One of the most special trips one can embark on in Botswana is to traverse the Okavango Delta by boat, from where it enters the country near Mohembo on the Namibian border, right down its length of roughly 250km to Maun. It is said that more people summit Everest every year, who knows, luckily it is a lot less tiring! Though less arduous, a trip like this still requires a lot of planning and timing. Firstly the “window” during which water levels are high enough is usually not much longer than 3 months, typically June through August. Secondly, the waterways through the Delta are constantly changing due to blockages, moving sand banks and shifting tectonic plates. There are myriad channels, loops and dead ends that could take a team days to navigate if they were not prepared with the latest possible route. What really makes this journey so special is experiencing and understanding the formation and changes in an incredibly unique Geological feature, as it slowly turns from deep waterways that support their own range of Fauna and Flora to shallow sandy channels supporting sometimes a completely different range of plants and animals. This all excluding the absolute, untouched beauty that oozes from every single kilometre of river.
How does the Okavango Delta Work?
Firstly it is important to understand how the Okavango Delta works, here it is in a nutshell:
The Delta covers an area of roughly 15000 square kilometres in the north western section of Botswana. By definition it is not a true delta but rather an alluvial fan, extremely flat with a drop in elevation of only about 30m from top to bottom over its length of about 250km. Water reaches the delta in two ways, firstly, during our summer months we receive rainfall that rejuvenates the area and tops up the water of the delta. Although very important, particularly to outlying areas, the rainfall gives nowhere near enough water to keep this oasis alive year round. Instead the majority of the water travels about 1000km from its catchment area in the central Angolan highlands and finally, towards the end of the local rainy season, arrives in the Panhandle of the Delta. From here it spends the next three months trickling and seeping its way through this World Heritage Site, providing it with lifeblood.
What Forms the Okavango Delta?
What actually forms the Okavango one may ask? Incredibly, here in the centre of Southern Africa, far from the nearest mountains or continental plates we experience a vast amount of seismic activity. The Okavango itself is essentially held between a Graben Fault, two fault lines running parallel to each other and creating a fertile plain between them into which the waters of the delta pour. The Diagram below roughly shows you where these two key fault lines lie, note the Gumare fault at the “start” of the alluvial fan, and the Thamalakane Fault at the fingertips of the fan :
I was recently privileged to embark on a Trans – Okavango myself, the primary goal of the trip was to document bird, plant and fish species, water samples, and the general condition of the ecosystem, as well as have a lot of fun of course! Without being a scientist, simply an observer that has lived here for many years it has become clear that we are facing a number of threats that are becoming more prominent. Threats that require addressing if they are not to get out of control. It is important to understand that the Okavango is one of the earth’s last intact and relatively undisturbed wetlands. Although they are able to support a huge biomass and can seem to be indestructible, wetlands are particularly sensitive to outside pressures. Some of the areas of real concern are the following:
- Large sections of the northern Delta are usually channels lined with tons of green, thriving Papyrus. We noted large sections in which the Papyrus had turned a brown colour and did not seem to be as healthy as usual. This could be the result of a parasite or a change in water composition.
- Very scarce fish populations. The vast majority of the Delta has clearly been over fished, primarily by netting. For many years netting took place purely at subsistence level, that changed a few years ago with a sudden demand for export of dried fish to Zambia and the Congo. This in tandem with prolific burning of dry floodplains by fisherman.
Invasive plant species are prominent throughout the Delta. This threat is currently being scrutinized more closely.
The above challenges are each colossal in their own right and will take dedication, commitment and government buy-in to overcome. The biggest worry that we face here in the Delta though is one that we cannot really control, the quality and quantity of water that enters Botswana. Relative stability in Angola is creating a drive for development in the country, development that will likely be in the agricultural sector and naturally along the primary rivers. The Cuito and Cubango that feed the Okavango travel 1000km through rural Angola and will certainly be called upon to provide water to development projects. We can only hope that the draw will not be too much and that foreign by products aren’t readily fed back in to the water.
All Is Not Lost
I have painted a bleak picture here, one that stems from a passion for this area and the natural beings that call it home, luckily not all is lost. Botswana has always fostered a strong viewpoint on conservation of her natural areas, the bustling tourism industry can provide the funding needed to protect these areas and there are numerous research projects ongoing that will give us the information needed to tackle the threats. What can you do? Come! Visit! Book a Safari! By travelling to Botswana you are helping to create awareness, and through various channels a portion of your holiday money will make it back in to research and conservation projects.
The 6 nights spent exploring the Okavango’s waterways were truly incredible. Our timing was immaculate and minimal boat pushing was necessary! Game viewing was sensational, huge numbers of Elephant, Lechwe and Buffalo amongst others on every floodplain. Birds galore, Hippo, Crocodile and then two great sightings of Sitatunga and a rare sighting of the elusive Cape Clawless Otter were the cherries on top. This is such a special journey and I urge anyone privileged to be alive while such a journey is possible to ensure that this gets added to the bucketlist! The floods are late this year and I find myself eyeing my boat, very tempted to rig it up and set off on another expedition!
Feeling adventurous and want to traverse the Okavango Delta by boat with Danny and his team? Email us to tailor a trip for you.
Danny was born and raised in Botswana, and the Delta, to this present day, is this young mans' vast playground. Danny is a passionate photographer and when he gets time off, this adventurer packs his bags to go on solo boating expeditions deep into the wild.