The Okavango Delta is one of the most incredible and unique destinations to view Africa’s wildlife in its natural habitat. Safari activities by water are the primary speciality of the Okavango – using the mokoro – a dug out canoe which is ‘poled’ along by your guide. This is the most evocative way of exploring the numerous waterways of the Delta. Motor launches travel on the main waterways and lagoons. Traditional 4×4 game viewing vehicles are used on the main islands, with night drives available in the private concession areas. Walking Safaris are available from most Camps and Lodges – perhaps the most exciting way of viewing Game – stalking and tracking wildlife with an expert Guide. Game viewing flights are available by both light aircraft and helicopter. Read on below for Part 1 of our factual explanation about the Delta and how it came to be.
Situated in the north-western corner of Botswana is the Okavango Delta, Africa’s largest and most diverse oasis. And when you think of an oasis, don’t think of a small, fertile area in the middle of a desert, with a few palm trees, a pool of water and a couple of camels. The Okavango Delta is more like an oasis on steroids, and it lies in the middle of the largest expanse of sand on Earth – the Kalahari. It is one of Africa’s most amazing, sensitive, and intricate environments supporting a spectacle of wilderness and wildlife that leave one speechless.
How did this unique and fragile wonder of nature come to be? How does this lush swamp exist in the middle of a desert? And where does all the water in the swamp go? These are some of the questions that spring to mind when you study the Delta.
The first astonishing detail about the Delta is that it is only about 10 000 years old. And geologically speaking this is like the blink of an eye. It was created by a land shift in the ongoing process of continental drift and a sad reality is that with another shift the Delta could return to a desert in a matter of years! So if you are fortunate enough to see it, marvel in your time there as there are few places on our planet that that rival the Delta. And it is not surprising that it has become a major tourist attraction and an icon of Africa.
The Kalahari Desert lies in the Kalahari Basin, which is enormous, about five times the size of France, and the Basin covers all of Botswana and parts of her surrounding countries. The Kalahari Basin was created 135 million years ago when South America, Asia and Australia tore themselves away from Africa. The power of this event and of the secondary volcanic and earth shuddering activity it caused lifted the edges of southern Africa like a bowl, creating the Basin. Over many millions of years this part of the world passed through extremely dry periods, during which fierce sand storms dumped layer upon layer of sand into the basin. And today, 65 million years later, this is the oldest and largest stretch of sand on our planet.
These sands are about 250m deep and geologically this area has looked almost the same for most of those 65 million years. Now in all honesty one million years is quite difficult for us to contemplate, let alone 65. But in terms of an almost unchanged landscape that is, even geologically speaking a long, long time. To put it into perspective only 12 000 years ago most of Europe was under ice and completely uninhabitable. And the rugged valleys of Scotland and Fjords of Norway were carved by that very same ice.
Because of this great age and because of Africa’s position in relation to the equator, Africa was largely unaffected but the last few ice ages and thus, when compared to the rest of the planet, Africa has suffered far less extinctions. The result of this an amazing diversity of plants, trees, birds and animals. To give you an idea of this diversity the Okavango Delta alone has as many species of trees as the whole of Western Europe.
Now getting back to the Kalahari, we are currently in a wet period of its 65 million year history and its most outstanding physical feature is the living desert. The sands of the Kalahari Dessert have mostly been blown there rather than transported by water and they are not very fertile, but despite this, after good rains grass is plentiful and the desert supports an astounding diversity of life. The Kalahari Desert is the last refuge of the San or Bushmen, who have roamed Southern African for the last 30 000 years and are now on the verge of extinction. And if you wish to find out more about the world’s oldest contemporary culture on look on the Smartguide website for the Bushmen Download.
At some stage in this 65 million year period large Rivers flowed into the Kalahari Basin, creating a giant lake which in turn emptied into the Indian Ocean via the Limpopo River. And then about 50 000 years ago, due to the numerous fault lines in the area, all but the Okavango River were diverted, and the Lake began to shrink. Until about 10 000 years ago another fault effectively dammed the Okavango River creating the delta and leaving the Lake to become the largest the salt pan complex in the world, the Makgadikgadi Pans – an amazing expanse of whiteness the size Switzerland.
Today the Okavango River is the only permanent river in the Kalahari Desert and where its waters meet the desert there is a blue-green wilderness, fuelled by its crystal clear waters. A living fresh water delta comprised of a maze of meandering waterways, islands and lagoons, in the middle of a desert. That is today one of the few untouched homes of Africa’s wildlife, providing sanctuary for millions of plants, animals, birds and fish.
Okavango Delta Part 2 to follow soon. Stand by.