The Okavango Delta is up there on many people’s Safari Bucket List, and rightly so. This huge, untouched floodplain on the northern border of Botswana is incredibly beautiful and filled with a wide array of wildlife.
In this blog we’ll break down everything Okavango – the seasons, the safaris etc. – so that you can get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Okavango River (and some local rainfall) deposits about 11 km³ of water over the area annually, creating its beautiful waterways and lily-filled ponds and providing water for the huge concentrations of game that call the area home.
There are numerous islands in the delta, the largest being Chief’s Island at 70 km long and 15 km wide. This also forms part of the Moremi Game Reserve.
Okavango is loosely divided into the northern delta and the southern delta. While the southern parts may dry up almost completely during the dry season, the northern parts have many sections that remain wet throughout the year.
Will We See The Big Five in Okavango?
The Okavango Delta is not about the 'Big Five'. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - a must for anyone visiting Botswana - and an incredibly beautiful destination to add to your safari.
While you won't see the 'Big Five' in the Delta, it is a unique water-based experience that gets you up-close and personal with nature and the smaller things that call this watery paradise 'home'. Being a permanent wetland, aquatic animals, flora and birdlife are most typically what you will see, while the larger animals move continuously between the islands following grazing and always heading off to bigger areas of dry land.
Land-based wildlife viewing areas are best for the larger herds of antelope, elephants and carnivores and to maximise your experience, we strongly recommend combining both a water-based experience in the Okavango Delta with land-based areas. This is the ideal combination that will allow you to experience the beauty of Okavango and a chance to see the 'Big Five' at one of the land-based reserves like Chobe.
Dry Season vs. Wet Season: The Okavango Water Cycle
This is a commonly confused phenomenon. In northern Botswana, the ‘wet season’ occurs from November to around April. This is when the rains come, usually in the form of dramatic afternoon thunderstorms, precluded and followed by bright sunshine and heat.
High water season in Okavango, though, occurs when the flood waters from Angola slowly fill the delta, usually from May/June into August/September. This is the ‘dry season’, climatically, but the flood season for the delta.
Why the Discrepancy?
The water that fills the enormous floodplains travels from the Angolan highlands, where the summer rains fall from January to February. It takes this huge volume of water from February to May/June to travel the over 1 200 km along the Rio Cubango (as it’s known in Angola) and Okavango River (in Botswana), to reach the floodplains, spreading across the area over a couple of months.
Where Does the Water Go?
While a small percentage (~2%) of the water from the delta flows into Lake Ngami, the majority is consumed (transpired) by plants (~60%), and the rest evaporates (~36%) or percolates into the underground water system (~2%). This river never reaches the sea.
How Water Levels And Temperature Affect Your Trip
While the northern parts of the delta don’t usually dry up completely, those in the south do. This means that if you want to do the water-based activities (mokoro safaris etc.), they may not be possible in the low water season i.e. before the delta fills around May/June.
This is winter in Botswana and is an ideal time to visit, temperature-wise, with mild days averaging around 25°C. Pack a jacket, as evening temperatures may drop to the single figures.
If, however, you’re interested in land-based activities, obviously the dry season is the time to go. The drying of the delta usually starts in September (from the southern end) and intensifies with the – often unbearable – dry October heat, before the November rains give some respite (to the temperature, not really the water levels).
Hot! Hot! Hot!
Daytime temperatures can reach into the 40°C’s in summer (October to March/April), making travel uncomfortable for those not used to the heat. Also, due to the remoteness and wildness of camps, most don’t have air conditioners, so keep this in mind when choosing dates to travel!
While there is game and incredible birdlife all year, as the area dries up, only the deeper pools remain. The game move in to search for water, allowing for magnificent game-viewing opportunities.
To summarise Okavango’s seasons (remembering that Mother Nature is highly unpredictable!):
Summer/Spring (October to April): temperatures into the 40°C, dramatic afternoon thunderstorms. Vegetation is lush and green.
Autumn/Winter (May to September): daytime temperatures in the 20 – 30°Cs, minimal (if any) rainfall.
High Water Season: starting in May in the north, gradually filling the whole area until October, when the ‘drying out’ starts, working its way back to the northern parts.
Land-based Camps vs. Water-based Camps
There are many camps in the delta area, both on the islands that dot the floodplain, and along its edges. They can loosely be divided into land-based and water-based camps, depending on their location and, therefore, the activities offered.
Water-based camps offer – surprise! – water-based activities, and mainly require either a boat trip or fly-in to be reached. Water-based activities include gentle trips through the exquisite waterways on mokoros and walking safaris on the islands.
Land-based camps on the other hand, may offer land activities in addition to the water-based activities, such as game-viewing in 4X4s (through Moremi, for instance), which are not possible at the water-based camps.
Fear not, though, if you want to go to a water-based camp AND experience game drives – just chat to one of our ABS consultants who will find the perfect safari that includes the beauty of a water-based camp and some days ‘on land’, like nearby Chobe.
Drive In vs. Fly-In
As you can imagine, road travel in such a wetland is often not easy or even possible at all. While some camps do have road access (often only accessible by 4X4), the more remote camps may only be reached by small plane.
There are numerous charter companies that fly both visitors and supplies in and out of the area, and plenty of landing strips. An added bonus of a fly-in safari is that you get to see the delta from the air, which is pretty spectacular!
Remember though, these are light aircraft, so strict luggage restrictions are in place. Pack lightly!
The traditional means of transport around the delta is by hollowed-out boats made from the local trees – sausage trees, jackalberries and morulas – called mokoros. These canoe-like boats were designed specifically to allow passage through even the shallowest of canals and are manoeuvred by a man standing at the back of the boat with a pole.
Due to the threat of extinction of many of the trees used traditionally, many modern mokoros are made from fibre glass. Mokoro trips are offered throughout the delta and are well worth doing. With only the sound of the pole going into the water, you can fully appreciate the birdsong, hippo grunts and other truly African sounds. You can’t get closer to nature than this!
This is hippo country, if there ever was one. These rotund creatures live in large numbers in
Okavango and, therefore, may affect when and where you can be. While hippos look particularly benign, their looks are deceiving: they are particularly dangerous animals.
During the dry season(s), the water retracts northwards and the pods of hippo are forced into smaller and smaller areas. When water levels are low, it may not be possible to manoeuvre the mokoros through the narrowed waterways and avoid the hippos. Safety is of primary concern, so keep this in mind if you’re unable to do a mokoro trip.
While all these factors should be taken into consideration, and nature can be hellishly unpredictable, a safari to Okavango at any time is guaranteed to be spectacular, each season offering a different experience. This is truly wild (and hot!) Africa.