John Huxley: Our safari in northern Botswana

From time to time, ChobeSafari likes to feature travel stories of others to the region so one can gain a broad view of a typical safari vacation.  Here is a recent trip summary by John Huxley.

by John Huxley

Seriously, our guide Thuso Sarefo says with a wide, Batswana smile, there is an ever-present danger of being trampled by a rampaging hippo. Or surprised to death by a clumsy elephant. Or snatched, like a fast-food takeaway, by a lion.

When we arrive at Kwara camp, on the north-eastern edge of the delta, it is late summer and hot-water bottles are out of season. But, just as it was that night in the English couple’s tent, there is water everywhere, across the broad, flat land.

During our stay in the region, many airstrips west of Chobe NP are flooded. Regular safari tracks have become impassable even in snorkled-up trucks. Some luxury cabins with “picturesque river views” have suddenly acquired 360-degree water frontage. Further north, in Zambia, the lower steps of Livingstone lodges are lapped by the swollen Zambesi. So much river is tumbling over Victoria Falls, local guides grumble that vantage points for “the smoke that thunders” are too dangerous.

Not far away, whole holiday resorts in Namibia have been inundated, abandoned, replaced here and there on the miles-wide Chobe River by several high-rise houseboats. For the visitor, at least, it is all very exciting.

Like many visitors to Botswana, we had arrived via Johannesburg, where we had a restful night behind the razor wire at a suburban hotel; then Livingstone, where we spent only a couple of days after paying $US50 ($57) for a visa; and then the strange border town of Kazungula. There is a settlement of sorts, built close to the cross on the map that marks where Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana join. But the real action is either side of the Zambezi River.

Elephants at Chobe

Here as many as 250 heavy trucks can be found waiting – often for more than a week, we are told – to make the ferry crossing. Around the slow-moving queue of men and machines has grown a flourishing trade in food, drugs, sex and car washes. It is a fascinating study in patience and poverty. But there’s no time to linger as rich whites are fast-tracked through customs, whisked across the river in a speedboat and taken in open Land Rover, like visiting royalty, into Botswana.

The reputation of the land-locked country precedes us – a blessed fraction of Africa whose friendly efficiency is vouchsafed by author Alexander McCall Smith and his “No.1 ladies’ detective”, Precious Ramotswe.  But after the stress of South Africa and the casual scruffiness of Zambia, the smooth, tarmac roads, manicured verges and colourful signs politely requesting visitors to “Please drive safely and keep Botswana clean” come as a pleasant surprise. As McCall Smith, whose Precious Ramotswe spin-offs now include an opera and a cookbook, admits, it is not flawless. “There’s ‘grim’ in every country,” he has said. But Botswana has less than its fair share of “grim”, more than its fair share of great.

It is difficult to dislike a people whose most-heated political debate in recent years has been over choice of a “national bird”: the mournful kori bustard, known by its call as “the go-away bird”, or that tarty little show-off, the lilac-breasted roller? Both can be easily spotted among the teeming wildlife, elephant-big and butterfly-small, in the Chobe National Park, near the town of Kasane, our starting point for a 10-day trip into the delta. Statistically, we:

  • Stay at four camps: Kubu Lodge, Kwando, Kwara and, lest anyone think we’d got stuck on the same page of the directory, Xakanaxa.
  • Make three short, scary hops in small planes and one lengthy, lazy boat trip, between the camps and our exit point, Maun.
  • Embark on 14 dawn or dusk safaris, four river safaris, two night safaris and three kayak trips.
  • Observe up close four of the big five (lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo but no rhino); all of the ugly five (wildebeest, warthog, hyena, vulture and marabou stork); and one of the small five (leopard tortoise but no buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, lion ant or rhino beetle).
  • Tick 182 birds, a bigger attraction for us than the three fives, but no hot-water bottles.
  • Record zero mosquito bites, illnesses or accidents but come close to being hit by falling fruit from the famous Botswana sausage tree. Pity. “Killed by falling sausage” would have looked so cool on a death certificate.
  • Take one decent walk, accompanied by a guide named the General, who has a serious gun and a qualification in alternative bush medicines. He points out plenty of remedies for keeping away evil spirits but none for curing arthritic hips.
  • Have one helluva good time.

That said, being on safari is at times an odd experience, frequently evoking feelings of indolence, claustrophobia and displacement, possibly derived from watching too many Out of Africa-style movies and reading too many White Mischief-type books.

Roadway view between Kasane and Chobe NP

The constraints inevitable in organising luxury holidays in remote, potentially dangerous surroundings are, as one of the German guests put it, like living “in einer seifenblase”. That is, “in a bubble”, where we feel expertly, generously, kindly pampered like old-colonial English, overfed and under-exercised. In a word, guilty.

By day three, my gym-junkie wife and I are organising “Botswana biathlons” that involve swimming two three-stroke laps of a small splash pool, picking up a carved, wooden hippo, running around the pool, replacing the hippo and repeating, 25 times.

Picture the opening scene to one composite camp stay: A small Cessna 206 with defective dials (“They never work on this model,” the South African pilot cheerfully explains) comes slip-sliding to a halt on a muddy, bush airstrip.

At a rickety wooden table labelled “guest lounge”, the passengers are greeted by the smiling guides, who introduce themselves as “Pete and GT – as in gin and tonic”. Their first question is: “What would you like to drink?” Water, perhaps? “No, not for now, for tonight,” Pete says, explaining the evening ritual of sundowners. Orders placed, guests and luggage are loaded into an open-top four-wheel-drive and are taken off to the camp, where smiling staff are lined up, offering welcome drinks.

Slowly, seductively, guests are drawn into the daily routine, which typically starts with a wake-up call at 6 o’clock and breakfast. The morning safari, which includes a stop for tea and biccies, lasts about four hours. Then it’s back to camp for brunch, a big cooked breakfast. The hot middle of the day is free. Afternoon tea, nicknamed tiffin, is at 4pm, followed by an afternoon safari for two or three hours, depending on animal activity. As the blazing red sun sets on one of the flattest countries in the world, the vehicles stop, the guides climb down and set up a metal table, spread a crisp tablecloth and start serving the sundowners. A couple of hours later, the guests have freshened up and are seated at the communal table hoeing into a four-course meal, with “help yourself from the fridge” drinks.

The catering is wonderful and completed on one memorable evening when all the staff members emerge from kitchens and camp patrols to stage an impromptu concert of songs and dances.

The hospitality, on safari and in camp, is overwhelming. Kwara’s energetic manager, Janet Sejammu, explains: “We always tell our guides they must remember the next game drive may be their 500th but for the visitor it could be the first. Or last.” And the company is never hard going, which is just as well given the hours we spend together being shaken on deeply rutted bush tracks. (Xakanaxa guide Ollie says they are kept like that for guests wanting the “real Africa experience”.) New friends include an American musician who switched from symphony orchestras to heavy-metal bands and an English couple who have driven to Botswana from Manchester. “The worst bit was the M6,” they explain.  And several people who have tacked a safari on to the beginning or end of a tax-deductible overseas “conference”.

Sounds perfect? Well, with minor reservations, a safari holiday in Botswana almost is. But I’d make some suggestions before booking a holiday that could cost thousands:

  • Choose to spread time among a number of different camps. However wonderful the wildlife, driving over the same tracks, morning and afternoon, for more than a couple of days becomes surprisingly tedious.
  • Inquire whether the camp runs safaris into a national park, where vehicles have to stick to the tracks, or on private property, where they can go wherever they like in search of marquee animals. Clearly, it is more rewarding to be up close to the animals – but we feel that charging through waist-high grass in pursuit of a lone leopard amounts to harassment.
  • Ask how many people will travel with you. In terms of comfort, common purpose and the guide’s attention, the fewer the better. And in terms of guides, four eyes – the driver’s and the tracker’s – are more effective and safer than two.
  • Check the guides and their qualifications, especially for specialist interests: birds, specific animals, specialist photography etc. After a frustrating trip with a guide who clearly didn’t know his birds, an American woman gave her tip instead to another guest, who’d spotted and correctly identified 90 per cent of the birds seen.
  • Accept that, despite its best intentions, Moremi Air, which carries guests between camps and to and from the airport, is running a taxi service rather than scheduled flights, so pick-up times can change at short notice.

One mid-morning, we receive an urgent call from base to rush back to Kwando for our flight to Kwara. Sadly, it comes at a climactic moment as three cheetahs, hidden behind a mopane tree, survey a straggly line of unsuspecting tsessebe. The other couple in the truck are, understandably, even less happy than we are. Did the dozy antelopes escape? Or did the cheetahs, three brothers, make a dash, followed by a leisurely feed? If anyone out there knows, please let me know.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop to Johannesburg from Sydney (14hr) for about $1650. V Australia flies non-stop from Melbourne (15hr 15 min) for about $1470. Fares are low-season return. Air Botswana will take you on to Maun (1hr 40min) for about $615 return including tax.

Package holidays include transfers into the delta and between camps, by boat or plane, mostly on Moremi Air.

Touring there

The author booked with safaridestinations.net, one of several companies based in Maun. All arrangements and payments were made online, or by bank transfer. Ten days in the delta cost about $260 a person a night, including all domestic flights and boat rides from Kasane to Maun, our point of exit.

Wildlife Safari has a seven-day “Wings Over Botswana” safari in luxury accommodation, with scenic flights to Chobe National Park, Moremi Wildlife Reserve and the Okavango Delta and game-viewing options by open safari vehicle, foot and mokoro (canoe). It costs from $6500 a person, twin share, including all meals, accommodation and domestic flights. Phone 1800 998 558, see www.wildlifesafari.com.au.

For general information see www.botswanatourism.co.bw. For camps mentioned here, see kubulodge.net, www.kwando.co.za (for both Kwando and Kwara), and xakanaxa-camp.com.

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