Botswana, like much of southern Africa, is a dry place. Almost half of the country is taken up by the parched Kalahari Desert. But amid this thirstiest of lands sits a shining green gem. Braided by a hundred seasonal rivers that never reach the sea, the Okavango Delta is Africa's greatest wetland and offers one of its greatest safari experiences.
The Okavango Delta is a permanent wetland but its extent ebbs and flows throughout the year as seasonal rains from Angola flood into its basin, replenishing its core permanent marshes and transforming the dry hinterland into a giant watery mosaic, thickly studded with papyrus and lotus. At its peak, the delta covers a staggering 15,000 square kilometres — around half the size of Holland.
With water comes life. The heart of the Okavango has large resident populations of mammals, but as the rains flow into the delta, so too do the seasonal residents. Vast herds of zebra move into the area from the arid east in numbers that rival the epic migrations of east Africa. Cape buffalo and impala congregate in great numbers to make the most of fresh pasture, along with one of the Okavango's signature species, the red lechwe, whose delicate splayed hooves are perfectly adapted for marshy grazing. Lions stalk through thick grass and forests of mopane to splash through the shallows after their prey.
While many African safaris are viewed from the raised platform of a jeep, the magic of the delta is that you are allowed to encounter the landscape and wildlife in the most intimate and unobtrusive ways possible. Of these, the most enchanting is to take mokoro, or local dug-out canoe.
Being poled through delta the by mokoro offers an experience like no other. There's little sound other than the cool splash and trickle of water and the brush of reeds along the side of the boat. And while everyone on safari dreams of spotting the 'big five', the slow pull of the boat is a perfect reminder that the smaller species can be just as delightful, from the hum of a jewelled dragonfly to the gleaming flash of a kingfisher (the Okavango offers spectacularly good bird watching).
From your mokoro it's often possible to continue your safari by foot or horseback on one of the delta's larger islands. This is a different experience again, with guides pointing out animal tracks, scouting from termite mounds and then hushing the group to point out a kudu or bushbuck through the thicket. You'll never believe than an animal as large as an elephant can be so quiet until you almost stumble downwind of a family lunching in a forest grove.
For the ultimate panorama however it's possible to take to the skies in a spotter aircraft from Maun, the safari gateway to the delta. Only from above can you truly grasp the extent of the wetland. From on high the Okavango is a green and blue mirror that seems to stretch forever, dotted with the tiny shapes of happily grazing elephants, antelopes, and pods hippos lolling in the water.
But this is a horizon that always ebbs and flows. As the calendar turns and the wetlands shrink the great herds start to disperse, only to return the following year, when the rains bring life back to the delta and make the desert bloom again.
Want to see the Oavango Delta for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Botswana here.