A Year in the Okavango Delta
I’ve never lived somewhere that changes as much as the Okavango Delta. Coming from the UK, with its distinct seasonal cycles, the dramatic shifts that occur over the course of a few days here come as a shock to the system. After returning for just a week to Maun, coming back I’m always amazed at the difference. The rains have recently made the grass grow visibly grown taller and thicker and created new pans, puddles, rivers and bogs where once it was dry. It is this extraordinary diversity that supports the Okavango’s iconic tapestry of habitats and its weird and wonderful inhabitants. From nearly extinct pangolins who prefer wet sandy soils, to endangered African elephants that gorge on riverine forests, and the increasingly elusive cheetah, that require wide, open plains to hunt.
The Okavango's iconic tapestry of habitats. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
The year begins midway through the rainy season. Around midday, huge towering clouds darken the skies and sending fat rain-droplets down onto the earth below. Around you, the Delta springs to life and everything is lit in the most dazzling hues of green. It’s a time of plenty, as tiny piglets the size of your hands roar around their patient mothers, and new-born impalas take their first wobbly steps. For our resident predator population, the new surge of life creates the equivalent of fast food and many have their young to coincide. Tiny leopard cubs mewl for their mothers from the protection of their dens, and small, bear-like hyena cubs emerge from their termite-mound burrows to see the world around them for the first time. Strangely enough, it is the rains pooling in the highlands of Angola over a thousand-kilometres away that are even more important to the Delta.
A young hyena explores its new world. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
These floodwaters trickle southwards before being trapped between two ancient tectonic fault lines and pooling in the Delta, just as the rains peter out in May. From the palm-fringed panhandle in the North to the ancient forests of the South, the alluvial-fan seeps into the sand, restoring ground-water levels, rejuvenating rivers, and splitting the Delta into more than 15,000 small islands with the help of three cunning ecological engineers. The first of these are the termites. Their enormous, iconic mounds that dot the delta are the result of thousands of “workers” coordinating under a “king” and “queen”. As birds perch on top and plants bloom from the seeds sown from their excrement in their fertile moisture-rich soil, the termite mounds gradually grow. As the floodwaters trickle past, sediments get stuck on these impeding structures and so, over decades and centuries, an island is born.
A termite mound island, from above. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
As the flood spreads, so to do the territories of hippos and elephants, the other great architects of the Okavango Delta. As they cruise south with the floodwaters, their colossal weights forge new paths that direct the water to new territories, flooding historically dry landscapes and diverting the water from historically wet landscapes. In doing so, the nutrient-rich floodwaters restore life to the deprived Kalahari sands, and the oasis blooms. The flood typically marks the start of winter, a season characterised by warm days and surprisingly cold nights that carpet your surroundings in twinkling layers of frost. With the dwindling rains, the grasses die away and the floodwaters recede. Before long, summer is around the corner and both disappear completely.
The arrival of the Morokapula. Photo credit: William Steele.
As expected, summer in the Okavango is absolutely scorching. As the Delta turns to dust, prey and predator crowd the ever-dwindling water holes, and both must navigate new territories and protect their homes from intruders who seek to usurp them. The arrival of the Morokopula, Carmine bee-eaters or rain-givers, marks the start of this season. Nesting in carpets on the ground or in steep clay cliffs, they capitalise on the lightening that precedes the rains, and the enormous fires that go with it. Darting in and out of the flames they catch the fleeing insects for their young. By the time these chicks fledge, it is the start of the rainy season, and the cycle begins once more.