Out of the desert comes water. The Okavango Delta spills across the Kalahari, forming the greatest oasis of life anywhere on our planet.
Reed-fringed islands speckle the lagoons. Hippos bathe in the waterways as zebra splash in the shallows. Migratory elephants splash their trunks with relish, delighted to have found water. Nowhere in Africa does wildlife show such enthusiasm, such zest for life.
Yet the Okavango Delta can be a disappointment for many visitors. This is one of the world’s most seasonal landscapes and it’s not easy to get around. Safaris around the fringes fail to live up expectations. To really experience the Okavango you need to know where to go, and when to go there.
This safari guide takes you through the Okavango Delta. It explains the phenomenon, different reserves and concessions, when to go, and how to plan a safari that suits your budget.
Okavango – Water in the Desert
But before jumping into the details, let’s first indulge on the wonder of this spectacle. The Kalahari is one of the world’s largest deserts. If it was a country it would rank as the 31st largest in the world. It’s seven times the size of England!
Great lagoons spill across the desert. Mokolwane palms stand tall above high grasslands. Wildlife flirts around the riverbanks. Elephants crash through acacia trees and monkeys nibble from sycamore figs. The Okavango is the world’s largest inland delta. But why is there so much water in the desert?
Rainfall comes from Angola
The water’s journey starts in the Angolan Highlands, during the hot, steamy summer months of November to January. Extensive rainfall swells the Angolan rivers and these twist inland, carving a path towards Namibia and Botswana.
Tributaries knit together as the mighty Okavango River is formed. Upon reaching the Kalahari the river slows. The river turns so slowly it can look like a knot from the air.
It takes four months for all the rainfall to reach the Kalahari. As the river swells it bursts its banks, forming the Okavango Delta. In just four weeks the desert is flooded with 22,000 square kilometres of lagoons and waterways.
This description is a little simplistic. There isn’t a single day when the riverbanks burst and the Delta is formed. The Okavango is a slow-moving phenomenon and the flooding happens gradually.
Peak water levels usually occur between April and May. Following this the desert gradually dries. Again, it’s important to remember that water stays in the Delta all year round. June is typically considered the best time to go, immediately after the flood.
Common Wildlife in the Okavango
Seasonal water provides refuge for wildlife. Elephants migrate more than a thousand kilometres for it. Zebra cross the Kalahari. Animals arrive from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It’s like a wildlife party, with incredible enthusiasm witnessed around the riverbanks and lagoons.
However, it’s the permanent water that is so important. When there is water in the desert it provides a year round haven for life.
On a good multi-day safari you can expect to see almost all of the animals listed below. Some, like hippos and elephants, are so common they blend into the landscape!
There are more hippos in the Okavango Delta than anywhere else. Large rumbustious pods gather in the lagoons and wade about the shallows. You get a really personal close-up view of them on a mokoro canoe safari.
This rare antelope evolved in the Okavango and great herds of red lechwe cover the Delta. These small antelope have legs covered in a water-repellent substance, allowing them to run quickly in knee-deep water. Red lechwe gather around the swamps and use water as protection from predators.
Elephants scatter widely across the Kalahari during the rainy season, from November to April. When the Kalahari dries they return to the Okavango. Young elephants use their trunks as snorkels. Herds splash ebulliently upon reaching their destination. Almost every evening you hear the sound an elephant makes.
Elegant and enchanting, the southern giraffe is one of the delta’s most conspicuous sights. You see them wading across channels and poking their heads above acacias and palms. Unfortunately, these giraffe suffer from a rare blindness disease. Older giraffe go blind in both eyes and soon fall prey to predators.
Buffalo graze in huge herds, moving across the Delta to different pastures. Males lock horns in the hope of taking over harems. Large herds participate in daily battles with lion prides, especially in the north of the Okavango. You’ll see these animals all year round and watch out, because Okavango buffalo like to charge!
Permanent water and food makes the Delta a prime spot for lions. These territorial animals move in large prides and you hear the sound a lion makes, as much as actually see the cats. High grass and thick undergrowth can make lions hard to spot in the Okavango. Look closely as a great population of these cats resides here.
Even more so than the lions, leopards can be difficult to find in such a thick and sometimes inaccessible landscape. Still, that doesn’t mean they are not present. Leopards are abundant, just not always spotted.
The Okavango and northern Botswana is one of the final refuges for wild dogs. Read this article to discover why the wild dog is endangered. Tracking a pack of wild dogs is one of the ultimate African safari highlights. They are relatively easy to observe in the Okavango as locals guides know where they den.
Hyenas provide eternal memories. They are not just scavengers. In the Okavango the hyena are expert predators and feed on a huge variety of antelope.
Zebra and wildebeest
The icons of many safaris and a common sight across the Okavango, these two ungulates always seem to be grazing near your camp. Encounter them from close proximity on game walks. Or follow a migration of 30,000 zebra across the Makgadikgadi, a lesser-known spectacle in the Kalahari.
Unusual antelope – sitatunga, tsessebe, sable and roan
Bathing in swamps and cruising across marshes, sitatunga hate being on dry land. Splayed feet make them excellent swimmers and they spend most of the day cooling off in the water, away from predators. The Okavango is the best place to see these rare antelope.
Tsessebe look a little like a cross between a wildebeest and a buffalo. They are the fastest antelope in Africa and can sprint at over 90 km/h. That’s faster than the top speed of a leopard and helps them escape lions as well.
Sable and roan are two of the largest antelopes in Africa. Roan have striking black and white features while sable are distinguished by their dramatic ringed horns. On many African safaris you are lucky to encounter one or two rare antelope species. In the Okavango you can be surrounded by five unusual antelope!
Wildlife You Probably Won’t See in the Okavango
The Okavango is not a big five safari destination. If you want a quick overview of the famous animals then take a safari elsewhere. Rhinos are incredibly rare in Botswana. According to researchers some rhinos do live in the Okavango, but most guides haven’t seen them after being there for over ten years!
Cheetah have so many hiding places it makes them difficult to find. Plus, the wooded watery landscapes aren’t ideal for the world’s fastest land mammal.
When to Visit the Okavango – Best Wildlife Viewing Months
The Okavango Delta is a seasonal destination. June to September are the best months to visit. December to March should be avoided.
While the main Okavango flooding occurs around April and May, there is water in the desert from November onwards. Localised rainfall fills waterholes across the Kalahari during the humid summer months.
Avoid November to April
From November to April wildlife is widespread across the desert. Many areas of the Okavango become inaccessible due to localised and unpredictable flooding. Most of the lodges are closed from January to March.
In April and May it still remains very difficult to get around. Roads are washed away and it’s easy to get a Landcruiser stuck in a swamp.
June to September is best
June to August is the best time to go on safari in the Okavango Delta. Wildlife is at its most abundant as animal populations are swelled by migratory visitors. You’ll see the lush brilliance of flooding, yet the water levels have dropped just enough to make the safari accessible.
September and October also have prime wildlife viewing conditions. Although the water is retreating, the rest of the Kalahari has dried up. You may think the delta is a little dry and dusty (compared to photos of May and June) but there’s still enough water to try all the Okavango activities.
Safari Activities in the Okavango Delta
In the Okavango Delta you can explore from every angle. Each activity provides a different perspective and is better for encounters with specific animals. Trying all the activities is one of the main highlights here.
However, you need to visit different parts of the delta for different activities. So first take a look at the activities, then keep reading below to see where to go.
Traveling silently you cruise past a pod of hippos. A buffalo herd wades on the bank. Turning a corner you see lions taking a drink, in a clearing between reeds.
Mokoro canoes are the traditional means of travel in the Okavango Delta. A gondolier pushes you around the narrow channels and it’s the best way to really explore the mazy waterways of full flood.
Serene and sublime, this quiet mode of travel means you can get exceptionally close to wildlife. From the mokoro you look up at elephants, and across the water surface at hippos. Although you can’t travel much distance, it’s a beautiful way to spend any Okavango afternoon.
Motorboats are the substitute for game drives throughout a lot of the Delta. It’s much easier to get around on the water and having a motor enables you to cover large distances.
Like a mokoro you enjoy close-up encounters with all the animals along the banks, including semi-aquatic antelope, hippos, and anything coming for a drink. Motorboats are noisy so you don’t get as close, but there’s a real appreciation of the Okavango’s immense size.
Game drives mostly skirt the fringes of the Okavango Delta, or are confined to one specific island. You explore areas of lush vegetation and woodland, discovering where the animals like to hide.
As it is so swampy and marshy, game drives are very restricted in where they can take you. Trails are washed away each year and it’s dangerous getting too close to lagoons and waterways.
Still, with such an abundance of wildlife all around, game drives deliver continual surprise and you can encounter over 20 different mammal species in one drive.
Walking slowly you step across the Okavango’s open plains, trackers continually on the lookout for elephants and big cats. It’s exhilarating and it can be scary. You walk past buffalo herds, cross paths with southern giraffe, and stare right back at zebra.
Short game walks are an option at most camps and it’s worth trying one, even if it is only a 30-minute stroll around the camp. Longer walking safaris are rare as it can be very dangerous to be out in the wild with so many animals.
Nighttime game drives
These are a rarity in the Delta and are only offered by a small handful of lodges. It’s so easy for vehicles to get stuck when driving in the dark. And you really don’t want to be stranded overnight in lion country.
Where to Safari in the Okavango Delta
Diversity is a highlight of the Okavango. Some areas are home to permanent water, others barely see the flood. For the complete experience we’d recommend a two-destination safari, selecting a drier and wetter camp.
Always remember how difficult and time consuming it is to get around. There are no permanent roads in the delta. Many of the camps can only be accessed by light aircraft.
Realistically, it takes half a day to transfer from civilisation (i.e. a road or town) to areas with considerable wildlife. So a 24-hour safari from Maun isn’t going to show you much. Ideally you should be thinking of three days at a minimum.
Important: private concessions and public reserves
The Okavango Delta is gazetted into a patchwork of private safari concessions and public reserves.
To visit a private concession you must book accommodation at one of the camps in that concession. These are exclusive and usually expensive, starting at USD 500 per person per night (up to USD 1500). However, there are very few other guests and it’s a very personal safari experience.
Public reserves are open to all. They have accommodation for different budgets, including public campsites. A safari in one of these is cheaper and you can also visit with your own four-wheel vehicle.
The Okavango Panhandle
The Okavango River enters the Kalahari via a panhandle to the northwest. This area is light on big game but excellent for birdlife. There are some very cheap camps along the river, near Sepupa, if you have your own vehicle.
Don’t expect a full Okavango experience here. Most of the panhandle is not gazetted as a protected wildlife area, one of the reasons the camps are so cheap. Plus, the places you can visit are to the west of the river, while wildlife congregates to the northeast.
Central Okavango Delta
Moremi Game Reserve is at the heart of the Okavango Delta. It’s the largest reserve and offers safaris for many different budgets.
Moremi is the best destination for budget safaris and self drive safaris in the Okavango. You approach from the southeast by land, the driest and quietest part of the Delta.
The best option is to camp in the Mopane Tongue and use this as a base to travel further into the Okavango Delta. Note that from January to June / July many of the trails are flooded, so you need good four-wheel drive skills to get out here – when renting a vehicle check whether you are allowed to go so far off road and be prepared to use the snorkel.
Guided one-night safaris by road can only scratch the surface. Rather go for a three-night safari, so you can try different activities and really dive into the game-rich heart of the Okavango.
Surrounding the public reserve are a number of smaller enclaves, private concessions nestled deep inside the delta.
Chief’s Island is the largest island in the Delta and a stunning destination. Camps situated here, like Chief’s and Mombo, are some of the best in Africa. Unlike others, they can offer land and water-based activities throughout the year. Many of these are accessed by light aircraft as they are literally enveloped by the water-world.
The river floods from west to east across the Kalahari. Water is present all year round in western Okavango. From March to August this area is a maze of lagoons and small islands.
This is the area that reflects all the preconceptions about an Okavango safari. Think mokoro trips, lush islands, animals wading in water, and a surreal beauty.
All the camps here are located in private concessions. Many of these camps are seasonal and at some of them you can only do water-based activities.
This area is highly recommended in May and June, when it is blanketed in migratory wildlife returning to the Delta. It’s also the best place to be if you want a wet Delta experience, but are visiting in the drier months of September to November.
Do note that wildlife thins out when you travel southwest of the river. Camps like Little Tubu and Jacana are surrounded by life, but come further down to Kanana and Xaranna and you may be disappointed.
The southeast of the Delta is easily accessible from Maun, Botswana’s main safari gateway town. Not much water makes it all the way out here. That’s good if you have a four-wheel drive and want to access the Delta. But not so good if you want to see lots of wildlife.
Southeastern Okavango can be disappointing. Many budget safari operators do trips from Maun, using the public campsites in the Mopane Tongue, in the very southeast corner of Moremi Game Reserve.
Bear in mind that it takes a full day to reach the Mopane Tongue from Maun and all the best safari experiences are found deeper within Moremi. A one-night safari can be an expensive disappointment as you spend almost all your time in the quietest part of the Delta; you simply don’t have the time to go deeper into Moremi. Spend two nights and you can then enjoy a full day deeper in the reserve.
A number of private concessions surround Moremi in southeastern Okavango. These generally offer good year-round game viewing and are more immersive wildernesses when compared to the public camps. Chitabe and Baines’ Camp are particularly well regarded.
The Khwai River marks the northern border of Moremi Game Reserve. Travel north of this and the landscape slowly blurs into the Chobe woodlands. This area is dry but has a huge amount of wildlife, as it is a natural migratory route between Chobe and Okavango.
You can also go on boat safaris along the Khwai River, as well as long game drives across grasslands and mopane forest. It’s one of the few areas in the Delta where you can safari all year round.
This area offers some of the very best and most exclusive game viewing anywhere in Africa. Camps like Duba Plains and Vumbura Plains are legendary. Up here you get the best of everything the Okavango can offer.
There is permanent water, along with rich seasonal flooding as the Okavango spills northwards as well as westwards. People can only be visitors here. It’s wild and wondrous, cut off from civilisation other than for a couple of island airstrips.
Such a lack of civilisation makes this area a haven for an incredible profusion of wildlife. Lions battle daily with buffalo herds and migratory wanderers come here for half the year. Stay at one of the camps and you get a complete delta experience, with different activities and animals.
The downside? The camps are really expensive and unaffordable for most.
Okavango Delta – Planning a Safari
This breakdown of Okavango destinations is generalised. There are pockets of diversity and you must remember that every year is different.
In some years there is lots of water, too much for drivers to even reach the public camps. In other years it’s only in northern and southwestern Okavango where you get lagoons and islands.
For personalised advice you need to discuss a safari with the people who are on the ground, following the seasonal changes. Africa Freak has partnerships with trusted safari operators who can help plan a trip to your budget.