Expert Reviews – Okavango Delta

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Africa’s Magical Everglades
Overall rating
5/5

What an amazing river is the Okavango. It rises in the mountains of Angola and then flows across Africa for 1,000 miles, gathering strength as it goes. But once it has entered northern Botswana its mighty floodwaters falter. In vain they fan out through the papyrus swamps, seeking a way over the Kalahari, only to sink into the desert sands or evaporate under the tropical sun. But before it dies, the Okavango spreads out to create Africa’s biggest oasis: 10,000 square miles of reed-choked lagoons and golden floodplains braided by a maze of crystal channels. Marooned in the reeds are a million islands – some little more than ancient termite mounds, others the size of Greater London. Together they add up to one of the world’s most beautiful places, a paradise for visitors and a refuge for all kinds of wildlife, from the swamp-dwelling lions of Duba Plains to the rare and elusive fishing owls that haunt the wooded banks of the Okavango Panhandle.

Only when you fly over the Delta does its sheer size sink in. Not long after leaving Maun you see your first animals: elephants feeding under the palms; herds of red lechwe antelope plunging through the shallows. And later, once you have touched down at some idyllic camp to explore by 4WD or mokoro (the traditional Okavango dugout canoe), you’ll see the rest: the leopards and wild dogs, crocs and hippos, frogs, dragonflies and the fish eagles whose wild yodelling cries are the true voice of these timeless waterlands.

The Okavango Delta – taking a punt on the Big Five
Overall rating
4/5

I got my timing badly wrong in the Okavango Delta. There’d been hippos grazing round my tent so I decided to leave the tent flaps up so I could watch them overnight. Unfortunately that night, a lion came into camp. I lay there very very still just waiting to see a whiskery face peering through the mosquito netting.
You are very close to nature here. No more so than when game-viewing in a mokoro, one of the traditional dug-out canoes, propelled punt-style with a long pole through the narrow, reedy channels of the delta. Right down at water level, you are at eyeball level when a startled hippo rears out of the water and gapes open his jaws in aggressive display – and those jaws open wide enough to swallow Big Ben! Even the fact that the hippo may be wearing a waterlilly fascinator draped over one ear doesn’t make it less nerve-wracking.

At around 17,000 sq km (6,564 sq miles), the Okavango is the largest inland delta in the world. It stretches out in a fan shape about 300 km (186 miles) from end to end. The water is sparklingly clean, filtered by the Kalahari sand, and the land richly fertile, fed by annual floods which wash 660,000 tons of silt a year down from the mountains to feed the vegetation. Within the maze of ever-changing rivulets and channels are some 50,000 islands. It supports an astounding 122 species of mammals, 71 species of fish, 444 species of birds, 64 species of reptiles and 1300 species of flowering plants. With the relatively recent reintroduction of tiny numbers of black and white rhino, the area is Big Five. Traditionally, this has been known as one of the richest wildlife oases in the world, but a recent survey has shown that some species are dropping drastically, possibly due to drought, poaching and habitat encroachment. At present, only a relatively small area, the Moremi is a National Park although many private lodges police their own concessions. There is a proposal to turn it into a UNESCO World Heritage site but inexplicably this hasn’t yet happened.

It really must be preserved. I realise I’ve been alarmist with all this talk of lions and roaring hippos. But this is also one of the most tranquil places on the planet. There really is nothing more serene than drifting through the lilly pools in a canoe in the late afternoon sun, watching a goliath heron fishing or a kingfisher tease a photographer.

One for the bucket list
Overall rating
5/5

The Okavango Delta thoroughly deserves its legendary status amongst safari destinations. The Okavango river, flowing in from Namibia, spreads out once across the border into Botswana into a labyrinth of channels, floodplains and islands. Between July and September, when water levels are highest, the Delta is a watery oasis in an otherwise dry zone; naturally, wildlife and visitors are drawn to it like magnets. Many areas of the Delta are given over to private game reserves, many of which are eye-poppingly expensive, and because of the relative difficulties of access, this whole area is notoriously budget-unfriendly, although bargains can be found, particularly outside high season.

I’ve always loved taking to the waters of the Delta in a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) or motorboat and camping on the various islands. I’ve had my fair share of EXTREMELY close wildlife encounters here too; including a hyena in our kitchen tent and elephants pushing down trees within meters of where I was sleeping. It’s important to respect the directions of your guide as casualties can and do happen to the foolish or blasé. My absolute number one Delta experience, though, is the ‘Living with Elephants’ walk offered by Douglas and Sandy Groves, Americans who’ve adopted three orphaned wild elephants and offer visitors the chance to interact with them in their natural setting. It’s bookable via Baines or Stanley’s camps and is a definite ‘must-do before you die’ for any pachyderm fan.

Wetland wonders
Overall rating
5/5

The Okavango Delta is, without doubt, one of the world’s premier wildlife destinations. However, it is a huge and confusing area, and much of its tourism lies in the many private concession areas that stretch away beyond the borders of Moremi. This is the domain of the exclusive lodge, where you and your fellow guests can have a private slice of the delta all to yourselves. The habitat and wildlife are largely an extension of those you will find in Moremi – there are no borders here – but different concessions are sited in different landscapes, with some being more aquatic than others. Each has its specialities: the Duba Plains region, for example, is famous for its regular battles between lions and buffalo. The Panhandle region in the Northwest is known for its fishing and birding. Many of the most exclusive lodges are clustered to the north and west of Moremi, and accessible only by air.

My own explorations, being undertaken on the cheap, have taken me only a short distance from Maun, yet this was far enough to feel thoroughly lost among the endless waterways, and to enjoy such wildlife highlights as discovering a roosting Pel’s fishing owl, tracking a cohort of bull elephants on foot, finding leopard tracks around my tent in the morning and watching a sitatunga splash across the bows of our mokoro. The Okavango is a magical place, so get there any way you can: just do your homework first – so you know exactly what to expect in the region you visit – and start saving those pennies.

The Okavango Delta: Africa’s Watery Heart
Overall rating
5/5

There is a reason why so many of the best wildlife documentaries are filmed in the Okavango. One of the world’s largest inland deltas, the Okavango boasts the Big Five, all of them in abundance except the rhino. The lions and leopards of the Okavango have been made famous by National Geographic, and their daily battle with elephants and buffalo adds further drama to this most dramatic of landscapes. The delta is home to some of Africa’s most exclusive lodges, and the experience of flying into a remote and luxurious tented camp surrounded by wilderness is one of Africa’s greatest safari experiences. Whether you’re in a luxury lodge or staying in more modest accommodation, I suggest a combination of ways to see the delta – a game drive or three, a night drive, a walking safari and exploring by mokoro (a dugout canoe punted by a poler). In recent years, Chitabe has become one of the best places for abundant wildlife. To the northwest, the Okavango Panhandle is far better for fishing and birdwatching than for other forms of wildlife.

Africa’s Ultimate Water Wilderness
Overall rating
4/5

The scenic delta, comprising large expanses of water and a myriad shallow channels snaking their way between innumerable little islands, is not only home to astounding concentrations of wildlife, but is also a twitcher’s paradise with around 500 bird species. It is, however, the huge diversity of plentiful wildlife that wows most visitors. Safari activities primarily revolve around game-drives and escorted mokoro trips – where you sit in the front of a canoe and your personal guide stands in the back poling you through the channels of the shallow delta – but outside the official park areas there is scope for walking safaris on the mainland, boat cruises and fishing trips in the permanent swamp areas, especially towards the pan handle. One of the reasons that the Okavango has developed into such a rich wildlife area is that the floodwaters (which swell the delta) arrive in July and August during the height of the dry season. A wildlife safari to the Okavango Delta will be a memorable at any time of the year, but to watch the life-giving waters spread across a parched landscape, drawing animals from far and wide, is a very special sight indeed.

Southern Africa’s greatest inland swamp
Overall rating
5/5

The 12,000 sq km inland delta created by the Kavango River as it fans out into the Kalahari sands is a unique wildlife destination, not to say a remarkable geographic phenomenon. Part of the delta is officially protected, but much of it is comprised of concessions that effectively function as private conservancies, so that one’s individual experience is quite strongly dependent on exactly where you visit. A wonderful way to explore the central delta is by mokoro, a type of dugout canoe propelled by local polers, but the high density of crocs and hippos means this is not for the faint-hearted. At most concessions, there is also the option of exploring on guided 4x4 game drives, an experience similar to guided game drives in other large African reserves. Our experience is that terrestrial wildlife densities (aside from crocs and hippos) are quite low in the central delta, though elephants and buffalos are plentiful, along with the semi-aqy-uatic sitatunga antelope, and the birdlife is stunning, whether you are a first-time safarigoer set to marvel at the sight of a lily-trotting jacana, or a more experienced birder seeking a glimpse of the near-endemic slaty egret. More outlying concessions offer much better game viewing, with lion, African hunting dog, eland and sable antelope all locally common. But this is one reserve that truly feels like so much more than the sum of its quantifiable parts – incredibly peaceful, very atmospheric, and totally unique.

The Most Beautiful Place in Africa
Overall rating
5/5

The Okavango Delta, a huge water world of marshes, shifting channels, shape-changing islands and reed shrouded natural canals is, in my opinion, quite simply the most beautiful corner of Africa. To see it from the air, as you fly into a remote dirt airstrip on a light plane (which is how most people arrive) will give you views over shimmering, mirror-like lakes and meandering rivers, a lush green riot of plant life through which, as you get closer to the ground, you’ll quite likely make out herds of elephants or darting lechwe. On the ground, in the early morning light, you’ll sit in a safari jeep watching, transfixed, as hundreds of birds in an equal array of styles and colours flit around the edge of a pond before being disturbed by the lumbering arrival of a mass of buffalo or perhaps one of the deltas prized rhinos. But it’s at dusk, as the sun sets and you sit silently in a mokoro canoe (wooden dug-out canoe - although now many better camps use more environmentally pleasing construction materials) and skim slowly across a pink tinged lake surface that the delta is at its most utterly magical.

Not just is the delta scenically blessed, but it’s also wildlife abundant. After many years of travel all around East Africa I was left speechless after my first trip to the Okavango Delta and the realisation that within two weeks I’d seen probably more elephants than in the previous twenty years of safari combined! On that trip I interviewed well-known Botswanan conservationist Map Ives, who runs the Botswanan government’s rhino programme and is environmental officer for the highly regarded Wilderness Safaris, and he described the delta as “An Ark” and I couldn’t agree more. In a continent where wildlife numbers are so often falling and natural spaces being swallowed by (needed) development the Okavango Delta is serving as something of a repository for wildlife that is under threat elsewhere. The greater region (incorporating all of northern Botswana and parts of neighbouring countries) is home to the largest elephant populations in Africa, a fast-growing rhino population, huge herds of buffalo, wild dogs and big cats. It really is an Ark come to the Garden of Eden.

Combined with stunning wildlife viewing and sublime views are some of the best safari camps and lodges in Africa with superb guides, an air of real exclusivity and a genuine wilderness sensation and the possibility to engage in all kinds of exciting activities including boat rides, horseback safaris and walking safaris. Yes, a safari in the Okavango Delta can (but doesn’t always have to be) eye wateringly expensive but if there’s any possible way you can afford it then I promise you won’t be disappointed!

The rare jewel in Botswana’s safari crown
Overall rating
5/5

The Okavango Delta is Africa’s largest oasis – each year approximately 11 cubic kilometres of water spreads over 15,000 kilometres of papyrus reeds, countless islands and broad floodplains, forming large lagoons and an intricate web of meandering channels that fan outwards from the delta’s heart.

The Delta is an absolute mecca for wildlife and birdlife alike. There are an estimated 200,000 large mammals in and around the delta when it is at its busiest, though many are not year-round residents, moving elsewhere during the summer rains then returning for winter. When you see big game in the delta, you’ll notice that it often seems to be on the move to somewhere or other. Bird species number more than 400 and include the iconic African fish eagle, Pel's fishing owl, crested crane, lilac-breasted roller, hammerkop, ostrich, and sacred ibis. I never thought birds would really be my “thing” until I first visited the delta.

Contrary to what I had imagined from its worldwide fame, the delta remains a largely unspoilt wilderness, in large part because many of its exclusive lodges can only be accessed by plane, which in itself makes for a truly memorable African experience.

But for me the highlight will always be exploring the calm waters in a makoro dugout canoe.

Unbeatable wildlife and wilderness
Overall rating
5/5

The Okavango Delta is arguably southern Africa’s premier safari destination, offering mokoro (dug-out canoe) trips along its placid waterways, wilderness camping and a full cast of African wildlife. I had many of my most memorable safari experiences here, on a one-week group trip with Bush Ways Safaris. As much as seeing African wild dogs regurgitating meat for their pups, or a leopard dozing in a tree with a freshly caught impala, I will never forget the thrill of spending a week in the bush. Ours was a ‘semi-participatory’ safari, so we had to help set up camp, erecting showers, pitching tents and so on. At night, eyes shone at us from the velvety darkness beyond the campfire, and growls, snorts and roars interrupted our dreams.
Any visit to this 16,000-sq-km network of lagoons, wetlands, channels and savanna is likely to be the experience of a lifetime. Just do some thinking about how you want to tackle it. I had a fantastic time on dry land, but many people rave about mokoro trips and seeing it all from a light aircraft.

Tranquil waters
Overall rating
5/5

The Okavango Delta has featured in so many books and television documentaries that I felt I already knew it long before I visited for the first time. I’ve always found the fact that it floods in Botswana’s dry season delightfully quirky. Torrential rain on the mountains of Angola causes the waters of the Okavango River to surge southward, but they never make it as far as the ocean – instead, in July and August, they fan out over the northern Kalahari to be gradually sucked dry.

The result – a huge, seasonal expanse of sparkling streams, lakes and islands – is every bit as beautiful as the books and documentaries suggest. The best way to experience it is, of course, from a mokoro – the Batswana answer to an Oxbridge punt. As you’re paddled along channels lined with waterlilies and reeds, you can enjoy sightings of malachite kingfishers, painted reed frogs, elephants and hippos in blissful peace and quiet.

Africa's greatest waterborne safari venue!
Overall rating
5/5

I spent two weeks living on the Okavango Panhandle, near the point where the Okavango flows into Botswana from Namibia's Zambezi Region. I was working on a scientific study, collecting data on the Okavango's outrageous crocodiles. We would go out at night in a boat with spotlights and catch crocodiles (big ones with a noose, babies by hand...very quickly!). Apart from lechwe and sitatunga (and the big hippo pods) the crocs are probably the great highlight of this area. Seeing a 6 metre croc rise out of shallow water alongside your five metre boat is an unforgettable experience!
The scientists on the study estimated that should you try to swim the 40-metre width of the river at this point your chances of survival would not be as good as 50-50. One of the most surprising and pleasantest sightings I had in this area were of the otters that came floating down the river past our camp almost every morning!

Living with Elephants in paradise
Overall rating
5/5

I came to the Okavango Delta to write a story on a brilliant project called Living with Elephants for World Elephant Day, a deeply moving experience that remains a highlight of my travel-writing career.

The organization is based on the Sanctuary concession, one of many private concession areas that are home to the Delta’s exclusive and sadly expensive lodges. If you stay in Baines or Stanley’s Camps you get the chance to walk with elephants, to stroke them and study them in minutest detail, and actually feel their rumblings and vibrations! I learnt all about these enigmatic animals, three of which are habituated to humans having been orphaned by culling and rescued by Doug and Sandi Groves.

Their profits go towards bringing local children in to the concession to help them understand elephants, to break down their fears of them, and to help alleviate human/elephant conflict. I fell totally in love with Jabulani, a gentle giant and walked hand in trunk with Morula – an unforgettable experience!

There are of course thousands of other elephants in the Okavango, along with the rest of the Big Five, and life on the Delta is just mesmerizing – time spent drifting languidly along the water channels in a mokoro, spotting everything from giant Goliath herons and hippos to tiny kingfishers and even tinier frogs, is truly one of Africa’s finest moments.

A natural labyrinth of waterways teeming with wildlife
Overall rating
4/5

I first arrived in the delta by light aircraft. From the air is the only way you’ll be able to get a real feeling of size and complexity of this enormous delta. The scenic beauty of it struck me immediately and I got excited when I managed to pick up some elephant backs wading through the water.

I got a completely different perspective when we set out by mokoro. Pushing through water lilies, making our way slowly through this vast labyrinth of channels that seemed to close behind us was an unforgettable experience. Back on land, the more conventional safari began and the Okavanga is up there with all the great parks of Africa offering fantastic wildlife viewing.

Oasis in the desert
Overall rating
4/5

After the dirt and dust of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, the Delta is a welcoming green oasis. Stretching over 18,000 square kilometres and encompassing floodplains, lagoons, forest glades and savannah grasslands, this fertile inland wetland is as breathtaking as it is beautiful. Gliding through the reeds in a mokoro (dug-out canoe), may seem a little like a tourist cliché, but it really is a must. Sitting low in the dug-out you really do feel at one with your surrounds. The silence is only broken by the soft plonk of your guide’s oar as it breaks the water’s surface, the gentle rustle of the reeds as you slowly push your way through and the distant grunts of hippos happily wallowing in the shallows. While the rewards are plentiful if you choose either a foot, or dug-out, safari – particularly for birders with more than 400 species recorded in the region – it’s only by air can you get a true sense of the full magnitude of the Delta’s expanse. It’s also the best was to see the vast herds that roam its wilds.

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