As African Safari Experts , we spend every day doing what we love: helping our clients live out their dream African vacations in magical destinations. But it’s not all fun and games – to reach expert level we have to pass serious written examinations (just like college) and personally visit every destination we recommend. In fact, we’re can't advise our clients on a destination until we’ve passed the exams and actually beenthere. After mastering South Africa – which really is ‘a world in one country’ with every sort of attraction from whales and wine to the Big 5 and resorts like Sun City – we started working on our next destination, Botswana.
With our exams done (and questions like How many litres of water flow into the Okavango Delta every year? answered with a fascinating: 11 000 000 000 000 litres or 11 cubic kilometres), we boarded a scheduled flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg where we changed airlines and swooped over the vast Kalahari Desert to Botswana's busiest little airport, Maun. There we switched from jumbo to light aircraft for our charter flight to Xaranna Tented Camp.
Our introduction to the incredible wilderness of north-western Botswana was the breath-taking flight over the Okavango Delta - a vast wetland wilderness with a patchwork of open flood plains, meandering channels, lush islands and shimmering lagoons, not to mention our first sighting of a herd of strolling elephants. The Delta's seasonally flooded grasslands make for an incredible aerial view and it’s no wonder that the area was named a World Heritage Site in 2014.
Touching down on a dirt runway, we were met by our professional guides and the ‘Tinny’, our super cool mode of transport: an aluminium motor boat. In July, the Delta water levels are high - actually, there’s water everywhere, so a lightweight, metal-bottomed boat (much like a halved tin can, hence the nickname Tinny) offers the smoothest ride. There is nothing quite like the wind in your hair while you fly along at 25 knots through the waterways.
Less than 20 minutes into our boat trip we had our first extraordinary game sighting: an elderly bull elephant grazing on an abundance of water lilies. As bulls age, explained our guide, their teeth begin to deteriorate so they prefer to feed on softer food. Watching such a large and graceful mammal up close is mesmerising – we spent over half-an-hour getting to know the big guy.
One of the many advantages to visiting one of Botswana's private concessions is that you can explore on foot - easily the most intimate way of getting to know a place. Nature walks engage all your senses - you become absorbed in the details of the grasslands around you, learning all sorts of facts and tips from your guide. On our second day, we walked for over two hours, identifying a variety of droppings (yes, they were surprisingly interesting!), scrambling up ant hills and uncovering the secret lives of wild animals as told by their spoor and trails. The walking safari was definitely a highlight on our tour.
No trip to the Okavango would be complete without an early morning mokoro ride – the iconic symbol of the Delta. Centuries ago, the BaYei and Banoka people used the hollowed-out trunks of Terminalia trees to make these surprisingly comfortable and stable canoes. Our dawn mokoro meander, bring poled along gently by a guide who kept his eyes peeled for goliath herons, far-off zebras and underwater hippos, was the epitome of serene relaxation.
Our third day in Botswana saw us head east to Moremi National Park. When we got to this well-managed and unfenced reserve, we heard rumours of a young lioness and her cubs who had just fed and were lazing at the Khwai River. We set off on a game drive and, after about 40 minutes of tracking, our guide found them in a patch of shade, rolling around playfully. At first, their mom seemed rather concerned by the vehicle and proceeded to cautiously investigate us. Fortunately, she quickly realised that we weren’t any kind of threat.
As dusk approached, we made our way to Moremi Camp (the first of our three luxurious mobile camp stays) and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a huge herd of elephants. We counted almost 75 ellies! Having spent most of the day down by the river, they were making their way back to the mopane tree forests, stopping off at a dried-up waterhole to feed on the mineral salts in the ground. We watched in awe as these giants stamped their feet, grinding up the earth before spraying themselves with mineral dust. One young bull made use of his game viewing audience by showing off his mock-charge, announcing his challenge to the vehicle with a thundering trumpet. But the ellie who sole our hearts was a tiny baby, only a few weeks old, who was trying to learn how to control his body. His clumsy feet, floppy trunk and boundless energy was a real joy to watch!
Botswana isn’t only about the big game though - we were particularly astounded by the abundant birdlife. We went from being ‘birdy-aware’ to birding-enthusiasts in a matter of hours.
After an exciting day on safari it was wonderful to arrive at camp and be greeted by friendly faces, fresh lemonade and hot towels, just in time for sundowners.
We knew we would be camping, but we were amazed at how comfortable this mobile camping experience was: the creature comforts of double beds with down duvets, carpeted floors, flushing toilets, hot water and open air bucket showers awaited us.
And if you’re wondering what the food is like, well, we were served three delicious courses every night, often straight off the fire! Breakfast consists of cereals and seasonal fruit, followed by a ‘full English’ (bacon, eggs and toast). Every afternoon, high tea was a welcome treat before our evening game drives – sweet and savoury nibbles to tide us over until the next dinner feast. But our culinary highlight would have to be the fact that all breads, cakes and rolls were freshly baked in a hot coal Dutch oven, arriving at our table still warm to the touch. Yum!
The splendour of Savute
Our fifth day saw us on the road again, driving to the Savute Reserve. The journey was long but the fantastic game viewing along the way and a 3-course bush lunch among a herd of impala kept it interesting. The Savute marsh has changed radically since 2012 with an influx of grazing herds, such as zebra, wildebeest and impala. This is because the Savute Channel, which was bone dry for almost three decades, began to flow once again. An annual supply of fresh water has transformed this remote and wild region into a rolling marshland.
You can’t venture more than 20 minutes through the hilly terrain of Savute without encountering a few long-legged beauties – giraffes. It’s wonderful to watch them feed and drink as they spread their legs wide in a careful geometric configuration to get their heads down to the water.
On arrival at Savute Camp, our fantastic guide – KD – put his tracking skills to the test to find us a young, very elusive leopard which was said to be in the vicinity. After spotting her fresh tracks and droppings on our first night in Savute, we made it our sole mission to find her. Finally, after much searching, and just before the sun fell behind the hills, we spotted her sitting in the middle of the road. She gave us one long look and then decided to saunter, very casually, into the bush. Those seven minutes we spent with this spotted African supermodel were spectacular – one of the most graceful cats we have ever seen.
The morning of our seventh day saw us take another long game drive into the heart of Chobe National Park. We stopped off for lunch at the riverside only to be met by some very cute but very cheeky vervet monkeys. These jesters of the bush definitely received our award for ‘The Biggest Egos in Chobe’ – after they stole our third piece of roast chicken, we decided to head on to our campsite (vervets are omnivorous, meaning they snack on both small animals and insects, as well as plants).
The drive took us past a pride of eight lions – two older females, two teenage females and four 1-year-old cubs. They had recently fed on a large buffalo and were lolling in the afternoon shade, digesting their feast. The youngest male decided he had not yet had his fill and began dragging the skin of the buffalo towards the lazy group but he was soon reprimanded by his mother. Lions, our guide told us, do not consume the skin or innards of their kills to avoid potential infection and to ensure optimum digestion.
After a short siesta at Chobe Camp, our evening game drive saw us return to the same pride of lions where we got to witness the wilderness's undertakers. A colony of Cape vultures was feeding on the remains of the buffalo carcass. You can only truly understand the term ‘feeding frenzy’ when you’ve seen a vulture colony clean up!
Venturing further to the river’s edge that evening, we became acutely aware of why Chobe steals the hearts of so many.
There are few more beautiful experiences than absorbing the last rays of sunlight at the edge of the Chobe River while watching giraffe and elephants meander in the distance, a massive buffalo grazing knee-deep in water nearby and baboons carefully grooming one another.
The next day we tried something different and chartered a local fishing boat to venture to the meeting point of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers. Surrounded by fisherman in mekoro, we tried our hand at tiger fishing. Tessa's fiancé, Nicholas, managed to catch and release over 10 African tigerfish, which are renowned for putting up an energetic ‘fight’ at the end of the reel!
After our fishing expedition we climbed onto an open-decked barge and ventured out into the heart of the river. As we meandered along, we witnessed a fascinating display as two young elephant bulls showed submission to the most senior bull by a tangling and intertwining their trunks with his.
In a dramatic finale to our time in Botswana we came across a fresh buffalo kill by our favourite pride of eight lions. They had taken it by surprise in the early hours of the morning and were taking their time making a meal of him.
The Smoke that Thunders
We ended our incredible journey by crossing over into Zimbabwe where we spent the evening strolling along the 14 look-out points of the famous Victoria Falls. It’s an awe-inspiring experience to feel the great rumble as 550 million litres of water drop every minute and drench you with fine spray. One of the best parts of our stay at the Ilala Lodge was enjoying a quiet glass of wine while listening the light thunder of the Falls in the background and feeling this Seventh Natural Wonder of the World’s mist settle on our skin…
To try and translate a journey like the Botswana Explorer Expedition into words isn’t easy. This incredible, bountiful, abundant, magnificent and intimate experience is one that provides a lifetime of memories. It’s a taste of true wilderness with many on-the-ground guest delights, which puts you right in the middle of Botswana’s best-known wildlife regions. It has the rustic charm of camping combined with excellent service and home comforts. Now that we've experienced it for ourselves, we can’t wait to share it with you, too!