Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta was first visited in 1849 by explorer David Livingstone who realized atonce—as do most first visitors—that it is one of the great wetlands of the world, teeming with fascinating (though not always conspicuous) wildlife.

Malachite kingfishers like tiny flying jewels flit from reed to reed, peering into waters so crystalline they can see not only their prey but also an occasional hippopotamus walking along the bottom. Crocodiles swirl and take off at alarming speeds when alerted by the approach of a mokoro, the hand-hewn dugout canoe which is the ideal transportation here. Sitatungas, rare small swamp-dwelling antelopes whose splayed hooves help them keep afooting while foraging, disappear in a sparkle of droplets into gold-green papyrus stretching as far as the eye can see under a clear deep-blue sky. When startled they may submerge almost completely leaving only their nostrils above water.

White-hooded fish eagles glance unconcernedly at quiet visitors and resume their constant search for watery prey which they swoop down and snare in razor-sharp talons.

Diminutive painted reed frogs in myriad patterns of burgundy and white cling to marsh stalks and call like tiny bells in early morning and dusk. Such is the filtering ability of the millions of papyrus and phragmites reeds that one can dip in and drink from the limpid waters in most places in perfect safety; or, pick a water lily, pluck the bloom, drink from the stem, and take back and cook the delicious plant.

Occasionally a sound like an express train roars by. It is a herd of lechwe, the other marsh dwelling antelopes, being pursued through the shallows by wild dogs or other predators.

The Okavango is like no other place in Africa and perhaps anywhere—the world’s largest inland river delta and one of its most beautiful, extending like a great open hand across an area just underhalf the size of Switzerland over most of northwestern Botswana, with, on its eastern fringe, Moremi Wildlife Reserve. It arises with the Okavango River in central Angola, flows with 24 million cubic yards (18.5 cu. m) of water annually which, on encountering this nearly flat terrain, loses its central course and spreads out into a vast tangled maze of lagoons, channels, and islands ranging in size from Chief’s Island to tiny dots of land covered with head-high reeds, in a great marsh which eventually sinks into the thirsty Kalahari desert—“the river that never reaches the sea.”

Drawn to it like a magnet are equally thirsty wildlife in some of the largest concentrations in Africa: more than 400 species of birds, including carmine bee-eaters which gather in mass congregations of many hundreds to nest in burrows in nearby fields and riverbanks, and African jacanas stepping delicately along the tops of lily pads. Magnificent Pel’s fishing owls standing over two feet (60 cm) tall take fish of more than four pounds (2 kg), spotting them by the moon’sreflection on their silvery scales or ripples as they break the surface.

Rare, shy slaty egrets are found only here. Statuesque, stunning wattled cranes, facing extinctionelsewhere as farming takes over their habitat, happily feed on flood plain organisms here, as do colorful saddle-billed storks and many others.

On higher ground dozens of species and thousands of individual herbivores graze, including elephants, zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffes, hippos, and kudus, and, finally, some of the larger carnivores such as lions and leopards which prey on them. Some 80 large and varied fish species are here, as well as 1,078 plant species in a density seven times greater than the rest of southern Africa and 50 times greater than that in Europe—all an integral part of this ecosystem.

Best times to visit are May–October dry season when the Delta’s water, which comes from far upstream, nevertheless remains abundant.


Central Kalahari Game Reserve with large wildebeest herds, also elands, gemsboks as well as predators; however, the area is still inhabited by bushmen, and visitors require special permission.


Khutse Game Reserve with many small open pans attracting a variety of mammals, including migratory antelopes and other grazers plus their predators, lions, cheetahs, and smaller species such as bat-eared fox and yellow mongoose. Paucity of surface water limits birds but interesting arid-area species are here such as kori bustards, bronze-winged coursers, and sandgrouse.

Mabuasehube Game Reserve with numerous lions and other predators and marvelous birds (but in limited numbers) typical of Kalahari region: kori bustards, pale chanting goshawks,tawny eagles. No visitor facilities, however.

Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve has two huge salt pans and associated grasslands with grazing species and predators. In infrequent good rain years the pans form shallow lakes, which attract vast numbers of flamingos, avocets, and several duck species. Viewing best January–April.

Mashatu Game Reserve is a private reserve with the largest number of elephants on private land; at least 600 may be present. Also grazers and small mammals, and 375 bird species have been recorded.

Nxai Pan National Park has large numbers of giraffes throughout the year; otherwise viewing best here in rainy November–April especially for grazers including hartebeest, elands, springboks,and Burchell’s zebras. Ostriches are common, also birds of prey and 250 other bird species.

Stevensford Private Game Reserve consists of mixed woodland, with kudus, wildebeest, waterbucks, impalas, bushbucks, red hartebeest, warthogs, and spotted hyenas.

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OKAVANGO DELTA as well as...

Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Khutse Game Reserve

Mabuasehube Game Reserve

Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve

Mashatu Game Reserve

Nxai Pan National Park

Stevensford Private Game Reserve