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Okavango Delta Safari – an Authentic African Experience

The Okavango Delta in Botswana was the 1000th site designated as UNESCO as a world heritage site. I’m inclined to think that they saved that special number just for this environment as it is one of the most spectacular spots on earth. If you are traveling to the Okavango Delta, be prepared for the best African safari of your life!

The delta is actually an alluvial fan, an inland river delta created as the Okavango River pours into the Kalahari desert in northern Botswana. It is an oasis in an otherwise dry area and thus an ideal spot for wildlife and birds. All of the Big Five – African elephant, lion, leopard, African buffalo, and both black and white rhino -can be found here. And with nearly 600 species of birds recorded, the delta is listed as an Important Bird Area.

Image by Freek Van Ootegem from Pixabay

Since the publication of this post, Botswana has lifted the ban on elephant hunting. This is a disturbing change in what had been a country strong in conservation.

We visited Botswana several years ago on a safari in Southern Africa. At that time there were very few itineraries featuring an Okavango Delta safari and we were discouraged from trying to squeeze it into our trip. But we persevered and were glad we did. Our travel advisor was correct. In order to reach the delta from Victoria Falls we traveled by jeep, pontoon boat, van, prop plane, and finally flat-bottomed delta boat. When finally we arrived, we experienced some of the most remarkable experiences of our trip. 

Now many group itineraries include Botswana and the Okavango. If you’re ready to start planning your safari read: 10 Steps to the Perfect Luxury Safari

Traveling to the Okavango Delta from Victoria Falls

The Zambezi river at Kazungula marks the border between Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. As the riverbed is constantly shifting, so are the borders. When we arrived at immigration, three of us stayed in the jeep while only one submitted all the passports. Not quite the security requirements of TSA… But our passports were stamped and returned, and we headed to the river.

Our guide couldn’t get close to the river so he parked and led us through a crowd of truckers, peddlers, and ‘helpful’ people all looking to assist us with our luggage. We were heading for the Kazungula ferry – a fancy term for a pontoon boat. Our guide waved goodbye and assured us that they’d be someone on the other side to meet us. Fortunately for us there was! But he was fast asleep in his van. After we woke him, we proceeded to the Botswana immigration office (where we were required to walk through a sanitizing foot bath) and were on to the airport at Kasane – a clean and modern facility. A short flight and we were in the delta. Heaven on earth!

We had three nights at Sanctuary Baines camp, a luxury safari camp in a private concession bordering the Moremi Game Reserve. Though we loved every camp we visited on that trip, it was Baines that stood out for the beauty of the setting and the natural wildlife. The lush green of the grasses, the waterlilies, and the flowering shrubs, were a stark contrast from the browns we’d seen in Zambia and South Africa. (We chose to travel in September which is spring in the southern hemisphere. After the rainy season, all the countries we visited would have been green, but not optimal for game viewing)

Sanctuary Baines is a small camp, consisting of only six stand alone suites connected by a raised walkway. Each suite has a large private deck where your bed can be rolled out for under-the-stars sleeping. We didn’t do this, but greatly enjoyed our ‘star bath’ after one afternoon game drive!

Golden Weaver, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Transportation in the Delta

The high water of this alluvial fan makes getting around interesting. There are no real roads in the delta. The safari vehicles you will take are designed for high water with air intake pipes mounted like snorkels high above the vehicle. The jeeps drive straight through the water. Keep your feet and gear up high!

Plan on enjoying the delta from the water – either from a camp boat or, if you’re lucky, a traditional mokoro canoe. Used at one time for fishing and transportation, these long, narrow canoes are poled through the channels. Don’t worry – you won’t be required to pole; your guide will do the work while you simply relax and enjoy this oasis!

Wildlife on an Okavango Delta Safari

We expected spectacular bird life and we got it. But the most memorable wildlife moments of our trip were with wildlife. The animals in this area are not as accustomed to humans in vehicles as animals are in other reserves. When we caught a leopard crossing our path, our guide warned us to remain completely still. She (the leopard) was not happy to find us in her territory. At first she ducked into the tall grass but curiosity brought her back out to inspect the vehicle and us. Frightening at the time, but a highlight in the retelling!

The grasses in the delta are high, which, though it adds to the beauty of the area, makes it difficult to see wildlife. We saw this gorgeous leopard, as well as giraffe, hyenas, zebra, warthog, hippos, baboon, and many, many elephants.

Our days in the delta flew by. Our dinner was interrupted one night when one of the staff noticed a very large hippo was grazing under our walkway. The following evening a bull elephant broke through the raised walkways of the camp in search for jackalberries. And with the walkways went the camp’s electricity. We were out on a game drive when this happened. The camp radioed to tell us of the elephant and the precautions we’d need to take when we returned which included climbing ladders to get to our lantern-lit rooms. All in all a great adventure! On our final evening we shared stories around the fire and enjoyed a bush barbecue. All in all a highlight of our time in Africa.

If the beauty, abundance, and adventure of the Okavango aren’t enough to convince you to visit, consider visiting to support a government which has made conservation and preservation of habitats a priority.

(Update: the current administration has changed priorities. See note in lead above)

Nearly a quarter of Botswana is preserved for wildlife. The Okavango Delta is only one of the incredible ecosystems that make Botswana a must-visit for those interested in Africa’s wildlife.

If You Go On Safari in the Okavango Delta

Botswana is a stable and safe country for travel, with friendly people and a healthy economy.

Travel to the Okavango Delta – Few overseas airlines fly directly to Botswana. Most travelers will fly to Johannesburg or Cape Town and from there onto Maun airport in Botswana. It is possible to reach the eastern end of the delta with a 4×4 jeep from Maun, but we’d recommend taking a charter flight from Maun into the delta. Combining a trip to the Okavango with a visit to Victoria Falls is a natural. There are many flights originating from Victoria Falls airport in Zimbabwe, and from Livingston airport in Zambia.

Immunizations – Be up to date on general immunizations, Hepatitis A and B, and Rabies. Malaria prophylaxis recommended. Yellow fever immunization not required for Botswana but MAY be required for re-entry into South Africa or other countries. Better safe than sorry…

Check with your country’s health department for current information:

Australia residents – Travel clinic

Canada residents – IAMAT

US residents –CDC Health Information for Botswana

Documents Required – a passport with 4 blank pages, valid at least for 6 months, a return ticket, and for children, a certified birth certificate as well as a passport.

Currency – the official currency is the Pula. Banks in Botswana will exchange South African Rands, Euros, Pounds, and US dollars. Most services accept credit cards.

Language – English and Tswansa are the official languages.

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