Considering an Okavango Delta safari? Read on below for the ultimate Okavango Delta safari guide.
The Okavango Delta is a huge, swampy inland delta in the heart of the Kalahari Desert in northern Botswana. At around 15,000 square kilometers, the delta is the largest wetland wilderness in the world – a place where African wildlife is untrammeled by human interference, and the safari experience is truly second to none.
Its importance and uniqueness were rubber-stamped in 2014 when the area was announced as the 1000th UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire Okavango Delta region is an important wildlife area, home to one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. The only protected area in the Okavango Delta is the Moremi Game Reserve to the east, surrounded to the west and north by a number of large wildlife concessions.
The delta supports large concentrations of animals on both a permanent and seasonal basis and is one of the best places in the world for wildlife viewing. Large mammal wildlife is found in abundance, including hippos, elephants, buffalo, lion, leopard, giraffe, rhino, and cheetah.
The delta is home to one of Africa’s most vibrant populations of African wild dogs, whilst the watery terrain is the perfect habitat for the elegant red lechwe and shy sitatunga antelopes. In total, the Okavango Delta supports 164 species of mammals, and the elephant population during the flood is estimated to be half the continent’s total population. In addition to the many mammals, the Okavango Delta is also home to over 500 species of birds and 90 species of fish.
Best time to visit the Okavango Delta
Botswana is a large country with a varied climate that can broadly be divided into wet and dry seasons. Each season has its pros and cons for taking a safari in the Okavango Delta, and although the high season is from July to September when the delta is flooded*, an Okavango Delta safari is a jaw-dropping year-round safari option.
Dry season runs from April to October, defined by sun-filled days and next to no rainfall at all. Moving through the dry season the undergrowth thins out, water sources recede, and wildlife is drawn to the limited permanent water sources – typically in the heart of the delta.
Wet season runs from November to March, with plenty of rainfall and increased seasonal water sources for wildlife. Grasslands grow denser, and wildlife begins to spread across wider areas.
January to April
Low season, with rainfall common and temperatures around 30 degrees. Most of the migratory wildlife has left the delta, but there’s still plenty of wildlife to spot. Water levels are very low, with water-based safaris possible only in permanent channels. Most camps offer strong discounts during this period.
May to June
Shoulder season when floodwater starts to surge into the delta from the Angolan Highlands. The panhandle is the first beneficiary of the water, and where wildlife initially concentrates. Grass levels are at their highest in May, making wildlife viewing difficult at times.
July to September
High season, with the flood moving across the delta from the panhandle in the northeast through the delta fan in the southwest. Dense wildlife, clear blue skies, and comfortable temperatures (in the region of 20°C to 30°C). Grass cover has mostly died back by now, making for good wildlife visibility.
October to December
Shoulder season with hot and sticky weather (up to 35°C). Migratory wildlife begins to leave the area, but it’s birthing season for the wildlife that stays, offering some great safari viewing. November sees the rains come, just after the floodwaters in the delta start to dissipate.
* Weather patterns are unpredictable, with water levels changing each year – and through the year, and some years experiencing drought. – and weather patterns are unpredictable.
How to get to the Okavango Delta
Situated at the southeastern tip of the Okavango Delta, Maun is the gateway to the delta – and Botswana’s primary tourist hub. Whilst the town itself is not so special, there’s a huge range of accommodation – some on the Thamalakane riverfront – and it’s the place to stock up on supplies at one of the supermarkets if you’re heading into the delta on a self-drive safari.
There is a large selection of Botswana safari companies and tour agencies based in Maun. Whilst it’s possible to just turn up and get yourself a delta safari booked (anything from a day trip to a week plus), it’s worth planning ahead and shopping around online, especially as many camps in the Okavango Delta are small and can get booked up months in advance.
From Maun, getting into the delta will be dependent on where exactly you stay. For the inner delta, you’ll likely need to fly, whilst dirt road and boat may be an option for the more peripheral safari camps.
If you’re travelling to Moremi Game Reserve, an alternative to flying is a two-hour drive to the south gate. For a self-drive Okavango Delta safari in Moremi, you’ll need a 4WD as the roads vary between sand and mud. From November to March (rainy season) Moremi sometimes closes to self-drive visitors, so it pays to check the situation ahead of travelling.
Geography of the Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta travels 1,200 kilometers southeast from Angola’s Highlands, flows continuously into the delta, and instead of ending at the ocean, spills into the middle of one of Africa’s most epic deserts – the Kalahari Desert. Fed by the Okavango River, an estimated 11 cubic km of water that reaches the delta each year doesn’t make it to the sea or ocean. Rather, some of the water drains into Lake Ngami, while the majority either evaporates or transpires as it spreads out across the delta. Once in the delta water is lost to transpiration by plants (60%), evaporation (36%), percolation into aquifer system (2%), and finally, 2% flows out into Lake Ngami.
The result is a swamp that’s anything but ordinary or murky, with crystal clear waters strewn with lily pads and colourful fish and one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. It’s a natural phenomenon, as well as an excellent destination for safari holidays.
The whole delta area is very flat (with less than a 2 metre height variation), which leads the delta to flood each year*, turning the sprawling grassy plains into a lush animal habitat into a maze of channels, streams, rivers, lagoon and islands, all teeming with wildlife. At its widest point the delta spreads to a width of 170km, and from July and September over 200,000 animals migrate from the surrounding desert to drink in this gigantic watering hole – one of the only sources of water during the dry period.
Okavango Delta safari activities
Because of its location, the Okavango Delta offers a Botswana safari complete with activities that are a little bit different to most other safari destinations:
If you’re staying at a safari lodge deep in the delta you’ll have flights included in your package, and the opportunity to see the delta, and likely plenty of wildlife, from the air. Even if you don’t manage a safari in the heart of the delta, there are several companies clustered around Maun airport offering scenic tours in small planes or helicopters – a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The Okavango Delta is famed for its mokoros – dugout canoes punted and guided by a single person standing at the back of the canoe, with room for a couple of passengers. Crafted out of a tree trunk, and around 6 meters long, taking a safari in a mokoro is a unique way to observe the sights and sounds of the delta at water level, getting up close and personal to the wildlife. Motorized boat safaris are also available – handy to cover long distances.
Riding safaris allow visitors to appreciate the scope and size of the delta, as well as access some of the most remote areas. Horseback safaris are something of a specialised activity, on offer at only a few delta lodges.
Most delta lodges offer walking safaris to explore the islands and flood plains, allowing for a much fuller experience of the delta.
Fishing is excellent in this region and angling enthusiasts can book fully escorted expeditions along the Boro Channel, a tributary that feeds the Delta. Tilapia (bream) is the most common species to lure.
Okavango Delta safari accommodation
At the heart of Botswana’s safari industry, the Okavango Delta features some of Africa’s finest safari camps and lodges, alongside a selection of quality campsites for self-drive safaris, and pretty much everything in between.
Aside from budget, the accommodation you chose in the delta will be driven by where in delta you want to stay. Like much of northern Botswana, the area around the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta is divided into large private concessions. The 18 concessions of the Okavango Delta are limited to up to six camps, and are all run either privately or by community trusts. Staying in a concession rather than Moremi Game Reserve allows for more activity options, such as walking, horseback, mokoro and night game drives. Broadly speaking, camps in the delta can be split into either ‘wet camps’, offering water-based activities such as mokoro safaris and fishing and ‘dry camps’ offering conventional land-based wildlife viewing.
Given the differences between concessions and camps, it’s a good idea to try and stay at two or three camps in the Okavango Delta to get a broader safari experience.
There are a number of Okavango Delta game lodges to choose from if you’re looking for accommodation. Head to Chitabe Camp for an unbeatable location – it’s built on a photographic reserve on one of the most beautiful islands in the Delta. The private area is bordered by the Moremi Game Reserve for great activities during your stay.
Deep within the Delta on the island of Xaxaba, Eagle Island is another popular choice of camps. The tranquil location overlooks a lagoon and is surrounded by Ilala Palms for a relaxing retreat.
Families looking for a safari in the Okavango Delta can find a cosy place to stay at Oddballs Camp on the edge of Chief’s Island. Accessible only by light aircraft, you can get there via a 20 minute flight from Maun.
Okavango Delta malaria risk
The Okavango Delta is situated in a high-risk malaria zone, with a higher risk of contracting malaria during wet season (November to March). It’s highly advisable to take anti-malarial medication and to take additional safety measures such as using insect repellent and wearing long sleeves and trousers to cover any exposed skin. If you don’t want to take the risk of heading on safari in a malarial zone, neighbouring Namibia and South Africa both offer malaria-free safari options.
Okavango Delta map
Experience the Okavango Delta
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