How to Plan a Photography Trip to the Okavango Delta

okovango delta hippo safari

The wildlife riches of the Okavango Delta have made it a staple of many blue-chip TV wildlife documentaries, and in this article, we’ll look at how to plan a photography trip to this incredible destination!

Okavango delta
Aerial view of lagoons and Papyrus swamp in the dry season.

This watery wilderness in Northern Botswana is the world’s largest inland delta, transforming 15,000 square kilometres of desert into papyrus swamps, lily-covered lagoons, and curling river channels teeming with life.

Rains falling in central Angola travel down the Okavango River, taking up to six months to seep across the delta.

A map of the Okavango resembles a hand; imagine your wrist as the panhandle where the Okavango River enters Botswana and your palm and fingers as the delta. Thousands of tree-covered islands dot the landscape, which during the seasonal flood, are the only places left above water.

Remarkably, they have been created by termites, their mounds growing with accumulations of silt as the water ebbs and flows.

Best time to visit

First, you need to decide whether to go during the seasonal floods or in the dry season. Each will offer a different experience and subsequently different wildlife photography opportunities.

The seasonal floods occur from May through to August, and this is when the delta is at its greenest and coolest, with temperatures typically averaging 25 degrees Celsius in June and July.

This is good for photographing birds and mammals among greenery, but your subjects will be more spread out across the delta, and they can be a little harder to come across.

Okavango delta
A myriad of Papyrus fringe channels allow exploration by boat.

The hotter months during the dry season are less green, and there are great swathes of dry grassland, which means birds and many animals are more concentrated around water.

From September through to early November before the rains, the heat builds. Temperatures can soar into the 40s (Celsius), but average in the low 30s. This is my personal favorite time to visit the Okavango Delta.

Birds and mammals concentrate on the lagoons and along watercourses, providing an endless stream of subjects to photograph.

Read more: Wildlife Photography – Understanding Animal Behaviour for Better Images

Arriving and getting around

You can self-drive by hiring a 4×4 from either Maun or Kasane and camp, however, you need to be very well prepared. The vast majority of photographers will want to stay at the various lodges that host excellent guides who have local subject knowledge.

Tourism is well developed in Botswana, which is a safe and very friendly country. They have settled on a model of high revenue, low impact tourism, which does mean lodges can seem more expensive than some other destinations, though remember bush flights are usually factored into the cost.

Cape buffalo safari photography
Cape buffalo drinking in low afternoon light.

One of the advantages of this model means that when you are out on safari, particularly in the panhandle and in the heart of the delta, you are not jostling for position with your boat or vehicle; you are most often totally alone with your guide, and it feels like the wilderness it is!

The exception to this is Moremi. This vast game reserve covers 1,900 square miles on the eastern side of the delta, combining both permanent water and dry savannah. Moremi’s wildlife riches are popular with visitors.

Here you will encounter more people, but outside of the high season during the summer months, it is still far less busy than, for example, East Africa or some South African parks.

fly to Okavango delta by bush plane

Travel between lodges is by light aircraft. Maun is the main gateway into the delta, with a flight from here to the panhandle in the north taking around 1 hour and 15 minutes—a spectacular route that takes you through the heart of the Delta and is great for taking aerial pictures of the landscape.

You can fly into Kasane Airport on the Chobe River. This is a longer flight into the delta and so more expensive. Both airports are served by flights from Johannesburg, which is around a two-hour flight.

Once in the Okavango, flight transfers between various lodge airstrips typically take between 15 to 30 minutes.

Photography gear

When thinking about what gear to take, you will need to check your baggage weight allowance for flights to and from the lodges. It is usually 15 kilos for your main bag and five kilos for your camera bag.

The Okavango is the type of location where you are likely to want to use your widest lens for landscapes, plus the skies at night are superb. You’ll also need your longest lens for some of the shyest birds.

Okavango delta birds
African skimmers can be photographed in the panhandle.

I use OM System gear (which is Micro-Four Thirds, so double these focal lengths for full frame). I travel with an 8-25 mm zoom, a 40-150 mm zoom, and a longer zoom that will reach 400 mm, which is very useful for subjects such as bee-eaters nesting in riverbanks and some of the smaller birds.

While you can use a vehicle in some parts, some of the best opportunities for wildlife photography, especially for photographing birds, are by boat, with many species allowing for a very close approach.

The traditional mokoro, a hollowed-out wooden boat, is an iconic symbol of the Okavango and is offered at many lodges as a way of seeing the delta afloat.

However, I would advise sticking to a motorized flat-bottomed boat for stability. You can erect a tripod in these craft as they are very stable, and save the mokoro for a bit of fun.

Okavango delta safari
Hippos are very common across the delta.

Top tip: On many occasions, I have actually had to ask my guide to back away from subjects as we have drifted too close.

It is a good idea to explain to your guide the sort of distances you want to be photographing from before going out on the water, as many people they guide take pictures with their smartphones, and so there is a tendency to go much closer than necessary.

The lodges across the delta are well set up to take advantage of the best light of the day. You can be out before sunrise, and a typical day will see an early morning boat or game drive, back for brunch, then back out on a vehicle or boat from midafternoon until sunset.

Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Potential subjects

The delta is a dream destination for bird photographers. Few locations in Africa can match its avian diversity.

birds Botswana Okavango delta
Southern carmine bee-eaters arrive to breed along the rivers in August

During the summer months (winter in the northern hemisphere), resident and intra-African migrants are joined by migrants from the Northern Hemisphere; European Bee-eaters, Swallows, various species of wader and warblers descend on the delta.

Some of the most sought-after birds to photograph include the teddy bear-like Pel’s fishing owl, Wattled crane, Slaty egret, African jacana, African skimmer, the various species of kingfisher, African pygmy goose, and the gorgeous Southern Carmine bee-eater, to name a few.

Okavango delta safari

Some of the more interesting mammals are found on the edges of the delta and so are photographed more easily from a vehicle. The exception to this are African elephants, hippos, sometimes Cape buffalo, and the semi-aquatic Red lechwe.

If you are lucky, in the swampy areas, you may encounter the Sitatunga – an attractive but painfully shy antelope. I have photographed this animal at Xugana Island.

Okavango delta safari
The very shy Sitatunga can be photographed at Xugana.

Moremi Game Reserve in the east of the delta is famed for its African wild dogs, this is probably the easiest place to photograph them in Southern Africa and where you can get to grips with many of Botswana’s mammals.

Okavango delta hippo safari

Apart from Moremi that has a big draw for mammals, both the panhandle and the heart of the delta are excellent destinations for bird photography.

From experience, I can say that In the panhandle, Nxamaseri Island Lodge is a perfect base from which to explore the rivers that feed the delta. These are rich in many species including nearby Southern carmine bee-eater and African skimmer breeding colonies.

Other highlights here include Slaty egret and Giant kingfishers, which are very tame.

Okavango delta wildlife
African paradise flycatcher photographed at Xugana.

In the heart of the Okavango, Xugana Island Lodge is located by permanent water and provides opportunities to photograph a wide array of breeding storks, herons, and egrets along with much sought-after targets such as Pel’s fishing owl, Wattled crane, and African pygmy goose, to name just three.

Read more: 8 Tips for Taking Creative Photos on Safari

Wildlife photography hotspots close by

The Okavango is frequently visited in conjunction with other great wildlife photography locations, as it borders a number of countries in the heart of Southern Africa.

birdlife okavango delta
Magpie geese and White-faced whistling ducks on the edge of a lagoon.

On my recent visit, I ended my trip on the Chobe River just a one-hour flight from Xugana Island Lodge. The river in the dry season is particularly famed for its large number of elephants that come down to drink and bathe in the heat of the day.

The Chobe Savanna Lodge is a good base and has very “birdy” grounds for bird photographers.

In conclusion

The Okavango delta is a lush animal habitat with a complex ecosystem, home to a magnificent array of wildlife, including some of the world’s most endangered large mammals. This makes it a truly unmissable destination for nature photographers.

Do your research beforehand and decide what it is you would most like to see on your trip, and let that inform whether you visit in the wet or dry season; there are ample photography opportunities to be had in both, so don’t feel you will miss out either way!

However, a return trip to see what else is on offer at a different time of the year may be well worth it.

David would like to thank Desert & Delta Safaris for their support.

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David Tipling first picked up a camera at the age of fourteen, and has been photographing ever since. His stunning images have been used in hundreds of books and magazines, and he has also appeared on television for his work. David has won awards in many prestigious competitions, including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

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