Heading on a safari had always been a dream of mine. I wanted to get up close and personal with some big animals, feel the rhythms of Africa, and switch off from modern life for a while.
With that in mind, I decided that travel to Botswana (with a bit of Zimbabwe and South Africa thrown in) would be best for me, due to its mix of landscapes and diverse safari experiences. The government’s commitment to low-impact tourism also played a factor and, unlike some of its neighbours, Botswana recently banned commercial hunting too. Go Botswana!
Intrepid Travel’s 10-day Okavango Experience fit the bill perfectly, squeezing everything I wanted to see into a 6,000 kilometre adventure from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls.
Here’s what it looked like to travel in Botswana:
We started the trip as strangers, but soon became fast friends. For some it was their first Intrepid trip, for others it was their tenth! Some were hardy campers; others were hardly campers. Couples, friends, solos, families; some acknowledged they were out of their comfort zone, while others were poised to throw themselves at whatever lay ahead. After all, our guide began the trip by announcing, “Expect the unexpected. This is Africa”.
Over 10 days, we forwent our creature comforts to reconnect with nature and discover the beating heart of the country – setting up our own tents, lending a hand cooking, and sleeping with just a thin canvas tent between us and top-of-the-food-chain types of animals. Fortunately, our local guides knew a few traditional tricks to safeguard the camp from any uninvited guests.
Our guide, Timon, and our driver, Dumi, were vastly experienced, with 30 years guiding tours under their belts between them. Timon was a giant of a man both in stature and heart, a bloke I wholeheartedly believed when he shared a story about taking on a crocodile and winning. Dumi was perhaps the happiest man I’ve ever met, unfazed by the unpredictability of life in Southern Africa. The result was a dynamic, passionate and knowledgeable team, equally comfortable whipping up African banquets or fending off ambushes from resident hyenas (I’d imagine!).
The Khama Rhino Sanctuary has seen rhinoceros numbers increase from five to over seventy since it launched in the 1990s. Heading out on a game drive, arid plains opened up before us and we were greeted with an array of wildlife that we’d come so far to see: giraffes, warthogs, ostriches, impalas, zebra, wildebeest and, of course, rhinos. Watching these animals at such a close proximity instilled a feeling of intimacy with nature that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s largest inland deltas, covering up to 22,000 square kilometres. Ribbons of water crisscross every which way to isolate thousands of tiny islands, harbouring abundant wildlife that migrate to drink from the delta’s waters. Appropriately, our mode of transport for the next few days would be traditional dugout canoes – known locally as mokoros – to navigate the tight and winding waterways.
Standing to the rear of the mokoro, the poler uses a long wooden stick to propel off the river bed with considerable skill. Sitting barely inches above the water, passing through the channels of water as you’re serenaded by the splash of the pole and rustle of the reeds, offers an immersive experience of the delta.
One of the trip highlights was the safari walk in the Okavango; something about being under the steam of your own two feet rather than being in a vehicle enhanced the experience, making it more intimate and authentic. We were met with the breath-taking view of dozens of elephants – even our guides were hastily snapping away, proclaiming never to have seen so many at once. A baby elephant broke from the herd and playfully plodded in our direction. Respectfully, we backed away as a few of the elders changed course to start after the youth and bring her home.
I took the opportunity to take a scenic flight over the delta. Cruising the clear blue skies at 2,000 feet, we were greeted by the sheer scale and beauty of the delta. Waterways and lush grasslands snake as far as the eye can see, glinting in the sunlight before disappearing into the mist. It became clear that our time on the ground barely scratched the surface, and there was much more to explore from above. As if on cue, hoards of animals appeared far below, inviting a closer look. Our pilot duly obliged; the chance to see such an abundance of wildlife from this unique perspective will stay with me forever.
I was surprised by the salt pans. Based on my rudimentary knowledge of the Mahgkadadi from TV, I expected there to be seas of absolute nothingness for miles in all directions. The reality was quite different; instead of an endless vista of prehistoric sludge, we sat beside a gigantic lake to watch the sunset with a can of the local brew as twilight seeped in.
Chobe National Park is home to the highest concentration of elephants anywhere in the world. Deserving of such a title, we were greeted by herds at the Chobe River, happily coexisting alongside baboons, crocodiles, impala, buffalo, hippos and giraffes. Despite what was, in essence, an all-you-can-eat buffet for any predators, the big cats unfortunately eluded us once again, offering a compelling reason for a return visit someday (as if the photos and memories weren’t enough).
Leaving Botswana in our dust, we headed to the Zimbabwean border to visit Victoria Falls. The scale and power of the falls is striking, and it really hits you when you first catch sight. Turbulent water gushes over the lip, crashing down over 100 metres later in places. Mist generated by the falls blocks the view of all but the nearest, giving the impression of the falls cascading for miles, amplified by the accompanying thunderous sound.
As with all good things, the trip had to come to an end for me. Half of the group were to continue on through Zimbabwe, to Kruger and back to Jo’burg, starting a new tour with new faces, new friendships and new memories to be made. Then came the inevitable sad goodbyes particularly to Timon and Dumi, which were said with heavy hearts. Their endless graft ensured the experience was an unforgettable one; always carrying out their duties with huge smiles on their faces.
It’s amazing how quickly bonds can be formed in such a short space of time. Just ten days earlier, we were all strangers from different walks of life; over 6,000 kilometres, three countries and a heap of shared experiences later, we’d become a family.
As for Southern Africa, we were truly spoiled by the treasures it shared. The abundant wildlife, the warmth of the locals who gave us everything – often with very little to give – and the fierce sunsets that gave way to the stars that pierced black velvet skies have all made a lasting impression on me. With so much to explore I’m afraid my love affair, one that I suspect will be lifelong, for this great continent has only just begun.
Want to experience Botswana like Chris? Check out our 10-day Okavango Experience adventure now.
All photos by Chris Castle.