After more than two and a half years without stepping on African soil, I was genuinely excited to be landing in Maun, Botswana, with a week in one of my favourite wilderness areas ahead of me. As I disembarked the plane I was immediately hit by the 36 degrees heat, a sauna compared with the UK at the time, and a reminder of all the different feelings Africa can evoke. For now, heat was good. I was back, at last.
Being December, we were firmly into the rainy season too, and the landscape flashed green beneath me as we then flew north by light aircraft over the eastern Okavango Delta. Water levels will not rise properly in the delta until the flood arrives in April, after the rainy season, but the yellows and browns of the late dry season had clearly been replaced with the vivid green of fresh leaves and nutritious grasses.
At this time of year the great herbivores, in particular buffalo and elephant, migrate into the huge mopane woodlands that surround the core safari areas of the Okavango and Linyanti, where they have plentiful food and no problem finding water in the many newly formed water holes. I spotted elephant bulls from the aircraft, lone figures in the huge wilderness, and one huge breeding herd of elephants that must have numbered over 100 individuals, and yet still seemed dwarfed by the surroundings. It reminded me just how vast these wilderness areas of northern Botswana are.
My first few days were spent exploring the Linyanti, Selinda and Kwando Concessions that together form the area we know as the Greater Linyanti. This a wild area, full of big game, where several water courses meet and disperse: the Selinda Spillway arrives from the bottom of the Okavango Pan Handle; the Savuti Channel flows east towards the Savuti Marsh; and the Linyanti River is borne in the heart of it all and is quickly joined by the Kwando River from the north, before flowing north-east to join the Chobe River, which in turns joins the mighty Zambezi which flows all the way through to the Indian Ocean.
I visited all the camps in the area, most of which offer a fairly high level of comfort these days and I enjoyed wonderfully exclusive game drives and sunset drinks. Lions were seen, but the leopards and wild dogs kept themselves hidden. Red lechwe dominated the floodplains, often jumping through the shallows, whilst it was the season for young too, especially wildebeest, impala, warthogs and tsessebe.
I then flew into the Okavango Delta to visit the game-rich and very green Kwara concession, where I was rewarded with beautiful leopard and lion sightings, and then the remote Mapula Concession in the far northern delta where we came across wild dogs on the morning drive. In between concessions I enjoyed a scenic tour by helicopter, stopping at various camps along the way – such a great way to see the landscape and visit camps you could otherwise not reach. I flew over the building site of a new camp, 4 Rivers, in the western corner of the Kwara Concession, which promises a highly exclusive experience and stopped at old favourites Shinde, Little Vumbura and Vumbura Plains. We do try and offer everyone visiting Botswana the opportunity to fly over the delta by helicopter, either as a dedicated scenic flight or as a transfer from one camp to the next, and it is well worth the extra cost to do so.
My last night in the Okavango Delta took me back to the Moremi Game Reserve, an area I have wonderful memories of from a number of self-drive trips I took there in my twenties. I was hosted in a mobile camp by James Stenner of Barclay Stenner Safaris, one of three companies we work closely with and who can provide totally private mobile safaris for groups of between two and 20. Moremi doesn’t quite allow the flexibility and exclusivity of a private concession, but these guys really know what they are doing and in western Moremi, away from the busier core areas, they know how to provide a really memorable and exclusive private adventure. More than anything I just love the simplicity of a mobile camp – there is no better way to connect with nature and immerse yourself in the wilderness. As it happens, I also had my most productive game drive with James, as wild dogs attempted to scare a wildebeest into fleeing (didn’t work) and then flushed out a civet from the undergrowth, and then a serval! On the way back to camp we came across several prowling lions. I thought they would turn up in camp during dinner, but they didn’t!
It almost goes without saying that the birdlife was wonderful throughout all the areas I visited. One of my favourite sightings was a Scops owlet, though it was also good to see wattled cranes and white-faced ducks as well as Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, Broad-billed Rollers, Verreaux’s Eagle Owls and no end of egrets, herons, storks, lapwings, rollers and kingfishers. One thing I had really missed these past few years was the birdsong of Africa, and I was serenaded throughout my safari, from the haunting cry of the Fish Eagle and chattering of Spurfowl in the morning to the regular call of the Woodland Kingfisher.
My last stop was Dinaka, a private concession bordering the northern flanks of the extensive Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The private nature of the concession allows for flexible activities, though a night drive I was very much looking forward to (the area is good for all sorts of nocturnal creatures including brown hyena, African wild cat, caracal, serval, porcupine and even the occasional pangolin) was interrupted by the most almighty thunderstorm which sent us running for camp in torrential rain. Thunder and lighting like I have never seen before! My final morning was spent on a lovely walk, watching plains game, listening to lions (are they getting closer?) and learning a few new birds such as Diedrick’s Cuckoo and Rufus-Naped Lark!
Botswana hasn’t changed, it is still an incredible swathe of pristine nature, both wild and stunningly beautiful in equal measure. If you love escaping into the natural world, you simply can’t beat it!
Rob stayed at Wilderness King’s Pool, Wilderness Savuti, Lagoon Camp, Kwara Camp, Duke’s Camp, Barclay Stenner Mobile Camp and Dinaka, and visited Linyanti Tented Camp, Wilderness Duma Tau & Little Duma Tau, Zarafa Camp, Selinda Camp, Lebala Camp, Splash Camp, Shinde Camp, Xugana Lodge, Wilderness Little Vumbura and Wilderness Vumbura Plains.