There is a particular moment during a game drive in the Okavango Delta. Sometime during the early evening golden hour, near a watering hole, where elephants drink and splash with stomachs rumbling, and silhouettes of tall fan palms and flying birds stand out against the changing hues of daylight leaving the sky. It’s the moment after your safari guide has served your preferred beverage, silently, to allow everyone to soak in the wild scene. Some say it is the defining moment of being in the Okavango Delta. But that’s for each visitor to decide for themselves. This haven for wildlife 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 sustains it. That lifeline comes all the way from source lakes in Angola’s eastern Moxico Province, a remote area that isn’t protected like the Okavango Delta is. Many are now working to research and protect the entire Okavango system, which starts at the source and ends with the Delta—and you can help too, simply by visiting this incredible place. But, let’s start from the beginning—how do you get here?
A flight lands at Maun International Airport. Located along the Thamalakane River, Maun is the town that serves as the gateway to the Okavango Delta. It’s actually the busiest airport in Botswana, teeming with people wearing earth colors of the safari-chic swagger, and this is where your local host welcomes you with a big smile. Most visitors here never actually leave the airport. Instead, you’re smoothly transferred to a comfortable charter flight direct to the Delta and your bush lodge—one of several luxury camps usually nestled within the Moremi Game Reserve, a formally conserved area many consider to be the beating heart of the Okavango Delta. While the responsible tourism off the back of this conservation generates great income, it’s not always benefited everyone. Communities around the Delta—descendants of the original San peoples and inhabitants of this land for millennia—especially have had limited revenue options from traditional tourism models. But thankfully, things have been changing for the better, as the first stage of your visit will demonstrate.
The real experience of the Okavango Delta begins with a transfer from Maun to your camp, when you’ll meet some of Botswana’s “bush pilots”—the highly skilled local aviators who constantly ferry tourists and supplies to various lodges in their small planes. These days, most pilots are from local communities, qualified thanks to Botswana’s investment in the training of local pilots over a decade ago. The industry is now dominated by these accomplished pilots, and they love what they do. One of these pilots, Kaone Masilonyane, who started flying for local charter company Wilderness Air in 2015, says flying in the Delta is fun, as well as challenging. “It teaches a pilot to make precise, quick decisions since we fly [with a] single [person] crew. And, here, you basically learn the real art of flying, since the [planes] are manually flown,” says the charismatic pilot.
From this small aircraft, the grandeur of the Okavango Delta is on display. The incredible flat landscape of the vast expansive plains submerged in water to create scenic islands is stunning from above. Visible from the air are large herds of buffalo appearing no bigger than black ants, along with elephants, bloats of hippos in the water, and plenty of antelope. It is, however, difficult to spot the dozens of tourist camps down below because they have all been purposefully built to blend in with nature. You’ll understand why pilots in the Okavango Delta are called bush pilots as you begin your descent: before landing, wildlife must usually be cleared off the small, gravel runways that comprise the region’s airstrips. Pilots say that even then, sometimes cheeky zebras will sprint across the strip―but these seasoned professionals have mastered this precarious landing.
The transfer to the lodge will depend on the location of the camp. Some camps are secluded and located on islands, and getting there involves a drive followed by a boat ride. Since this is the wilderness, your wildlife experience during the transfer from airstrip to camp could be one of the highlights of your stay. A welcome reception at the camp is one of the most beautiful experiences of the Okavango. When guests arrive, almost the entire camp staff assemble at the entrance to welcome you with a song, a genuine display of Botswana’s culture of hospitality toward visitors. The welcome reception is the beginning of a separate journey into Botswana’s charming human experience. As safari guide Ona Rabasimane says, “most tourists first come for the wildlife experience, and then they return for the people.”
In many cases, safari workers are the unsung service stars that care for both tourists and, equally important, the environment in which lodges are located. The Okavango Delta camps are constructed under strict environmental controls. The goal is to leave a minimal footprint so that this wilderness can be kept pristine and unspoiled for future generations. Tourist camps are prohibited from building permanent structures in the heart of the Okavango, which explains why camps are constructed with eco-friendly materials and use mostly green energy.
Visiting the Okavango Delta is, however, less about the lodging and more about experiencing an unspoiled wilderness like nowhere else. Through tourism, Botswana is sharing one of the world’s last truly wild places. The main activities offered in most Okavango Delta camps include game drives, safaris, bush walks, and boat cruises, including by mokoro (a traditional dugout canoe). These activities are designed to immerse tourists into nature and the local culture. Activities such as game drives start early in the morning accompanied by a dawn chorus of wildlife at a time when predators are still highly active and the light is beautiful. In the afternoon, after a traditional siesta during the hottest part of the day, visitors may choose a cruise either on an engine boat or in a mokoro, expertly punted by a skilled local poler. Mekoro silently glide through the waterways, allowing close-up views of a vast array of wetlands birds.
Some evenings, you’re invited into African culture through traditional song and dance with some of the world’s oldest musical instruments like the seworoworo (a bow-like instrument played with the mouth), the mbira, and African drums. All before retiring for a night during which the wilderness sings you an unforgettable lullaby of trumpeting elephants, lion roars, hyena laughter, and frogs’ soothing croaks.
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 playing its part, too, now joined by De Beers. Through their Okavango Eternal partnership, National Geographic and De Beers are helping to protect the source waters that supply the Okavango Delta—both through conservation and creating livelihood opportunities for communities that support wildlife and protect the ecosystem upon which the Delta relies.
Around the Delta specifically, Okavango Eternal is helping support local communities to integrate more fully into the tourism landscape. This has been accomplished by connecting 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 take this even further by widening that scope to include all the skill sets the tourism industry needs. To facilitate this, the partnership is building “knowledge exchange” centers that provide hubs for people to see how their passions can become careers. Those from all walks of life can learn how to market their skills and join wider networks that will help them to generate reliable incomes. The centers will also provide resources for teachers in local districts, so that the next generation of community members will have even better opportunities.
If you’re inspired to visit this elemental, one-of-a-kind wild place, you can do so in a way that supports its conservation and the local communities which have inhabited this land for centuries. Book an itinerary through a reputable organization that works within the communities of the Delta, and enjoy unique experiences, such as an early morning river safari in a mokoro steered by an expert local poler who knows all the best spots to visit. You’ll experience warm hospitality, crafts and ancient cultural knowledge, and get closer to the animals of the Delta than you ever thought possible.
Find out more about how De Beers creates positive impacts here.