The Okavango Delta: Trip of a lifetime
In the latest of our series on ultimate journeys, Brian Jackman explores the vast wildlife-rich Okavango Delta in Botswana.
In the Okavango every camp has its own attractions. At Duba Plains it’s the chance to see buffaloes en masse and the lions that prey on them. But what I remember most was a battle royal between lions and hyenas for possession of a dead hippo. In the end the lions won, by which time their faces were smothered with mud and blood and the sun had set, so that when they lifted their heads to stare at me their pale eyes burnt through masks of black and red. Such are the daily dramas awaiting all who visit the wild and watery theatre-in-the-round that is Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
What an extraordinary river this is. Born in the mountains of Angola, it flows deep into northern Botswana, 1,000 miles away. There its waters falter. In vain they fan out through the palm groves and papyrus swamps, trying to reach the Indian Ocean, only to sink into the Kalahari sands. But before it dies, the Okavango creates Africa’s biggest oasis.
Only when you fly in from Maun, the gateway town at the edge of the delta, does its sheer size become apparent. Below your wingtips lie 10,000 square miles of reed beds, water lilies and floodplains stippled with palm-tree islands: a wildlife stronghold without equal, blessed with superlative camps and professional guides at the top of their game – all this in a politically stable country that is working hard to conserve one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
When to travel
The best time to visit the Delta is when the floods come. Fuelled by the rains that fall in the Angolan mountains, they arrive just when they are needed most – in the middle of Botswana’s dry season, in the winter months of July and August.
Don’t think of them as the sort of life-threatening floods we endured in Britain last year. The Okavango floodwaters are far more benign because the land is so flat. Filtered through the papyrus swamps, they emerge crystal-clear, creeping down old hippo trails, replenishing the lagoons and lapping around the grassy floodplains. The floods not only benefit the wildlife (elephants and hippos, big cats, buffaloes and all the other herbivores), but also make this the best time to explore the Okavango by mokoro – the traditional Delta dugout canoe.
Poled along by an African gondolier, the mokoro is a unique and not-to-be-missed experience. Just sit back and go with the flow, soundlessly gliding among the reed beds and water lilies of a pristine wilderness teeming with frogs, dragonflies, bee-eaters and kingfishers.
"The Okavango is a wildlife stronghold without equal, blessed with superlative camps and professional guides at the top of their game" Photo: GETTY
If you’re an angler you may have heard of the barbel run. It’s one of nature’s great events and it happens every year from August to October, when shoals of barbel pour down the river with voracious tiger fish, making the Okavango a world-class sport-fishing hotspot.
Although the winter nights are cold, the days are sunny and mostly cloudless, and from September onwards become increasingly warm as October approaches, with temperatures of more than 104F (40C) in the shade heralding the onset of Botswana’s “green season”. The rains that fall now tend to do so as sporadic late-afternoon storms with fine spells of sunshine in between, making the Delta a year-round destination.
Where to go
A map of the Okavango shows the delta like a splayed hand with its fingers reaching down towards Maun and the Kalahari beyond. The wrist – the narrow stretch between Shakawe and the delta proper – is the area known as the Panhandle. It is best explored as Prince Harry has done, on board the Kubu Queen, a double-decker houseboat (kubuqueen.com), or from Nxamaseri Island Lodge (nxamaseri.com). Both offer great fishing and birding.
One third of the delta lies within the Moremi Game Reserve, including Chief’s Island – nearly 400 square miles of dry Kalahari sand and cathedral-like mopane woodland in the midst of the surrounding wetlands. See it in luxury from Mombo (wilderness-safaris.com), the high-end predator capital of the world; or less expensively at Khwai Tented Camp (kerdowneybotswana.com), among the forests and floodplains of the idyllic Khwai River.
The rest of the delta is sub-divided into a mosaic of unfenced private wildlife concessions, each with its five-star camps and lodges offering exclusive safari time in unspoilt big-game country renowned for elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and wild dog.
Among the top reserves for mokoro trips and other water-based activities are Jao and Eagle Island. My favourite areas for conventional game driving are Duba Plains, Vumbura and Chitabe, while Kwara offers a good combination of both. Okavango Tours and Safaris (020 8347 4030, okavango.com) is among tour operators offering a wide choice of camps and lodges here.
To the north of the delta, between the Namibian border and Chobe National Park, stretch the vast swamps, forests and floodplains of the Linyanti Reserve . The game viewing here is as good as anywhere and so are the lodges, notably Duma Tau (wilderness-safaris.com) and the super-deluxe but eco-friendly Zarafa Camp (greatplainsconservation.com), overlooking the dreamy Zibandianja Lagoon. The same goes for Savuti, a miniature Serengeti surrounded by Chobe’s fathomless mopane woodlands.
As its name suggests, Savute Elephant Camp (savuteelephantcamp.com) promises elephants unlimited beside the Savuti Channel.
Way to go
Strip away the safari-lodge glitz for the real luxuries of life on a mobile camping safari: a closer-to-nature tent and the freedom to plan every day with your own 4WD vehicle, camp crew and guide. Audley Travel (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com) can organise such a trip.
Alternatively, wading on elephant-back through the delta wetlands has to be the ultimate African adventure. Join the resident herd at Abu Camp. It’s expensive but worth every penny (Ultimate Travel, 020 7386 4646; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).
Or you could saddle up for the thrill of splashing across the floodplains among elephants, antelopes and zebra herds at Macatoo Camp in the Delta’s wild west. For experienced riders only. Aardvark Safaris (01980 849 160, aardvarksafaris.co.uk).
With a checklist of more than 400 species, the Okavango is a dream destination for bird-watchers. Top of the list is the rare Pel’s fishing owl, which hides by day in waterside ebony groves and mangosteen trees. Track it down with Naturetrek (01962 733 051, naturetrek.co.uk).
Everything in the Okavango starts and finishes at Maun, the dusty little Kalahari town that is the Delta’s safari capital. To get there you must first fly from Heathrow to Johannesburg (11 hours non-stop), with either British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) or South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com). Both airlines operate overnight flights that link up with the 90‑minute morning flights to Maun operated by South African Airways and Air Botswana (airbotswana.co.bw). From Maun, most visitors fly by light aircraft into the delta (a wonderful introduction to the Okavango), where most camps have their own airstrips.
The overland alternative, as used by some mobile-camping safari operators, is a not-too-arduous five-hour drive on decent roads.
How to book
Forget about booking independently. It is easier, cheaper and more reliable by far to let Britain’s own bespoke safari tour operators do it for you. After all, it’s their job to know the logistics inside and out regarding camps and lodges, internal flights and land transfers. For reliability, choose operators belonging to the African Travel and Tourism Association (atta.travel).
On a budget
Botswana’s wildlife conservation strategy has always been based on attracting the high-rolling, low-impact end of the tourist trade – hence the accent on private reserves and top-dollar camps. But there are still bargains to be had. Exodus Travel (0845 863 9600; exodus.co.uk) offers a 16-day holiday from £3,099 (with international flights), including a three-night mokoro safari in the delta, two nights in Savuti and two nights in Moremi, as well as visits to Victoria Falls and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.
Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com) offers a 10-night safari spending three nights at Chitabe, three nights at Little Vumbura and two nights at Duba Plains from £4,731 per person sharing. This includes return economy flight with SAA between London Heathrow and Maun via Johannesburg, light aircraft transfers between camps, all meals and accommodation.
What to pack
Binoculars are a must. So is a camera. Pack warm clothes for early mornings in open game-viewing vehicles and mokoro trips, and a waterproof if you’re going in the green season. I always take walking boots with thorn-proof soles, a baseball-style bush hat, P20 last-all-day sun cream and a head torch. Don’t forget your anti-malarial pills, and for currency obtain US dollars in small denominations.
The most comprehensive travel guide is Botswana: the Bradt Safari Guide, by Chris McIntyre. In the coffee-table genre, Okavango: Africa’s Last Eden (Chronicle Books) contains Frans Lanting’s wonderful photography . The pick of the field guides is The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals by Jonathan Kingdon (Christopher Helm).
Written by Brian Jackman / telegraph.co.uk