There’s magic that happens in Botswana when the sun beats down the rugged terrain in its dry season; yet an inland river system swells and thrives, attracting animals and birds alike to quench their thirst, hunt, and survive. Dry meets wet: this contrasting ecosystem is what sets Okavango Delta apart. The water is drainage from the rainy season from the highlands of neighboring Angola.
Approximately 11 cubic kilometers of water traverses more than a thousand miles year after year, making its way into Botswana, creating the world’s largest inland delta system, just slightly larger than the state of Connecticut. So even when Mother Nature deprives the flora, animals, and people of water from the sky in Botswana’s fiery dry season, she supplies relief from the land. The result is an ecosystem so unique that it cannot and should not be missed if you are a safari enthusiast.
It’s no secret that Africa is rich in wonderful safari destinations and experiences. But no other African safari destination comes close to providing the multitude of perspectives that Botswana provides in the stunning Okavango Delta.
There are many ways to experience the sheer magic of the region. Here are my top six safari perspectives of the delta.
Small charter planes carrying a handful of passengers fly guests in and out of an array of safari camps throughout the Okavango Delta. In many cases, it’s the only truly feasible way to get to these secluded locations. These flights are a logistical necessity, but they offer a fantastic perspective of the terrain that you are entering or leaving.
Whether you’re observing the red grounds from the fallen leaves of a sea of ragged mopane trees, or the web of trails weaving throughout the bush from migrating elephants traveling in search of watering holes, or endless island oases created by termites, you’ll see how the animals in the Okavango Delta co-exist in harmony with nature, from this perspective.
Flights can range from twenty minutes to over an hour. During this period, you’ll get a chance to spot giraffes, wildebeests, buffalos, zebras, ostriches, elephants, and much more. You’ll also witness the land changing from expansive and desolate to lush and vibrant green as you travel deeper into the heart of the delta.
You can experience a game drive on almost any safari. However, game drives in the Okavango Delta are special. From a distance, the land appears flat. However, the terrain is rugged. It’s a wild ride that will have you jostling about your seat as your guides navigate unpaved roads, making you feel like you are an early explorer uncovering new territory. It’s even more thrilling when guides veer off course suddenly because they spot a vulture sitting atop a tree observing what is likely some kind of kill.
The wailing of alarm birds and baboons confirm the presence of a predator: a lion, a cheetah, a leopard, a hyena; who knows? But you will soon find out. Either way, the adrenaline of the chase, weaving in and out of trees and through tall grass, with eyes surveying the land intently in search of an elusive beast, is an unforgettable experience. The best part about game drives in Botswana and the Okavango Delta, though, is that you often have exclusivity.
Many of the camps are on private concessions rather than in national parks. They also limit the number of guests that can stay at a camp to only a handful. The result is only a few vehicles and no self-drivers competing for the very best vantage points of animals when they’re spotted. You can sit in the vehicle unrushed, observing nature at your leisure.
If you want to test your nerves, attempt a bush walk. With absolutely nothing between you and wild game, you will learn very fast that nature does not play by the rules of man. You walk single file on razor-sharp grass and sandy earth with a guide in the front and back. These knowledgeable guides bring your attention to often-overlooked details that paint a picture of life and movement in the bush.
Dung from wildebeests, footprints of lions and hyenas, trees bulldozed over from elephants, and large dug up pits in the dirt where hippos slumber are only some of the clues that reveal what the animals were up to while you were sleeping. You walk past the bleeding marula trees and steer clear of the sausage trees where large sausage-shaped fruit the size of my arm dangle from a thread from the tree canopies above.
Giraffes, zebras, and antelopes scope you out with some skittish ones scurrying to a further distance as you approach, while others continue to graze without care. In the distance you see elephants taking shade under tall Kalahari apple-leaf trees. You learn to discern if they are male bulls who are potentially threatening or a family herd that is paying you no heed. Either way, learning to keep a respectful distance goes a long way in coexisting with these magnificent creatures in the wild, especially when there is nothing between you and them.
Five minutes into my first boat ride on the Cubango River, the guide spotted a sitatunga grazing in the tall grass on the river bank. Gasps and clicks of cameras accompanied guides and guests alike pointing toward the mystical beast. The sitatunga is a swamp-dwelling antelope that is so elusive that even the most seasoned safari-goers were mesmerized by the sighting. This is just one of the magical encounters that happens on boat safaris.
Motoring down the delta by riverboat, you are hugged on both sides by a thick wall of river reeds and papyrus soaring into the heavens. The rivers wind in a labyrinth of channels completely blind to you until you round the next corner. Hippos wade in the deep waters holding down their fort, staring at you with menacing eyes as they barely emerge from beneath the surface of steel black water, daring you to tread into their territory. Savvy guides avoid confrontation and steer you down channels where you see thirsty elephants taking impressive gulps of water from their trunks to drink and to bathe, cooling themselves from the unforgiving heat.
The migration of catfish on the river banks sounds like boiling water, while salivating crocodiles lurk and hundreds of white herons and egrets flutter in circles all around you like leaves blowing in the wind and swoop suddenly to fill their bellies with fish. A pair of African fish eagles watch the commotion intently from the top of a jackalberry tree just off into the distance. Safari by boat places you right in the heart of the action. Floating through their life source, it’s the perfect place for animals to come to you.
Seeing the delta on a helicopter tour was easily one of the most riveting things that I have ever done. You have the option of experiencing these tours with or without the helicopter door. No door adds a layer of drama and excitement that’s both terrifying and exhilarating. The pilot guides fly the helicopter low enough so that you can admire the terrain as the fresh delta air encapsulates you. Like planes, you can see the dispersion of animals and appreciate the sheer volume of wildlife in the context of the land. But unlike planes, the pilot explains the history of the delta, and the ecology of the flora and fauna. It was an excellent way to learn about and have a conversation on the spectacular sights in front of and underneath you.
The best part of a helicopter experience though is that the pilot is willing to hone in on specific animals if you want a closer look. We saw a group of elephants on an island grazing away on cicama fig and palm trees. The pilot subsequently swooped the helicopter down and encircled the herd, who were unbothered, so that we were able to observe incredible angles of these creatures. If you are a wildlife photography enthusiast, this experience is an absolute must. Elephants from the ground are so majestic. From the air, the land in which they roam humbles you as they make even these gentle giants seem small.
This traditional mode of transportation is by far the most special way to experience the Okavango Delta. It’s breathtaking in its understatedness. The long, sleek canoes carved from the trunks of sausage trees are how villagers navigate the waters. Polers at the rear of the mokoro push the boat along in waters only a few meters deep at its greatest depths. The mokoro glides at a comfortable eight kilometers per hour with ease over the glassy surface with only the dipping of the poles and the scraping of sage grass on the sides of the boat breaking the magnificent silence.
White and yellow lilies, and lily pads adorn the waters while graceful African skimmers, Egyptian geese, and spur-winged geese with their sharp talons dance and fly along the shores and overhead. The African jacana miraculously walks on water, grazing as you slowly roll by them. You are so low sitting in the mokoro that you have to look up to elephants, zebras, and giraffes from even lower than you’re used to when you see them on the river banks. Occasionally, you hear elephants trumpet and blacksmith lapwings clink in the background.
The mokoro channels are frequented by hippos and if you are lucky and brave enough, you may even share the channel with one or more. Expert guides tread carefully and quietly to the point that you can sometimes hear the racing of your own heart from the excitement. The mokoro experience is one that welcomes you to appreciate the culture of the people from the region. It’s a thrill to immerse yourself in the water ecosystem and witness its abundant life. But, at the same time, it’s contemplative, meditative, and almost therapeutic. You will never feel more relaxed and more at peace with nature and, to some extent, yourself. It’s an absolute must do in Botswana.
Inspired to travel to Botswana? Speak to our experts and we’ll curate some of these amazing experiences for you on your tailor-made safari vacation!
This is the quintessential African safari vacation. The 15-day tour takes you across some of the continent’s best game reserves in Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia.
Bush walks, day and night game drives, boat safaris – Botswana’s stunning rivers and deltas open up a whole new world of experiences. Connect with nature in Chobe National Park, Botswana’s first ever national park, as you glide down the Chobe river spotting herds of elephants along the shore.
Journey into the wilderness and traverse a series of diverse landscapes – from swamps and marshes to grasslands, deserts and rivers – as you delve deeper into Botswana. Tread off the beaten track and discover the untouched beauty of Savuti and Linyanti.