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Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta boasts over 450 bird species and an impressive collection of wildlife, including Africa's Big 5

Aerial view of the delta in flood Makoro trips are a must Huge elephant herds Fantastic wildlife in the Okavango Over 500 bird species

A World Heritage Site

In the heart of the Kalahari Basin, in the north of Botswana lies a natural phenomenon of outstanding beauty - the Okavango Delta. It is Africa's third largest inland river delta with an area covering between 6,000 and 15,000 km2. Because the Okavango is seasonally flooded during the dry season and the plants and animals have adjusted their movements and biological cycles with the rains and flooding, it has been described by (UNESCO) "an exceptional example of the interaction between climate, hydrological and biological processes". The delta became the 1000th site to be inscribed in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

Although it is not the largest in the world, or even in Africa, its size is what helped to make it one of Africa's Seven Natural Wonders (not to be confused with the Seven Wonders of the World), a list that includes amongst others, such beauties as Mount Kilimanjaro, the Nile River, the Sahara Desert and the Red Sea. There are two other inland deltas that are bigger than the Okavango; the Sudd and the Inner Niger Delta, which are part of two of Africa's largest river systems - the Nile and Niger rivers respectively.

The Okavango Delta as seen from space (NASA)

Where is the Okavango Delta?

The Okavango Delta is situated in the northwest region of Botswana in the heart of the vast Kalahari desert - the forth largest desert in the world. The sand in this area sucks all the nutrients and water that occasionally falls. Some plants and animals have learnt to adapt to the the harshness of the Kalahari, with its extreme daytime heat and bitter cold of the winter nights. In the middle of this desert basin, the landscape is astonishing. It is a transitional zone where the Kalahari sand is covered by the Okavango Delta - an oasis in the Kalahari Desert.

Map showing the vastness of the Kalahari Desert (sandy colour), and the location of the Okavango Delta (circled)

Origins of the Okavango

The story of the Okavango Delta is that it was once part of the ancient Lake Makgadikgadi that mostly dried up over 11 000 years ago. The Okavango Delta is correctly described as an alluvial fan, mostly flat, with a height variation of up to 2 metres. It is characterised by lush papyrus swamps, flood plains, a network of channels, lagoons, and is dotted with lots of islands which range from small mounds to the largest one which is Chief's Island. With the rising and falling of the water levels each season, the islands are most visible during the dry season during which they can be accessed and explored.

Flood waters from the Angolan highlands are fed through the Okavango River, where it starts off as the Rio Cubango. The river does not drain into the sea, but instead spreads out into the Okavango Delta. The water in the delta either evaporates, percolates, transpires for use by the plants, only 2% of the total flood water flows out into Lake Ngami. It takes about a month for the water to reach the delta from the source and then another 3 months for the water to filter through all of the delta. This is when the size of the delta changes from about 6,000 km2 to 15,000km2. The reason why it takes so long for the water from the highlands to reach the delta is that there is only a 60m drop in elevation from the start over 1000kms away.

What is interesting about the Okavango Delta is that the flooding period actually occurs during Botswana's dry winter season because the local rain is not what causes the flooding, it's the water from the Okavango River that fills the delta - much like Lake Kariba which takes months to fill from the waters that come from the upper reaches of the Zambezi River.

Wildlife in the Delta

The permanent water of the Okavango attracts large groups of animals, especially during the dry season. There is a seasonal shift in the game between the dry areas around the delta and the delta itself. During the rainy season, the large game moves to the outer areas of the delta where they graze. When the season is dry, they move into the delta in search of water and the remaining grazing areas, particularly into the Moremi Game Reserve.

The delta is one of the largest and most important inland wetlands of the world, with 2500 species of plants, 65 fish species, 20 large herbivores and their attendant predators and more than 450 species of birds. The Okavango Delta boasts a variety of big game, including Africa's "Big Five" - African elephant, African lion, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo. It is one of the few places on Earth where you will find all these animals in one area.

Elephant island hopping in the Okavango Delta

Although the concentrations of wildlife are not as big as that ones you will find in Chobe National Park, there are greater opportunities of getting closer to the animals and without as much traffic around. Besides the big five, species found in the Okavango Delta include zebra, giraffe, sable, warthog, side-striped jackal, lechwe, cheetah, crocodile, wildebeest, hippo, Brown and Spotted hyena, impala, kudu, tsessebe, sitatunga antelope, sable antelope, impala, steenbok, bushbuck, reedbuck, chacma baboon and vervet monkey. The delta is home to the largest concentration of the endangered African painted dog on the continent.

More than 450 species of bird can be found in the Okavango Delta, both migratory and resident, including ostrich, Bataleur Eagle (thought to be the bird depicted on artefacts from the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe), Osprey, African Cuckoo Hawk, several types of vultures, owls, goshawk, falcon, harrier, buzzard, kestrel, duck, stork, heron, goose, pelican, flamingo, pranticole, dove, quail, bustard, hornbill, spurfowl, lapwing, plover, nightjar, cuckoo, lark, shrike, warbler, swallow, swift, oriole flycatcher, batis, weaver, babbler, canary and so much more.

Seasons and the Best Time to Visit

Botswana's climate is generally sunny and hot, but in the dry winter months, it is much more comfortable and it is when larger concentrations of game are seen as they search for water sources.

Lions crossing a bridge in Moremi, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Although it really is a year-round safari area, the best time to visit the Okavango is during the cool dry season of May to August. Seasonal flooding happens when the water from Angola reaches the delta between March and June, peaking in July. During this time, the plains game migrate from the dry outer areas to the delta in search of water. Daytime temperatures are usually below 30°C (86°F), but it does get cold after dark, sometimes very close to freezing. This is also the best time for boat cruises and makoro (canoe) trips.

The hot and dry months of September to November are still great for game viewing as the animals still prefer the inner delta because it is where they find water. At this time, there are huge concentrations of wildlife, particularly around the Moremi Game Reserve.

The months of November to February are the wet and hot season where it is hot during the day with temperatures reaching 35°C (95°F), and sometimes even 40°C (104°F). Rain comes in the form of afternoon thunderstorms, and the nights are generally warm. The humidity levels fluctuate between 50 and 80%. These summer months are the best time for birding, when the migrant species arrive, many of which breed within the Okavango Delta. The scenery is beautiful as the plants are in bloom and the plains game drop their young.

The temperatures start to get more comfortable in March to around May when the land gets drier and nights get cooler (though not as cold as in the winter months). In March, the rains start to decrease, April has much fewer rain days and daily temperatures range from about 12°C and 28°C, and May is the start of the dry season where temperatures (especially night time) really start to drop.

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