Mary into the land of the Kalahari

Not only is Botswana incredibly beautiful, it also offers a wonderful variety of habitats varying from the arid Kalahari sands to the watery wonder world of the Okavango Delta plus a whole raft of ways in which to experience the amazing wildlife.

I started my recent trip at Dinaka, a private reserve on the northern edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Being a fenced reserve, guests staying at Dinaka will not experience the vast seasonal herds of springbok and gemsbok that the Central Kalahari is known for and which congregate on the vast pans during the green season. Nevertheless, the property still offers rewarding game viewing with vast numbers of kudu and regular lion and rhino sightings. The variety of activities are also an attraction;  day and night game drives and bush walks are standard. In addition, it is also possible to do a ‘Bushman walk’ lead by a local San person where you are taught about the uses of plants and shrubs both for medicinal and basic survival purposes. Extracting water from the shavings of a plants root is not a skill I will often utilize but it did give me a sense of achievement to be able to do it!

Morning tea and coffee stops take place in a hide overlooking the water hole and after lunch there is the option to visit the underground bunker. My first attempt to see the bunker was thwarted by the lions lazing nearby and my second was almost aborted when footprints of a big male lion was spotted heading towards the entrance. Fortunately said lion had changed direction and I was able to walk into the bunker which has been built so that your viewing position is at eye level with the water hole in front.

The Makgadikgadi National Park is usually associated with the austere and yet hauntingly beautiful pans. However, Leroo Le Tau, my next destination, which borders onto the park is a long way from the pans and they are therefore not possible to visit during your stay. It is not however without its own attractions as the dry season sees the arrival of vast numbers of zebra and wildebeest escaping the harsh environment of the Makgadikgadi to the life giving Boteti River which now flows seasonally after so many barren years. As I was travelling in the early season the main herds had not yet arrived but nevertheless the sight of hundreds of zebra coming down to the river to drink at sunset, alongside grazing hippos and elephant, was quite impressive.

For the next few days I crisscrossed the famous Okavango Delta, Botswana’s wetland habitat where permanent channels gradually fill with crystal clear floodwaters creating small islands onto which the land mammals are pushed. The Delta covers a vast landmass within which there is a variety of accommodation styles, ranging from the luxurious Dubai Plains to authentic bushcamps such as Footsteps Across the Delta. Experiences can also be diverse; game drives, bush walks, sleep outs under the stars, boat cruises and mekoros all contribute to the fabric of a safari in Botswana.

Botswana is of course known for actively promoting low volume tourism and this remains the norm, rather than the exception. I spent time in five different concessions staying at camps such as Lebala on the Kwando concession which concentrates on game drives and walks and others such as Shinde Camp and the newly opened Splash, on the Kwara concession, which offer both wet and dry game activities. Common to all my stays was a level of exclusivity on the game drives that is hard to find elsewhere in Africa.

There are of course always exceptions to any rule and it is fair to say that the Moremi Game Reserve and the neighbouring Khwai Community lands are busier areas to visit. Here you will see more vehicles than in the private concessions; those from permanent camps such as Okuti. Xakanaxa, Khwai Tented Camp and Machaba, mobile safari operators like our friends from Letaka Safaris and in particular the intrepid self drivers with tents on top of their trucks.  Nevertheless, these areas are incredibly game rich and well worth including on an itinerary, a claim backed up by my afternoon game drive from Khwai Tented Camp during which it seemed to be raining leopards! It also showed that you can get away from the hordes as we were one of only two vehicles to come across a young leopard honing her hunting skills. Having failed to capture a hornbill, she spied a dwarf mongoose mother and baby. Pouncing quickly she caught the baby but the mother mongoose was not prepared to leave and there ensued a face-off between the feisty mongoose and confused leopard. It was fascinating, amusing and heartbreaking all at the same time.

The game viewing aside, what struck me on this trip was the relationships that can be built up on safari, both with humans and animals.

For me, one of the joys of travelling is the people you meet on the road from all countries and walks of life, people with whom you sometimes share amazing experiences and will never meet again. Sometimes however it is the people who work in the camps that leave an impression.

Footsteps across the Delta is a small but perfectly formed bush camp tucked into the woodlands on the Shinde concession. For the most part it is used as a base for walking safaris but it also plays host to Young Explorers; a chance for families to shrug off all modern amenities and embark on a Swallows and Amazons style adventure. Specialist guides teach children how to track spoors, make bows and arrows, try their hand at being a poler on the mekoro or even take a turn at driving the truck. The guides and camp staff host families throughout their stay and judging by the smiles I saw and laughter I heard they had as much fun as the kids. As I dropped by to visit the camp a family was departing with three youngsters all clutching the handmade bows (the arrows perhaps sensibly being left behind!) whilst fiercely hugging the guide goodbye. I’m not entirely sure whose eyes were brighter with tears; the kids, the parents or the camp staff! I would hazard a guess that those children will remember and talk about Noah, their guide, for a very very long time to come.

Perhaps the most surprising relationship I forged on this trip was one with an elephant; a fanciful notion I know, but I genuinely felt a connection. Abu Camp has been associated with elephants ever since Randall Moore arrived with his band of rescued elephants in the late 1980’s.  Today the elephants are still a major attraction but the experience has altered. Riding the elephants is thankfully no longer allowed and the experience today is much curtailed. I will be honest I had some concerns about the activity before I went but ultimately it was quite a special experience.

The herd is small with only eight members and their interaction with humans is now limited to a short visit in the morning and a slightly longer meet and greet in the afternoon plus two short daily walks. In between times the elephants are free to roam in the bush and interact with the wild herds. That interaction with wild bulls has led to the birth of several new members of the heard, the latest been just six weeks old. It would take a hard hearted person not to fall in love with Shamiso, a gorgeous little boy whose energy and playful nature leads his handlers on a merry dance. He is curious, naughty and very strong; when I made the schoolgirl error of crouching down beside him, a gentle head but sent to me sprawling inelegantly in the dust. Under the watchful eye of his mother Shamiso lives a charmed life and once he gets older he will, as other bulls born to the herd have done before, leave the herd of his own accord and live wild.

However, the elephant I connected with most with Cathy, the 58-year-old matriarch who was born wild in Uganda but who subsequently spent 26 years of her life in a circus in Canada. Cathy’s handler and I walked together with her in the late afternoon sunshine stopping regularly to wait for her as she rooted around for more grass to feed upon. Whenever her handler gently tried at her to get a move on she would look at us out of the corner of her eye as if to say ‘who do you think the boss is here?’ Walking with her was incredibly special and elicited feelings of peace, of respect for her immense power and ultimately happiness that she now leads such an unfettered life. One of the handlers asked me to some Cathy up in one word. So many came to mind; majestic, regal, special, watchful, peaceful, stubborn, powerful…. it was impossible possible to choose just one.

This trip created so many memories for me to carry home; the leaping lechwe on the Duba Concession, a bush walk with lions calling nearby; naughty Shamiso and the wonderful Batswana people. The trip reinforced what I already knew; that Botswana is a superb destination on so many different levels; for people searching for a purist wildlife experience, for those seeking some activity and adventure or for families wanting to take some time out to reconnect. Botswana has it all!

Mary stayed at Dinaka, Leroo La Tau, Shinde Camp, Camp Xakanaxa, Duba Plains, Abu Camp, Khwai Tented Camp, Lebala Camp and Splash Camp.