• Home
  • /
  • Travel News
  • /
  • An Expedition in the Okavango Delta Showcases Botswanas Magnificience—and Vulnerabilities

An Expedition in the Okavango Delta Showcases Botswanas Magnificience—and Vulnerabilities

It seems, on some level, like an im-possibility. In the semi-arid highlands of Angola, hundreds of trickling streams join forces with two mighty rivers, the Cuito and the Cubango, which flow through Namibia and into Botswana as the Okavango, then spill into a fan-shaped 4,600-square-mile wetland before vanishing into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. Poof.

But it’s really more like a miracle. Rains that fall in Angola during the previous wet season, from November through May, propel the Okavango River along its 1,000-mile downhill course in June, pushing with it 2.5 trillion gallons of water that fuel a tsunami of life through a massive network of palm islands, channels, and lagoons: Botswana’s Okavango Delta. As the water engulfs the previous season’s parched landscape, virtually everything it touches is reborn. The dry season drains the delta, but local rains in the month of December provide some relief before the floods sweep through again six months later. If a time comes when this cycle stops playing out like clockwork, it will affect the hundreds of Indigenous communities along its banks who depend on these life-giving waters.

Image may contain Helmet Aircraft Helicopter Transportation Vehicle Clothing Hat and Person

Heading to the transfer helicopter from Wilderness Jao to the delta

Owen Tozer

Image may contain Outdoors Nature Water River and Aerial View

A river channel seen from Duba Plains’ chopper

Owen Tozer

UNESCO has protected the delta for a decade, and the organization is now collaborating with the governments of Angola, Botswana, and Namibia to extend the existing Okavango World Heritage Site upstream and into Angola. But the delta’s protected status does not make it invulnerable. For years, pressures have been mounting from extractive industries in Namibia and Angola, still recovering from a hideous 27-year civil war, which threaten the lakes and rivers that supply the Okavango with water. Angola’s growing development needs have caused rampant deforestation for valuable timber and agriculture. A water diversion project, currently on hold, could affect the system’s flow to the Cubango, with consequences for the river’s ability to recharge the Okavango. In Namibia a team of National Geographic researchers has exposed test drilling within the watershed by a Canadian oil exploration company. Though work paused last summer, the business holds a similar lease in Botswana near the delta. Even small shifts, like a 1 percent drop in water, could affect the patterns of elephants, those architects of the delta whose dung contains the seeds from which the palm islands grow. “It’s a bit like knitting, isn’t it?” says Dereck Joubert, the legendary National Geographic filmmaker and founder of Great Plains Conservation, which manages three lodges in the delta. “You unpick one piece and the whole thing falls apart.”

I’d been here once before during the June flood, when the delta appears from above like a terrarium of lustrous, mossy rocks. But this time I’ve arrived in September, during the dry season, when the plains wither to straw and thirsty animals gather by the river’s last liquid arteries. Only now can it be crossed on foot. Combined with days journeying by motorboat and mokoro, a traditional canoe, this will allow me the trans-Okavango expedition I dream of.

We have flown north from Maun, the gateway to the Okavango, to the delta’s panhandle, where seismic activity caused the river to suddenly fan out some 60,000 years ago. At Nxamaseri Island Lodge, a fishing camp on the main channel, I meet Mike Hill, a goateed, cargo-shorts-wearing South African. He’s been in Botswana for three decades, guiding expeditions through his outfit, Endeavour Safaris.