The thrill of watching Africa’s epic wildlife on Botswana safaris is made all the more special by experiencing the wondrous environments that nurture it. Explore the enchanting Okavango Delta, the rich habitats of the Chobe River valley and the blistering sands of the Kalahari Desert – what you find will astound you.
Okavango Delta: reed-lined channels and isolated islands
Much like a lung expanding and contracting with every breath, the Okavango Delta swells and shrinks (by an incredible 7000 sq km) with the comings and goings of floodwaters from the distant Angolan highlands. And these waters, like the oxygen we breathe, enable life to exist on a grand scale here.
Depending on the time of year you travel, there are a variety of safari activities to take advantage of the inner delta’s changing habitat. When the water is at its peak, covering some 20,000 sq km between June and August, the delta is flooded with wildlife – some 200,000 animals arrive to drink its sweet waters and to feed on the erupting flora (or to eat the animals doing so).
The aquatic environment and permanent blue skies allow you to enjoy the most quintessential Okavango experience – being poled through the myriad reed-lined channels in a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe). Without a sound other than the symphony played by nature, and with your eyes almost at water level, you’re truly immersed in the environment. We spotted the world’s smallest frog grasping to a single reed, and gazed up to a blue sky flecked with the pink of soaring flamingos. High water also enables the use of modern watercraft, so you can venture further into the delta to reach exciting Big Five sightings in a powerboat.
There are a few permanent islands within the Okavango such Chief’s Island, which are rich in wildlife year-round, though concentrations reach epic proportions when surrounding waters are at their highest. Safari activities are more traditional here, with wildlife drives in open-topped 4WD vehicles. Lions and leopards are longtime residents on Chief’s Island, and (as we found out) a pack of wild dogs has recently arrived. And thanks to the much-hyped Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project, both black and white rhinos are now here too. The project has recently moved over 100 rhinos from parks and reserves in South Africa to the delta in an effort to protect them from poachers – it’s thought that the remoteness of the delta and lack of roads is the best deterrent. We had the pleasure of encountering one of the newbies (a rather large white rhino) on an early morning wildlife drive from Mombo Camp.
When the water is lowest (November to April) it’s actually the time when the rains fall in the Okavango. At this time of year the delta’s resident wildlife drops its young and a plethora of migratory birds arrive, making it a unique spectacle.
Chobe National Park: river, marshes, lagoons and floodplains
Like the Okavango, Chobe is one of Africa’s greatest wildlife destinations. Larger than some countries and covering almost 11,000 sq km, the park is made up of three distinct environments – all of which support fantastic populations of wildlife.
The aptly named Chobe Riverfront in the park’s northeast, which spreads out on the floodplains of the Chobe River, is renowned for its elephants. Not only are the individuals some of the largest on the continent, but at the tail end of the dry season (September/October) the herds can number into the tens of thousands, making them arguably Africa’s largest. Safari activities operate year-round and include boat trips on the river itself, as well as 4WD wildlife drives along its banks and floodplains. Whether on land or water, these options allow you close up views of elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, wildebeest, antelopes and possibly lions, leopards and cheetahs. Nothing beats the boats for hippo and crocodile encounters. The birdlife along the river is impressively varied and omnipresent.
Depending on the whether the Savuti Channel is flowing or not (it was dry for decades until 2008), the Savuti region in the park’s southwestern corner can range from marshland to open savannah. Large rock monoliths, protruding from the otherwise flat landscape, are the preferred stomping grounds of big cats. Leopard Rock, with its caves and dense bush, make it the perfect playground for its namesake. There are several luxury lodges within this area, but self-drivers in 4WD can take advantage of the excellent camp site.
In Chobe’s northwest, where the Linyanti River spreads across the floodplains, the Linyanti Marshes provide another unique habitat to track wildlife. A small section of this falls within the national park, with the remainder split between three massive private reserves: Linyanti (1250 sq km), Selinda (1300 sq km) and Kwando (2300 sq km). The sense of exclusivity in the reserves rivals that of the inner delta, with steep prices to match. That said, night drives and other safari activities unavailable within the national park are possible here. Several of the lodges, such as Duma Tau, King’s Pool Camp and Lagoon Camp, sit fantastically on the edge of lagoons and offer wildlife viewing from camp. Boat trips are possible from some camps, and we had the joy of witnessing numerous elephants swimming across the Zibadiaanja Lagoon.
Kalahari Desert: salt pans, scrubland and dunes
The Kalahari offers a brutally honest taste of what Chobe and the Okavango Delta would resemble if Mother Nature turned off the taps. As you fly south from Chobe and the Okavango, you can’t help but notice that the transition from the verdant playground to bleak desert is anything but gradual – it’s line in the sand. Step over this tectonic boundary and you’re in what the Tswana people call the Kgalagadi, which translates to the ‘Land of Thirst’.
Remarkably, life does exist in this inhospitable terrain, and safaris here turn up some memorable encounters. We skirted along the edge of the Ntwetwe Pan (one of many salt pans around Makgadikgadi Pans National Park) on quad bikes, passing herds of zebra and wildebeest (and the odd ostrich), before spotting some rare brown hyenas on a sunset 4WD wildlife drive. Meerkats make their home on the edges of these pans, as we observed, but also in the scrublands of the 52,000-sq-km Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and around the red dunes of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana’s far south. Black-maned Kalahari lions also famously patrol the latter two protected areas.
The Makgadikgadi Pans area and CKGR are best visited in the dry season (May to October) due to driving conditions deteriorating when the rains fall – dry season coincides with the best time to view wildlife. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is possible to visit all year, but December to May is the most pleasant time.
Safari activities within the Kalahari’s parks are limited to wildlife drives, either organised by your safari operator or lodge, or if you’re travelling with a well-equipped 4WD self-driving is possible.
Matt Phillips travelled to Botswana with thanks to Botswana Tourism (botswanatourism.co.bw). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.