The safaris are better — and bug- free — in Botswana
For years we’ve avoided travelling to Africa for various reasons: expense, politics and a dislike of mosquitoes among them. This year the fear of getting too old or too timid trumped these so we decided to go on the shoulder season in May.
Initially it seemed Kruger Park in South Africa was the place to go until I met a recent émigré from Botswana. He guaranteed a safe and exciting experience in his home country, especially in the Okavango Delta. The animals are more abundant, the people nicer and happy, and the bugs, he said, are not a problem.
Botswana is a landlocked country in southern Africa that contains one of the largest inland deltas in the world, fed over the summer by rainwater flowing from mountains hundreds of kilometres away. Over several months, a huge amount of fresh water makes it way to the Okavango, while at the same time other sources are drying up in the surrounding Kalahari Desert. This forces huge herds of animals to migrate here to survive.
With its diamond revenues, a protection-minded government has built a modern country around the delta and its game reserves. The roads and infrastructure appeared to be in much better shape here than in Zimbabwe. As for the tourism, their philosophy is to control chaos by limiting entry into game areas. This allows a maximum experience with animals while disturbing them as little as possible.
With the help of Heritage Safari and some self- booking, we soon found ourselves in Cape Town, South Africa, for what would be four days of exploration in that country, followed by two days in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We would then be met and driven 80 kilometres to Botswana, and the true start of our safari.
Politically emerging South Africa has a lot to offer in the Cape Town area, and Victoria Falls at high water ( which it was) is not to be missed, but we were anxious to get to the place that had us fly halfway around the world.
The first stop in Botswana was at Chobe Elephant Camp, a few kilometres inside the border. Shortly after we arrived, lunch was served, while 30 metres away a herd of elephants drank from the swimming pool. Our first safari drive that afternoon took us to the nearby Chobe National Elephant Park, a place teeming with wildlife. After numerous giraffe, elephant, monkey and baboon sightings, the radio crackled about a lion spotted nearby. Sure enough, a large young male was sleeping two metres off the rough road. Despite the radio report, only three other vehicles showed up, unlike the traffic jams at Kruger Park. Later we encountered a large herd of Cape buffalo, which ignored us as they parted and ambled around our jeep, crossing the dirt track to drink at the river.
It was a good start to animal- viewing, and at camp the accommodations were superb. There are few things as memorable as comfortably lying in bed, listening to a lion roar across the river, or hearing the loud rumble of elephant stomachs echoing nearby. We were in Africa.
After two nights at Chobe, we flew by small plane deeper into the Okavango to one of the original game lodges, Camp Xakanaxa. Twice a day, our group was taken on a game drive, and on our second one we were witness to a timeless scene — a leopard had stashed a dead impala in a tree, his meal for the next couple of days. Buzzards patiently lined the surrounding trees. A herd of impala grazed below, oblivious. Suddenly everyone froze, animals and people all instinctively turning to stare in the same direction. A large male lion sauntered into the clearing and began making wide circles around our jeep and the tree holding the impala, sniffing upwards in hope of snatching an easy meal. In another tree nearby, the leopard held a laser gaze on the deadly raider. This showdown went on for half an hour, until the bigger cat finally strode off to find an easier heist. It was sublime — two apex predators face off while all other animals and a few shaky tourists hold their collective breath.
Last stop was on Xugana Island. After another short flight, a boat takes you to a place where the greeting is always “Welcome to paradise.” The serenity and beauty of the Okavango is even more evident here, the crystal clear water threading its way through huge floating tracts of pampas grass and papyrus. Visits to crocodile and hippo strongholds are made in the safety of sturdy aluminum boats, with fabulous sunsets and a ritual sun- downer drink the norm. But even as we revelled in a little less adrenalin, on one excursion our boat came around a sharp bend in a narrow channel and spooked four female lions that had been sleeping on the bank not two meters from where our boat now bobbed. The lions bounced away, we all fumbled for our cameras and our hearts were racing again.
All told we managed to see four of the big five — elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard. Most rhinos have been moved to a reserve where they are guarded against poachers, so that will have to be another trip. In all, 12 nights in Africa brought us more than we could have hoped for. All connections were well organized, and we were always greeted with a cool drink and a warm smile. The wildlife gave us great photos and exotic memories for a lifetime. We returned to Vancouver content and a little fatter because they feed you really well, and I didn’t get one mosquito bite.