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Discover Botswana’s shoulder season

It’s been a long three and a half years since my last educational trip to Africa, hence excitement levels were high prior to my recent trip to Botswana. How I was longing to feel the warm African sun, smell the wild sage that I so associate with the country, and of course, reacquaint myself with the wildlife. I was travelling in the shoulder season, a time when travel to Botswana is much more competitively priced and was interested to find out how, if at all, the game viewing experience might be impacted.

Generally speaking, access to the various camps in Botswana is by light aircraft, but I was joining a mobile safari, operated by Golden Africa Safaris. The camp site was located in the beautiful Xini area in the southwest of the Moremi Game Reserve and it made more sense to arrive by road. The journey was almost cathartic; initially driving through the dusty roads of Maun, the town soon gave way to villages and the tarmac road turned into a gravel one and I could feel the stresses of the long journey and the shackles of everyday life slowly lift. As we left ‘civilisation’ behind us, we were soon crossing through community lands where elephants and kudus lazily watched our progress.

I appreciate all types of accommodation on safari, but being on a mobile safari really is my happy place. Simple, but comfortable, tented accommodation provided all the creature comforts that one would want, matched with some of the best food I had on safari and most importantly, superb guiding. Nature, however, was the star of the show; beautiful open plains mixed with woodlands played host to giraffes, impalas, elephants, kudu, hyaena and even wild dogs and after dark the skies above were an explosion of stars.

Whilst we saw plenty, the big cats were elusive. They were definitely present in the area; we could hear lions calling and saw the telltale paw prints of both leopard and lions. The anticipation of following tracks was great fun, even if the bush was just a bit too dense for us to actually see the lions that we knew were in there. I suspect they saw us, however, as the second vehicle from camp arrived in the same area a short time later and found fresh lion tracks over our tyre tracks! A question perhaps of who is watching who?

With only four campsites in the area, plus travelling in the quieter shoulder season, the game viewing experience was surprisingly exclusive. The location means that those staying in the popular campsites in the northwest corner of the reserve and those arriving for day trips from Maun only reach the area several hours after we were out on our drives, leaving us in peace to explore in the early mornings and late afternoons.

I continued my journey by road, cutting across the south of Moremi Game Reserve and on to the Khwai Private Reserve. Much of this vast reserve is covered by thick mopane woodland but the southern sector is framed by beautiful riverine woodland, large vleis and water holes. The game viewing was rewarding with a small herd of beautiful sable being a highlight and at last, some cats, including a leopard with a kill that we drove right past! It was lying maybe two feet away from the road but was so well hidden by the long grass that we only spotted it as we drove back along the same track after visiting one of the four lodges situated within the reserve.

Travelling west I next visited Kwara and Shinde, both old favorites of Safari Consultants. With both camps having access to year-round permanent water channels, it was here that I got my first reminder of just how special the Delta experience is. Game viewing from the water, whether that be by mekoro or small motorboat, is such a contrast to game drives. Everything slows down and becomes much quieter as you gently move along the channels, sharing the waters with yawning hippos and enjoying the colourful water birds flitting between the reeds. I was lucky enough to see a handsome male sitatunga, the shy reed dwelling antelope, but true to form it took one look at us and quickly disappeared back into the reeds.

There is a serenity in being on the water that I don’t think you find elsewhere, and is there a better place from which to enjoy a spectacular African sunset? I don’t think so!

The northwest corner of the Delta, just at the bottom of the panhandle, is one of the first areas to receive the flood waters and while enjoying sunset drinks with my guide from Kadizora Camp, we could see the gentle movement as the waters slowly began to push in, in front of us. A morning boat cruise along the Selinda Spillway was a wonderful way in which to welcome a new day but the area really produced on an afternoon game drive. Large floodplains fringed with giant jackalberries, rain trees and sycamore fig trees were already attracting big game with excellent sightings of giraffe and buffalo, but the highlight for me was being able to sit with a breeding herd of approximately 45 elephants and being the only vehicle present.

The guides certainly have to work harder in the shoulder season when the long grass has not yet been trampled down by the elephants and buffalos returning from their green season home in the woodlands, and the vegetation is still quite thick. Tracking skills need to come to the fore and those were an education in themselves as I was tested in identifying strange zig zagging patterns on the sandy road which turned out to be a lazy elephant letting its trunk drag on the road while it walked along!

There are moments however, when the animals make it easy. I drove south from Kadizora to Duba Explorers, a charming camp with the best of both worlds on its doorstep with large open plains and extensive waterways to explore. However, my afternoon game drive got no further than the opposite side of the channel to the front of my tent as a wild dog crashed through, pursuing a large male impala. Having initially chased its intended prey into the water, the dog quickly retreated when it realized the channel was also occupied by a large, and somewhat grumpy, bull hippo. The drama lasted until nightfall with the dog constantly running from one side of the channel to the other, springing up and down in an attempt to flush out its target. The impala remained resolute however and much later, while having dinner on the deck, we finally heard the impala make its escape.

My next stop was a long-anticipated visit to Mombo Camp, often viewed as being the premier wildlife destination in Botswana. In spite of it being the shoulder season and a bush fire having passed uncomfortably close to the lodge days previously, leaving swathes of scorched earth, it is clear that this is a wildlife haven like no other; lions greeted me on arrival at the airstrip and wild dogs bade me farewell; and in between, a constant stream of buffalo and elephants crossed the impressive floodplains in front of the lodge.

It was here that I had my most unusual sighting of the trip. Sitting in the middle of the road, staring at us and unwilling to move, was a huge male bullfrog. One of the ‘ugly five,’ this is the only frog that has teeth, and which will bite. It was a surprise to find it at this time of year as it should be safely cocooned underground, awaiting the next rains. For whatever reason, it must have been disturbed and was not happy to be confronted by a big vehicle. With a little encouragement, it eventually moved off into the bushes and we can only hope that it quickly found a new subterranean home, until the rains come later in the year.

I continued my journey, flying southeast over the vast Chief’s Island to arrive at the Chitabe Concession, another long-standing favourite of ours. Bound on either side by the Gomoti and Santantadibe Rivers, the concession is known for its superb game viewing. Indeed, throughout my trip I had met people telling me how amazing the game viewing had been during their stay there, so I was anticipating a game drive packed full of sightings. I had a great afternoon drive but saw none of the marque species I had been hoping for. It is sometimes easy to say you have seen nothing, when in fact you just haven’t seen the well-known big animals. The reality is that there is always something to see, whether that be the bird life, the insects, the flora and fauna or spending time with the wildlife that we sometimes overlook. April is the rutting season, and there is nothing more entertaining than watching a male impala trying to control his harem of females whilst at the same time challenging impostors all too eager to take over!

A final busy morning of site inspections saw me take to the skies with Helicopter Horizons. For me it was a time efficient way to visit four camps in one morning, but it also served as a fabulous reminder as to just how beautiful the Okavango Delta is when viewed from the air. It was such a treat to fly over the Gomoti River and to look down on the large number of elephants making their way to drink from the river. Including a scenic helicopter flight or transfer on an itinerary, is highly recommended.

As I write this, and reflect on my trip, I seem to have answered my own question. The number of sightings and the diversity of wildlife that I saw did not disappoint and reinforced my opinion that the shoulder season is a great time to visit Botswana.

Mary stayed with Golden Africa Safaris and at Little Sable, Kwara Camp, Shinde, Kadizora, Duba Explorers, Mombo Camp, Chitabe and Mma Dinare.