The Panhandle & Tsdodilo Hills

Stunning deep water channels and ancient rock paintings

As the source of the Okavango Delta within Botswana the panhandle is one of its most important ecological destinations. Stretching between 70-100km in length, the channel carries the rainfall run-off from the Angolan Highlands into the Kalahari basin that is the Okavango Delta.  The major river system is the mighty Okavango River and it is here that you will always find classic Okavango scenery: deep blue river channels lined by tall, dense papyrus reed beds.

Floating islands formed by interwoven underwater vegetation develop in the calm lagoons, which can be explored via the myriad of tributary channels whose course are constantly changing. The Panhandle region is renowned for its excellent bird watching and fishing and offers a quintessential Okavango experience. Meanwhile, just 35 kms from the panhandle lie the Tsdodilo Hills, Botswana’s first UNESCO site for cultural significance, home to a large collection of ancient rock paintings.

The Panhandle region lies beyond the protected fencing that surrounds much of the Delta ecosystem so this is not a classic safari destination.  Despite this, there are a variety of animals and a plethora of birds to be found here including hippo, elephant, crocodiles, otters and even the shy and more elusive Sitatunga Antelope can be seen here. The birding is excellent and highly recommended for enthusiasts, the Pel’s Fishing Owl is regularly seen here and will undoubtedly be a highlight. In addition, many traditional local communities still thrive here, their livelihoods and day-to-day focused on the permanent waterway of the Okavango River.

The Panhandle is a key destination for keen birdwatchers and fishermen.  Activities focus on the perennial waters of the Okavango River.  Boating, mokoro, kayaking, fishing, bird-watching and journeying by houseboat are the favourite pastimes here.  If you’re not on the water, then you’re by the water – soaking up the tranquillity of this calm and peaceful environment.  The Panhandle is also the starting point for “Trans Okavango” expeditions.  These intrepid adventures by water, take you from the top of the Delta down through to Maun following the natural and ever-changing water courses of the Okavango River and Delta channels.  This unique safari is only available when water levels are at their highest: May-September and take 5-7 days.  Choose between kayaking or boating and grab nature by the paddle enjoying rough and exciting bush camping along the way!

Fishing in the Panhandle is a “must” and for experienced fishermen the Tiger fishing and Barbel Run are both attractions that will rank highly in experience.  During the months of September and October, smaller bait fish are forced into the Panhandle system, creating a feeding frenzy of the Barbel (Catfish).  In turn, this attracts “the Tigers”, creating a sport fest for active fishermen.  For those who enjoy a quieter fishing experience, this part of Botswana offers fantastic fly-fishing for the famous (and delicious!) Okavango bream.

Most accommodation options are mid-range or luxurious – set in the tranquil and serene settings of undisturbed riverine wilderness.  The emphasis in these locations is to immerse oneself in the natural surroundings and appreciate the beating heart of the Okavango Delta’s existence. An excellent way to do this is by floating along the River by Houseboat.  This experience allows for complete relaxation and serenity.

The exception to the river-oriented experience is the Lodge at Feline Fields, which is located in the desert region of the Aha Hills.  This location focuses more on the cultural and geological specialities of the Kalahari rather than wildlife sightings and is committed to creating a sensitive commercial destination to enhance support in the local area.

Tsodilo Hills, Gcwihaba (Drotsky’s) Caves and Aha Hills –

Tsodilo Hills hold an unusual collection of primitive art that some estimate to be around 4,000 in total. A visit to these ancient rock paintings is highly recommended as part of a Panhandle experience.  There is evidence of ancient civilisations with other age-old artefacts including beads, carved bone and pottery dating back 90,000 years.  There is a small museum on site and it is recommended to take a guide with you on the walking trails to interpret the paintings.

Other destinations in the area of historical, cultural and geological interest are the Gcwihaba Caves (Drotsky’s Caves) and Aha Hills.  These locations are extremely remote and visited by very few.  The caves are Botswana’s only network of subterranean caves and pits with incredible examples of stalactites and stalagmites.  There is a 1km passage-way through the caves, interlinked by an entrance at either end.  Aha Hills on the Namibian/Botswana border are smaller than Tsodilo and famed as being one of a few remaining destinations where one may still see a San Bushman trance dance.

Accommodation in this Area

From $3,807 per person

Okavango Spirit

Explore the upper reaches of the Okavango panhandle in your own private houseboat- ideal for friends and families looking for a unique and peaceful Okavango experience. The Okavango Spirit is a smart, newly refurbished houseboat with seven en-suite cabins and spacious decks offering wonderful views of the Okavango. Booked as part of a 2 or 3 night itinerary – guests can explore the waterways and islands of the Delta, fish, visit Tsodilo Hills and do game drives across the border in Namibia.

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From $370 per person

Mopiri Camp

Mopiri Camp - translated as ‘’Little Island’’-offers a classic water camp experience. Situated on a three-kilometre permanent lagoon, surrounded by sparkling Okavango waters, Mopiri sits among quintessential Okavango scenery. Activities focus on the water, with boat trips through the winding channels of papyrus and peaceful mokoro rides gliding through the shallower waters as you explore this unique eco-system. Tranquil island surroundings allow guests to set their own pace.

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From $540 per person

The Kubu Queen

The Kubu Queen is a charming vintage-style houseboat travelling along the Okavango Delta’s panhandle offering classic river safaris, excellent fishing and birding opportunities. Sleeping six on board with the option of accommodating additional guests in dome tents on islands at night, this is an ideal experience for friends, families and small groups. This is a water and wilderness experience, not a big game safari, and the focus is on boating, fishing, birding and walking.

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From $350 per person

Nxamaseri Island Lodge

Nxamaseri Island Lodge has a beautiful setting on the panhandle of the Okavango Delta, specialising in water and cultural activities. It is the closest lodge to Tsodilo Hills, home to over 4,500 ancient rock paintings and a UNESCO World Heritage Site This charming lodge, one of Botswana’s oldest. A wilderness retreat, unpretentious and welcoming. Water activities are at the heart of Nxamaseri, which offers superb fly and sport fishing, as well as boating, mokoro and excellent birding.

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From $ per person

Shakawe River Lodge

Shakawe River Lodge lies 20km from the Namibian border and 380km from Maun making it an ideal stop for self-drivers. This beautifully refurbished and air-conditioned Lodge overlooks the Panhandle’s key river system: the Okavango River and the focus is very much on river based activities with fishing and birding activities. Day trips to Tsodilo Hills, to see the ancient bushman paintings can be arranged and game viewing across the border at Mahangu National Park.

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