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Okavango Delta

The waters of the Okavango Delta start as a small trickle in the highlands of Angola, fed by seasonal rainfall, and eventually becomes the 3rd largest river in Southern Africa by the time it spills into Botswana. Once the river enters Botswana at the small village of Mohembo it slows down and spreads out into a series of twisting channels and lagoons surrounded by dense papyrus reedbeds, an area known as the panhandle. By slowing down and flowing through the papyrus the water gets filtered and becomes crystal clear forming incredibly beautiful waterways and lagoons. Eventually the main river starts to fan out and the delta’s surface area expands dramatically as the river gets split into many different channels and smaller rivers, which in turn, forms many islands and water ways. The layout of the Delta is very dynamic and changes almost every year due to shifting sandbanks, fluctuations in flood waters and channel blockages.

Hippo’s and elephants are two species of critical importance that influence the flow of Okavango Delta’s channels, as they continually maintain them through their movements, create new channels as they feed and even block channels through their activities. Of equal importance are the mound-building termites which are the architects of most of the islands within the Okavango Delta. Their towering mounds result in the start of a tiny island where nutrient rich soil is brought to the surface, which in turn is then visited as a perch by birdlife, baboons and monkeys which leave behind their droppings containing seeds. These seeds germinate and thrive on these nutrient rich soils with surrounding water and, soon enough, you have a small ecosystem which will slowly expand over the years.

There are thousands of islands in the Okavango Delta with some being permanent and others becoming islands seasonally, as the flood waters arrive inundating the surrounding floodplains. The largest and most notable island in the Okavango is Chief’s Island, which is one of the most exclusive and wildlife rich safari destinations in Africa.

The permanent and seasonal waterways surrounding the islands are the main attraction for tourism with many lodges located on the edge of these pristine waterways or remote islands. The main activities to explore the area is by vehicle, walking safaris or by mokoro (local traditional canoe) which can safely navigate the water ways. These activities are conducted by professional guides and local mokoro polers who know the area intimately and how best to explore in safety.

It’s important to note that the location of each lodge will determine the activities they can offer, and these might also vary at certain times of year as the water levels fluctuate. It is of critical importance to understand which safari lodge to visit for certain activities to avoid disappointment. This is where we come in!

Understanding the Flood:

The Okavango Delta region is a true ‘year-round’ destination; however, you will experience something different in just about every month of the year, such is the dynamics of the region and this complex ecosystem.  Generally speaking, Botswana and Angola’s rain season is between November and March. But as mentioned earlier, the Okavango’s main water source is from the highlands of Angola where the majority of the rain typically falls in January and this water can take months to reach Botswana. The rain waters from Angola normally reach the panhandle by May but because the water slows down and has to filter through the dense swamps, progress is slow, and this sees the flood normally peaking in June/July. But also note that the delta is huge, and waters are so slow that it peaks in different regions within the delta at different times. The rains in Angola also vary from year to year in the amount and the timing. This has led to the flood water levels and timings of the Okavango to be nearly impossible to accurately predict, but it can be roughly estimated.

What makes this cycle so incredible is the fact that the delta’s flood waters peak during Botswana’s winter, when there is almost no chance of local rainfall. These flood waters sustain the wildlife that rely upon it until the next period of rains. If it wasn’t for the flood waters arrival, the area would be devoid of surface water for nearly a full 9 months, as is does in the rest of the Kalahari Desert.

Moremi Game Reserve:

About 40% of the Okavango Delta region is covered by the Moremi Game Reserve, a community owned, but government managed reserve. Moremi was first established in the 1960’s and is incredibly diverse, protecting a wide range of habitats. Most notably are 2 distinct regions: the mopane tongue that forms a vast woodland of important mopane trees which borders the south-eastern edge of the delta. This mopane tongue area is home to a handful of lodges in the Xakanaxa area as well as a few small public and mobile campsites. Moremi also extends over the swamps and onto the other notable region, Chiefs Island, which was previously the royal hunting grounds of the regions chief, but later set aside for protection from illegal hunting activities. Chiefs Island is a significant not only because of its exclusivity and incredible wildlife, but it is also the site where there is a project underway to reintroduce both black and white rhinos. Moremi being a government managed reserve, the area thus follows the standard park rules which stipulate no off-road driving, no driving at night (time restrictions) and no armed walking safaris (with some exceptions on Chiefs Island).

There’s 4 ways to go on safari in Moremi:

  • Self-drive camping safari in the public campsites.
  • Mobile tented Safari making use of private, exclusive use mobile campsites.
  • Fly-in safari to one of the luxury tented safari camps in either Chiefs Island or Xakanaxa.
  • A mobile walking safari with Wild Expedition Safaris to the Chiefs Island/Xaxaba region.

Private Concessions:

The land surrounding the rest of the Okavango Delta, that isn’t Moremi Game Reserve, is divided into many wildlife management areas (some HUGE, others fairly small). These are all named as “NG(#)” followed by the respective number, such as NG12 or NG32. These names represent the different wildlife management areas or private concessions. The wildlife management areas either belong to a concessionaire for an allocated time period, or a community, whom are responsible for the use of the area. Often the area is given another ‘more marketable’ name such as the Selinda Concession.

The tourism model in the Okavango Delta is largely ‘high cost, low volume’ whereby the government has restricted the amount of bed nights/lodges allocated to certain concessions, and the concessionaires too not allowing for more development on large stretches of pristine wilderness. This has led to a much more exclusive safari experience where certainly lodges/companies have a huge wildlife area exclusively for their guests to experience.

It goes without saying that the BEST safari experiences are thus to be had in these private concessions where you have vast tracts of wilderness to explore with the only traffic being that from your own lodge, or maybe 1 neighbouring lodge! Exclusivity does however come with a price tag, which has led to Botswana being one of the most expensive safari destinations in Africa.

Another huge benefit to a private concession is that they are not bound by the national park/game reserve regulations. Which opens up a wider range of activities such as night drives, armed walking safaris and use of mokoros. It also allows for guides to off-road (in an ethical manor) for special sightings, which is not possible in national parks. And when a special sighting does occur, the number of vehicles allowed at a sighting is also often controlled by radio which helps to minimize the impact on the wildlife.

There are many different private concessions, so it is very important to know which concession you will be visiting, as some are not so private (many lodges) and others are located in far from ideal wildlife viewing areas. It’s best to get in touch with us!

Most private concessions are fly-in fly-out safari destinations, with charter flights setting off from Maun airport.

Khwai Community Concession:

Although the Khwai Community Concession (NG19) falls into the private concession category, it is so popular and well known that is must be mentioned on its own. As the name suggests this is a community run concession by the Khwai village and has some of the most incredible wildlife sightings in all of the Delta. The area is home to a number of luxury lodges, mobile campsites and public campsites, which unfortunately makes the area a little busy and not so ‘private’, particularly in the peak season, but the wildlife viewing is of such quality that visitors are often undeterred. Due to the popularity of the area the wildlife has also become very habituated to humans and vehicles making for a unique insight into animal behaviour.

The concession shares an unfenced border with Moremi Game Reserve to the South, with the permanent Khwai river (a finger of the Okavango) being the boundary. To the north of Khwai is mopane woodland and Kalahari sands. What makes Khwai such a great wildlife viewing area is that; in the dry season, animals from the surrounding dry woodland are forced to the permanent water to drink, resulting in higher seasonal densities of wildlife from the converging habitats. This in turn supports a wonderful population of predators and Khwai has always been known to be reliable for Painted Wolves (Wild Dogs), Leopards, Lions and Hyena’s, often interreacting at kills. As such Khwai is often on the itinerary for most folks visiting the Okavango. Some of our best sightings every have been in Khwai!

There’s 3 ways to go on safari in Khwai:

  • Self-drive camping safari in the public campsites.
  • Mobile tented Safari making use of public campsites and private, exclusive use mobile campsites.
  • Fly-in safari to one of the luxury tented safari camps. Although for the most part we would recommend rather visiting another ‘more private’ concession when spending upwards of USD$1000 per person per night, as this represents better value for money.

The Panhandle:

As mentioned earlier, the panhandle is the comparatively thin strip on the northern end Okavango Delta shortly after it enters Botswana. It consists of the winding main channel of the river, many smaller channels and large lagoons – all surrounded by dense papyrus reed beds and the occasional densely vegetated island. This area is typically too swampy for many non-aquatic species to thrive (such as the BIG 5), and as a result the panhandle is not often visited from tourists on a normal BIG 5 photographic safari.

The Panhandle is however an outstanding destination for birding safaris, supporting great habitat for aquatic species and shy reed loving species. Fishing is also great in the panhandle, with the waters often being crystal clear allowing you to see the tiger fish swimming by.

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