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Africa is a magical place. I never tire of witnessing nature at its wildest, having my breath taken away by blazing red sunsets, and learning about animal behavior.
When contemplating safari destinations, there are myriad options. Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa are the most popular. All are equally amazing and offer different wildlife experiences.
Botswana is renowned for private concessions and intimate camps – some of which have only six luxury tents. Traveling between camps is via small Cessna planes, providing an incredible aerial view of the Okavango Delta en-route. Not surprisingly, this level of intimacy and service has a steep price tag, typically making Botswana more expensive than East African safaris.
Get your heart racing and adrenaline flowing with an African wild dog hunt
With only 5,000 wild dogs remaining, it’s EXTREMELY rare to see them. Fortunately, luck was on our side this time.
After receiving a radio call that wild dogs had been spotted, our guide turned and said two words, “HOLD ON!” Driving at breakneck speed, with branches scraping the vehicle as he navigated through the brush, we arrived in record time to the reported location.
We weren’t alone. Just after arriving, another vehicle pulled up with a truck full of exhilarated guests, one of whom joked that they’d driven across the desert from “Kenya.” Apparently, the African wilderness turns into the Indy 500 and everyone drives like Mario Andretti when wild dogs are spotted…
Within minutes of arriving, we saw a series of white tails bobbing above the grass and moving into a fighter jet type formation; our guide excitedly told us we might be witnessing a hunt!
Sure enough, after a few minutes, the dogs rocketed after something on the horizon. Navigating around a large bush, our guide adeptly positioned us perfectly to watch them “herd” what I later found out was a steenbok (small antelope). Once surrounded, the group attacked. Within two minutes, the animal was eviscerated and the dogs had consumed EVERY piece, including bones. Their teamwork and efficiency is unparalleled.
Unlike hyenas, after the hunt, the adults will share food with the rest of the pack. Upon returning to the den, they’ll regurgitate food to also feed the alpha female and pups.
During the evening game drives, stopping at a viewpoint to admire the beautiful sunset while savoring a tasty class of Pinotage and snacks was known as a “Sundowner.” African sunsets are some of the most dramatic and colorful we have ever had the privilege of witnessing.
While sipping our drinks and learning about a recent giraffe kill by a pack of lions, unbeknownst to us, a hyena had been lurking around the other side of our vehicle. Uncertain whether it was truly stalking us, it was definitely unnerving to see it creepily staring into the vehicle once the guide swept the red light around. A little too close for comfort in my opinion.
Slowly driving back to camp scanning the horizon with the red light was fascinating. While on safari in East Africa, I’d always been back at camp by sunset, so Botswana was my first opportunity to observe nighttime wildlife behaviors of civets (closely related to mongoose and weasels) and servals (wild cats).
Open-air vehicles maximize photographic opportunities
Botswana safari vehicles are unique in that they have neither roofs nor windows and have stadium seating. Having unimpeded photography access and the ability to submerge the vehicles to traverse deep water is a huge bonus! And, no one is ever seated in the middle, so you never have to photograph around someone’s head.
Be aware of the sun and wind in the vehicles
The only two drawbacks to the open-air style are sun exposure and the potential for hats to fly off, which mine, of course, did.
After jumping down from the vehicle and picking it up, I attempted to dust it off, but only succeeded in knocking it back onto the ground (see my “about” page for more on my clumsiness.)
Retrieving it a second time, I began to casually repeat the dusting. Our guide, Duks, firmly said “WHAT are you doing? You know we passed a mother elephant and calf a few hundred meters back AND I just pointed out lion tracks to you so please get back in the vehicle.”
While I was oblivious to this and trying to figure out how far 300 meters was, I jumped back into the vehicle to my husband shaking his head; I’m pretty certain that my obtuse antics were giving Duks and my husband heart palpitations over my potential early demise.
A walking safari provides a unique perspective
Botswana is the only place where I’ve been able to indulge in a “walking safari.” For safety reasons, offering this in clear areas with no high grass is key.
While you shouldn’t expect to see large animals, you will see MASSIVE termite mounds, which gave me the heebie jeebies.
For protection, on walking safaris, your guide will carry a gun to use as a last resort.
Interestingly, African wildlife disregards you as prey while you are in the vehicle. However, if you stand up or step outside of the vehicle, this dynamic shifts.
While standing at the edge of a pool observing a hippo, I learned firsthand about this dynamic. Typically, when you see hippos, they are keeping cool by submerging themselves, with only their eyes and ears visible. On this particular afternoon, I considered myself lucky as a hippo had posed for me – raising up and even opening its mouth!
While the guide had stepped away to talk to someone, I had been snapping away pictures, so pleased with myself. All of a sudden I heard that familiar phrase, “get back in the vehicle,” and I knew something wasn’t right.
After enlightening me that single male hippos are typically lonely after being kicked out of the herd by older, dominant males, our guide noted they can be aggressive. And, the images I had been capturing of it standing up and yawning were actually warnings, signaling me he might charge soon. Despite appearing to be slow, lumbering creatures, they can move at lightning pace – 20 mph! Our guide indicated they are the deadliest mammal in Africa, killing ~3000 people a year.
Some like it hot
Providing hot water bottles, to keep you warm during the night and on game drives is a welcome treat. After dinner our first night, they distributed one to each of us, insulated bv a plush covering.
While they previously placed them under the covers to warm the bed during dinner, they shared the hilarious story that resulted in a protocol change at the Chitabe camp.
Apparently, a poor, unsuspecting guest climbed into her bed and felt a warm/furry creature next to her. Launching herself out of the bed and screaming at the top of her lungs, she began beating the “creature,” resulting in a water explosion. Picturing this scenario and realizing I would have reacted similarly, I spewed my wine out.
Expect day and nighttime wildlife visits in the camp
While sleeping our first night, my husband awoke to rustling and assumed it was me riffling through our bags. Mumbling for me to “stop that and come back to bed, “ he realized I wasn’t the source of the noise after feeling me lying next to him. After an incident in Papua New Guinea a few years prior, he assumed something may have invaded the room.
Nope, a HUGE elephant was helping itself to the tree smorgasbord outside. Despite our tent residing on a raised platform, we felt it prudent not to startle it by moving closer to the window. Watching the silhouette happily munch away from the comfort of our bed was lovely. Spotting an elephant outside our tent the next morning, we wondered if it was the same interloper.
Elephants are extremely intelligent with incredible memories
While staying at the Little Vumbura wet camp, we witnessed firsthand how incredibly smart and grudge-holding elephants can be.
After watching an elephant gingerly step over a raised wooden walkway, I commented to one of the staff. Apparently, stepping on the pathway once and having it break under her weight stuck with her permanently. Therefore, she now carefully lifts each foot over individually to avoid repeating the incident.
To minimize the chances of close proximity elephant encounters within the camp, the staff surveys the grounds, clapping to scare any away who have wandered too close.
Disliking this tactic, one ornery female has held a longstanding grudge against a particular staff member. Despite months passing, she lurks outside his living quarters on a daily basis, trumpeting at him and flapping her ears whenever she sees him. Notably, she doesn’t do this to any OTHER staff, instead opting to focus her disdain solely on him. I found this tidbit hilarious.
Elephant’s gentle and protective tendencies are marvelous
While enjoying our welcome drink at Little Vumbura, we learned a ten-day old baby elephant was nearby. Finding nothing more endearing than tiny elephants, I was ecstatic to hear we’d be heading there first.
Upon arriving and spotting the mom snacking on grass, we saw the baby lying on its side and napping. When it was time to move, she gingerly nudged him with her foot.
After clumsily stumbling to his feet (kind of like me waking up in the morning), he found himself facing our vehicle. Appearing disoriented with a look on his face like “you’re not my mom,” he shook his head, flapped his ears and quickly ran away from our vehicle towards his mother.
I’ve always been enamored by the bonds within the matriarchal elephant herds. Watching how the sisters, aunts and mothers care for the calves is touching. When walking or even standing, I’m always fascinated by how they surround and protect the young ones from potential predators and manage not to step on them!
The leopard encounter of a lifetime
Just after watching the herd head off, we got a call that a leopard was hunting. Having only seen two before in East Africa, located high in trees, we were excited about the possibility of seeing one close.
We were not disappointed. Shortly after arriving, this female leopard climbed down from a tree and walked right past our vehicle!
Then, she climbed up on a dead branch to survey the horizon for potential prey, striking the perfect pose.
Deciding to scale a tree for a better vantage point, she continued varying her pose during the golden hour light, providing us with some of our favorite images of the trip.
Reflections in the Okavango Delta in Botswana
Navigating the Okavango delta in a mokoro (dugout canoe) is one of the highlights of visiting a wet camp in Botswana. Being at water level allows you to relax while watching gorgeous birds and listening to croaking frogs.
Glimpsing two different old, weathered elephants was a treat. Seeing the outline of a massive 40+-year-old bull through the tall weeds and realizing the tusks peeking through were the largest I’d ever seen was incredible.
Then, encountering another and admiring the way in which time had aged and wrinkled its skin was fascinating. Interestingly, this one had somehow lost one tusk.
Unfortunately, with the massive amounts of poaching, laying eyes on a huge “tusker” is becoming rare. As a result of the ivory trade, 100 elephants per day are slaughtered for their tusks. The population has plummeted from 3-5 million at the turn of the 20th century to only ~400,000 today.
The large pools of water also led to some beautiful reflection shots. One of my favorites was of a male lion. Did you know that female lionesses do most of the hunting for the pride? Male lions protect the pride from other males and also watch over the cubs while the females are hunting.
Botswana Safari planning TIPS:
- Save 30% by visiting in late May/early June. High season, which coincides with dry season, spans ~ June 9th – October and results in a 30% premium. The Okavango begins flooding in May, resulting in incredible wildlife viewing.
- Utilize Africa Odyssey to research Botswana camps. As a result of the helpful ratings and knowledgeable staff, I ultimately booked with them after speaking with four other agencies.
- Maximize your wildlife viewing and stay 3 nights vs. 2 nights at each camp. To save money, we opted for 2 nights at one camp, which was too short. With only 2 nights, you typically miss at least one prime dawn or dusk game drive.
- Bring a hat, sunscreen and bug spray for the open air vehicles and don’t wear bright clothes
- Bring only soft duffel bags (bags with wheels and hard cases are not permitted). Baggage weight, including hand luggage, is limited to 20kg (44 lbs). An added bonus = No security lines!
- Drinks to try: a) Pinotage – South African wine 2) Stoney – non-alcoholic ginger beer – very strong and tasty c) Amarula – cream liqueur – similar to Bailey’s
- Vary your wildlife viewing with 3 different types of camps: a) wet b) dry and c) mixed. Visiting in any particular order is not important. We highly recommend the Wilderness Safaris camps, guides and operations
- Wet Camp: Little Vumbura (Run by Wilderness Safaris) is a gorgeous, charming camp. With only six rooms, this was our favorite camp as we saw wild dogs, a leopard and baby elephant in addition to the mokoro ride. While we had heard game viewing at wet camps was not as good as other camps, we got very lucky. Usually once flooding occurs, only boat rides are offered at wet camps, no game drives.
- Dry Camp: Chitabe (Run by Wilderness Safaris) has eight tents on elevated wooden decks. We loved the beautiful grasses and light here and captured amazing elephant and lion pictures. Dry camps provide the best opportunity for big game and predators.
- Mixed Camp: Lebala (Run by Kwando) provides a combination of wet and dry camp activities for guests in nine tented rooms. Each game drive has two trackers, which improves your odds of spotting wildlife. We also enjoyed the fire pit for morning tea and evening drinks. Sitting on your deck and watching elephants traverse the wetlands and listening to hippos in the nearby pools is a wonderful way to pass the time.