Remote and Exclusive Wilderness Safaris
Regardless of the number of safaris you have been on, exploring the wild heart of the Okavango Delta will impress you. Isolated by 15,000 square kilometers of marshlands, the only way in is by light aircraft. Accommodation is in boutique luxury lodges like Kwetsani Camp, strung above the floods on wooden walkways in the trees.
However, beyond being one of the most remote and exclusive wilderness areas in Africa, the Okavango Delta is a unique ecosystem, which makes taking a safari through it exceptional. When the Delta floods, everything, everywhere is covered in water, besides small elevated islands where wildlife congregates.
Only Land Rovers are trusted in this terrain, and all are fitted with snorkels, as the water on the roads often laps over the hood of the car. Baby crocodiles ungulate alongside the vehicle, terrapins float out of the way of the wheels, and pied kingfishers divebomb fish fleeing the wake of the car. You are constantly suspended in a space between flying, floating and driving.
We flew from Maun, over Moremi Game Reserve to the Jao Concession in the northwestern part of the Delta. It is nestled just south of where the panhandle flows into the Gumare Faultline, and fans out into countless channels all searching for a route to the sea. Its location provides a great perspective on how the Delta was formed, and what makes it so unique.
The Origins of the Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta begins where the great rift valley ends. Fault lines slowly tearing the African continent apart create a basin for great systems of rivers descending south from the highlands of Angola. North of the Delta, these fault lines corral the rivers into a giant panhandle of rushing water, which then disperse across a land so vast it can be seen from space. The flow of the channels reach the Kunyere and Thalamakane faults just north of the Kalahari Desert, which create a natural dam, trapping the water from ever reaching the sea.
The process of flooding takes so long that it contradicts the seasons. The rainy season in Angola is from November through April, but the water must travel 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from there to reach the Delta, and can take up to six months to arrive. Local rains around the panhandle start flooding the north of the Delta around the Jao Concession as early as mid-March, which are then joined by a deluge of water from Angola between May and August.
So, while the Delta does cycle through dry and wet seasons it does not do so in concert with the surrounding region. During the dry season in Botswana from April to October, the Okavango Delta is still flooded with Angolan water, acting as a critical water source for wildlife escaping the heat of the Kalahari Desert, and the desolate pans of Makgadikgadi.
Okavango Oases of Islands and Ponds
If I were to write a legend about the Okavango Delta, it would be about a love affair between the daughter of a river god and the son of the sun. The Angolan rivers held prisoner by the fault lines of the Great Rift Valley bring silt, sand and seeds, which form the foundation of life. The sun blesses them with the energy to grow, and lifts the water out of the Delta with its heat, into great electric thunderstorms, which float to freedom over the horizons. It is their harmony that creates the magic of the Delta, an annual love affair that has lasted millions of years.
I was in the Delta the year before, during a period of extreme drought. The marsh in Savuti was completely dry and elephants and lions were fighting to control the last watering hole. Sediment hung in the air, making the moon glow orange like a nocturnal sun, and the white sandy roads were soft and squeaky like baking flour. It was a harsh place to be, and an adventurous place to travel.
Herds of zebra, giraffe, kudu and impala had come to seek refuge around the last remaining pools of water in the region. Life revolved around these oases, which was closely monitored by teeth and claws, panting from shady vantage points around the pools. This time, everything was the opposite, yet just as extreme.
In the dry season the sands are feared for their ability to shackle cars, but they condense in the rain, and the dirt tracks which were a haven from the sand pits become slippery as seaweed, sliding safari cars into ditches. The water that was once a source of life, has now become the greatest hazard.
Herds now sought refuge on little islands above the water, and predators leered through the tall grass, and thick leaves at concentrations of prey huddled nervously together. In both cases the landscape seemed like a wondrous disaster zone, struggling from drought or flood. What interested me, was to learn how different animals adapted to such ecosystems, and further, how the animals themselves help craft the ecosystem in which they live.
The Cycle of Life and Land
The animals of the Okavango Delta are unusual as they have had to figure out how to live in environments that constantly have too much or too little water. While I had seen the struggle for life in the dry season, the Jao Concession’s proximity to the panhandle meant I got a closer look at the aquatic adaptations of animals there.
As water from the panhandle rises, baby crocodile are born, slipping into rivers, which distribute them throughout the region. However, they are hunted by specialists including the Pel’s Fishing Owl, which has eyes adapted to see through the water at night, and judge the refraction of the moonlight so it can accurately locate submerged prey.
The rare Black Heron hunts from above the water with its long legs. It sweeps its wings over its head like a vampire flaring its cape, forming an umbrella over the water. Fish mistake this for a shady shelter, and then are speared by its beak. Great bull elephants have trained themselves to stand on their hind legs like acrobats to reach the high branches of the marula tree. Big cats have shed their distain of water. Aquatic lions and leopards built like Olympic swimmers, paddle across channels patrolling their flooded territories and tracking prey through the swamps.
However, just as interesting as these specialized animals, is how the land has adapted to them living there. Tall groves of papyrus reeds, and bulrush clog the waterways, abating the its southern journey. However, wandering hippos, waddle trails through them, which turn back into channels, and keep the water flowing.
From the plane, you can see these trails, littering the landscape, and I would follow them with my eyes, sometimes discovering a pod of happy hippos basking in a pool, or a herd of elephants gathered on an island, harassing the dates out of a palm tree. These elephants make wallows out of little puddles, which turn into ponds, and become crocodile lairs.
The most intriguing insight was learning that many of the islands began as termite mounds. These little insects build waterproof colonies with chimney-like spouts that rise above the otherwise flat plains. They become leopard lounges, baboon look-out posts, and fish eagle perches for both the hunters and the hunted vying for a vantage point. These creatures fertilize the mound with dung, which sprouts vegetation, leaving detritus, which expands the land around the mound.
Safari in Jao Concession
Travel to the Jao Concession to see the place that sits between earth and water, as a cloud does between air and rain. A flowing land made completely soft and flat by tens of millions of years of slit and sand. A place where lavender waterlilies bloom over rivers painted sangria red with tannins, or glowing aqua blue above the white Kalahari sands. Fall asleep in the treetops of Kwetsani above a chorus of Angolan painted reed frogs, and track the aquatic lions and leopards of Hunda Island at dawn.
Notes for Nomads: I was invited to travel to the Jao Concession and stay at Kwetsani Camp by Wilderness Safaris. For those looking for an exclusive, remote safari experience, I highly recommend this treetop retreat. If you are planning an Okavango Delta safari in Botswana, it is helpful to consult the Wilderness Safaris “When to Visit” Guide.