In February 2013, officials announced the sites of outstanding beauty which had been recognised collectively as the Seven Wonders of Africa. They were Mount Kilimanjaro, the Nile, the Red Sea Reef, Serengeti Migration, the Ngorongoro Crater and the Sahara Dessert.
The seventh, situated in at the northern tip of land-locked Botswana, is an astonishing natural wilderness known as the Okavango Delta.
What is the Delta?
Set within the savage Kalahari Dessert, the 10,000 square mile delta is Africa’s largest oasis; caused seasonally when the Okavango River floods into a drainage basin which prohibits onward flow. The Okavango, unable to reach the ocean, subsequently divides into channels that eventually evaporate or soak into the Kalahari’s soil. The delta, with its veined rivulets, consequently looks incredible from the air.
Also known as Okavango Swamp, it is a partly-forested wetland which provides food, drink and shelter to many animals and birds. Safaris and conservation activities – both very popular with holiday-makers – emphasise the importance of the delta’s ecosystem to the vast array of wildlife. Conversely, ecologists argue that increasing numbers of animals grazing in the area are causing the delta to dry up. Whether accurate or not, it might be advisable to visit sooner rather than later.
What to do and see
The biggest draw to the area is the chance of seeing the ‘Big 5’ animals. These are African elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhino, so-called as game hunters historically found them the hardest to catch. They are not the only animals to be seen at the delta, hippos, giraffes, hyenas, crocodiles and cheetahs abound, not to mention many varieties of wild birds.
As such, visiting any of the big parks is a must. The Moremi Game Reserve is probably the best-known, assuming around a third of the delta, including the arresting Chief’s Island. Then there’s Chobe National Park or the floodplains of the Linyanti Reserve.
The quest for wildlife doesn’t need to be restricted to traditional open vehicle tours or on foot; you might like to opt for a more immersive mokoro canoe trip which will take you right into the delta’s meandering channels. The mokoro is powered by a local gondolier, who will take you on a journey through the reeds and water lilies that are home to kingfishers, dragonflies and frogs.
Alternatively, a relaxing hot air balloon flight will enable you to see the wonder from a bird’s viewpoint.
Some 40 kilometres away is yet more beauty: the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tsodilo Hills. It was awarded the designation due to the thousands of rock paintings that appear across its four giant hills. Some are thought to have been drawn 20,000 years ago.
When to go
July and August are the best months to visit as it is during these African winter months that the floods come and the delta comes alive. The days are pleasantly temperate, though the nights can be cold, so prepare for both ends of the scale.
Anything later might get a little too warm; September heralds the start of the summer where temperatures can escalate to a stickily uncomfortable 40 degrees in October.
There are dozens and dozens of camps and game lodges situated around the delta, naturally of varying quality, but hearing the animals wandering nearby at night will be exhilarating.
As development is strictly regulated, many of the permanent campsites are expensive, however, they tend to be operated by knowledgeable safari companies and thus staffed by experts and far more comfortable than the cheaper options.
The town of Maun is situated next to the delta and is the place to which most visitors get connecting flights from Johannesburg via Air Botswana or South African Airways. It’s possible to drive, as the roads are decent, not the long, dry, dusty paths you might envisage. From Maun, it’s possible to take a short flight to the delta. The more adventurous might like to try a combination of local buses and the river boat service.
The Okavango Delta is one of those places which is unlike anything else you will ever see. With amazing sights at every bend, it won’t disappoint. Described as both ‘raw’ and ‘exciting’, a visit to this isolated, yet thriving oasis will never be forgotten.