Welcome to one of Africa’s most extraordinary places. There is something elemental about the Unesco World Heritage–listed Okavango Delta: the rising and falling of its waters; the daily drama of its wildlife encounters; its soundtrack of lion roars, saw-throated leopard barks and the crazy whoop of a running hyena; and the mysteries concealed by its papyrus reeds swaying gently in the evening breeze. Viewed from above on a flight from Maun, the Okavango is a watery paradise of islands and oxbow waterways. At ground level, the silhouettes of dead trees in the dry season give the delta a hint of the apocalypse.
The stirring counterpoint to Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, the Okavango is one of the world’s largest inland deltas. The up-to-18,000-sq-km expansion and expiration of the Okavango River means that this mother of waters sustains vast quantities of wildlife that shift with the seasons.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Okavango Delta.
The largest island in the Okavango Delta, Chief’s Island (70km long and 15km wide) is so named because it was once the sole hunting preserve of the local chief. Raised above the water level by tectonic activity, it’s here that so much of the delta’s wildlife retreats as water levels rise. As such, the island is home to what could be the richest concentration of wildlife in Botswana. It's the Okavango Delta as you always imagined it.
The grassy savannah of this 100-sq-km island, a long extension of the Moremi Tongue, contrasts sharply with the surrounding landscapes and provides some excellent dry-season wildlife watching – cheetah, lion and buffalo sightings are reasonably common. The 32km sandy Mboma Loop starts about 2km west of Third Bridge and is a pleasant side trip. Boat trips from the Mboma boat station on the island’s northwestern tip are highly recommended.
With one of Africa’s largest heronries, Xakanaxa Lediba is renowned as a birdwatchers’ paradise. In addition to herons, potential sightings here include storks, egrets and ibises. The area also supports an array of wildlife and large numbers of fish. There are myriad trails around the Xakanaxa backwaters – the Shell Map of the Moremi Game Reserve is the most detailed resource.
One of the prettiest corners of Moremi, the area known as Paradise Pools is as lovely as the name suggests. In the dry season, trails lead past forests of dead trees and among the perimeter of reed-filled swamps, while impala and other antelope species drink nervously at the receding shoreline of water holes. When we were last here, there were lion and leopard sightings in the area.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this place, not far south of Drotsky’s Cabins (the turn-off from the main Sehithwa–Shakawe road is at GPS S 18°26.363', E 21°53.114’). Partly a refuge for rescued crocodiles from the panhandle (those that have acquired a taste for livestock), it has some extraordinary specimens up to 5m long. Meanwhile, it also breeds crocodiles for the lucrative crocodile-skin market (think purses, belts etc) and there are almost 8000 captive-bred crocs on-site.
Literally the third log bridge after entering the reserve at South Gate (although First Bridge and Second Bridge were, at the time of writing, easy to bypass in the dry season along parallel tracks), this ramshackle bridge spans a reed-filled, tannin-coloured pool on the Sekiri River. The neighbouring campsite is one of our favourites in the Okavango. Don’t even think of going for a swim here – it’s a favourite haunt for crocs and hippos, and lions often use the bridge.
The drive between North Gate (including Khwai) and Xakanaxa Lediba follows one of Botswana’s more scenic tracks, although the exact route changes with the years, depending on flood levels. A worthwhile stop en route, Dombo Hippo Pool (about 14km southwest of North Gate) is where hippos crowd along the shore. Their shenanigans can be enjoyed in relative safety from an elevated observation post.
Quite a long, wooden crossing on the trail between Third Bridge and Xakanaxa.
Blink and you'll miss it. First Bridge is more useful than interesting – depending on its state of repair, an alternative track alongside may serve the same purpose.