The Okavango Delta :

More Than the Mokoro

Images of red lechwe sashaying their way across swampy waters, and elephants bulldozing through the Okavango Delta’s paper-thin reed-lined channels have long since graced the front pages of online and print media. Then there are the iconic pictures of polers guiding guests through the mosaic of channels that really captivates audiences. Because of the widespread use of these kinds of images, most people associate the Okavango Delta with two things: water-based safari experiences and mokoro (a traditional dugout canoe) activities.

But here’s the thing. The Okavango Delta is more than the mokoro. It’s a world heritage site with a remarkable ecosystem beyond imagination and the perfect destination for BOTH land and water based safaris. The moment you look beyond the mokoro and the magazine-cover expectations, you’ll uncover a world of wonder that will only enrich your safari experience.

The only inland delta in the world

So, where to start? We start at the beginning because every great story has a beginning. The Okavango Delta’s “beginning” is Angola, the source of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Okavango Delta is an alluvial fan or inland delta, and is the only delta in the world that doesn’t flow into the sea, making it quite an anomaly.   

The Angolan highlands control this flow of water, which means the water levels of the Okavango Delta are entirely dependent on the rainfall in central Angola. Two rivers in Angola—Cuito and Cubango—merge somewhere in the Caprivi Strip to become the Okavango River, the artery of the Okavango Delta.  The source of the flow is often referred to by locals in Angola as Fonte da Vida, which means the “source of life”, which is apt given that the Okavango region is the source of life for a wealth of wildlife.  

The Okavango River flows into Botswana, becomes a panhandle and then spills across the biscuit-dry Kalahari in a fan-like shape (alluvial fan) which we’ve come to know as the Okavango Delta. This permanent oasis comprises a patchwork of lagoons, islands, swamps, open waters, channels, and the revered bushveld region of the Moremi Game Reserve. 

Waterways and more

The abundance of water is a lifeline for wildlife, which is why there are such staggering numbers of big game, aquatic birds, and freshwater fish (71 species). The levels of the Delta do vary, reaching their highest during the Feb and March months, when the floods in the Angolan highlands occur. Because of the varying water levels, wildlife is often moving in and out of the area. It’s just so rugged, untouched and dense. Everything in the Okavango Delta is bigger and better! 

On the banks of the open waters and the islands, the lands are characterized by acacia trees, fan palms (a lot of them – it looks like a tropical island at times), sycamore fig, Kigelia trees (sausage tree), and African mangosteens. Interestingly enough, the trunk of the Kigelia tree was traditionally used to handcraft mekoro, while the tree’s fruit and flowers are a primary nutritional source for bats and the beautiful scarlet-chested sunbird. 

The open waters are where you’ll find bloats of hippo, lurking crocodiles, and dark waters laden with lily-pads. Water lilies have edible tubers that are considered a delicacy by locals—if you’re lucky enough, you might get to try this local snack. These open waters are preferable for boating safaris and the smaller channels for mokoro safaris.

Hidden wildlife in papyrus-lined channels

The web of channels is often lined by walls of papyrus reeds, which provide the perfect hideaway for wildlife such as the shy sitatunga antelope. The channels are safer for mokoro, as hippos tend to congregate in open waters. Of course, this fascinating network of waterways provides the perfect habitat for a few lifers (birders will understand this term!) which include the African skimmer, Pel’s fishing owl, wattled crane, slaty egret, and the African pygmy goose. There are over 400 species in the Okavango Delta alone, with most people spotting over a 100 different species on average per day.  

As mentioned before, the Okavango Delta is not only a destination for water-based safaris. Game drives, learning about the local communities, and bush walks form a considerable part of the safari experience and should always be incorporated into your Okavango Delta safari. Find a lodge or camp that offers the full spectrum of land and water-based activities, or spend time at two different camps. 

Sumptuous or simple there's a lot to choose from

Your water-based camps are generally luxurious tented camps or mobile camps on lagoon banks or the fringes of rivers. Their specialized activities include mokoro, fishing, boating safaris, and sometimes walks guided by locals. A true Okavango Delta water camp is renowned for having elephant, African fish eagle, Nile crocodile, hippo, and lechwe sightings. Recommended destinations include Xugana Island Lodge, Camp Okavango, and Splash Camp

The dry safari experience takes place on tracts of land carpeted by mopane woodlands, riverine forests, and seasonal floodplains. Two key areas for dry safaris include: Chief’s Island and the renowned Moremi Game Reserve. 

The Moremi Game Reserve is a revered region managed by leading conservationists and the local community, and it protects a quarter of the expanse of the Okavango Delta. The sub-tropical woodland regions are rich with den sites, prey sources, and water resources, making it a prime spot for predator sightings. The reserve is currently home to the world’s largest concentration of African wild dogs, AND serves as a sanctuary for the white rhino. Other notable species to spot include brown and spotted hyena, buffalo, sable, lion, cheetah, and leopard

Outstanding guides will seek out all types of wonders

Because of the islands’ size, they make for the perfect destination for walking safaris and land safaris. Out of the Okavango Delta’s staggering 150,000 islands (not all are inhabited), the 1,000 km2 Chief’s Island is the largest and is a sand-tongue within the Moremi Game Reserve. Here on Chief’s Island, qualified local guides from some camps will conduct immersive walking safaris. What Chief’s Island is most known for is its prolific lion prides and “chilled” leopards in the Mombo region. Mombo is actually seeing an increase in the leopard population in the area. Popular camps on Chief’s Island include  Oddballs, Sanctaury Chief’s Camp and Mombo Camp. 

Now that we’re on the topic of the Okavango Delta’s islands, let’s delve more into the island vibe. Did you know that roughly 70% of the Okavango Delta’s island began as termite mounds thousands of years ago? Termites are nature’s civil engineers and architects, who instinctively know how to construct solid mounds laden with a maze of internal chambers. Crazy to think that many of the islands were formed by colonies of tiny creatures.  

When flying over the Delta, you might notice that the islands are dotted with white patches of sand, adding to the tropical beach atmosphere created by the palm trees. These white patches are actually salt deposits that can’t support much flora, apart from certain species of palm trees.  

You’ll find that lodgings in the Okavango Delta region can be expensive—but that’s for a good reason. The country works on the high price, low impact premise which means there’s a limited number of accommodation options in a given area, which puts less pressure on the environment. Also, access to the Okavango Delta is limited, which means modes of transport mainly include charter flights, and transport by boat. This reduces the carbon footprint but does increase costs. You might not be aware, but by choosing an Okavango Delta safari, you are choosing to travel with purpose. Because local people are employed to ensure financial benefits to surrounding communities, the cost of your safari in turn helps to uplift local communities and supports sustainable tourism. You’ll even find that some concessions, like the Khwai concession bordering the Moremi Game Reserve, is entirely run and managed by the community.  

Understanding how this magical web of rivers and veritable Eden came to be, leads to a deeper connection to your safari experience. Immersing yourself in the background of the Okavango Delta and its dedication to sustainable tourism, makes you a part of the greater purpose: to conserve, protect, and understand one of the world’s most incredible water wonderlands. 

Ready to explore the Okavango Delta?

To learn more about our safaris in the Okavango and elsewhere in Botswana, send us an email at safaris@africatvl.com or give us a call: tel: 303 473 0950

Big Journeys Start With Small Steps

~ African Proverb

Let's take the first steps together...

Karen Gomoti
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