As I set off once again into the wilds of Botswana, I pondered on why I am still so enthusiastic to explore this patch of wild Africa. I quickly realised the answer was simple. Botswana offers what I consider to be some of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness areas on earth, most of which are bursting with wildlife. From the magical waterways of the Okavango Delta to the endless skies of the Kalahari Desert, Botswana is simply magical and especially so if you enjoy pure nature and wilderness.
On this trip I was sticking entirely in the north of the country, travelling from the Chobe River in the north east, through the Selinda Reserve and into Okavango Delta where I spent most of my time. It was safari and wilderness all the way albeit with a number of very specific points of interest.
The first of these was spending 24 hours on a houseboat on the Chobe River. The Chobe National Park is one of Botswana’s best known and busiest wildlife regions – busy in terms of vehicles and boats as well as animals. Staying on a house boat is about the best way to avoid the ‘traffic’ and also incorporate a little down time (not for me on this trip, but one has to imagine…). A key point here is that when you stay on a houseboat on the Chobe River you actually depart Botswana and enter Namibia. Your entire safari actually takes place in Namibia, despite most of the animals you see being in Botswana!
Overall I found the house boat great fun. Perhaps I was lucky with a very nice group of guests on board (you can’t control who you share the boat with unless you come as a group) but more importantly I found the relaxed style of the safari experience very refreshing. Whilst I was busy filming and photographing wildlife, and visiting lodges on the Namibian side of the river, I could imagine as a guest the pace of life would be very slow. The houseboats chug along during the heat of the day and you can sit in the shade on the top deck admiring the view, perhaps reading a few lines of a book, or taking a quick nap between game sightings. And when it cools down a little, there is a boat waiting to take you fishing or on a cruise to get a bit closer to the game. Most importantly though, I feel it gives you the best possible experience of the Chobe River and its wildlife.
My next stop was one of my favourite places in Africa. The Selinda Reserve runs from the Linyanti swamps westwards along the spillway to the northern Okavango Delta. I was visiting a bush camp we like called Explorers, which is more adventurous than its wonderful sister camps Selinda and Zarafa. Explorers, where I was hosted by a great young guide called Parks, is a true gem of a bush camp. There are not many camps like this left in Botswana, especially in such an exclusive area. Explorers was initially designed as a walking and canoeing camp, but inevitably the global market has ‘demanded’ game drives and these too are now included. I arrived in camp late, having spent much of the day out on the road visiting the other lodges on the reserve (including the brand new Zarafa Dhow suite where families can enjoy a very opulent bush escape), but a warm welcome and cold beer around the camp fire awaited, quickly transporting me back to safaris past. The camp felt like a genuine bush experience, complete with lions roaring through dinner. After a restful sleep I was up early and out on foot with Parks. We had a fabulous, if slightly short, morning walk focusing around a set of pools deep in the mopane woodland, were we arrived in time to watch a breeding herd of elephants chase a herd of zebra off and quench their thirst. At this time of year there were plenty of other pools for the zebra to move on to, but later in the season any remaining water sources will be a hive of activity. The dominant hippo seem determined to show us who was boss, repeatedly ‘yawning’ to bare his colossal teeth, whilst numerous bird species flitted and waded around the edge of the pools. It was a beautiful morning scene in the heart of the wilderness, and we were the only people for miles and miles.
The following five nights I spent moving around the remote reaches of the Okavango Delta. At many points I was struck (yet again) by the sheer beauty of the wilderness. I re-visited the beautiful Jao concession where the scene is simply idyllic. In the middle of it, I stepped on to a heart shaped island where Wilderness Safaris run a small and intimate camp called Pelo (‘heart’ in Setswana). I felt I had reached somewhere very special – it was so serene and tranquil, with birdlife all around. Oh how I wanted to unpack for a few days! At Kanana Camp in the south-west delta I went in search of the Pel’s fishing owl with old hand Amos, stalking by mekoro and on foot through the dense riverine vegetation where they can often be found. The following morning I was woken by a huge bull elephant feeding literally a yard from my rather luxurious tent – the ivory of his tusk was all I could see at first through my mosquito gauze windows.
At Shinde Camp we found, then lost, a pride of lions in the tall grass, having been distracted by a curious rustling that turned out to be a porcupine out and about in the early afternoon sun! Later we met a leopard that came closer to me than I have ever previously experienced – at one point it was virtually close enough to sniff my boot – a bit too close for comfort I felt, but an exciting encounter none the less of such an incredibly beautiful creature. I spent a night at another of my favourite small camps in Africa – Footsteps Across the Delta, where Opie, the head guide, was a wonderful host. Footsteps is primarily a walking camp but our best sighting of the morning actually came before we even set out as three bull elephants wandered through camp, one of which to within a few yards of the mess tent, as we had our breakfast. ‘Seriously, does all the wildlife around here come this close?’ I asked Opie, who had been with me for the leopard encounter the previous afternoon.
I also spent a wonderful morning driving through Moremi Game Reserve with professional guide Rob Barber from Golden Africa. Rob is able to host private camping safaris throughout Botswana and showed me some of his favourite spots in Moremi. He was good company and is passionate about the bush. I still feel that a mobile camping safari is a simply great way to get close to nature in Africa – nothing beats setting up camp in the heart of big game territory.
Botswana is known as a stronghold for wild dogs, and I eventually managed to catch up with some in the Khwai Community Concession whilst staying at the lovely Machaba Camp. Earlier in the trip, I had missed them by minutes on the Vumbura Concession as we came across their fresh tracks on the way to the airstrip for my flight out – I had obviously spent too long searching for, and finding, sable antelope which are often seen in the area. They are truly majestic.
In addition to the wonderful game-viewing on offer and the spectacular scenery of the Okavango Delta in particular (including the most incredible sunsets), on this trip I really felt that the local people made a huge impact on my visit. Gone are the days of unassuming Setswana staff floating around in the background sweeping pathways. In virtually every camp I visited the staff were not only in charge (i.e. management), but also full of confidence, conversation and humour. In one especially ‘happy’ camp I even asked whether guests ever felt hard done by when they realised they weren’t having as much fun as the staff! It was a great to see and experience such positivity within the industry and it illustrates just how the safari tourism industry really is having a positive impact on local lives.
If I was disappointed with any aspect of my trip, it would be the difficulty most camps seem to have in locating cheetah. Cheetah have suffered in recent years with rising water levels as Botswana goes through a ‘wet cycle’ (that’s a whole new conversation). Their preferred open habitat has been diminished in many areas and the relative strength of other predators such as lion and wild dog also makes life hard for them. I was however pleased to hear from Rob Barber that cheetah are still regularly seen in Moremi Game Reserve, and that two different sightings of cheetah were seen close to Shinde Camp a few days before my visit.
In summary, Botswana remains top of my list for providing an exclusive and pristine wilderness experience combined with amazing big game. The people, scenery and sunsets were just incredible, and magical from start to finish.
Behind the scenes
During his 7 nights in Botswana (and Namibia) Rob stayed on the Pride of Zambezi houseboat (since re-named as a Chobe Princess), and at Selinda Explorers Camp, Kanana Camp, Little Tubu, Little Vumbura, Machaba Camp and Footsteps Across the Delta. He also visited The Old House, The Garden Lodge and Kubu Lodge (all in Kasane), Chobe Water Villas, Chobe Savanna and Ichinga Lodge (on Chobe River, Namibia side), Selinda Camp, Zarafa Camp and Zarafa Dhow Suite (Selinda Reserve), Tubu Tree Camp, Jao Camp, Jacana Camp and Pelo Camp (Jao Concession in the north-west delta); Vumbura Plains, Khwai Tented Camp, Okuti Camp and Shinde Camp (all in the Okavango Delta).