Uncovering the Wilderness of Botswana

Maun Airport

About to board our Cessna at Maun Airport.

Flying into the Delta

From the tiny six-seater Cessna I looked down at the water 1500 feet below me. We were at the end of the rainy season and it had spread like tentacles across the lush green Botswanan vegetation. This was the Okavango Delta, one of the most attractive wilderness areas on earth and home to huge numbers of wild animals and birds. For years we had wanted to visit and now the opportunity had come. After flying direct from Johannesburg to Maun, we deposited our excess luggage at the Mack Air offices and boarded the Cessna to start our delta adventure.

Xugana Island

Our first stop was Xugana Island Lodge on the northern boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve. As the plane came in to land we saw a vehicle racing down the grass runway to make sure there were no stray animals in our path – we really were in the wilderness. We touched down and taxied towards a reed shelter where a ranger with a broad smile welcomed us warmly. We offloaded our luggage and within minutes we were off to the lodge on a small boat which, with its flat bottom, could negotiate the shallow channels between the reeds. The time seemed to fly by as we learned about the Delta and its wildlife; then suddenly we emerged into open water and ahead of us we could see the landing at the lodge and members of the staff waving their arms enthusiastically.

Xugana Island Lodge

We got the warm welcome that we later realized was a feature of Botswanan hospitality in the Delta. We unpacked quickly and enjoyed a refreshing tea before getting back on the boat for a game “drive.” What an experience it was! Our guide was a mine of information as he pointed out the different types of vegetation and the many species of birds. Before we knew it we were back at the airstrip where he parked the boat and transferred us to a mokoro, a type of canoe but with a flat bottom and propelled and steered with a pole rather than a paddle. The silence was penetrated only by the swish of the pole and the sound of the birds – a remarkable experience that restored the soul. On the return journey to the lodge, we watched the sun setting over the water. While we enjoyed the sundowner and snacks in the boat, it was the stillness and the feeling of peace that will remain in our memories.

Of course, the dinner was excellent and we enjoyed it looking out over the water under the yellowy light of the moon and a myriad of twinkling stars. What a difference this was from London – no light, noise, or air pollution!

The next day, we were up at 6am for a walking safari on Elephant Island. Our two guides explained the protocol and although we had some reservations about walking without anyone having a firearm for protection, we needn’t have worried. Almost as soon as we stepped onto the island we saw elephant— only about a hundred yards away. This was the just the beginning, as we walked further we saw numerous species of animal, from red lechwe to buffalo. We learned an enormous amount about the animals, birds, trees, and vegetation and the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guides made for an unforgettable experience.

Elephant Island

Observing wildlife on Exploring Elephant Island—no prizes for guessing the reason behind the name

Off to the Moremi Tongue

The following day, we had time to squeeze in another short walking safari before we took off on a thirty minute flight to Khwai River on the north-eastern corner of Moremi. Here we again experienced the warmth of the Botswanan people as the entire staff of Sango Safari Camp welcomed us with their singing.

Sango was a very different experience to Xugana Island. Firstly, we were not on an island surrounded by water and the emphasis was on game viewing. Because Sango is outside the reserve we had more flexibility with the timing of game drives and therefore we had more opportunity to see the predators in particular. And see them we did! On our drive from the airstrip to the lodge we came upon a leopard resting in the shade of a tree, and not more than five yards away from the vehicle – what a magnificent sight.

Over the space of the next two days, we were spoilt as we spotted a large pride of lions at close distance, a female leopard repeatedly coming back to her camouflaged “bush larder” to feed off an impala that she had killed a day or two earlier, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, and numerous species of antelope. And our bird spotting list expanded rapidly. Our guide, like those at Xugana, had a real heart for wildlife conservation and for Botswana. Because of his knowledge of the area and his experience, he knew where to go for the best viewing.

Sango, with its tented accommodation, was a more rustic camp than Xugana Island Lodge, but it had its own charm. The tents overlook a savannah-like area where one can spot game from time to time. There is the standard schedule of early morning and late afternoon game drives with time to relax in between—either on the veranda of one’s tent, in the open lounge area, at an elevated hide, or at the plunge pool.

A giraffe in Chobe

Next Stop: Chobe

Our next stop was Ghoha Hills Savuti Lodge. This meant a slightly longer flight—out of the delta and north to Savute—and about an hour’s transfer to the lodge in a four-wheel drive. As the name suggests, the lodge is situated on a hill with a magnificent view over the Chobe National Park. Once again, we were treated to a welcome song, followed by a late lunch and a short drive to a hide next to a large watering hole. But the highlight was the long drive the following morning to the Savute Marshes. The vegetation is different to that found in the delt, a but also teems with wild life and the variety of birds seemed even more spectacular than in Moremi. Our guide, who was also manager of the lodge, was from the same mold as the others—an avid conservationist with encyclopedic knowledge of the animals and birds and the habitat. At lunch time, we stopped in an open area where we enjoyed a picnic in style with animals wandering in the distance, seemingly unaware of our presence.

After six exciting days in Botswana, it was time to return home. Would we go again? Most definitely! It can be expensive but it was one of the best wilderness experiences we have had and both the Okavango Delta and Chobe are not to be missed. The best time to go is after the rainy season when the Okavango River pours into the delta and the water soaks into the salt pans of central Botswana. There are many different types of accommodation, from basic camping to super luxury, and there are a number of safari specialists who can help you choose what will be best for you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick FlemingPatrick and his wife Penny, South Africans who now live in the British countryside, have a passion for seeing the world. Unlike most people in their mid-60s, Patrick and Penny have rejected cruises and all-inclusives for slightly more adventurous trips that include hiking the Coast to Coast trail across Britain and climbing volcanos in Nicaragua. Following a career in business which took him to many far flung corners of the globe, Patrick is now retired and alongside playing lots of squash and spending time with his family and wild Irish Setter, he loves planning their next adventure. They have a particular affinity for Africa and alongside their globetrotting adventures, they run a charity in South Africa, The Garden Route Children’s Trust, which provides food and education to thousands of children living in extreme poverty. To learn more or donate to the trust, visit www.grct.org.uk.

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