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Okavango Delta / Kalahari - May-June 2019

A two-and-a-half week tour of the protected areas encompassing the greater Okavango Delta region and northern Botswana. Chobe National Park // Khwai Community Trust // Moremi Game Reserve // Central Kalahari Game Reserve // Makgadikgadi Pans National Park

A contorted Mopane tree "mo-paw-nee" (Colophospermum mopane) and small clay pan. Dead Tree Island - Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana.

I first heard of Botswana and the Okavango Delta during two consecutive summers I spent in the field working as a student researcher with Round River Conservation Studies, a decade ago. While around the campfire in greater Yellowstone or a cabin in remote northern British Columbia, senior Round River staff, including the legendary conservationists Dennis Sizemore and Doug Peacock, would frequently wax poetic of the wilderness and wildlife in northern Botswana. I remember Doug Milek, Round River's student program director, telling me "the landscape of northern Botswana is not all that inspiring, but the wildlife will blow you away."

Doug was right. The Okavango - Kalahari region of southern Africa is as flat as a pancake and covered predominately by semi-sparse scrub. That aside, the region is home to some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife anywhere in the world. It is one of the last great wild refuges, featuring around 40% of the African elephants left in the wild. Additionally, the Okavango / Kalahari has been impacted to a lesser degree by human activities then the great savannas of east Africa or the bustling, highly managed - yet world famous, parks in South Africa. Although despite being regarded as the last of "old Africa" Botswana has begun to change also. From late May through early June, 2019 we toured the protected area system that encompasses this great - wild ecosystem.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe -

From Johannesburg we flew to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we spent several nights before heading out into the bush.

A lush tropical garden in Victoria Falls.

The Bayete Lodge, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Mosi-oa-Tunya "the smoke that thunders" - the Zambezi River plunges into a chasm at Victoria Falls. Despite the fact that it is the dry season, a massive amount of water courses through the river system. The persistent mist from the water cascading into the gorge contributes to a narrow strip of rain forest clinging to the rim of the gorge.

The Victoria Falls Bridge spans the Zambezi River gorge connecting Zimbawe and Zambia.

Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River

The Chobe floodplain -

From Victoria Falls we crossed the border into Botswana at Kasane and began our journey through the bush in Chobe National Park. The Chobe River, a tributary of the Zambezi, flows lazily through the savanna creating complexes of marshy wetlands. The relative abundance of water in an otherwise arid landscape is what makes the Okavango region so important for, and rich with, wildlife.

Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) and African elephants patrol the Chobe River waterfront. Chobe National Park, Botswana.

A Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) stalks the shoreline.

A yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) hunts in a shallow marsh

A harem of impala (Aepyceros melampus). A dime-a-dozen in this part of Africa. These may be the most numerous large mammal we encountered during the duration of our trip.

A large male Kudu (Tragelephus strepsiceros)

A large male African elephant

Vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus)

A herd of elephants travel along the banks of the Chobe River. Chobe National Park is home to the highest concentration of African elephants in the world - estimated at between 50,000 - 120,000 individuals. The impact of so many large animals is apparent - especially around water sources, where elephants play a foundational role in the ecology of the Delta. Botswana has long been a refuge for wild elephants, though it is not immune to poaching which has seen an uptick in recent years. While we were in the bush the government of Botswana lifted a 40-year long moratorium on elephant hunting - paving the way for the culling of herds to keep population numbers in check and bring an additional source of revenue to support conservation. A decision that is not without controversy.

A bush track through Kalahari sand.

Our guide - Matambo has lived his entire life in the Delta. Growing up in the village of Shakawe in the northwestern portion of the Delta he recounted to us traveling to and from school by Makoro (a traditional dugout canoe). Once working as a tracker for trophy hunting parties, he now puts his intimate knowledge of the region to use as a guide - a testament to the economic importance of the safari industry in northern Botswana. While more sustainable than trophy hunting, the safari industry comes with its share of impacts on the regions wildlife and their habitat.

Jeff spots something in the scrub. Jeff spent five years living in Botswana while in the Peace Corps during in the 1970's. Though frequently soft-spoken, from time-to-time he recounts stories of a time when southern Africa was even more wild than it is today.

Bush camp in the Okavango. Home for two-plus weeks, these portable canvas wall tents came with us everywhere.

African baobab (Adansonia digitata)

Angolan giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis)

Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Plains Zebra (Equus quagga)

Savute -

Leaving the relatively lush waterfront of the Chobe River behind us we headed southwest into the bush. Unlike the waterfront portion of Chobe National Park, Savute is characteristic of the larger Kalahari region where surface water is seasonal and scarce. Waterholes swell during the rainy season and quickly diminish during the dry months.

A group of male African elephants congregate at one of Savute's few year-round waterholes.

Blue wildebeest (Chonnochaetes taurinus) kick up dust in the early morning light

Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus)

The marsh pride can usually be found patrolling the Savute marsh

A lioness and cub

A female African leopard (Pantera pardus) surveys a group of young zebra

Chobe is known for its elephants having brittle ivory. Many of the elephants, like this one, have broken tusks.

Khwai / Moremi -

From Savute we made our way into the Okavango Delta proper. The Kavango River, originating in the highlands of Angola to the northwest, fans out into the Kalahari Desert forming the world's largest inland delta. The wetlands - which are warm, shallow, and productive - cover an area of 8,500 square miles. It is a complex wilderness of woven channels and islands, portions of which are only accessible by boat year round. As the flood waters disappear into the sand through the dry season the Delta becomes more accessible, though the preferred method of travel to experience the Okavango in all its nuance is still by makoro - a traditional dugout canoe pushed through the shallows using a long reed. We spent five days in total between the Khwai River - a perennial channel - and Xakanaxa in Moremi Game Reserve.

Traditional Okavango travel is by makoro.

Elephants and waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) at the Khwai River - one of the delta's many channels

Malachite kingfisher (Corythornis cristatus)

The endemic slaty egret (Egretta vinaceigula)

Little bee-eater (Merops pusillus)

Angolan reed frog (Hyperolius parallelus)

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

A group of lioness rousting from a mid-day nap in Khwai

Endangered African wild painted dogs (Lycaon pictus) in Moremi Game Reserve

Red lechwe (Kobus leche)

Mopane galleries in Moremi Game Reserve

Twilight in the Delta

Fire keeps the hyenas at bay, and gin and tonic keeps the stories flowing.

Kalahari bush camp

The milky way on a moonless Kalahari night

Central Kalahari Game Reserve -

It was a solid days journey following a sandy, fence-line track south, from Maun to Central Kalahari. Along the way the mopane woodland gives way to a sparse throny scrub - which at times appears impenetrable. Occasionally the scrub gives way to thin strips of savanna where wildlife congregate along the margins. There is very little perennial water in the reserve, and therefore the game is much more sparse than in the Delta. The remoteness and relatively little tourism the area receives contributes to the wildlife being much more reclusive, wary, and wild compared to the highly trafficked protected areas to the north. Central Kalahari is massive and harsh - the two days we spent exploring it allowed us to barely scratch its surface.

Matswere gate - Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana

Commonly called Acacias - these iconic features of the African savanna are actually members of the genus Vachellia. Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis)

Gemsbok (Oryx beisa)

Ostrich (Struthio camelus) and gemsbok at sunrise in Central Kalahari

Cape hartebeest (Alcephalus buselaphus)

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park -

From Central Kalahari our last stop on the way back to Maun was Makgadikgadi Pans National Park which encompasses the massive dry lake bed of prehistoric Lake Makgadikgadi. During our first night we had lions in camp. Throughout our two weeks in the bush it was not uncommon to hear lions in the distance through the night, though on this occasion we woke up to tracks between our tents. As we hastily ate breakfast in the pre-dawn twilight our guides were monitoring a group of lions who appeared to be actively hunting nearby. Shortly after jumping into the Land Cruiser we found a group of three sub-adult males who had made a kill in the early morning hours.

A young male lion and its kill

A sub-adult male - whose mane is just beginning to grow in.

Group photo: Njuca Hills, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana

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