Botswana: Getting close to nature on a 10-day camping safari
Seattle Times special sections editor
When to go
July and August — our summer, southern Africa's winter — are generally the best game-viewing times because the grasses and other vegetation are shorter and the need for water drives animals to watering holes and rivers, where they're reliably spotted. As a bonus, insects are less active.
Where to safari
Kenya and Tanzania draw more tourists and generally offer less-expensive safaris. The scenery is more dramatic, with the Great Rift Valley and Mount Kilimanjaro. But crowds are fewer and the experience more intimate in Botswana, and safari vehicles are open, whereas in East Africa you ride in closed vehicles with pop-up roofs.
South Africa safaris are growing in popularity, ranging from ultraluxurious camps in private concession to Kruger National Park. Zambia and Namibia are in the earlier stages of development as tourist destinations.
Consult a travel clinic such as the University of Washington's or Public Health — Seattle & King County. You'll likely need some inoculations — we had to update tetanus, hepatitis B — and you'll need malaria pills.
Taking the kids
Most safaris require participants to be at least 12 years old. Any child who goes on a safari must be trusted to follow safety rules, and should have the stamina and attention span to endure long and sometimes monotonous and bone-jarring drives.
What to bring
Safari companies will supply a list of what to bring. A tip for saving money: If, like me, you don't have a lot of clothes in the "safari hues" of beige, khaki and olive green (advisable so you don't scare off animals), shop Goodwill or another secondhand store. For $40 I bought nearly all the shirts and pants our family of three needed.
Lonely Planet's "Botswana," by Paul Greenway and Deanna Swaney, 2002, $18. Good background book that includes some history, culture and practical travel matters.
"Africa's Top Wildlife Countries, Sixth Edition," by Mark W. Nolting and Duncan Butchart, Global Travel Publishers, 2003, $20. Details the best game-viewing times to visit specific areas and parks.
"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, " by Alexander McCall Smith, Anchor, 2003, $12. This first, along with subsequent books in the popular fictional series about Precious Ramotswe, a Botswana detective, imparts a lot of information along the way about Botswana culture and history.
Favorite safari memories come back to me like snapshots:
• Ten lion cubs pouncing, pawing and rolling their way to a dried-up water hole, 'til their mom calls and they trot back.
• Huddling around a crackling campfire, listening to our guide, See, tell stories about his childhood in the bush — "Papa, papa, I killed a hippo!"
• A pride of lions feasting on a giraffe — a female climbing inside the unlucky animal, pulling out a piece of flesh to munch at a safe distance from the male lion snarling at her.
• Peering out from a three-sided "potty" tent to see hippos submerging in the lake, and listening to their loud calls — like a cross between a whale's siren and a donkey's braying: ha-ooo-honkhonkhonk.
My family spent 10 days this year on a Botswana camping safari, moving every few days through scrubby brush, looking for wildlife. We snapped photos like crazy, were served elegant meals under the stars, and bedded down in tents, warmed by thick comforters. (July is winter in southern Africa; cold.)
For evening's entertainment we quizzed See about the fine points of animal behavior and life in Botswana, and alternately tried to comfort and scare ourselves. ("What was that noise?")
This was the second African safari for my husband, Jerry, and me. The first, 15 years ago, was in more heavily touristed Kenya and Tanzania, and hadn't involved camping. This time we took our 12-year-old son, Tao. He was now the minimum age required for most safaris, and he'd been needling us: "Why did you guys go to Africa before I was born?"
We considered returning to Kenya to see areas we'd missed. But travel advisories for Americans for East Africa gave us pause. Our Redmond-based travel consultant, Renee Mills, pooh-poohed Kenya, anyway; "too crowded." Botswana and Zambia, she advised: Go now while they're unspoiled and you can still enjoy animals roaming free in wilderness.
Isn't it expensive, we asked? We'd read how Botswana was encouraging low-volume, high-end tourism as a government policy.
It's worth it, she assured us.
"You have to do this now while you still can," she said. "You can go to Kenya when you're 80. They have minibuses," a word she pronounced with a hint of disdain.
That's how we found ourselves signing up for CC Africa's 10-day Botswana Explorer Pioneer Safari. Safari costs for 2004 started at $1750 per person; the 2005 price is up to $2275 (not including airfare to Johannesburg, South Africa, which cost us $1700 per person).
Ours was neither the do-everything-yourself camping safari nor ultra luxury. Staff members put up our tents, heated water and fixed our meals. And we were driven from camp to camp — many high-enders fly.
In the end, Mills was right about the price tag being worth it.
Ten days and one flat tire, one dead battery, one stalled Land Cruiser, one stalled speedboat, three duffel bags full of dirty khaki-and-olive-green laundry, unmentionable pounds gained from consuming bush cuisine the likes of poached pears in wine sauce, one charging adolescent elephant, one charging mating lion, hungry hyenas circling the camp, 40 lions and hundreds of other animal and bird sightings (from zebra to wildebeest) later, we flew out of Botswana on adrenaline.
Here's a recap taken from our diary:
Day 1: Rendezvous at Victoria FallsThis evening we meet our fellow safari mates and guide in the lobby of a hotel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where most Botswana safaris either begin or end.
We number seven — the maximum per safari, to ensure everyone gets window views. Michel, Alain and Philippe are from Belgium: two brothers and their friend, all in their 30s. Heather, 26, is from San Diego.
See, 34, is in his first year with this safari company but has been guiding in Botswana for many years. For the next 10 days, See — short for Seilaneng, which means "don't hate each other" — tells us, "We are one family."
Day 2: On to ChobeWith still no sign of our luggage lost en route from Seattle, Kim, CC Africa's manager in Kasane — a riverside town by the meeting point of four countries, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe — takes me to its two-block shopping area to outfit our family. Everyone else goes on a game drive in Chobe.
While the others are seeing dozens of elephants rolling in mud, bathing each other, and a baby elephant trying to learn to use its trunk, I am tearing through Kasane's one general store grabbing pants, one-size-fits-all socks and colorful men's bikini underwear (the only kind available). Then we race into Chobe to rendezvous with the others.
I watch baboons grooming each other and have a wide-ranging talk with Kim, a white South African who has spent years guiding in Botswana. We talk about his optimism about post-apartheid South Africa and combating AIDS in Botswana. He's the first of many white South Africans we encounter managing concession lodges and guiding throughout Botswana, something Kim says the Botswana government allows if they have the right qualifications (in his case, conservation, wildlife and tourism degrees) and are training Botswanans.
Finally See and the gang arrive. Another hour and we arrive past sunset at a private camping spot on a beach by the Chobe River. The cook and his helper, Jeffrey and Aaron, are new and got lost, so they're running late. But we warm ourselves by the fire and before long there is a delicious dinner featuring steak with a stroganoff sauce. Warm water is poured into our individual canvas catch basins for washing, and a little bag of luxury soaps and creams hangs from our tent poles. Inside our tents are grass-woven mats and bed tables with lanterns.
We hear brush moving from just the other side of the Zambezi-teak trees sheltering the tents, and a little later, loud trumpeting. An elephant, See says, scared by a lion.
After dinner, See tells us the rules of the bush, which include:
• Don't shine your flashlight past the camp boundaries.
• Don't call out or wave your arms to get an animal's attention.
• Don't go past the perimeter of the camp.
• Be quiet and listen, and you will see more natural animal behavior.
Follow the rules, he says, and we'll be OK. He says he hasn't lost anyone yet.
Day 3: Cruising ChobeFirst lesson in safari reality: This is not the zoo. What makes the experience exciting also means the herds can move to areas where you aren't. The guides never say "we didn't see anything," but rather "it was quiet." This morning it is "very quiet."
Of course there is always something to see, just not necessarily big-game animals. Antelope by the river seem to be on high alert, which usually means lions or leopards are nearby, but we don't see them. Two sets of males lock horns and fight, seeking dominance over the females. A troop of banded mongoose scurries after its posted sentry whistles a warning.
In the afternoon, we cruise the Chobe River, along with a German group on the luxury version of the tour. We (OK, I) have to shush them because they're scaring the hippos away with their squeals and shouts.
Along the shore are hundreds of buffalo, crocodiles, monitor lizards, elephants, hippos. I'm a sucker for baby animals, so I love getting close to the baby hippo swimming around its mother.
Boat ride over, we have a near-run-in with a young elephant who's in musth (heat). We recall See's earlier instructions about the signs an elephant is charging: ears spread out, trunk up, tail up, trumpeting. As the elephant runs toward us, we zoom off. This becomes one of Tao's favorite memories.
See tells us he learned most of what he knows from his parents, who were River Bushmen, a branch of the San people (the term Bushmen is frowned on in some circles, but not in See's eyes). They moved into town when See was 2, but spent time every year in the village where his grandparents lived. When See was 12, he was proud of how he strung up a wire and killed a hippo, feeding his family. In the big city, he says, he feels as alien as we feel in the bush.
Day 4: Savuti — taste of the rich lifeWe take a five-hour drive over roads of thick sand to Savuti, another part of Chobe, passing through a string of villages that mix traditional mud, thatched-roof homes and new schools, community centers and water plants — built, See says, with diamond money. Diamonds, Botswana's biggest industry, were discovered a year after the country (then the protectorate of Bechuanaland) gained independence from Britain in 1966.
Because the camping sites were full, we're booked, for no extra charge, at the swanky Savuti Safari Lodge, where we're greeted with hot face towels and fruity drinks in fluted glasses garnished with flowers. One staff member tells us the lodge, which mostly hosts European tourists and occasionally Americans, usually charges $600 per night.
Our rooms overlook artificially-fed watering holes (separated from us by a small electrified fence) where we watch bull elephants lumber down a hill to drink, occasionally chasing each other off to position themselves at the freshest part of the pool.
Lodge rule: We must be walked by a staff member to dinner and before-sunrise breakfast, for safety's sake. Just the day before, staff awoke to find a hyena's kill on lodge grounds. Lions often take a morning drink from the swimming pool.
When the main power switches off at 9:30 p.m., we crawl into the mosquito-net-swathed bed and discover hot water bottles at our feet.
Day 5: Lion cubs and a zebra feastWe bid goodbye to luxury and head out for a morning game drive. The chilly air carries the strong scent of the wild sage that is everywhere. We spot at least 12 lions crunching loudly on the now-almost-bare bones of a zebra. A cub trots off with the zebra mane in his mouth, while another suckles his mom. A little way off sit a mating pair; the male bites a cub that approaches him, then, as we stand to take photos, starts to charge us. "Sit down! Sit down!" See orders, and we drive off. At mating time, they're more sensitive to intrusion, he says.
Day 6: The hippo poolWe drive five hours to Moremi Game Reserve. Jeffrey and Aaron remain behind because they can't start the truck that carries our camping gear; it's not clear how we're going to camp. We have a flat tire along the way ourselves, but by the time we finish our cold-cuts lunch, See has fixed it.
We pass Khwai Village, where round, mud-hut walls are fortified with aluminum cans. Originally the village was located by the hippo pool where our campsite will be, deeper in the reserve — the best campsite, See says — but the government relocated the villagers.
In contrast to dry Savuti, Moremi is lily-covered lagoons that water-loving red lechwe antelopes splash through, shaded by palms and taller mopane woodlands. The birds are spectacular: Southern ground hornbill, lilac-breasted roller, saddle-billed stork.
At our campsite, a hippo cacophony continues through the night. See says sometimes they're warning each other, calling to each other. Our "bathroom" overlooks the hippo pool, though the hippos are actually a lot farther away than they sound, maybe half a football field away. Tao wants an escort.
Aaron, Jeffrey and two other helpers arrive; they'd finally managed to get the truck started.
Day 7: MoremiOver a lunch of the best curry we've ever eaten, Aaron tells us he was a guide in Zimbabwe, but the political situation stemming from President Mugabe's land expropriation from whites has led to such a drop in tourism, the company switched him and the chef, Jeffrey, to Botswana. "Some of the whites are willing to give up some of their land and offer some of their [assistance]. I think that is the only way. It is easy to break a glass; it's not so easy to put it together again."
Meanwhile he must pay his daughter's private-school fees, and is trying to get his Botswana guide license, though his family remains in Zimbabwe.
Our game rides today are "very quiet."
Back at camp, I can tell See is worried, even though it's not his fault. It's the luck of the safari draw. That night he says forlornly: "Guys, I know your needs. I am trying." I feel bad for him. He's up before us, to sleep after us, and worried about the thousand details of making the safari go right. During the season, he has a day between safaris to see his family, a wife and two small sons in Maun, then he's off on another safari. Still, he says, he loves his job. His wife wants him home more; maybe in another two years, he says.
Around the campfire, he tells us his wife comes from a traditional and poor River San village. But he proudly tells us that they all are very smart and became chess champions; his wife's sister is ranked third in Africa and 65th in the world.
Then Aaron and Jeffrey call out from the stove campfire: "See! Phiri." That's "hyena" in the Setswana language. They have smelled the delicious T-bone steaks Jeffrey made for dinner, and they're circling. We hear loud rustling from the direction of our tents, and See jumps up to investigate. Turns out to be mice. The hyenas move on.
Day 8 — In the Okavango DeltaOn our way to the airstrip to catch a flight, we finally see our first leopard. We speed up and get closer as he trots through the grass, tail up. It's a brief sighting, but we're elated, partly because the animals are sleek and beautiful, and partly because they're so elusive. Seeing a leopard is way up there on the safari scale of nirvana.
A half-hour flight in a single-engine plane takes us deep into the largest inland river delta in the world. An oasis surrounded by the Kalahari desert, it's a maze of permanent and seasonal flood-caused channels whose cold, crystal-clear waters are lined with papyrus and reed, dotted with lilies and palm-fringed islands, and rife with bird life.
Here, too, the campsites are full, so we're back in the lap of luxury, this time at Nxabega Okavango Safari Camp; Nxabega means "place of the giraffe" in the local language. It's a permanently tented camp at marsh's edge. The place is a European fantasy of Africa: polished wood, animal rugs, leather pillows, porcupine-quill lamps, and little soaps that they ask you to put in a drawer when you're away from your tent so the monkeys don't eat them.
At meals, staff members hover; they are stationed at the entrance and greet you by name every time you come and go. We are told our group has a "personal butler," O.T., who will take care of us. She even flaps napkins onto our laps.
Here, night drives and off-road travel are allowed. The lodge's trackers, who accompany our own guide, have the advantage of knowing their land intimately. The lodge has its own special 4X4s with little seats that jut out front where the tracker sits.
We're lucky, we're told; lions killed a giraffe three days earlier. Our tracker, Gee, leads us there. Our noses tell us when we're near.
To describe it sounds unbelievably gory, but to watch it is magnificent. For more than 1½ hours, we are riveted by this scene: The male lion, his face badly scarred, is at first asleep, covered in flies. A female is gorging herself; first she tries gnawing at a leg but is unable to tear into it enough to chew, so she crawls inside the animal's cavity, where she finds easier-to-tear meat. The male wakes and, snarling, tries to keep the female away. She manages to quickly tear off a hunk and, before he can stop her, she moves away from the giraffe, where she can lie down and eat in peace. Vultures are perched on surrounding trees, waiting.
We stay 'til dark, then, bundled in blankets, head for the lodge, about a half-hour's drive away. Ten minutes later, our vehicle stalls. See radios the lodge for help. We watch the star-studded sky, and speculate about what would happen if we had to sleep out there. See says we'd make a fire and stay in the vehicle. The fire would likely keep the animals away from us.
Day 9 — Mokoro rideWe're supposed to take a motorboat ride into the main channel that hippos usually frequent, but five minutes into the ride our boat stalls. See and Gee pole us back. We then squeeze together into the other available, but smaller, boat, two people sitting atop a trunk, and zip through the channels, slowing for a baby crocodile.
Later that afternoon, Gee poles the more traditional mokoro, the dugout boat of the delta, carrying Jerry and Tao. As they glide through the grasses of flood plains, Gee points to an island where, as a child, his family would build a reed house and live during the flood times. He would pole while his father's net trailed, catching fish. His father made their mokoros. In the dry season they'd return to their village.
That afternoon, Gee spots a leopard in a tree not far from the giraffe kill we'd seen earlier. The leopard positions himself this way and that, yawns, climbs up and down the tree, and finally leaves as darkness falls.
This evening marks our last dinner of the safari. And now that our adventure is ending, See lets loose with memories of scary safaris: the time a crocodile slid between two people in a mokoro; the leopard that jumped into a jeep and scratched the tour guide; the tourists driving alone who got in the way of an elephant and were crushed.
Anticipating our last game drive the next morning, we can't imagine anything can top what we've seen. But Philippe recalls a French saying: "Jamais deux sans trois." Never two without three.
Day 10: Last lionsThe morning light is perfect as we watch a drama unfold directly in front of our vehicle: A female lion snarls and swipes at a scarred-face male and tries to bite him. He pulls back. She nudges his head and they rub heads. Another female emerges from the brush and rubs heads with the first female in ritual greeting. Then comes another male, another female over the hill. A vulture swoops down, flying low right over the lions.
It's time to leave. We have a plane to catch to Maun, the busy little town that's a major launching center for safaris.
But not before we thank the safari gods for our good fortune, and I nod to Philippe: "Jamais deux sans trois."
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