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 and elephant herds gather in their hundreds.
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 plus some excellent advantages:
The first advantage is exploring on foot. Guided walking safaris are not permitted in national parks, but in private reserves, prepare to put on your walking shoes! On these expeditions you are accompanied by an armed tracker and a passionate guide. Approaching big game without a vehicle to buffer you is an exhilarating experience, and you will also come to appreciate the smaller, more intimate details of the 'bushveld' - 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 scenic viewing spot (with a sundowner in hand) and then head back to the lodge slowly, sweeping a spotlight from side to side, catching the eyes of bush babies, giant owls and perhaps even Africa's big cats, lions and leopards, which hunt at twilight.
The third major advantage is crowd-free game viewing. Usually there are only a handful, or even just a single safari lodge on each private concession. The lodges are intimate, ensuring that only a small, set number of guests are on the concession at any given time.
Here's a look at my five favourite private conservancies in Botswana.
1. Big Game at 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 breath-taking landscape of open floodplains, mopane woodland and tangled riverine forest, Linyanti is serious big game territory, especially late in Botswana's dry winter months (about June to 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 heavyweight mammals, like buffalo and elephant.
Stay at: Kings Pool or Kwando Lagoon Camp – two luxury camps that offer game drives, guided nature walks and boat excursions. Kings Pool is renowned for its elephant population while Kwando Lagoon has regular wild dog sightings. For something quite intimate and special, Linyanti Bush Camp offers an exclusive safari experience in the heart of the Linyanti.
2. Wild Dogs at Selinda
There are only a few thousand African wild dogs left in Africa: Botswana’s Selinda concession is currently home to three thriving packs of wild dog, making it one of the best places to see one of the continent’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.
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 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 guests and offers boat and canoe excursions.
4. Mombo & Chief's Islands
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.
5. Land & Water in the Okavango Delta
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. Camp Moremi enjoys a picturesque setting on the Xakanaxa Lagoon and offers memorable mekoro trips, while Kwara is located in a private concession overlooking a lagoon, and is known for its excellent land and water based guiding.
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!