Jewel of the Kalahari
In the wilds of the Okavango Delta
In southern Africa flows an enormous river, a great torrent of water gushing across the dry savannah. Such a river would be expected to continue to grow in strength, as tributaries and smaller rivers reach out like tentacles and help drain the surrounding valley system into a single, dominant channel, before emptying its contents into the sea. But this river essentially does the opposite; it eventually fans out across the arid land of the Kalahari Desert, creating a vast lush oasis, before vanishing into thin air.
The river is the Okavango, and the remarkable place it creates is the Okavango Delta, the “jewel of the Kalahari Desert’’. Northern Botswana is a region where the landscape is almost entirely dominated by the presence (or absence) of water, from the distinctive fan-shape of the Okavango Delta, immediately recognisable from brief glances at satellite images of the region, to the central dry plains of the infamously inhospitable Kalahari.
To fully understand the Okavango Delta, it is necessary to look to its wider catchment (the area of land that catches fallen rainwater and drains it into a single river), roughly 1600km to the north, a high-rainfall zone in southern Angola. Seasonal rain falls on the Angolan highlands of Vila Nova, on the Bie Plateau, every October, and over the next six months the fallen rain gradually flows into small channels that form the Cubango and Cuito rivers, all of which feed into the Okavango River.
This transports the water across the Namibia panhandle, before eventually crossing the border into northern Botswana. The lengthy trip means the delta receives the highest amount of water at the driest time of year, roughly six months after the highest period of rainfall.
Between February and May, when this remarkable journey ends, the Okavango Delta blooms into life. It literally doubles in size, as the water from the Okavango River floods the landscape and slowly flows through the wetlands. It creates the perfect natural haven for the red lechwe, water-dwelling antelopes that live in large numbers among the delta’s more than 150,000 islands, and the 24 species of globally threatened birds, as well as wild elephants, cheetahs, lions, buffaloes, rhinos and many more iconic African species that spread out across its land.
In the continent’s driest place at the driest time of year — even in the middle of winter, the sun burns down hot and bright — it is remarkable that such a resource exists. As much as 98 per cent of the water that makes it to the delta ends up either simply evaporating straight back into the atmosphere or becomes absorbed by a diverse assortment of scrubby plants.
The thin Boteti River transports away to the southeast the fraction that remains. The main river channel carries only about 60 per cent of the water that ultimately reaches the delta, while the remaining two-fifths comes from a series of rivers about which significantly less is known. This is primarily thanks to decades of civil unrest in Angola. Half a million people were killed by the 27-year conflict, a time when vast swaths of the rural country became completely out of bounds. The Angolan highlands were for a long time the heartland of the rebel movement Unita, making them far too dangerous for anyone to consider venturing into, while limited road access made this a very difficult prospect anyway.
Even today, years after a peace treaty was finally signed in 2002, millions of landmines litter the landscape, the densest collection of such weapons still to be found in Africa. Such a deterrent to human explorers means the region is home to a pristine wilderness, almost completely untouched. The Okavango Wilderness Project, a National Geographic-supported venture, has made it its mission to venture deep into these unknown parts of southern Angola, to understand the land that ultimately gives birth to the majestic Okavango Delta. This includes sending teams of explorers, scientists and local Ba’Yei people, who know the secrets to living in this environment, on a journey of hundreds of kilometres in traditional dugout canoes called mokoros.
They travel up through the unexplored river system, passing the vast quantities of impenetrable vegetation and huge leeches, perpetually populated by aggressive hippos and enormous Nile crocodiles (the Cuito River has possibly the highest density of crocodiles in the world). “That’s the reality of this place, you’re not in control of anything around you,” says project leader Steve Boyes, discussing the Okavango at a National Geographic event. “You have to surrender yourself to probability, surrender yourself to the wilderness.”
This is an edited extract from Atlas of Untamed Places (Aurum Press, $39.99) by Chris Fitch, senior editor at Geographical, the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine.
The Okavango Delta, main; view from a mokoro, top; wildlife ashore and afloat, above