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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 my money the best game viewing was away from the public reserves and in the private ones. Completely exclusive and allowing access to once unreachable areas, Botswana's private reserves not only give you all the classic big game thrills but also allow you to experience activities that are not permitted elsewhere and your guide can even go off-road for don't-bother-with-a-zoom-lens shots.

First of all, lace up your boots and take a walk with an armed guide: there's little that can beat the thrill of treading carefully through big game country. It's a more intimate safari experience and one that enables you to learn about the details - birds calls, animal tracks and medicinal plants.

And then there are night drives. Traversing slowly along sandy tracks, your guide sweeps a spotlight from side to side, catching the eyes of bush babies, giant owls and perhaps the Prince of Darkness himself ... the leopard.

So here's a private look at Botswana and my five favourite private reserves. Oh, one more thing: bring an extra memory card for your camera - you're going to need it.

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 little-visited wetlands that lie between Chobe National Park and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, the Linyanti concession in fact reaches down into the interior of the Chobe and into the Savuti region. A breathtakingly beautiful area of open floodplains, mopane woodland and tangled riverside forest, this is serious big game territory, at none time more than in the late winter when thirsty elephant and buffalo herds crowd the riverbanks and waterholes. And that’s when the area’s infamously large and aggressive lions strike. Expect plenty of dry season drama.

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 also offer river safaris as well as game drives and walks. The first camp is renowned for its elephant population; the latter means ‘roar of the lion’, thanks to its location in a predator-rich enclave.

#2 Wild Dogs: Selinda

There are only a few thousand wild dogs left in the whole of Africa: Botswana’s Selinda concession is currently home to no fewer than three packs, making it one of the best places to see one of Africa’s most endangered large carnivores. It’s also home to the Selinda Spillway, a river of dry sand when I guided there but now a twisting, free-flowing waterway flanked by thirsty animals all year round; a 5-day canoe safari offers the best way to take it all in.

Stay at: Zarafa, Selinda Camp or Selinda Explorers – luxury tented camps that place an emphasis on the game viewing experience.

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

Classic Okavango Delta scenery is on offer in the Vumbura concession: large, lazy lagoons hidden behind forests of towering teaks and shimmering floodplains dotted with tree-islands. It’s where you can see swamp-loving antelope grazing alongside woodland species like sable. Little wonder that it’s a fool-proof destination for game drives, and this super-productive region has a big reputation for big cats and excellent year-round bird watching.

Stay: When it comes to accommodation, you’ll need to make a choice between the sumptuous luxury of Vumbura Plains or more intimate, romance-oriented Little Vumbura.

#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 undisputed top game viewing camps.

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 are at the mercy of seasonal water levels. There are boating and mokoro safaris during the winter flood season but most visitors come here for the game viewing. The area’s open floodplains and grasslands are prime hunting territory for lion, wild dog and cheetah. Gang-like packs of spotted hyena make things interesting: they’ll often move in on a big cat’s kill – the result is flying fur.

Stay: Jao and Nxabega camps are renowned for their classic, land-based game viewing; the accommodation at super-romantic Xudum Delta Lodge has rooftop viewing decks and private plunge pools. Set in a world of dazzling floodplains, Xaranna Camp is the scene of Botswana’s most recent rhino reintroduction, the result of which is a new-born rhino calf.

So if the thought of game drives and guided walks and night drives sounds like your kind of safari, go private. You simply can't miss the thrill of walking on Chief's Island - a unique experience in Botswana - and the night drives in game-rich areas such as Selinda and Linyanti often produce wildlife sightings as dramatic as their daytime equivalents.

Recently an educational team comprising of our Africa Safari Experts Ashley, Tracy and Shelley, as well as Product Manager Carlien, spent some time in the Okavango Delta. They went private and haven't stopped talking about it since they returned. Have a look at their Google + album for some amazing photos.

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

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