There is a special moment during a safari in the Okavango Delta. During the golden hour of early evening, near a waterhole, where elephants drink and splash with gurgling stomachs, and silhouettes of tall palm trees and flying birds stand out from the changing hues daylight leaving the sky. This is the moment after your safari guide has served your favorite drink, in silence, to allow everyone to soak up the wild scene. Some say this is the defining moment to be in the Okavango Delta. But it is up to each visitor to decide for themselves. This wildlife refuge is one of the most magnificent natural spectacles you can experience, but what you can’t see here is the source of all the water that feeds it. This lifeline comes from the source lakes of Moxico Province in eastern Angola, a remote area that is not protected like the Okavango Delta is. Many are now working to research and protect the entire Okavango system, which begins at the source and ends in the delta – and you can help too, just by visiting this amazing place. But, let’s start at the beginning: how do we get here?
A flight lands at Maun International Airport. Situated along the Thamalakane River, Maun is the town that serves as the gateway to the Okavango Delta. It’s actually Botswana’s busiest airport, teeming with people wearing the earth colors of safari-chic swagger, and it’s where your local host greets you with a big smile. Most visitors here never leave the airport. Instead, you’re smoothly transferred to a comfortable charter flight straight to the delta and your bush lodge, one of several luxury camps typically tucked away in the Moremi Game Reserve, an officially conserved area that many consider to be the beating heart of the Okavango Delta. While responsible tourism on the back of this conservation generates significant revenue, it does not always benefit everyone. Communities around the delta – descendants of the original San peoples and inhabitants of this land for millennia – have in particular had limited income options thanks to traditional tourism models. But luckily things have changed for the better, as the first leg of your visit will demonstrate.
The true Okavango Delta experience begins with a transfer from Maun to your camp, where you will meet some of Botswana’s ‘bush pilots’ – the highly trained local airmen who constantly ferry tourists and supplies to various lodges in their small planes. Most pilots today are drawn from local communities, qualified thanks to Botswana’s investment in training local pilots over a decade ago. The industry is now dominated by these accomplished pilots, and they love what they do. One such pilot, Kaone Masilonyane, who started flying for local charter company Wilderness Air in 2015, says flying in the Delta is both fun and challenging. “It teaches a pilot to make precise and quick decisions since we are flying [with a] Single [person] crew. And, here, you are essentially learning the real art of flying, since the [planes] are piloted manually,” explains the charismatic pilot.
From this small plane, the grandeur of the Okavango Delta is on display. The incredible flat landscape of vast expansive plains submerged in water to create picturesque islands is stunning from above. Visible from the air, large herds of buffaloes appear no larger than black ants, as well as elephants, hippo bloat in the water, and numerous antelopes. It is, however, difficult to spot the dozens of tourist camps below as they have all been purposely built to blend in with nature. You’ll see why Okavango Delta pilots are called bush pilots at the start of your descent: before landing, wildlife usually needs to be cleared from the small gravel strips that make up the area’s airstrips. Pilots say even then sometimes cheeky zebras will sprint across the strip, but these seasoned professionals have mastered this precarious landing.
Transfer to the lodge will depend on the location of the camp. Some camps are isolated and located on islands, and getting there involves a drive followed by a boat ride. Since this is wilderness, your wildlife experience during the transfer from the airstrip to the camp could be one of the highlights of your stay. A welcome reception at camp is one of the finest experiences in the Okavango. When guests arrive, almost all of the camp staff gather at the entrance to greet you with a song, a true demonstration of Botswana’s culture of hospitality to visitors. The welcome reception is the start of a separate journey into the charming human experience of Botswana. As safari guide Ona Rabasimane says, “Most tourists come first for the wildlife experience, then they come back for the people.”
In many cases, safari workers are the unsung stars of service looking after both the tourists and, just as importantly, the environment in which the lodges are located. Okavango Delta camps are built under strict environmental controls. The goal is to leave a minimal footprint so that this wilderness can be preserved and preserved for future generations. Tourist camps are prohibited from building permanent structures in the heart of the Okavango, which is why the camps are built with environmentally friendly materials and use mostly green energy.
However, visiting the Okavango Delta is less about accommodation and more about experiencing unspoiled wilderness like nowhere else. Thanks to tourism, Botswana shares one of the last truly wild places in the world. The main activities offered at most Okavango Delta camps include game drives, game drives, bush walks and boat cruises, including mokoro (a traditional canoe). These activities are designed to immerse tourists in nature and local culture. Activities such as game drives begin early in the morning accompanied by a chorus of wild animals at dawn when predators are still very active and the light is beautiful. In the afternoon, after a traditional siesta during the hottest part of the day, visitors can choose to cruise either on a motor boat or in a mokoro, expertly boated by a skilled local poler. Mekoro glides silently through the waterways, allowing close-up views of a vast array of wetland birds.
On some evenings, you are invited into African culture through traditional song and dance with some of the world’s oldest musical instruments like the seworoworo (a bow-shaped instrument played with the mouth), mbira and drums Africans. All before retiring for a night in which the wilderness sings you an unforgettable lullaby of deceiving elephants, the roar of lions, the laughter of hyenas and the soothing croaking of frogs.
Botswana has been working to integrate more communities into the tourism market and the income generated by the delta. The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project is also playing its part, now joined by De Beers. Through their Okavango Eternal partnership, National Geographic and De Beers are helping to protect the water sources that feed the Okavango Delta, both through conservation and creating livelihood opportunities for communities that support wildlife. and protect the ecosystem on which the delta is based.
Around the delta in particular, Okavango Eternal is helping local communities integrate more fully into the tourism landscape. This was accomplished by linking the cultural skills community members already possess, such as tracking, knowledge of wildlife behavior and navigating the delta’s waterways, to tourism, enabling individuals to become guides and safari operators. Now Okavango Eternal wants to go even further by expanding that scope to include all the skill sets the tourism industry needs. To facilitate this, the partnership is setting up “knowledge exchange” centers that allow people to see how their passions can become careers. Those from all walks of life can learn how to market their skills and join larger networks that will help them generate reliable income. The centers will also provide resources to teachers in local districts, so the next generation of community members will have even better opportunities.
If you feel like visiting this elemental and one-of-a-kind wild place, you can do so in a way that supports its conservation and the local communities that have inhabited this land for centuries. Book an itinerary through a reputable organization that works within delta communities and enjoy unique experiences, such as a morning river safari in a mokoro led by an expert local poler who knows all the best spots to visit. You’ll experience warm hospitality, ancient craftsmanship and cultural knowledge, and get closer to the animals of the delta than you ever thought possible.
Learn more about how De Beers creates positive impacts here.