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Frances enjoys an exhilarating adventure in Chobe and the Okavango

It had been five years since my last visit to Botswana and this trip had me falling in love all over again with its exceptional natural beauty and feel of true wilderness. When you have an incredible wildlife sighting (male lions roaring, wild dog hunting, elephants trumpeting) in the middle of the beautiful Okavango Delta, on a private concession with no other vehicles around, there really is nowhere that compares.

I began my trip with a couple of nights in the Chobe area in the far north of the country. It offers a softer start compared to the rest of the country, with tarmac roads from Kasane airport and the town of Kasane town right next to the park; but that can work well for your initial touchdown in Botswana and an introductory couple of days’ game viewing. I spent the first night at Chobe Chilwero – a very comfortable lodge just a short drive from the airport and the park gate (all very easy and convenient). Here I spent my first evening in Botswana watching herds of elephant quench their thirst from the banks of the Chobe River. In the dry season, the number of elephants here would multiply tenfold, and I can only imagine the sights and sounds.

I then proceeded to exit Botswana, crossed the Chobe River by boat, spent slightly more than one would like at the Namibia immigration office to enter Namibia and finally boarded the Chobe Princess houseboat for the night. It’s an exciting feeling as you climb aboard, get to know your fellow guests and settle into your room as the boat gently glides down the river. I enjoyed both an afternoon and morning cruise on the tender boat on the river. We didn’t see any elephants this time, but spotted some large crocodiles, buffalo and birdlife. The aim of this experience is not to see the top wildlife action of Chobe, but it is a serene and different way to explore the river for a few nights.

And so the time came to re-enter Botswana, and take a light aircraft flight into one of my favourite places on the continent – the Okavango Delta, where I would spend the next nine nights. As we landed at our first bush airstrip, I had butterflies of excitement knowing how special this place is. I spent a night on the Shinde concession at the re-imagined Footsteps camp, now a much more permanent structure, with less of a focus solely on walking but still maintaining that charm with only four tents. The concession really is stunning and we spent the evening watching two male lions make their way over to a buffalo that they had successfully killed a few days before. From here I moved on to the Kwara concession and stayed at the new 4 Rivers. The outlook from the camp is fabulous, and the tents are vast and light with triple aspect windows making the most of the view.

Next came an adventure. I took a helicopter flight south over the Delta into the Abu concession. This mode of transport is truly one of the best ways to see and understand this ecosystem and I would recommend a scenic helicopter flight or transfer to anyone planning a safari in the Okavango Delta. I was spending two nights here with Beagle Expeditions.

It certainly was an arrival to remember as we landed the helicopter right next to our first camp where a small, pumped waterhole was attracting herd after herd after herd of elephants taking advantage of the fresh water source. Once I had got over the excitement of the number of elephants in such close proximity, a fellow guest quietly announced that there were in fact a pack of wild dog sleeping under a tree behind the elephants – wow! I knew these two nights were going to be good but the wildlife just kept delivering: the wild dogs proceeded to kill an impala in front of camp; on our game drive a pride of 14 lion curiously made eye contact with us as if we were the first vehicle they’d ever seen; elephants trumpeted at the waterhole at sunset when something perturbed them; and then the lions decided to chase a buffalo right in front of camp the next morning just before we were about to set off on our walk.

The normal Beagle Expeditions experience is a four night stay split between two mobile camp locations. After two nights, you transfer to the next camp location either on foot or mokoro (depending on the season) enjoying exploring the concession and noticing the smaller things along the way. On the day we walked between the camps, the temperatures were hot and after roughly 7 km it was time to lay out the roll mat we had carried in our backpack and tuck into a delicious picnic lunch before taking a siesta under a shady tree. Depending on the season and how hot it is and how hardy you are, you either carry on for another 7 km on foot or instead take a slow drive to the next camp.

In addition to the exceptional game viewing we experienced, the hospitality rivalled the traditional luxury “five star” camps I visited on the trip. The food was exceptional, the care taken over every detail was just brilliant, our guide Ace was superb, and I have to say, it’s up there in my favourite nights in Africa ever.

Beagle was a hard act to follow, but luckily we were spending the night on the stunning Duba concession, known for its excellent game viewing and well run camps. We spent some time that afternoon watching a large male lion tip toe gingerly across a channel – a proud big cat and some water are always an amusing combination. The next morning we enjoyed the most serene and picturesque boat cruise bumping into a couple of elephant quietly grazing on the sweet reeds.

It was then time to explore further north in the Delta, almost in the panhandle where you’ll find permanent water all year round – a guaranteed water and birding haven. Setari camp is set up in the trees and feels like a jungle camp. Water activities are always a nice break from game drives – relaxing, calming and offering a different perspective. I enjoyed a boat cruise through the papyrus reeds, occasionally coming out into bigger lagoons with plenty of jacanas padding about the lily pads, and eventually watched the most beautiful sunset from the boat.

I then moved on the Jao concession, where I had the pleasure of the most beautiful mokoro trip in front of Jacana camp. We spent the morning silently gliding through the open water. We stopped at an island and looked for a Pel’s fishing owl (sadly no luck this time), and then heard a leopard call. We sped across the water and spent the next 15 minutes scouring a few smaller islands to see if we could catch a glimpse. Again, sadly no luck, but just the experience was enough to make it a most memorable morning.

My trip came to an end with a night at a new camp called Cha Cha Metsi which offers old school hospitality – the shine and slickness that you find in the well-oiled bigger safari operators was less apparent, but I found a warm and inviting atmosphere; and finally a night at Stanley’s Camp.

On my last morning drive before heading to the airstrip to begin the journey home, our vehicle broke down. Our guide slipped out of the vehicle and fixed it pretty quickly. We then drove into the middle of 17 sleeping lions, at which point the vehicle decided to not start again. There was no slipping out of the vehicle this time for a quick fix! Not a great place to get stuck, especially considering how lazy lions are. However, our story had a very happy ending as we were not only rescued by another vehicle, but got to witness the lions starting to move. Few wildlife sightings can compare to an impressive pride of 17 lion moving across the plains with a target in their sight. An amazing experience to end what was a really wonderful trip.

There is no denying the beauty of the Okavango Delta – I have returned to the office absolutely brimming with enthusiasm for this stunning destination. The only challenge Botswana presents is the cost. While the exclusivity of the private concessions is hard to beat elsewhere on the continent, the price tags are also unmatched. There are very few camps these days that are much less than $1,000 per person per night in peak season (some are of course much more than that) and one of the ways to make the budget go further in Botswana is by travelling in off peak season. I travelled in April which is shoulder season, and while the grass was a little longer in some areas, Chobe was quiet and the floodwaters hadn’t arrived in certain areas, I still came away having had an experience of a lifetime. Shoulder season in Botswana is definitely worth considering if you want to avoid paying those peak season prices. Find out the best time to travel to Botswana and the different seasons.

Frances stayed at Chobe Chilwero, Chobe Princess, Shinde Footsteps, 4 Rivers, Beagle Expeditions, Duba Explorers Camp, Setari, Wilderness Jacana, Cha Cha Metsi and Stanley’s Camp.

Frances visited Muchenje Safari Lodge, Ngoma Safari Lodge, Tlouwana Camp, Elephant Valley Lodge, Pangolin Chobe Hotel, Shinde Camp, Xugana Island Lodge, Xigera, Macatoo, Duba Plains Camp, Sitatunga Private Island, Kala Camp, Wilderness Pelo Camp, Wilderness Kwetsani Camp, Wilderness Jao Camp and Sanctuary Baines Camp.

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