6 Nights in the Watery Wonders and Unspoilt Wilderness of Botswana

November 7, 2014

On a hot Wednesday afternoon in January, just as I was about to switch off my computer to go home I received an email from Desert and Delta Safaris in Botswana. My last proper trip had been 9 months earlier and I was itching to get on a plane and head to a new corner of the world. I was hoping that it was not just their newest newsletter that came through, but that it was an invitation to head over to Botswana to check out their camps. I clicked on the email and the first line read, “….we are planning a trip, do you want to come along?”, I don’t think I have ever replied as fast to an email as I did to that one.

The dates were sent through to me, the trip was set for the end of March which is just before their peak season. Botswana’s peak season is during the winter months when water is scarce and game viewing at its best. We were set to go on a 6 night safari to Moremi, Savute and the Okavango Delta, 2 nights in each region. I hadn’t been to the Okavango in almost 3 years, to Moremi in 2 years and I had only been to Savute once before back when I was still a teenager. I booked myself a flight on Air Botswana from Cape Town to the gateway of the Okavango, Maun, got my passport ready and started the long wait for my trip to arguably the best safari destination in the world.

On the morning of my flight I arrived 2 hours before my flight with Air Botswana was scheduled to depart. Now Air Botswana is known to be quite liberal with their timing so I didn’t expect to leave at 10h00 which is when we were scheduled to depart. At around 10h15 I saw our plane arrive and at 10h45 we were on the plane ready to take off, the wildlife photographer next to me chuckled and said TIA (This is Africa). In just over 2 hours we arrived in Maun and were greeted by a sweltering 34 degree heatwave. In the arrivals hall of Maun International I was greeted by a smiling porter from Safari Air who was to take me and the other guests to our aircraft which would be flying us into Moremi. Having been on these planes before I knew that I was not allowed to bring a hard shelled suitcase along with me because they are impossible to fit into the small cargo holes on the charter planes operating in Botswana. The problem is that travel agents around the world forget to tell their clients that they have to use soft bags that can be squeezed into tiny holes when they go on a safari. This means that many tourists have to unpack their bags at the airport and repack them into bags provided by the charter company which are not what you would call high end. Their suitcases would have to stay behind at the airport.

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What I was looking forward to the most were the flights between the camps on the small aircrafts. Our first flight of the week was on a Cessna Caravan which seats up to 12 passengers. The views over the outskirts of the Okavango Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve were beautiful and we arrived in Moremi after around 30 minutes in the air. The French clients on the plane were a little nervous when we came in to land on the dirt strip, one of them didn’t open his eyes once during the entire flight.

We were greeted by a smiling guide who drove us to the lodge in an open game drive vehicle. Moremi offers both water and land activities as it is set on the edge of the Okavango Delta. The short drive to the lodge gave us a small taste of the Moremi wilderness as we passed through the Mopani forests, wading through small channels along the way. Once we arrived at the lodge we were greeted by the managers who offered us a refreshing drink and face towel to freshen up. I was given the new honeymoon suite which had just been upgraded with a new elevated deck that overlooks the Xakanaxa Lagoon. I dropped my things on the floor and proceeded to relax on the deck for a couple of hours after my journey from Cape Town. I was eagerly anticipating high tea and the afternoon game drive.

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The sounds from the lagoon in front of my tent and the bush behind it made me relax more than an 8 hour sleep would have back in the city. High tea was served at 15h30 and at 16h00 we all hopped onto the waiting Toyota Land Cruiser for our afternoon activity. Our guide told us that we would be going to 3rd bridge where they had spotted a Leopard with a cub during the morning game drive, he wanted to see if we could find them again. Mopani trees in Moremi offer the perfect viewpoints to Leopards and they also help keep them safe from larger predators like lions, that’s why Moremi is known for its great Leopard sightings. As we passed over 3rd bridge we spotted the female Leopard with her cub walking close behind her. The two turned and looked at us before racing into the bush, vanishing just as quickly as they appeared. After another hour of driving we stopped next to Jessie’s Pools where we had our Gin and Tonics while the sun set over the pools.

At 05h30 the next morning I got my wakeup call from one of the staff, morning game drive was to start at 06h30. We had a quick continental breakfast in the boma before heading out into the Moremi Game Reserve. We saw the usual Elephants, Impalas and Hippos while out on the drive but the highlight of the day came when we saw a bird called a Starling hassling something on the ground. Our guide got out to see what was going on but he quickly stopped in his tracks when he realised that the Starling was trying to chase away a Black Mamba, one of the most venomous snakes in the world and arguably the most aggressive. We watched the Starling chase away the snake which slithered into the bush while the Starling proudly boasted about his victory to every animal within earshot. After this exciting sighting we stopped for some tea and coffee before heading back to the lodge. A huge brunch of bacon, lasagne, eggs and everything that a buffet brunch could possibly ever have was waiting for us. We were sent off to enjoy our siesta either on the deck, next to the pool or in our rooms. I chose the pool before heading to my room for a catnap.

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The afternoon activity was a boat trip on the Xakanaxa Lagoon. We cruised through the lagoon and the channels, stopping along the way as we spotted the odd Elephant or Waterbuck. From the moment I stepped onto the boat I started looking forward to Camp Okavango which is situated in the heart of the Okavango Delta, my next stop on this trip. Once we got back to the lodge I went straight to the bar where I promptly ordered myself a gin and tonic which I sipped on while the sun set over the lagoon. Dinner was superb once again and the gin and tonics were even better once the sun went town. After dinner we were invited downstairs to the fire pit where we enjoyed a nightcap while the guides shared some amazing stories of wildlife sightings and a close call with a pride of lions.

The next morning I got to sleep in because my flight to Camp Okavango was set to leave at 08h00, which meant that I couldn’t join in on the morning game drive. I had some breakfast before being taken to the landing strip for my flight into the heart of the Okavango Delta, recently named as a UNESCO World heritage site. A small Cessna 206 from Safari Air arrived with three clients on board. The guests got off and sped off to Camp Moremi as I got on the plane along with a staff member who was heading back to Maun for a wedding.

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In the world of travel one always hears of “must do” activities and “once in a lifetime experiences”. These phrases become somewhat of a cliché when you have travelled around a bit but there are always one or two experiences that stand out. Walking the streets of Rome, seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef and seeing the Gorillas in Uganda are among these trips. Another one of them is a scenic flight over the Okavango Delta. The vast inland delta is home to countless animals from Egrets to Elephants. From the air you get to experience the true beauty of the Okavango. The view over the channels, islands, saltpans, lagoons and rivers which flow through the delta are breath-taking and if you get to spot an elephant or a hippo swimming in one of the channels its all the more special.

Our pilot lined us up at the end of the runway, pushed down on the power and took us into the air. As soon as we got in the air I had my camera ready to shoot but I only got to take a handful of pictures because I couldn’t take my eyes off the landscape. Our pilot flew low over the delta as it was only a short flight to Camp Okavango’s landing strip on Nxaragha Island where the lodge also sits. As we came in to land our pilot realised that there were Waterbuck on the runway that needed to be chased away before we could land and he pulled up. Our greeting party that was waiting for us on the ground chased away the Waterbuck with some sticks and we got the all clear to land from our guide over the radio. Our pilot put us down very softly on the dirt strip and he welcomed us to what he calls, “the heart of the Okavango”. I was greeted by a very friendly lady who presented me with a welcoming drink and indemnity form. I had no problem signing it as I wouldn’t hold it against anyone if a Buffalo or an Elephant ran me over, in fact that would be a pretty good way to go wouldn’t it?

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I was briefed on my schedule and safety by my guide John Khata who had been working at the lodge for over 33 years. His guiding experience and knowledge of the area is unmatched and I was lucky enough to see him at work for the first time. He told me that we had a short walk to the lodge ahead of us but that I had to be on the lookout for baboons and a cheeky elephant who had been giving them trouble for the previous 2 days. We got to the lodge without any hassles and I was given a quick tour of the premises. I could smell the bacon cooking in the kitchen as the staff were getting brunch ready for the guest who were about to return from their morning activities. As the guests arrived I started asking them what they had seen. The four Italians had gone on a walk on one of the islands and they had seen a breeding herd of Elephants and some interesting plants and birds. The Australian family went on a boat cruise through the vast channels around the lodge and they spotted a lot of hippos and around 20 different species of birds. Lodges in the Okavango aren’t really known for its game viewing. The small islands and all of the channels make it difficult for antelope and big herds of Buffalo to stay in the heart of the delta for long periods of time. This means that predators aren’t around either because they don’t have enough food to survive and hunting is also very difficult with all of the water around. Activities here revolve around water and walking on the islands. The highlight of every trip to the Okavango is the Mokoro activity. A Mokoro is a type of canoe that was previously made by cutting down a large tree and carving the Mokoro out of the tree trunk but today they are made from fibre-glass which saves trees from being cut down. The Mokoro is propelled by a guide who stands at the back of the little boat with a pole which he uses to push the boat forward. The Mokoro activity allows clients the opportunity to experience the Okavango from water level without having the sound of an outboard engine rattling in the background.

After brunch and a quick nap I was ready for my afternoon activity, a spot of fishing in one of John Khata’s old spots. We pushed off from the jetty at the lodge and sped off through the maze of channels to a fast flowing one where we tied ourselves up to the reeds and proceeded to make our lines wet. On my very first cast I caught a good looking bream and it only got better. I caught more than 10 bream in a matter of minutes, all of which we released back into the water. I was astonished by the perfect fishing spot that we had stumbled onto but I soon realised that my guide had been doing this sort of thing for over 30 years, this wasn’t his first rodeo. We had some sundowners on the boat, like every successful fisherman should, and headed back to the lodge where dinner and a show was lined up for us. Our dinner table was set up outside but before we sat down we first had a couple of drinks next to the fire. I was speaking to the Australian guests about the last Springbok vs Wallaby rugby match when the staff started lining up next to the fire. One of the managers said that they wanted to sing us a song to welcome those of us who had just arrived and to say farewell to those who were leaving the next day. The “Camp Okavango Choir” sang us 3 beautiful sounds after which the chef (who was part of the choir) explained the menu to us. Dinner under the African sky with a red wine from the Cape Winelands was how we ended the day, I could think of a worse way to spend a night.

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The next day I was taken for a walk by John on one of the islands. We had a herd of Elephants pass us by and we bumped into an old male buffalo but I was already looking forward to the Mokoro activity planned for the afternoon. Once I got brunch, a swim and high tea under my belt we headed to the jetty on the other side of the runway where our Mokoros were waiting for us. As our guides pushed us off from the jetty I asked him if he knew where we could find some reed frogs, he said that he knew just the spot. As we snaked through the channels and over the flood plains I was once again totally mesmerised by the tranquillity and simplicity of the Okavango. Tourists always want to go to the areas with the most game thus those areas get the most exposure from the travel trade but an area like the Okavango offers more in terms of true wilderness than almost any other safari destination in Africa. It wasn’t long before I spotted a reed frog, one of the prettiest animals in the delta. The little frog is not much bigger than a human fingernail which makes them difficult to spot. They live on the reeds hence the name Reed frog.  This little white frog kept me busy for over half an hour before my guide said that we better get a move on if we were going to make it to our sundowner spot before the sun sets.

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We were slowly snaking through a small channel when the horizon opened up as we entered a large shallow lagoon. In the middle of the lagoon there was a table stacked with drinks with a barman standing next to it. We had drinks in the lagoon while the sun set in the horizon over the lagoon but our tranquil scene was temporarily interrupted by a young bull elephant. The elephant was standing downwind from us and we kept an eye on him because he could have easily smelled us and decided that he didn’t want us in his space anymore. As we were sipping on our G&T’s the bull charged at us, some ran toward the boat and some froze. John picked up his stick that he used on the Mokoro and tried to scare the animal away before it got to close. The young bull stopped charging only a few meters from where we were standing, turned around and walked back into the bush as if nothing had happened. We were all terrified but it was quite an experience to be charged by such a huge animal. It certainly put into perspective how small we as humans are in the greater scheme of things and I now knew why they had us sign the indemnity form when we arrived! Back at the lodge we couldn’t stop talking about our close encounter with the elephant and the other guests were happy to listen, or that’s how we saw it. The Okavango had certainly been kind to me but now it was time to go to Savute, arguably Botswana’s flagship destination.

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Our Cessna Caravan landed just a few minutes after we arrived at the landing strip and we headed out straight to Savute. Some of the other guests that were with me at Camp Okavango were also on the plane. They were going to Chobe Game Lodge which is further north from Savute Safari Lodge, the lodge that I was going to. Once we got in the air our pilot told us to look out of the windows to the left of the plane, there was a herd of Elephant crossing one of the channels. He flew low over the herd but they didn’t even seem to notice us, it was a pretty good way of saying farewell to the Okavango.

We landed smoothly in Savute with our guide racing alongside our plane as we came in, in his Land Cruiser waiving at us as if he was greeting long lost friends. The minute I got on the vehicle I started asking our guide what they had spotted over previous day or two. Bubba was our guide and he told me that they had seen Elephant, Leopard, Giraffe and some Lions. I asked him to show me some Wild Dogs as it was the only animal that I hadn’t seen before, he chuckled and said that they were very scarce and they hadn’t seen them in a couple of weeks, but he would see what he could do. On the short drive to the lodge we saw two large male elephants, a herd of Impala and a couple of vultures who were circling above looking for lunch. Vultures circling above could only mean that there was a kill made close by, a good sign indeed.

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Our timing was perfect as we arrived at the lodge just in time for brunch. I knew what the lodge looked like but the area around it had changed quite a lot over the previous 2 years. Tectonic activity in the area makes the Savuti Channel very erratic. The channel dries up or flows depending on the activity of the underground plates. In January 2010 the channel started flowing for the first time since 1982, that’s a dry spell of 28 years. The channel flows right past the front of the lodge and elephants come down to drink right in front of the deck where brunch is served. I got myself some ribs and a piece of lasagne and sat down on the deck to eat and stare at my favourite animal as they came down to drink and cool themselves down by the river. I had three hours to kill before we were to go out on our afternoon game drive and I decided to spend my time next to the pool and in my room reading, I was too excited to sleep.

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We were set to go out at 15h30 but I was already on the vehicle at 15h20 with my camera and binoculars at the ready. Bubba told us that we were going to look for two leopards that they had seen while they were out earlier in the morning, we all silently obliged. We were only four people on the vehicle, me and a family of three from Germany who were very pleasant but extremely quiet, they were the perfect partners to have on a game drive vehicle. As we were cruising down the roads just south of the Savute Marsh, Bubba said that we should keep a look out for the leopards because they had seen them in the area earlier. Just as he said it one of the Germans spotted the leopard in the tree right next to the road, it was the loudest that I had heard any of them speak. We stopped next to the tree and took a few shots of the young male. We must have sat and stared at the leopard for almost 45 minutes before Bubba said that we should go and search for lion. As he turned the key another Leopard stood up from the grass only 20 meters from where we were sitting, it had been there the whole time we were but we had not spotted it. The young male in the tree jumped down and walked over to his brother who we had just spotted. The two looked at us for a couple of seconds before walking into the thick bush. Most people drive around for hours before spotting anything worthwhile and here we were 50minutes into our first game drive and we spot 2 leopards without any other vehicles around, that’s special. We were heading back to the lodge after our game drive when Bubba got a call over the radio, one of the other guides had seen a couple of Wild Dogs just off the road close to the lodge. Bubba raced to the area and true to his word he had made a plan for me, he provided me with my first (and only) Wild Dog sighting. The dogs just lay around in the road and we only got a couple of minutes with them because it was getting dark and we needed to be inside the gates of the lodge by 18h30, but it was good enough for me. When we got back to the lodge me and two of the other guests decided to celebrate our Wild Dog sighting by ordering some drinks, the rest of the night is a bit of a blur but I do remember that we celebrated in style.

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I contemplated sleeping in because of the late night that we had but soon realised where I was and got up at 06h00 for the morning game drive. I was sipping on a coffee when Bubba arrived. After he got some more coffee he started telling me that the two males who now rule the Savute pride fought and defeated a massive male who had been in charge of the area for 2years. The defeated male who was gravely injured came to the lodge looking for a safe haven. He lay under room number 10 for 2 days before succumbing to his injuries. I was staying in room number 10 and Bubba thought that I might enjoy the story, it certainly got my attention.

We got out early and headed to the area where we had seen the Wild Dogs the night before. They had gone so Bubba decided to take us to the Savute Marsh. The marsh is the basin of an ancient inland lake. Today the marsh is home to a large amount of Elephant, Impala, Zebra, various species of birds and a healthy population of Hyena. We cruised along the edge of the marsh for a large part of the morning before stopping for some tea and coffee. On our way back to the lodge we were lucky enough to spot one of the two male lions who ruled over the Savute pride. As we stopped next to him he got up and started calling. Suddenly we heard another lion calling in the distance, it was his brother. The lion walked off in the direction that the call came from and we lost him. Bubba said that we will come and look for them in the afternoon and we headed off to brunch. We once again arrived to the smell of bacon, lasagne and eggs filling the air. I had my customary second serving before heading off to my room for my last siesta of the trip which I slept right through.

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My last activity on this trip was perhaps the most memorable one. I didn’t expect much as we had already seen so much but I knew that Savute would surprise us with something new. We drove around for a while before getting off for a quick pit stop where Bubba wanted to show us something. He showed us two round concrete slabs that were cracked and overgrown, they didn’t seem too special. Turns out that these slabs were thrown for the first democratically elected president of Botswana and the current president’s father Sir Seretse Khama. Mr. Khama loved Savute and be brought his family to this spot to camp with just the basic camping equipment. He continued camping here after he became president when he could have easily stayed in the lap of luxury at any of the lodges in Botswana. His son Ian Khama, who is the current president of Botswana spent a lot of his youth here along with his father. According to local folklore Mr. Khama drafted most of Botswana’s democratic constitution while on holiday here.

After the history lesson we got back on the vehicle and headed to where Bubba believed the lions were. One of the other guides told Bubba over the radio that they had spotted them and we headed over to where they were. As we were winding through the back roads at the end of the marsh we came across the pride who were lying on and next to the road. This was a small splinter pride of 2 females who were part of the larger pride but who were running around with two young males. The males were hiding away from the brothers who were the alpha males of the area. If the brothers found these young males they would chase them away or even kill them. But despite all of that these young males were lying out in the open in the middle of the road like they had nothing to worry about. We spent a lot of time with the lions before heading to a special spot where they had set up sundowners for us. As we arrived there was a table set up with drinks next to a huge baobab tree. Bubba told us that the tree was around 900 years old. He was surprised that the tree was looking so good because elephants had damaged it so much a year ago he thought that the tree was going to die. The tree was looking good and healthy and we were lucky enough to have sundowners and snacks next to it. We stared at the sun setting in the west while we sipped on our G&T’s and chatted about the events of the day.

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Dinner was served outside on the deck. The staff turned spotlights on that lit up the area in front of the deck. We sat and ate as the elephants came down to drink right next to the deck, it was quite a unique experience. As I was escorted back to my room by Bubba, he told me that my flight back to Maun was scheduled to depart at 09h00 the following morning. Reality started coming back but I was looking forward to getting back. Botswana had been kind to me and I had taken everything I could out of the short break. After saying goodbye to Bubba and Savute we flew back to Maun where Air Botswana’s ATR Aircraft was already waiting on the airstrip. As we took off from Maun I remembered that I hadn’t seen any Hyenas on this trip. This was unacceptable and I started planning my return trip right away. I was thinking of an excuse to come back and not seeing a Hyena seemed an appropriate one. But if push comes to shove I would happily “forget” any of my most prized possessions in Botswana, just to have an excuse to come back to this beautiful country.

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