It’s a very different Africa. Not one of dust and sand and great fiery sunsets, but of the wettest desert on Earth.
In the middle of dry land a great river spills out onto to the sands of the Kalahari Desert in the northern corner of Botswana to create an extraordinary watery jungle. Like an immense oasis surrounded by desert, the Okavango Delta is filled with mysterious waters, lush vegetation and entrancing wildlife.
The Okavango, “The river that never reaches the sea,” flows south from the uplands of Angola winding it’s way into Botswana, and then spreads out over the parched plain irrigating 6,000 square miles to create the largest inland delta on Earth. The area that was once part of Lake Makgadikgadi, an ancient lake that dried up some 10,000 years ago, has once again been transformed into a labyrinth of channels, lagoons, swamps, and wooded islands that sustain a remarkable concentration of life.
Seasonal flooding of the delta during May and June -winter in the southern hemisphere – brings fresh water and a renewal of life to this vast swamp. Islands can disappear completely during the peak flood, and then reappear at the end of the season. These countless islands give birth to several diverse ecosystems, which are home to vast numbers of birds and animals, while the crystal clear waters are filled with a veritable zoo of life.
A consistent source of water and food, amid the arid landscape, the delta draws large numbers of migratory elephants to the area. Lumbering their great masses into the cool water, the elephants swim gracefully weightless among the forests of lily pads. This impenetrable aquatic forest of pinks and greens also hides schools of tiny silver fish.
But the tranquility of the green waters belies an exciting and dangerous side of this idyllic place. Great Nile crocodiles take a refreshing dip from a day spent basking on the riverbank and glide across the surface to settle unnoticed among the vegetation. Meanwhile a group of visitors enjoys a tranquil ride in mokoros (traditional dugout canoes) with a guide watching intently for signs of hippos swimming unseen, whose danger lies in their unpredictable nature and lack of fear of humans.
By day, a cruise along the maze of narrow papyrus-lined waterways of the Okavango Delta offers the chance to enjoy a prosperity of wildlife including lions, hyenas and buffalo, an array of different antelope and other smaller animals – warthog, mongoose, spotted genets, monkeys, bush babies and tree squirrels.
But nighttime on the delta is a full sensory experience. An incomprehensible number of stars and constellations will make you wish you knew more about astronomy, while you are serenaded by the sound of Hippos and Bell Frogs that mingle with the cacophony of other bleats, burps and hoots; some seemingly threatening, some just unusual and unrecognizable, and some delightfully soothing.