THE OKAVANGO DELTA
“Unfortunately there is not enough water in the Okavango Delta during the rainy season for boat excursions”
“The water levels of the Okavango Delta are the highest during dry season”
Have you also read one of those before and wondered?
The Okavango Delta is a very unique part of the world. Looking at a satellite image you can easily see a few blue lines meandering from the Angolan highlands all the way to Botswana, forming a magnificent river that spreads into an alluvial fan and then simply disappears. It creates an amazing oasis in the middle of the World’s biggest stretch of sand, the Kalahari, reaching from Congo to South Africa. Magic. But the true magic is in the timing of the flood!
Rainy season in the catchment area and around the Okavango usually begins in November, with the majority of rain falling in January and February. The local rainfall only contributes to between 2 and 25% of the delta waters, the majority of water is coming down from the Angolan highlands.
If we traveled with a little drop of water from the source of one of the main contributories, the Cubango and Cuito River in Angola, the start of our journey would be quite exciting, through the Angolan highlands and then down to Botswana, but even before we’d cross over the border we’d already travel at a rather leisurely pace simply due to the lack of gradient. It takes this little drop of water average 8-9 weeks to reach Botswana and the panhandle of the Okavango Delta. From here onwards the journey slows down even more: the Northern part of the Okavango is 250km away from the Thamalakane fault line – the delta’s Southern border – but there is only a difference of 50 meters in altitude! The main waters reach Botswana in April and start to spread throughout the alluvial fan slowly filling up the channels, backflows and floodplains, with the delta being at its fullest in July/August. From August onwards the water levels start going down again due to evapotranspiration now exceeding the input by rain waters. The driest period in the delta is in October and November, when food is scarce and animals are found around the remaining water sources and rivers. Many channels have dried up, avid birders can’t get enough of all the bird life gathering around fish traps as the water keeps receding and cars can be used where just a few months ago boats were necessary to get around. Just then the first rains fall again, the shades of brown start turning into shades of green once more, impala and other antilope drop their young and the cycle starts over – the Okavango becoming a place of plenty. The water levels in the heart of the delta though will only rise significantly once the rains have long gone.
So what does this mean for us selling the destination?
This region is highly dynamic. Each year presents a varying amount of flood water in winter and a varying amount of rain falls in summer. Being nature, this provides a certain amount of unpredictability and nobody knows what will happen from one year to the next.
A well rounded Botswana Safari consists of game drives in drier areas and also water activities, be it by boat or mokoro. Mekoro are ideal to travel over floodplains in shallow water, gliding through reeds, discovering the little hidden gems of the area. Once the floodplains have fallen dry it becomes difficult to offer mokoro excursions due to safety concerns in deeper waters of permanent channels and rivers. Even if those deeper waters are actually not that deep anymore, they are considered prime real estate amongst hippos in not that great a mood as their territories are shrinking with the receding water and they are now very much up close and personal with their competitor and neighbor….
It is far easier on the nerves to observe those dynamics from a motor boat, but be aware that cruises can be a lot shorter due to a lack of either depth or river altogether! Eagle Island Camp for example, a camp that often has been sold as typical water-based delta experience, may not be able to offer mokoro during very low flood levels. The camps shift their focus. The floodplains may not be ideal for mokoro anymore, but they provide wonderful grazing for herds of buffalo as around Duba Plains; around Jao Camp the floodplains fill up with big herds of lechwe, enjoying the greenery. Other camps might not be that heavily affected and still happily take their guests on mokoro excursions and motor boat activities.
Here in Maun the flood levels of the Okavango Delta are an everyday topic and we never get tired of it. When did “the wave” come past Nxamaseri, has the water already moved towards Vumbura, when will it reach Sandibe… There is no end to it!
The delta is a truly wild place, it is alive and offers mind-blowing experiences on land and water year round. For next year: Let’s just keep the waterlevels in mind and choose the camps that offer water-based activities wisely.
With our first rain of the season last night, the residents of Maun are breathing a sigh of relief. It is a welcome reprieve from the October heat. With all the industry talk of “Green Season” and the countless specials on offer, I thought I would shed some light on the subject for those wanting to travel to Botswana at this special time of year.
The green season in Botswana (Dec—Mar) is becoming increasingly popular as many operators offer significantly reduced rates paired with clever marketing strategies. However, you need to know the difference in the product during these months and be honest with your prospective customers.
Both wet and dry spells occur throughout the season. Typically short, spectacular afternoon showers offer a welcome relief from the heat of the day and make for great photographic opportunities. However, periods of heavy rain, low cloud cover and drizzle can occur.
Large concentrations of wildlife surrounding the permanent waterways during the dry season disperse to seek new grazing and are sustained by the seasonal pans now filled with rain water. Lower concentrations of wildlife are compensated for with lower visitor numbers offering added exclusivity. With the arrival of the rain comes new life as birthing season begins for many species. Predators take advantage seeking out the vulnerable young as easy prey creating spectacular wildlife interaction. Heronries and other nesting colonies are very active at this time of year and it is the peak breeding time for many of the colorful migrant birds.
The normally arid landscape of the Kalahari is transformed into a thriving paradise teaming with herds of springbok and gemsbok attracted by the short, sweet grasses and the water filled pans. Nxai Pan becomes home to thousands of Zebra resulting in excellent predator interaction with the resident lion prides.
The scenery is refreshingly lush and vibrant as the dust is washed away and trees and flowers burst into life. The retreat of the flood means that more varied habitats are accessible to explore on game drives. Lower water levels in the delta can limit water activities dependent on seasonal flood levels. Walking is limited for safety reasons due to the cover provided by the long grass and lush vegetation.
The green season rates offer excellent value for money, providing a great opportunity to visitors that could otherwise not afford Botswana, or returning visitors that would like to see a different side.