In a part of the world not given to small gestures and bland landscapes, Botswana's Okavango Delta still manages to leap out at a person as a singularly unlikely miracle. A massive fan of water that gets its start in rivers percolating out of the deciduous forests of Angola's highlands, the delta evaporates 200 miles later in the sands of the Kalahari Desert. This wilderness is one of the last places to see the Big Five of the traditional African safari: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. It so nearly wasn't.
By the 1900s, European and American hunters had killed almost all of the area's elephants, without which crucial channels in the delta silt up. But in the decades that followed, conservationists reversed the near collapse of this exquisitely balanced ecosystem and, in June 2014, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage site. Still, the designation will be meaningless unless the Angolan and Namibian governments also ensure that the rivers feeding the delta are protected.
The romantic intimacy of the delta is best explored in a guided mokoro (dugout canoe). Experienced this way, the Okavango is Venice with wildlife. The flash of a malachite kingfisher, the mocking shout of hippos, the cry of a hadada ibis—each is a reminder that without wilderness we are diminished, lonelier. We humans are a part of, not apart from, our rich, rare, and fragile world. —Alexandra Fuller
When to Go: June to August (high-water season) for mokoro and boat safaris; May to October for clear skies and ample water levels; year-round for dry (land-based) safaris and wet (water-based but not flood dependent) safaris
How to Get Around: Maun International Airport is the main visitor gateway to the Okavango Delta. Fly-in safaris from Maun to lodges and camps within the delta are the best way to travel. Tour operators specializing in Okavango Delta excursions include Belmond Safaris, Great Plains Conservation, and Wilderness Safaris.
Where to Stay: To maximize game-viewing opportunities, plan an itinerary including overnights at two or more safari lodges in different parts of the delta. See hippos, elephants, and other big game from your room at the Belmond Khwai River Lodge, bordering the Moremi Game Reserve. The lodge's 14 luxury rooms and private suite with plunge pool are elevated on timber platforms overlooking the Khwai River floodplains. Wilderness Safari's Jacana Camp sits on an island surrounded by seasonally flooded plains and swamps. There are five guest tents, including one family tent, on raised wooden stands. Water activities include mokoro and boating excursions and catch-and-release fishing.
What to Eat or Drink: Safari camp rates include all meals. Luxury lodge cuisine is more likely to be international than local, except for the ubiquitous cans of St. Louis, Botswana's low-alcohol beer. Homegrown specialties to look for on a menu include roasted morama beans and mopane worms (a blue-and-green caterpillar) served boiled or deep-fried as a snack.
What to Read Before You Go: The updated and expanded edition of Okavango: Africa's Last Eden (Taschen, 2013) by celebrated nature photographer Frans Lanting includes dozens of previously unpublished images of Okavango Delta wetlands and wildlife.
Fun Fact: The amount of water in the Okavango Delta varies widely depending on the season. When the floodwaters recede (typically November until April), only about 3,700 to nearly 5,000 square miles of the delta are covered with water. By July and August, when water levels are at or near peak, more than 9,800 square miles of the delta are submerged.