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Going Private: Getting the Best out of Botswana

Botswana was part of my life for five glorious years and I have yet to see wildlife anywhere else that can match it. It's a place where buffalo gather in their hundreds and elephant herds are measured in their thousands. 

Famous destinations like the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park attract the most attention but for me, the best game viewing is away from the famous reserves and in the private conservancies. Completely exclusive and allowing access to once unreachable areas, Botswana's private conservancies offer all the classic big game thrills and also allow you to experience activities that are not permitted elsewhere - which means two excellent advantages.

The first advantage is exploring on foot. Put on your walking shoes and step out into the wilderness with an armed guide: there is no closer experience of the land than a nature walk in big game country guided by a passionate professional. It's an intimate safari experience that allows you to see and appreciate the details - birds calls, animal tracks and dens, medicinal plants and wild flowers.

The second advantage is night drives. National parks require all vehicles to be off the roads by sunset. In a private conservancy, your guide can finish up the afternoon game drive at a sunset viewing spot and head back to the lodge slowly, sweeping a spotlight from side to side, catching the eyes of bush babies, giant owls and even Africa's big cats, lions and leopards, which hunt at twilight.

These advantages combined with crowd-free game viewing put Botswana's private conservancies at the top of my recommendations. Here's a look at my five favourite private conservancies. 

Going Private in Botswana - Selinda Camp
Private concessions in the Okavango Delta offer unparalleled wilderness experiences, from sundowners to game viewing.

#1 Big Game: Linyanti

Taking its name from the Linyanti wetlands that lie between Chobe National Park and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, the Linyanti conservancy reaches down into the Chobe and Savute regions. A breathtaking landscape of open floodplains, mopane woodland and tangled riverine forest, Linyanti is serious big game territory, especially late in Botswana's dry winter months (June-September) when impressive elephant and buffalo herds crowd the riverbanks and waterholes. The dry season is a dramatic time and excellent opportunity to see Linyanti’s famously large lions prides in action - these big cats have made an art of hunting Africa's heavy weight mammals.

Going Private in Botswana - large elephant herds
Large elephant and buffalo herds gather on the riverbanks in the late winter - a fantastic time for predator sightings too!

Stay at: Kings Pool or Duma Tau – two luxury camps that offer game drives, guided nature walks and boat excursions. Kings Pool is renowned for its elephant population while Duma Tau, which means ‘roar of the lion’, is set in lion territory.

#2 Wild Dogs: Selinda

There are only a few thousand wild dogs left in Africa: Botswana’s Selinda concession is currently home to three thriving packs, making it one of the best places to see one of Africa’s rarest carnivores. It’s also home to the Selinda Spillway, a free-flowing waterway flanked by dry Kalahari with resident wildlife year round. The best way to explore Selinda is on a 5-day canoe safari.

Stay at: Zarafa, Selinda Camp or Selinda Explorers – luxury tented camps that offer game drives, guided nature walks and excursions on boats or canoes.

Going Private in Botswana - wild dogs at Selinda
The Selinda region is well known for its wild dog packs, and is one of the best places in Africa to see these rare animals.
Going Private in Botswana - Linyanti Bush Camp
Explore the Selinda either by game drive vehicle or canoe.
Going Private in Botswana - Duma Tau
Duma Tau in the Linyanti region means 'roar of the lion'.

#3 Northern Delta: Vumbura

The Vumbura concession features classic Okavango Delta scenery: large, tranquil lagoons edged with forests of towering teak trees lie between grassy floodplains dotted with tree-islands. Here is where you might see water-loving antelope, like lechwe, grazing alongside beautiful woodland species, like sable. This is one of Botswana's most scenic game viewing areas, with a reputation for big cat sightings and excellent year-round bird watching.

Stay: I recommend either the sumptuous luxury of Vumbura Plains, which offers game drives, guided nature walks, boating and canoeing, or the more intimate romance of Little Vumbura, which hosts a maximum of 12 guets and offers boat and canoe excursions.

#4 Delta Island: Mombo & Chief’s Island

Lying in the Moremi Game Reserve, Chief’s Island is the Okavango Delta’s largest piece of dry land and consequently it’s packed with animals. But to explore it by 4X4 you’ll need to be in the private Mombo concession. Famous as the delta’s predator capital – I once encountered a pack of 40 wild dogs there - Chief’s Island is also where both black and white rhinos were reintroduced to the wild after decades of absence. It’s still not easy to see rhinos in Botswana but the Mombo concession gives you a decent chance.

Stay at: Mombo Camp or Chief’s Camp – two of Botswana’s leading lodges, both offering exceptional game viewing on specially modified vehicles. Chief's Camp also offers canoe excursions.

Going Private in Botswana - Walking Safaris
Walking safaris is a huge part of the Okavango Delta experience; much of the time you'll be learning about flora and fauna, but you will come across bigger game too!
Going Private in Botswana - Mombo Camp
Chief's Island is well known for its superb game-viewing.
Going Private in Botswana - big cats
Leopard and cheetah are seen more often than you would think.

#5 Land & Water: the Okavango Delta concessions

The camps in the concessions of the southern delta depend on a seasonal influx of water that feeds the outer fringes of this inland delta. There are boating and mokoro safaris when the wet season has been plentiful, but the real attraction is the land-based game viewing. The area’s open savannah is ideal hunting territory for lion, wild dog and cheetah. Packs of spotted hyena make things interesting: they often try to move in on a big cat’s kill with the resulting predator-on-predator action.

Stay: Jao and Nxabega camps are renowned for their classic game drives and guided nature walks. Both camps offer boating excursions in the wet months. Xudum Delta Lodge has rooftop viewing decks and private plunge pools - it's super romantic and, like Xaranna Camp, offers game drives and guided nature walks with boating excursions in the wet months.

Take it from a former professional guide - me - for the double advantage of night game drives and guided walks, you simply can't go wrong choosing a private conservancy for your Botswana safari. They are also known as private concessions and private reserves - you'll see all three terms in guide books.

Oh, one more thing: if you choose a private conservancy, take plenty of extra memory cards for your camera - you'll need them!

P.S. Our safari experts Ashley, Tracy and Shelley, along with our Product Marketer, Carlien, went on a private safari to the Okavango Delta. They haven't stopped talking about it since they returned - take a look at their Google+ photo album.

Written by Dominic Chadbon. Connect with him on Google+.

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