Awestruck in the Okavango
Of all the jewels in Africa’s collection, the Okavango Delta, with its glittering channels and watercourses, is one of the shiniest. One of the seven wonders of Africa, it is a massive inland delta that covers over 15 000km2.
The summer rains that are the lifeblood of the delta, fall in the highlands of Angola and take about four months to complete their journey, lazily meandering their way down the 1 200km watercourse to arrive in the Delta and slowly spreading through the wetlands just in time for winter. There is less than a 2-metre difference in elevation across the Delta, which means that once the water gets there, it fans out extensively. By June each year, the flood basin has normally swelled to three times its normal size.
The waters of the Okavango River never reach the sea. Some drains into the neighbouring Moremi National Park to the east of the Delta, and into Lake Ngami to the south. But the majority of the water is there to nourish the grasses and trees of the Delta, and to support one of the greatest concentrations of game in Africa. It is a seasonal rhythm, and when the floodwaters begin to ebb, many of the huge herds disperse, following the rains to greener pastures, only to return in the winter months in an endless repetition of one of nature’s greatest cycles.
The largest island in the Delta is known as Chief’s Island. It was formed by a fault line that uplifted an area over 70km long and 15km wide. In days gone by, it was reserved as an exclusive hunting area for the chief of the area, but now it provides the core dry land mass for much of the resident wildlife when the Delta is in flood.
There is an estimated population of over 200 000 large mammals in the Delta. Many of them are elephant and buffalo that follow this ancient migration route. Herds of 250 000 zebra make the 240km march to the Makgadikgadi every year, returning home for the winter feast. Herds of lechwe wade in the shallows and waterways, nibbling on aquatic plants. 71 species of fish dart between the weeds: many are identical to the species found in the Zambezi river system, indicating a prehistoric link between the two systems.
The predators follow this age-old pattern instinctively. Lions, leopards, hyena, wild dog, cheetah, jackal and others smack their lips at the inevitable return of the great herds, waiting patiently for their moment to pounce. Crocodiles lurk in the shadows under water weeds, ready to snap up any who dare wade in too deeply.
The accommodation in the Delta is of a very high standard. Activities range from walks and game drives to fishing and boating trips and helicopter flips. You can even try your hand at paddling a mokoro (the local dugout canoe)!
Life in the Okavango Delta is governed by the rise and fall of floodwater, and access to different parts of the Delta varies with the season. June through to August is considered the best time for a safari, much of which is done by boat or canoe, as the water is at its highest. At this time of year the extent of the floodwater is at its most dramatic, and the animals will all have arrived in their droves. Added benefits are the mild winter weather, the small chance of rain and the absence of mosquitoes.
Hot, dry September and October are also good. The waters will have begun to recede and animals will crowd the waterholes. November through to April are the rainy months. The floodwater has usually abated and some of the larger animals moved on. But this is when the reserve becomes a birding paradise with more than 450 species of bird all waiting to be captured through camera lenses and binoculars.
The Okavango Delta is a life-giving paradise in the middle of a dry, desert region. It has stunning, mercurial mood swings and contrasts, mind-blowing game viewing, and should be on any wildlife enthusiasts bucket list.