merge to form the Okavango River and flow southward through Namibia to Botswana. Unable to reach the sea, the river fans out over the sands of the Kalahari desert into over 15,000 square kilometres (5700 square miles) of water channels, lagoons, and floodplains, where crystal-clear streams meander through papyrus beds and stands of vibrant green reeds - the largest inland delta system in the world.

Lush waterways and floodplains as seen from a helicopter at Mombo in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
© Julian Asher larger image
The presence of permanent water transforms the arid desert into a wetland wilderness supporting an incredibly high density of animal and bird life. The Okavango's unusually wide variety of habitats ranges from wooded grasslands and fertile seasonal floodplains to palm-fringed islands and dry Kalahari bushveld, and supports an incredible diversity of species including 164 species of mammal, over 400 species of bird, 157 species of reptile and 80 species of fish. Thanks to a long history of effective protection, the Okavango Delta remains almost entirely undisturbed by the hand of man.

At the heart of the Delta lies the Moremi Game Reserve, encompassing all major habitats of the Okavango. In addition to Mombo, an exclusive private concession in the centre of Moremi, the reserve is ringed by large private concessions, where a small number of visitors have exclusive access to massive tracts of pristine land - providing a level of remoteness and privacy found in very few other places in Africa.

A pair of red lechwe bound through the water at Mombo in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.  Lechwe have special splayed hooves which enable them to move rapidly through their watery environment.
© Wilderness Safaris larger image
Wildlife The Okavango Delta - most notably Chief's Island within the Mombo concession - offers what many veteran safari goers consider to be the best predator viewing in Africa. Small groups of elephant are resident year-round, with larger breeding herds arriving at the beginning of the dry season (June or July) and staying through the middle of the green season in December. Following the remarkably successful re-introduction of black and white rhino on Chief's Island (sponsored by Wilderness Safaris), you can once again see Africa's Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) in the Okavango Delta.

A mother leopard and her cub wrestle playfully at Chitabe in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
© Dana Allen larger image
Other mammals which may be seen in the Delta include cheetah, spotted hyaena, giraffe, warthog, hippopotamus, zebra, and many species of antelope including the rarely seen sable and roan. Sightings of less commonly seen animals such as serval, caracal, aardvark, aardwolf, and even pangolin may also occur in the Delta. Okavango 'specials' include the red lechwe and the elusive sitatunga - two species of antelope which have evolved special adaptations to their watery environment - and the rare African wild dog, one of the continent's most endangered animals.

Birding The huge numbers of both aquatic and non-aquatic species makes the Okavango a birder's paradise. Okavango 'specials' include the slaty egret, wattled crane, Pel's fishing owl, lesser jacana, and Bradfield's hornbill. There is a notable heronry at Gcodikwe Lagoon in the Moremi Game Reserve, where resident species include storks, herons, egrets and spoonbills.

Guests observe a pack of endangered African wild dogs relaxing in the shade at Chitabe in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.  Chitabe is one of the best places to see wild dogs in the Okavango Delta.
© Wilderness Safaris larger image
On Safari Safari camps in the Okavango Delta are open throughout the year. They are predominantly small tented camps, and may be land-based (focusing on game drives), water-based (focusing on boating/mokoro (dugout canoe) excursions) or mixed (including both land and water activities). Activities vary from camp to camp, and may fluctuate with the levels of the annual flood, with land-based camps offering seasonal water activities when flood levels are high and water-based camps offering game drives when flood levels are low. While walking safaris are not a primary focus in the Delta, it is possible to do a one or two-night walking trail in selected reserves. For more detail on camps and activities in the Delta, please go to the Okavango Delta accommodation page.

When to Go The following brief notes focus on the Okavango Delta. For more detail on Botswana's climate, please see the main Botswana Weather page.

The Okavango follows roughly the same weather patterns as the remainder of northern Botswana, with a rainy season (December to March), a dry season (May to October), and two transitional months between the seasons (April and November). Both minimum and maximum temperatures are less extreme due to the presence of the Delta; winter nights very rarely reach freezing, and October days are rarely unbearable.

A herd of Cape buffalo crosses a floodplain at Mombo in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
© Julian Asher larger image
The annual flood starts flowing down the Delta from the Namibian border at the beginning of the dry season in May. The Delta's gentle gradient means that the flood moves very slowly, and the time of year when a camp experiences peak flood levels depends on the camp's location within the Delta. As a (very) rough historical guideline, camps in the north of the Delta (e.g. Jao, Little Vumbura) tend to experience peak water levels in early to mid-May, after which water levels slowly drop though they will remain high through August. Camps near the centre of the Delta (e.g. Mombo) normally experience peak water levels around July, and camps in the southern part of the Delta (e.g. Stanleys, Baines) tend to experience peak water levels in August. The volume of the flood varies from year to year and can have a significant impact on game-viewing and the availability of water-dependent activities.

The heart of the Delta has permanent water supporting an equally permanent population of animals. Game densities remain relatively constant throughout the year, and don't fluctuate significantly with the coming of the floods. However, the rising waters do concentrate the animals into a smaller area, making game-viewing during the height of the floods particularly good - though this can also result in limited access to parts of some reserves.

Guests relax in a mokoro as they are poled through the reeds, enjoying a water-level view of the unique environment of the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
© Michael Poliza larger image
The edges of the Delta show more pronounced changes with the floods. Game densities can rise significantly as the dry season progresses and resident populations are swollen by thirsty migrants from the Kalahari.

As in most parts of Southern Africa, birding in the Okavango is at its best during the rainy season when resident populations are joined by summer migrants, many in breeding plumage. At this time of year, it is possible to record over 100 unique species in a day, and truly keen birders can identify as many as 200. Birds may be seen at Gcodikwe Lagoon heronry year-round, but its population tends to peak between September and November. Nest-building at Gcodikwe starts around August and most chicks hatch in October - November.