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The Okavango Delta – Why Its A Must Visit For Nature Lovers

The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s largest inland deltas, and without doubt Africa’s most beautiful oasis. The delta spreads over 16,000 sq km in Botswana’s north country. Surrounded by the Kalahari Desert savannah, this lush wetland is an affirmation of God’s mercy for the hardy inhabitants of these domains.

The emerald green delta is an astounding phenomenon that evokes awe. It has customarily been dubbed the jewel of the Kalahari and as the miracle delta. The Okavango delta is Botswana’s lifeline and it is no exaggeration that it is indeed its ‘Garden of Eden’. In these unadulterated lands, all forms of life- man, wildlife, birds, and plants – draw life from its pure waters.

The Okavango River, which gives birth to the delta after a journey of 1609 km, rises from the highlands of central Angola. It begins life as the Cubango River, then southern bound flows along the Angola-Namibian border, and eventually cuts across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip before finally crossing into Botswana. At each border crossing, the river acquires a new name; it is Cubango in Angola, Kuvango in Namibia and Okavango after it crosses into Botswana.

In Angola, the Cubango, which is fed by numerous tributaries, floods after the summer rains, triggering a steady southward flow. Flowing over flat plains, the floods roll in a slow journey. After about 850 km and 3 months, the floods approach Mohembo at the mouth of the delta in Botswana, at the dusk of February.

At Mohembo, River Ferry boosts the Okavango as it ventures into the Okavango basin. Safely in the basin, the incoming floods split, twist, turn and break, forming a maze of madly meandering waterways. This results in a pan-shaped delta, with a handle and a somewhat triangular bowl called the Alluvial Fan. Thus this area to the north of the delta is known as the Panhandle. It is dotted with thousands of tiny islets, rising to escape the waters.

The floods – their rage tempered by the flat landscape, persist their progress in slow motion. The waters drag huge volumes of silt into the Panhandle, raising the outspread delta bed by at least six inches and water levels by an average of 2 meters. The arrival of the Okavango deluge brings the delta to life. Elephants can pick the scent of the waters from as far away as five kilometres. And midway down the panhandle, as the water creeps in through the channels, the tiny river fish pop in and out the water in merriment.

The champagne coloured waters ignite a festival of celebration. The cacophony of frogs fills the air; the ground vibrates to the thud of elephants, and the birds overhead swirl in joy. Even the usually inscrutable hippos and crocodiles appear visibly moved. The message is unmistakable; with the waters coming, the good times have returned to the delta.

The Panhandle, which is Okavango’s perennial canal stretches for 97 km and is 14.5 km wide. Further down, the waters become clearer, where papyrus reeds thrive together with the lissom phoenix palm. The woody phoenix belts the river edges and the permanent swamps, and extends further south along the drying Thaoge River. The papyrus flourishes more to the delta’s east along the Moanatshira System. At the delta’s unchanging centre, the Boro River enjoys the lush of both vegetations. The waters slow march; together with filtration action in the papyrus groves makes the water surprisingly clear.

Bypassing the areas of Shakawe, Kaokwe, Nxamaseri, Mawana, Sepupa and Dungu, the Panhandle opens up into an alluvial delta. Crossing over the Rift Valley’s Gumare Fault, the waters are broken into smaller channels and spread outwards, but still moving in the characteristic sluggish manner. The channels further break and split at several points, snaking their way in as the water levels step up. The fan soon becomes a spread-out maze of inland water networks and ox box lakes, islands and broad lagoons. The lazy waters stumble over swamps and submerge some islands.

As the summer rains end with April, winter sets in; the Okavango has never known better days. The heat of the day subsides and the nights are cooler. The waters lethargically flow, finding new paths and enhancing old ones, totally changing the delta’s landscape. The clear waters reflect the sky and the bayou are covered with water lilies. The birds, grasshoppers, beetles and numerous insects are all ready to share in the profusion of the delta, humming away the day as nature’s music. Blue and green are the colours of the delta; the beauty is breathtaking from the air. It is now about 4 months since the floods entered Botswana

The waters teem with crocodiles, which appear to enjoy the delta’s best views from the clear waters. The vegetation is lush and the southern game have come to the delta in their great numbers. There is plenty for all and the Okavango basin flourishes in wild game, bird life and aquatic life. The lowlands have recorded over 450 bird species, over 250 different species of fish and reptiles, and an outstanding variety of almost every kind of African wild mammal. The winter – May to August, is your best opportunity to loose yourself in the Okavango.

Birding here, especially at the Panhandle is rewarding. A variety of vultures, fishers, eagles, cranes, storks, are but a few of the species that await birders. In particular some birds you find here include: Pel’s fishing owl, Kalahari robin, lesser gallinule, African crake, secretary bird, painted Snipe, longtoed plover, lesser Jacana, greater swamp warbler, sacred ibis, Pygmy goose, wattled crane, slaty egret, western banded snake eagle, black coucal, brown firefinch and dwarf bittern. The best time for birding is between November and April in the rainy season.

Fishing for sport is a treat you cannot miss, and the Okavango is Botswana’s best angling base. There is a variety to catch: barbell (catfish) and bream (tilapia) are the most common, while the most challenging is the tiger fish.

There is a healthy variety of game in Botswana’s Okavango. While on safari here, you will almost certainly see the big five -lion, African buffalo, both white and black rhinos, elephant and the elusive leopard. You will also see hyena, African wild dog, giraffe, cheetah, impala, wildebeest and the chacma baboon. The red lechwe, a swamp antelope, is also common in and around the delta.

In addition to the usual vehicle mounted game drives, you can view game in other exciting ways. The intrepid are welcome to a Mokoro ride, a traditional dug out canoe carrying one or two people at a time, poled by an experienced guide. You see the game as you stealthily rove the water channels of the delta, sometimes sneaking up and surprising the animals from behind the reeds. Though less exotic, you can alternatively enjoy a similar experience by taking a river cruise.

You may also opt to see the animals as the birds see them from light aircrafts or helicopters. This is also the way you get the best aerial views of the delta in its entirety, enjoying its extreme beauty and calm. Unlike in east Africa, hot air balloon services are not provided in Botswana. Horseback safaris are increasingly becoming popular; riding skills are of course a must. Still, it is essential to have an experienced guide. In addition, you also have the opportunity of a lifetime experience offered only by a few campsites – traversing the wilderness and viewing the wild on elephant back!

Walking safaris are also on offer, and are usually taken by adventure types to supplement the mokoro experience. On this pursuit, the fear factor must be erased and it is prudent to follow the instructions of your expert guide. Tracking and sneaking behind the animals is most exciting, and there is a pump of adrenalin with every step!

Chief’s Island, in the heart of the delta, is the prime tourist lodging centre. This is Okavango’s largest island, and covers about 1,000 sq km. It is slightly higher than the surrounding delta’s landmass and it is never on flood. Accommodation here ranges from budget, standard, luxury to superior. Away from the island, there are many other lodging and camping sites around the delta.

Maun is Okavango’s commercial and human life hub. In the Tswana language Maun means the ‘place of short reeds’ – though there are hardly any reeds left as a result of human settlement and development. The waters finally reach Maun around August. The inhabitants of Maun have been long in waiting of the floodwaters and they show it on the first sighting of the flood’s tip, by shouts of jubilation: “the water is coming! The water is coming!” Business almost comes to a standstill as people rush to line the drying riverbanks and await the slow flow. There is utter excitement! The floodwaters have taken nine long months, since they stared their journey in Angola.

Maun is the most convenient entry to the delta and is the backbone of the Okavango economy. It harbours the delta’s main and busiest airport, in addition to shopping centres, tourist offices and travel help desks. From this border town, the rest of the delta is accessible mostly by air. Situated some 250 km from Mohembo, Maun marks the culmination of the 1,600 km journey that is the Okavango marvel. Maun is 915 km to the northwest of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city. For international visitors, the best way to get into Botswana is through Johannesburg, the regional air travel hub.

In October, barely three months since the delta came into full flood, the unforgiving Kalahari slowly regains the upper hand. The delta begins to dry up; the Maun channels are no more, and the Okavango begins to retreat, sometimes shrinking to less than 9,000 sq km. 11 billion cubic meters of water vanishes into the ground and most of what remains evaporates into the atmosphere. Thamalakane River, the delta’s southern salvation retreats as well cutting its supply to Boteti River, which by then is bone dry.

The animals depart, to seek refuge elsewhere. Many leave too late and do not make it for the next year’s festival. In this season the horizon is littered with bones, bones and more desiccated bones. The catfish snuggle under the mud to survive the uncouth drought. Hopelessness grips the wetlands. But the cycle will be repeated, when the rains return, and with them life back to the Okavango Delta.

David Livingstone – the celebrated missionary and explorer, is recognised as the first white man to reach the Okavango Basin. Arriving here in 1849, he was astonished at the seasonal miracle entrusted with sustenance of life in the harsh desert frontiers. But this man of God would have been slow to understand how the Bayei people viewed the Okavango spectacle. Legend has it that at the peak of the Kalahari dryness, Chief Mazzekiva would sacrifice a human soul to appease the river gods. Upon accepting his forgo, the gods would finally allow the river to once again flood and flow freely.

The Okavango Delta is home to 140,000 people. The indigenous people classify into five ethnic groups: Bugakwe, Dxeriku, Hambukushu, Wayeyi and the Xanekwe. They have all traditionally been under the political governance of the Batawana people, otherwise known as the Tswana. The Bugakwe and Xanekwe are Bushmen peoples – otherwise referred to as San, while the rest are Bantu. Bushmen are hunter?gatherers, who do not plant but partake of natures freely given bounty. The women mainly gather- eggs, roots, fruits, nuts, while the men hunt and fish.

Though modern government and the cash economy have changed things, the people of the delta were originally itinerants. They hunted in the drought and fished and farmed in the rainy seasons and floods, weaving basketry at their leisure.

The delta nurtures other ecosystems outside its bog lands. It nourishes the Moremi Game Reserve and the Chobe to the southern end and the Linyati wetlands via the Selinda Spillways to the east. Lake Ngami to the southwest and the Makgadikgadi Pans Wildlife Reserve are other beneficiaries almost totally cut off in the drought. Otherwise, 97% of the water that flows into the delta is soaked into the sands and lost through evaporation.

Well aware of this fact, the governments of Botswana and Namibia – both of which have vast thirstlands- have at one time or another come up with schemes to pinch some of the waters flowing into the Okavango Delta. But local and international conservation groups have -with success- strenuously objected, citing possible negative ecological and social impact to one of the world’s largest and most important inland wetland. As a result, the three Okavango River countries of Angola, Botswana, and Namibia in 1994 established a Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission to seek harmony on the use of the Okavango River waters.

The delta is also under pressure from increasing human population, and water abstraction for irrigation, mining and domestic use upstream and around the delta. The delicate ecological position was recognised when the great Okavango Delta System was identified as a wetland of international importance and designated a Ramsar site in 1997. The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty whose aim is to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands.

Botswana’s climate is hot and dry for most of the year. Summer – the season favoured by the rains, runs from November to March. Temperatures are then very high- up to 44°C, though cloud cover manages to bring some cools moments. Winter begins in May and ends in August, bringing sunny and dry days. But nighttime temperatures in winter can fall below freezing. If you have come to Botswana to see wildlife, your best time will be between April and October. The weather is then good and viewing game is easy as animals gather around diminishing water points.

A trip to the Okavango needs to be well thought out and planned, making your bookings well in advance. It is recommended that you take an organised Okavango Delta and Botswana safari package, which includes accommodation, meals, guides, and transport logistics. The peak season falls between May and October.

You are advised to pack lots of sunscreen, very comfy walking shoes, at least a pair of snug waterproof boots, summer cotton wear, a brimmed hat or cap to protect you from the scorching sun, a pair of good sun glasses and some insect repellent. Warm evening wear is advised, as the nights tend to get a little chilly. While out camping in the wilderness, note that smoking dry elephant dung could help to keep away the nagging night insects.

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