Returning to Botswana for the first time since 2008, I hoped to recover some of the rare wildness and freedom I'd felt on that first safari.
We set out from Florida companionably, optimistically - only four of us, who had traveled to Kenya together in the past. We were not disappointed. In Botswana, once we arrived near our first camp, we did not travel on a paved road again until we were near our departure time. We stayed in the bush, camping and game-driving through parks and preserves with very few other travelers near by.
In early June, 2015 we flew to Johannesburg, South Africa. The most popular international route to Botswana is via Johannesburg, although our route was influenced greatly by free Delta miles.
Botswana's high season starts mid-June. By arriving the first week in June we paid less for the safari but got good weather and lots of game, while avoiding the heavy tourist travel of late June, July and August.
We spent two nights at the Safari Club in Johannesburg, very near OR Tambo International Airport. Safari Club is small and friendly - you keep your own tab at the bar. I had stayed at Safari Club before. We were cozy with wood burning heating stoves but it was cold outside - winter in South Africa.
We flew North to Maun, Botswana, the traditional starting place for Botswana Safaris. Maun is in the Northern area of Botswana and situated just to the south of the Okavango delta - a large grassy wetland which changes size based on rainfall.
The temperature in Maun jumped to high 60's. A short drive took us to the starting place for the safari - an unmarked dirt road with a white Land-rover waiting.
While I am on the topic of safari vehicles - I have been on a dozen safaris with five different travel companies. The number of vehicles has been between six and two, plus at least one camp van. There has always been at least one breakdown and at least one place where we got stuck. But, only once did that cause a delay in the safari. However, I remember the delay well - being the person who volunteered to stay in camp with the broken van while the rest of the group moved on to the next site.
I was rewarded with wonderful photo opportunities as lots of birds and mammals descended on the site looking for scraps and left-overs.
Botswana safaris are, for the most part, camping with a day or two in lodges. Our 2015 safari was totally camping. The camp sites are in open country, often along streams, so animals are always around. The camp staff keeps a watch to insure safety.
This trip was the safari described in Hemingway's novels - drinks by the campfire in the evening, visits by elephants at night and hot wash water delivered to your tent in the morning. After that one emerged to hot coffee or tea.
Camp food was traditional Botswanan, with an European influence. Breakfast was at dawn, around the fire - hot porridge, scrambled eggs, and fresh pastry. It always hit the spot. Lunches were usually in the field from the chuck-box. Dinners were wonderful and when supplemented with South African wine made for memorable meals. Having a skilled chef and able crew made camp life very pleasant. Even the hanging bucket shower behind each tent was fun and the water was usually hot. What distinguishes this safari from others I have organized is that we were almost totally on dirt roads with no fences, thus the possibility of animal encounters at any time. We were in the bush and civilization was elsewhere.
Getting around in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa either requires lots of driving or using small private aircraft. The good news about Botswana is that you can be in game preserves most of the time and avoid busy roads.
MOREMI GAME RESERVE
From Maun we drove to Moremi Game Reserve to the North - where we spent three days. It is about a four hour drive from Maun airport- approximately 160kms. Moremi is in the Eastern corner of the Okavango Delta in the north west of Botswana. The delta shrinks in the dry season which causes game to cluster in smaller wet areas. This resulted in our being able to see concentrated groups of animals. The Okavango always has some water.
Moremi is approximately 1880 sq. mi., which is slightly smaller than Delaware. Botswana is 224,610 sq. mi. Florida is 53,900 sq. mi.
Moremi has been described as one of the most beautiful wildlife reserves in Africa. It combines mopane woodland and acacia forests, flood plains and lagoons.
The great diversity of plant and animal life that make Moremi well known throughout Africa. There are many animals - elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas and rhinos. The Moremi Game Reserve is also renowned for its bird life.
Leopards are fairly rare. They usually feed early, often dragging the prey up into a tree where they nap, eat, nap and eat. I got this leopard photo early in the morning. The cat had come down for a drink.
Early in the safari, while on an afternoon game drive, we were overtaken and passed by a speeding van and got an unneeded dust bath. Rather than wave fists and shout at the other driver we waited for the dust to settle and raced after them. Most drivers have cell phones or two way radios allowing them to chat. This includes alerting other drivers to great game sightings. This time the sighting was two cheetahs sleeping in some grass. We found a good place to stop but could only see ears above the grass. However after a brief wait the cats decided pose for us.
Moremi is great for bird spotting with nearly 500 species. We occasionally experience some tension between guests who are interested in birds and those who only want to see the big five mammals. There was no tension on this safari.
We saw a vast array of wildlife, including seeing African wild dogs most days. The dogs hunt early in the morning and we usually encountered them after they had been successful in their hunt. The downside of this unique wildlife encounter is that some other beautiful animal was breakfast.
Although just under 5,000 square kilometers Moremi is surprisingly diverse, combining woodland and acacia forests, floodplains and lagoons. About two-thirds of the Reserve is within the Okavango Delta, although the exact amount depends on the amount of rainfall.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK
Our next stop was Chobe National Park which borders Moremi on the northeast. The drive took a few hours (approximately 180kms), but we were able to spot lots of game and stop for photos. We spent two days in the southern part of Chobe before driving to the north (Ihaha / Serondela Area) where we spent three more days. This included a lovely afternoon boat ride - two photographers to a canoe shaped like the indigenous boats and poled by a local boatman.
This trip allowed some very close looks a water dwellers as well as seeing game along the edge drinking.
The last two days of the safari were spent near Victoria falls, in Kasane. When I visited the falls in 2008 there was very little water. Although the view was breath-taking it was disappointing. This year there were no disappointments.
Behind that sign water was roaring off the top and tumbling to the bottom creating enough vapor to require raincoats to stay even partially dry. While the falls predate human activity in the area, human artifacts dating back three million years have been found. Artifacts have also been found dating 50,000 years ago as well as stone weapons and tools which date as recently as 2000 years old.
David Livingston, a Scotsman is responsible for reporting the falls to Queen Victoria in 1855. The falls carry her name today and the town at the base of the falls is named Livingston. Livingston was guided, however, by maps drawn in 1715 by Nicolas de Fer and a second map drawn in 1750, by Jacques Nicolas Bellin. Their maps had been drawn based on verbal accounts.
The Makololo people, who live today around the falls call them Mosi-o-Tunya - translated to mean the smoke that thunders.
The smoke is the mist which rises around and above the falls. The thunder is the roar of the water crashing at the base of the falls. Our safari ended there at Victoria Falls where the loud water allowed us each our own silences. We flew back to Jo-Berg - still cold - for an overnight and the trip home.