September 27

Myths, Miracles and Mystery: The Okavango River Delta Explained


September 27, 2019

The Okavango River Delta extends like a hand through the country of Botswana and fans out into multifold veins of little streams. Mysteriously flooding during the dry winter months, the million-dollar question is: “where is the water coming from?”

It’s a fair one too, as the arid Kalahari plains only receive around 500mm of water per year. Despite the low rainfall, it still remains an oasis in the heart of the desert. The largest inland delta in the world, it covers an area roughly the size of Jamaica and can even be seen from space.

Vol en petit avion léger au dessus du Delta de l'Okavango
The majesty of the Okavango Delta

It’s a world of meandering channels fringed by papyrus plants, with over 150,000 islands scattered throughout. A water wonderland where a wealth of animals congregate for a sip, splash, or to hunt down their next meal. Where hippos and crocodiles lurk under the water’s surface, lechwes sprint over marshes, and even large cats typically opposed to water will find a way to snatch their prey. 

This mystical delta has made the Okavango the crème de la crème of African safari destinations. The remoteness makes you feel like you are travelling back in time and offer the perfect opportunity for a ‘digital detox’.

Mokoro-Safari bei Sonnenuntergang in Botswanas Okavango Delta
Complete seclusion

Where does the Okavango River Delta’s water come from? 

Most river deltas lead into the sea, but the Okavango Delta, in turn, seasonally floods the savannah. But what causes this anomaly of nature?

It all started as a trickle of water in the southern Angolan highlands, which then spilled over and flowed its way through the neighbouring countries, joining forces with the Cuito and Cubango rivers and completing a journey of over 1,000 kilometres, finally pooling to form the fiction-like Okavango Delta.

stunning okavango delta
Can you picture yourself here?

The origin of this delta dates back approximately 60,000 years when the Okavango River’s usual flow was disturbed. It used to run into a large lake in the Makgadikgadi Pans region, until seismic activity caused the land to shift, forcing the water to spill into the open plains of the Okavango instead and creating this unique delta.

Tripling in size between March and August, the delta grows from approximately 6,000 square kilometres up to a whopping 22,000 square kilometres. Although the water covers such a large area, it is only about two metres deep.

A boat trip on the Okavango River Delta
Tranquility in the Okavango Delta

The flood peaks in August and then disappears over the next few months, mainly due to evaporation and plant transpiration. 

Mokoro boat on the Okavango Delta
Mokoro boat on the Okavango Delta

The Lifeblood of the Kalahari Desert 

The Okavango Delta is one of the last remaining untouched wildlife sanctuaries in the world. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and named the 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is described as “an exceptional example of the interaction between climate, hydrological and biological processes”.

Lion in Okavango Delta
Lioness fighting through the water

The wildlife is also incredibly diverse with some rare species that thrive here. The area is home to 160 mammals, 155 reptiles, 35 amphibia, 71 fish, 400 birds, and 1,500 plant species.

Giraffes seen during safari in the Okavango Delta
Get up-close to the world’s tallest creatures, giraffes.

You can look forward to seeing the Big 5, giraffe, zebra, Nile crocodile, cheetah, hyena, kudu, warthog, baboon, and many more.

You also won’t be able to miss the lechwe antelope as there are more than 60,000, and the area is home to one of the largest endangered African wild dog populations in Africa. 

African wild dog at Kwando in Botswana
The African wild dog, also called the ‘painted dog’

When it comes to bird-watching, you’ll be able to spot the rare Pel’s Fishing Owl, as well as the biggest owl in Africa, Verreaux’s eagle-owl, also commonly known as the milky or giant eagle owl. If you’re more interested in birds of prey, the largest eagle in Africa, the Martial eagle, as well as the African fish eagle both live here.

Pel's Fishing Owl in the Okavango
Pel’s Fishing Owl

Where is the Okavango River Delta?

This maze of water is found in the north-west corner of Botswana, bordering the Caprivi Strip and located just south of Angola. It consists of three main geographical areas, namely the Panhandle, Delta and Dryland. 

A corridor-shaped, 80-kilometre river that runs deep and wide, the Panhandle does not have a lot of wildlife, but a few local communities reside here. It’s also an excellent fishing spot.

The Delta area varies in size depending on the time of year and contains termite mounds that have morphed into islands over time. A number of water-based activities are offered here during the flood.

View of the Okavango Delta from a plane.

The famous Chief’s Island is in the Dryland region. The largest island in the Okavango Delta, it is about 70 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, with the richest concentration of wildlife in the country. 

When to go to the Okavango River Delta

This ever-changing landscape means that it will look vastly different at various times of the year. During the autumn or green season between October to April, there’s an increase in predator activity, newborn animals make their debut and bird watching is at its best.

The most popular time to visit the Okavango is during the dry winter season running from May to September. Skies are clear and there’s no rain, but it’s also the wettest season as the Okavango is flooded. During this time, the vegetation is sparse, giving you the best view of the wildlife, and you can expect fewer mosquitoes. 

In between these seasons, you have the shoulder seasons. During this time, weather conditions can’t be guaranteed but accommodation rates are generally lower.

Lion cubs in the Okavango
Make eye contact with lion cubs

Activities on the Okavango River Delta

The Okavango’s varied landscapes promise a host of exciting activities. These include photographic safaris, hot air balloon rides, walking safaris, game drives and even horseback safaris.

You can also go on a mokoro safari, your very own Venice experience in Africa. The low angle of the boat and the fact that it can slide silently through the water will give you a front-row view of all the wildlife.  

How to get to the Okavango River Delta

Most of the lodges have private airstrips nearby, so you can fly straight from either Maun or Kasane airport. From there, you will be transported to your lodges via either a vehicle or boat.

Map of Botswana country in Africa
Map of Botswana, Africa.

Let’s go to the Okavango!

If this sounds like a dream come true, contact our friendly travel experts to make this bucket-list trip a reality.


“A river rises in mountains and dies in sand and in its dying gives birth to a jewel at the edge of the Kalahari: the Okavango Delta.” –  Frans Lanting, National Geographic magazine 1990.


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Tania de Kock

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