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Travelers flock to Africa's 'miracle oasis'

From Jim Clancy, CNN
  • The Okavango Delta is the world's largest inland delta
  • Annual floods transform the landscape from desert to wetland, attracting wildlife
  • Okavango tourism is second to only diamond mining as a foreign exchange earner
  • In the late 90s Botswana registered the delta as a wetland of international importance

Okavango Delta, Botswana (CNN) -- Each year, the heart of Botswana turns from parched savannah into rich wetland, and the Okavango Delta springs to life.

The natural phenomenon draws in thousands of tourists from around the world hoping to catch a glimpse of this changing landscape.

The annual flooding has been described as a miracle. Yearly rains from the highlands of Angola take an 800-kilometer journey downstream, finally reaching Botswana's Okavango Delta three months later.

As the landscape dramatically transforms from desert to wetland, nature bursts into life and visitors begin to arrive in the area.

In Botswana, Okavango tourism is second to only diamond mining as a foreign-exchange earner.

Africa's changing oasis
Tourism in the Okavanga Delta
Lifesaving lessons in the delta

In the middle of the Delta is Maun airport and as the tourist season begins it is about to become one of the busiest landing strips in Southern Africa.

"Most of the tourists who visit the Okavango come in by air into Maun and then they need to get out to these small bush camps and the only planes who can take them there are small bush planes," explained pilot Adam Hedges.

It takes four to six weeks from when the waters arrive to complete the transformation from desert to wetland. As the area is reborn the sheer amount of water in the world's largest inland delta will form an estimated 150,000 islands.

"It's a very seasonal place," Hedges said.

"It's a pulse wetland so a huge wave of water comes in and is slowed down by the hundreds of square kilometers of papyrus and this wave takes about three to four months to reach Maun," he added. "You can see the Delta changing as it comes through."

As Botswana enters its dry season the Delta's water level will reach its peak, fueled by rainwater that has traveled from Angola.

"In Botswana we have maybe an average of 450 millimeters a year (of) rain on the Delta itself. In the highland of Angola they have more like 1,500 millimeters a year, so it's about three times as much rainfall and that flow that comes from the rainfall is what sustains the Delta itself here," explained wetland ecologist Mike Murray Hudson.

Hudson was born in Botswana and has made a career out of studying the floods.

"It's a slow and creeping and nutrient life-bringing pulse of water that comes into the Delta every year and people have been living with it for thousands of years," he said.

While life in the Delta depends on this seasonal pulse, experts like Hudson say that year to year, water levels and its movement can be unpredictable.

"It's a lot higher in the last couple of years and that's why you can't see the sandbanks as easily," said Hedges.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago, all this area would have been dry. It used to be a hunting area, but as you can see, most of it is now underwater, which makes operations quite tricky," he continued.

With the water comes one of the continent's most magnificent migrations. Elephants, zebras and antelope are just some of the animals that make the trek from the Kalahari Desert in the south to the nutrient rich delta in the north.

People need to derive some kind of benefits from the Delta so that they can ultimately look after the Delta ...
--Judge Sango, safari guide
  • Botswana
  • Africa
  • Tourism

Safari guide Judge Sango gets up early to search for wildlife before the mid-day heat kicks in.

"People need to derive some kind of benefits from the Delta so that they can ultimately look after the Delta, so tourism is a very good business. It's a viable business," Sango said.

While the environment may be breathtaking, it isn't always an easy place to work when sometimes a road can become a stream.

"We have been receiving heavy downpours and significant flood waters from Angola; it can be a mission, it can be a challenge driving around this area," he said.

But by October most of the water will have vanished, 10 billion tons sucked up by the atmosphere.

"The water that comes into the Delta never flows out into the sea. It ends up evaporating and pretty much all of the evaporation that takes place, takes place in the Delta itself," Hudson explained.

"About 97 or 98% of the water that flows in from Angola goes into the air through the plants and through the trees and in this, it's pretty unique," he continued.

In the late 90s Botswana registered the Delta as a wetland of international importance through the Ramsar Convention. It is seen as a sign that the government is serious about conserving its tourism gem.

But Sango believes that when it comes to looking after the Delta the local population should be consulted.

"I think people need to be engaged, locals need to be directly involved and they need to feel the positive impacts by way of enterprise," he said. "That way we'll see people and the large population keen to conserve and look after the Delta."