Into the Okavango Delta: a portrait of Africa’s wildest conservation destination

Recent droughts in Botswana's 100-mile-wide alluvial fan have brought together conservationists, local people and new safari concessions in fresh efforts to help protect its life giving headwaters

By Emma Gregg
Published 10 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
Aerial view of the waterways and islands of the Okavango Delta, with grazing elephants.
Helicopter Horizons participated in the 2016 Great Elephant Census, which estimated Botswana’s elephants to number a weighty 130,000 — by far the largest population of any country on the continent.
Photograph by Emma Gregg

“Elephants to our left,” exclaims our pilot, as we soar over the glassy channels of the eastern Okavango Delta in the golden embers of the day. “Unless it’s a herd we know, we give them plenty of space — we don’t want to spook them. Mind you, they’re mostly really relaxed. You can practically land on their backs.”

Leaning out of Michael’s tiny, doorless helicopter, we scrutinise the Delta like conservationists: headsets on, eyes sweeping the intricate landscape. Helicopter Horizons, the outfit Michael works for, participated in the 2016 Great Elephant Census, which estimated Botswana’s elephants to number a weighty 130,000 — by far the largest population of any country on the continent. While poaching isn’t unknown here, the herds aren’t shrinking. Many of the elephants are refugees, fleeing danger elsewhere; between 2014 and 2019, Botswana was the only southern African country where elephant hunting was illegal. But in recent years, they’ve been eating trees at a prodigious rate and roaming uncomfortably close to rural settlements, putting both biodiversity and people at risk. Some say their numbers are out of control.

“Giraffes don’t seem bothered by us, either,” Michael continues. “They either ignore us or stare up, unfazed.” With that, an abstract shape in the lichen-like patterns of water, sand and sedge far beneath the cockpit resolves into the unmistakable outline of the world’s tallest animal, walking serenely through the bush. 

“When there’s nothing around, we can go lower,” says Michael a few moments later, swooping so close to the papyrus stalks that the helicopter’s landing skids are almost brushing them. “It’s nice to see so much water on this side of the Delta,” he adds. “In the south, it’s a different story.”

The Okavango Delta is a miracle of nature. After all, most deltas lead to the sea. A quirk of topography and geology means that the vast volumes of rain that drench the Angolan highlands between January and March each year never reach the ocean. Instead, they flow south via the Cubango, Cuito and Okavango Rivers, reaching Botswana around April, just as southern Africa’s rainy season is drawing to a close. Over the following five or six months, these waters are reduced by the African sun, dispersed and dammed by faultlines and swallowed by the thirsty sands of the Kalahari Desert. Before they disappear, they slowly fan across the shallow gradient of Ngamiland, Botswana’s northwestern district, creating an inland wetland that brings life at the driest time of the year. While the Delta is easily one of Africa’s most exciting destinations for year-round wildlife-watching, the natural drama of the dry season, when vast congregations of birds and animals mill around the heaven-sent floodwater channels and lagoons, makes it the best time to be here. In 2014, UNESCO declared this remarkable place a World Heritage site.

In favourable years, the Okavango’s 100-mile-wide alluvial fan shimmers with water throughout the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months, but in times of drought, some areas receive no floodwater at all. From their aerial perspective, pilots like Michael — who operates out of the tourist town of Maun — can gauge which parts of the Delta will stay parched. In 2019, much of its southern area struggled with drought. Hippos crowded into smaller and smaller pools and elephants ground grasslands to dust on their daily commute to the remaining rivers.

But it’s a remoteness that pays dividends. In a spindly shrub just minutes from camp, almost within touching distance of our open-sided safari vehicle, is an extraordinary bird, its camouflage immaculate. In seconds, it flits away, far too fast for our cameras.

“Excellent spot!” says Cruise.

It’s a pearl-spotted owlet, a diurnal hunter, with dappled plumage and yellow eyes, glossy as buttons. In African tribal folklore, owls can be bad news. You don’t want one landing on your house. But I reckon finding an owlet in the bush — a bird as cute as a kitten — means we’ve luck on our side.

Birding around Sable Alley turns out to be a doddle. Banish all thoughts of a dreary day out in an English reserve, with nothing but ducks and LBJs (little brown jobs). With Cruise at the wheel, every thicket and waterway reveals something new, whether it’s a comical-looking hornbill, a dapper little hoopoe or a grand, imperious fish eagle. Best of all are the bee-eaters and rollers — radiant characters that, to paraphrase Botswana-loving British-Zimbabwean author Alexander McCall Smith, look as if they’ve flown through a rainbow and been stained by its colours. The real reason for their resplendent plumage turns out to be just as delightful. “They’ve evolved to imitate flowers,” says Cruise. “It’s to help them catch insects.” 

Entranced as I am by the birds, the bigger beasts regularly upstage them. Everywhere we look, there’s evidence of their activity, from hippo highways (neatly trampled paths, which in time, Cruise tells us, will become water channels) and termite mounds (future islands) to loaves of dry elephant dung (an Okavango Bushman’s must-have as hot charcoal can be carried all day in a bag insulated with it).

There are frequent stops to gaze at red lechwe (an antelope species) bounding through the shallows, or to watch other antelopes, warthogs and elephants. Twice, frantic bush squirrels alert us to the silent presence of a leopard. Slouchy hyenas and boisterous packs of wild dogs also make several appearances. Sometimes, the encounters come thick and fast. 

A herd of impalas in Khwai Private Reserve.
Photograph by Emma Gregg

Day of the Jackal 

Our second camp, The Jackal & Hide, is a comfortable, down-to-earth pad set in sage-scented grasslands. Aimed at photography enthusiasts, it offers tuition and guidance. Most of its guests, like me, arrive with specialist lenses, some of them hired for the trip. Others simply borrow from the camp’s own stocks of kit.

Beautiful, high-key black-and-white prints adorn the walls. In one, a hippo bursts out of the shallows; in another, five lions lap from the same pool. “Want to know how it’s done?” asks manager Barbara Redolfi. A trio of Italian guests put down their coffee cups and gather round as Barbara flips though examples on her phone. “You can fudge high-key effects in Photoshop, but who’s got time for that? Better to get it right in the first place. A dark, evenly lit subject against something brighter, like a dull sky, works best. Overexpose the background, and voila!” We resolve never to grumble about grey weather again. In the bush, every scenario is an opportunity.

At The Jackal and Hide, there’s no need for an alarm clock. An early-rising red-billed spurfowl does the trick, shaking me out of bed with a call like a pebble rattling in a can.

Over breakfast, a fellow guest tells me he woke in the night, heart pumping, startled out of his wits. “I heard something indescribable, just outside the tent,” he says. “No idea what it was, but it was very, very close.”

“Probably just our friendly local hippo,” says Barbara. “One of the joys of an unfenced camp.” I’m feeling closer to the wild all the time. 

“At The Jackal and Hide, there’s no need for an alarm clock. An early-rising red-billed spurfowl does the trick, shaking me out of bed with a call like a pebble rattling in a can”

South African conservation biologist Steve Boyes has been concerned about drought in the Delta for some time. Since 2015, he has been leading the world’s first scientific exploration of the entire Cubango-Cuito-Okavango river system, from its source to its sandy demise. His expedition team includes Bayei boatmen — skilled at navigating the Delta in punt-like canoes called mokoros — who’d previously never left Ngamiland, let alone travelled to remotest Angola.

Together, they’ve discovered that slash-and-burn deforestation by bushmeat hunters and charcoal producers is causing erosion along the Cubango’s upper reaches and blocking the flow. The team has helped motivate Botswana, Angola, Namibia and Zambia to give the headwaters more protection through an initiative that includes a reforestation programme. It’s good news for elephants, which could soon be migrating safely between the Delta and Angola once more.

Weavers & warblers

Our first impressions of the drought’s extent come as we gaze down from the little Cessna plane that carries us north east from Maun, brushing the tips of the Delta’s fingers. The dusty, mopane-flecked landscape below us seems worlds apart from the glittering wetlands we’ve flown more than 6,000 miles to see. Only the elephant paths, crisscrossing like neural networks, hint that we’re close.

Our destination, Khwai Private Reserve, on the Delta’s eastern edge, is one of the fortunate spots — thanks to the Khwai River, it’s less affected by drought than the areas further south and west. The first camp I visit in the reserve, Sable Alley, has water hole views both from the main dining area and from our lavish suite: an apartment-sized room constructed of timber and canvas. Fittingly, for a safari operation cofounded by African eco guru Colin Bell, it’s solar-powered and plastic cups have been banished. Best of all, the bed is a giant four-poster and there are two showers: one on a shade-mottled deck.

But our plan is to focus on birdwatching. I wouldn’t call myself a twitcher, but I know my weavers from my warblers and, given the choice between racing through the bush for a fleeting glimpse of the Big Five or pausing beside a lagoon to watch a host of kingfishers, herons, storks and geese, diving and preening, I’d happily take the latter. Compared to general purpose animal-watching, birding demands patience, commitment and particular observational skills.

Our safari guide, Ipeleng, known to his friends as Cruise, seems to feel the same. “I love guiding birders,” he says, as we pause in a mopane grove. “It’s relaxing. Because there’s so much fresh water around the Khwai River, there’s always a lot to see. You never have to travel far. Unless, of course, people want to tick off every single species in the reserve. That can be a challenge.” Wedged between two famous wildlife areas, Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, and gilded by spillways, marshes and lagoons, Khwai Private Reserve has 421 of the 482 bird species found in the Delta. A few, such as slaty egrets, which breed near Sable Alley, are Okavango icons, rarely seen anywhere else.

While I’m not planning to make this trip all about birds, I am looking forward to the change of pace — to connect to nature and see what encounters unfold. I’ve chosen a single reserve with camps relatively close together in order to keep my ground miles low. I’ve already invested quite a chunk of my annual carbon budget in getting here, so — with the exception of our treat of a helicopter tour — I don’t want to dash from place to place. While some safari companies are experimenting with electric vehicles, they haven’t made it to Khwai quite yet. It’s simply too remote.

During the season for harvesting turpentine grass for thatching, Khwai villagers — with logistical support from Natural Selection — cut the grass and sell each bundle at a fair trade price.
Photograph by Emma Gregg

Most visitors to the Okavango Delta fly straight to Moremi Game Reserve, at its centre, and cocoon themselves in luxurious hideaways far from any settlement. In the past, many conservationists had a similarly narrow focus, studying the Delta’s flora and fauna but showing little interest in its indigenous peoples. As a community-owned reserve, Khwai encourages a different perspective. 

“Put one of these in your pocket — they’re lucky!” says safari guide Daniel, who hails from Khwai Village and has offered to show us around. Plucking some black-and-red beans from a vine, he hands us one each. “Careful, though — they’re poisonous.” It’s not the first apparent paradox we’ll encounter today.

Most of the community that owns Khwai Private Reserve — known locally as NG18 — are, like Daniel, Bugakhwe (River Bushmen), an ethnic group that once hunted and gathered in the heart of the Delta. In 1963, when Moremi was declared a reserve and traditional practices were banned on its lands, the Bugakhwe people living here effectively became conservation refugees. Settling in Khwai Village, they acquired NG18 as compensation and ran it as a hunting area, only switching to eco-tourism in 2009. With Botswana’s status as a high-end, crowd-free safari destination rising steadily, this offered better prospects. By 2010, the proportion of Delta families with at least one full-time, year-round wage from eco-tourism was unusually high for rural Africa — one study put it at 97%.

A decade on from its final hunting season, Khwai has matured. Its trackers have found work as rangers and its wildlife seems recovered from the trauma of pursuit by armed hunters: rather than vanishing at the sight of a vehicle, they allow tourists to approach, pause and watch. Natural Selection, the company that runs Sable Alley, The Jackal and Hide and Khwai’s newest camp, Tuludi, leases land from the community’s Development Trust for an annual fee and donates 1.5% of its turnover to local conservation and community development, making this a place that benefits animals and people in roughly
equal measure.

We meet some of the villagers at their annual camp in the reserve. It’s the season for harvesting turpentine grass for thatching: with logistical support from Natural Selection, the cutters sell each bundle at a fair trade price. When we ask if they’re afraid of lions and leopards, they smile. “We have tents now,” says the eldest.

Elsewhere, Khwai has a hidden asset in Phetso, a diamond of a village teacher. Her single-room Khwai Pre-School, opened in February 2019, is one of the brightest, happiest learning spaces I’ve ever seen. Tourism funds help keep it afloat. “Soon, Khwai Village will have a primary school, too, thanks to the donations we’ve received,”
she says, eyes shining.

“Before, mothers had to move away to Maun to get their kids an education”, says Daniel. “Families had to split up. These new schools are making a massive difference.” 

Our last camp, Tuludi, takes its name from the Setswana word for the dappled pattern of a leopard’s coat. Luxurious and contemporary, it’s set in prime leopard country. The resident cats, though secretive, make their presence felt. After a night shattered by the screeches of jackals, I wake to find leopard tracks close to my room.

Setting out with our guide Kagisano (KG), we shadow the rangers whose task it is to keep tabs on the cats, gradually habituating them to human observers. They follow their tracks in a four-wheel-drive vehicle for a while, then bundle out and continue on foot. “That’s the traditional way for Delta people to track a leopard,” says KG. “You can learn a lot from looking closely at each print. Not just the animal’s direction, and whether it’s male or female, young or mature, but also its speed and manner of movement. A skilled tracker can tell whether it’s hunting, for example.”

This time, the leopard eludes us. But KG conjures up other wildlife as if on command, from a muscular pair of lions feeding on a hippo that recently perished in a fight, to a silent-footed herd of elephants and a family of ground hornbills, striding purposefully, like ceremonial guards on patrol.

Come nightfall, stars whitewash the sky and scops owls hoot from the trees. Glowing from our adventures, we settle by the fire to swap stories, and clinking G&Ts, we raise a toast: to the good sense and good fortune that brought us to this spellbinding, life-affirming place.  

Young leopard on a termite mound in Khwai Private Reserve.
Photograph by Emma Gregg

Getting there & around

South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Maun via Johannesburg.

Average flight time: 17h 25m.

While it’s possible to drive from Maun to Khwai Private Reserve in around 2.5 hours, a light aircraft flight, taking under 30 minutes, is the norm, followed by a short drive. Helicopter transfers are available on request.

When to go

The Okavango Delta is a year-round safari destination. May-October is best for wildlife-watching, when the climate is dry, the channels are in flood and daytime temperatures average 18-25C. 

More info

Natural Selection runs five safari camps in Khwai Private Reserve.

Helicopter Horizons offers private scenic flights in the Okavango Delta from $275 (£212) per person for 30 minutes.

Lenses For Hire rents a wide range of cameras and lenses suitable for safari photography.

How to do it

Audley Travel offers a nine-night, tailor-made trip in Botswana with seven nights on safari at Natural Selection’s Sable Alley, The Jackal & Hide and Tuludi, full board, from £7,496 per person (based on two sharing). Includes activities, international flights and light aircraft flights to Khwai Private Reserve.

In 2020, Natural Selection is offering a 12-night Source to Sands conservation itinerary, including time with Steve Boyes’ team of National Geographic explorers. The route follows the Cubango and Okavango from the Angolan highlands to Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, via Nkasa Island in Namibia. From $20,500 (£16,000) per person, excluding international flights.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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