February 16

Myths, Miracles and Mysteries: The Okavango River Explained


February 16, 2024

The Okavango River 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. We take a closer look at this phenomenon...

One of Botswana's greatest wonders, the Okavango River Delta

The Okavango River is a mystical sight

Larger Than Life, Giver of Life

"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.

The largest inland delta in the world, the Okavango Delta covers an area roughly the size of Jamaica and can even be seen from space. It's a world of meandering channels fringed by papyrus plants, with over 150,000 islands scattered throughout.

Imagine 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 offers the perfect opportunity for a "digital detox".

A red lechwe mid-jump in the Okavango Delta

Lechwes sprinting like Santa's deer, Image Credit: Sable Alley

But Where Does The Water Come from?

Most river deltas lead into the sea. However, the Okavango Delta seasonally floods the savannah. So 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.

African safari and culture tours in Okavango Delta

Botswana's Okavango Delta is one of our top destinations for a luxury African safari

Shifting Lands Become a Wonderland

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. And although the water covers such a large area, it's only about two metres deep.

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

A lion runs through the Okavango River Delta

Even big cats thrive in the watery world that is the Okavango River

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's described as "an exceptional example of the interaction between climate, hydrological and biological processes".

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

Elephant wading throug the Okavango River

Wildlife, big and small, will enthrall

Birds of a Feather

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.

birds water reflection vumbura plains okavango delta botswana

Birdlife is abundant in Botswana, especially around the Okavango River

Where is The Okavango River Delta?

This maze of water is found in the northwest 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 doesn't 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.

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

Mokoro safari in the Okavango Delta

Mokoro safari in and around Chief's Island, Image Credit: Sanctuary Chief's Camp

When to Go to The Okavango River Delta

This ever-changing landscape means it will look vastly different at various times of the year. During the autumn or green season, between October and 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 what we call the shoulder seasons. Weather conditions can't be guaranteed, however accommodation rates are generally lower with greater availability.

Safari lodges in the Okavango Delta have the best views

Now that's a room with a view, Image Credit: Little Sable

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 lodges have private airstrips nearby, so you can fly straight from Maun or Kasane airport. From there, you'll be transported to your lodges via vehicle or boat.

Take a look at our curated list of the best Okavango Delta safari lodges to get you dreaming about your Botswana holiday. 

Let's Go to The Okavango Delta

If this sounds like a dream come true, contact our Travel Experts to make this bucket-list trip a reality. Let's start plannning your tailor-made Botswana adventure! 

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About the author 

Tania de Kock

Tania has always been an avid reader, which ultimately led to her life-long dream of becoming a best-selling author. She loves travelling, super spicy food, South African wine, and cats! When she's not reading with a glass of wine, you can find her at the nearest beach or camping, running or hiking in the mountains.

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