The Thamalakane River

When you first fly into Maun, you’ll smile in delight when you see the tiny international airport sitting in the middle of the vast and beautiful savanna. Those smiles turn to laughter when you see that arriving passengers aren’t met by a fleet of taxis, like at any other airport, but by a fleet of Cessnas and other tiny planes waiting to whisk you off to the lodges of the Okavango Delta.

It’s a lovely way to start a holiday, filling visitors with the sense that this place is truly magical. The land around Maun has been weaving that same spell over visitors for centuries, as a delve into its history shows. The town has grown along the banks of the Thamalakane River – meaning ‘place of reeds’ because of the abundant vegetation.

Thamalakane River

The Thamalakane has no clear beginning or end. It was created by the Thamalakane fault, formed two million years ago by tectonic shifts. When land between two parallel faults, the Gumare fault and the Kunyere fault, started to drop, the Okavango River was blocked by the Thamalakane fault and fanned out into the numerous water channels that are now known as the Okavango Delta.

The story of Maun itself started in the late 1800s when Chief Tawana and his people settled there. They originally built the royal residencies away from the river because of hippos, crocodiles, snakes, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and because the river was treated as a bathroom and a laundry.

Thamalakane River Botswana

But European settlers began to arrive and focused their developments around the river, despite the hippo and enormous crocodiles, which reputedly snapped sheep and goats from the shores and inspired fantastic stories.

One of the earliest European arrivals was Charles Riley in 1882, a trader who opened liquor stores and hotels including what is today Cresta Riley’s Hotel. In 1938, his son Harry Riley set up a camping ground and a bar for hunters travelling from Francistown 35 hours away. They arrived exhausted and thirsty, and Harry’s establishments thrived.


The Thamalakane River has become a prime recreation area, especially where the Thamalakane and the Boro Rivers meet at an area known as the Beach. Now a plethora of companies based in Maun offer safaris, charter planes, river cruises and fishing or birdwatching expeditions into the Okavango Delta.

by Lesley Stones