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A Safari Dream Destination

by Larry and Judi Fenson

Botswana always gets top ratings among the 10 or so countries in Africa known for wildlife viewing. A number of factors contribute to Botswana's high rank as a safari destination. Most important is the presence of the Okavango Delta, a vast and pristine watery expanse of rivers, flood plains and islands.

The Delta is located, oddly enough, in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. But water flowing from the highlands of Angola some 900 miles away arrives each year in June-July, at the beginning of the dry season, annually restoring these life-sustaining wetlands. The watery environment acts as a magnet to Kalahari wildlife, making the Okavango one of the richest game-viewing destinations in the world.

Another positive for Botswana is the remoteness of the lodges. Most are situated in or adjacent to game parks reachable only by light aircraft. Your lodging puts you in such close proximity to wildlife that, at most camps, staff escorts are required between your quarters and the main lodge area after dark. At two of our 3 lodges, we could hear hippos at night no more than 10 feet from our tents. At one camp, two elephants made themselves at home one night, doing a bit of damage. It was quite interesting to observe and a bit scary. At our Kalahari lodge, two male lions were fighting on the grounds early in the morning the day before we arrived. That would have been something to see. We heard the eerie yipping of jackals at that lodge late evenings and early mornings.

Sango Safari Camp
This is a great camp situated close to Moreme National Reserve, one of the three most important game parks in Botswana. It has six luxury tents, each with en- suite facilities.

Each of the tents sits on a platform that extends close to water. Hippos can be heard snorting day and night and often make their way near the tents at night, thus the need for caution after dark. Their footprints are always visible in the mud just below your tent platform.

One day we learned that two male lions had been spotted with a giraffe kill. We weren't enthusiastic about seeing the dead giraffe but we did want to see some lions in Botswana. So off we went. Even at some distance away, we saw a sizable group of vultures circling overhead. When we reached the spot, one of the lions was prostate next to the giraffe, so stuffed he seemed hardly able to move. We approached in our vehicle to no more than 10 or 12 feet away. It is not often you can get that close to a lion.

We had more good luck on another day when our guide Joel received word that two leopard cubs had been spotted. We moved in and were excited to get very good views of the two cubs playing. Joel estimated that they were about 9 months old, already pretty large - and gorgeous!

At each of the lodges, excursions take place early in the morning from about 7 am to 10:30 or 11:00 and then again in the late afternoon from about 3:30 to 6:30.These are the best times to see animals and birds and it is also coolest during these hours. Other than lunch and then tea around 3:00, you have free time during the mid-day hours. The lodges always have comfortable lounge areas and a nice range of nature books and field guides. Coffee and tea and soft drinks are typically available at all times. Many lodges have decks or viewing platforms and some have watering holes which are great for watching the interplay as animals cautiously approach and retreat.

At Oddballs, all excursions are by dugout canoes called mokoros or on foot as there are no roads. Because it is mostly a wetlands area, it is a great place for bird watching as well as game spotting. Our guide Rapelang knew that Judi was especially interested in birds and let her know where some giant eagle owls might be. So off we went through some really high brush. And we were in luck, spotting 3 of these amazingly large birds. Walking back toward our lodge through the thick brush, Rapelang jumped back. We knew the reason. He had seen a Cape cobra. But it slithered out of sight before we had a chance to see it. This is why Judi always lets our guide go first.

We had an unexpected adventure our last night at Oddballs when two elephants made themselves at home in our camp around 3:00 am. They were after palm nuts. It happened that a tall palm across from our tent was loaded with them.

When our visitor shook the palm vigorously, the large pods came tumbling down on top of the wooden cover over the tent (now we know why the covers are there). This event made a huge clatter, waking almost everyone in camp. Judi shot up in bed saying "ellies!" After a while, this elephant ambled across the path to our friends' tent adjacent to ours to munch on a jackleberry busy and was virtually eyeball to eyeball with them peering out through their mesh window. But not to worry, Mr. Elephant strolled back toward the lounge after a while and then across the walkway that leads to the airstrip, crunching a few boards and rails before paying a visit to Delta Camp about 20 minutes away.

Kalahari Desert Camp
The Kalahari is beautiful with its yellow and white grasses. Luckily, we happened to be there during the relatively brief blooming season for the yellow and while acacia bushes that you see everywhere. Our spacious accommodations were especially nice at this lodge, including a bathtub in a private courtyard! Wildlife was plentiful here and we were lucky enough one morning to see a mother cheetah with her 3 cubs.

This lodge also had a watering hole and we were able to sit in the comfortable lounge (or on our porch) and watch a variety of animals come in for a drink. Wildebeests and kudus were especially timid, sometimes staring ahead from a considerable distance for up to an hour before coming in. And, as often as not, they would withdraw without ever making it as far as the water. Wart hogs did not seem nearly as timid. They would approach, jump in and roll around in the mud.

This trip was interesting and fun, with Botswana living up to its reputation as a premier safari country. Big game viewing may not have been quite as good as Tanzania and possibly Kenya but it was close if not equivalent. You can't complain when you get to see lions, leopards, cheetahs, African wildcats, giraffes, zebras, hippos, jackals, honey badgers, wart hogs, desert fox, numerous hoofed species including zebras, eland, kudu, oryx, springbok, and others and a greater variety of birds than in any other country we have visited - including exceptional birding destinations like Costa Rica and the Amazon. Moreover, many of the birds, such as the regal fish eagle, the giant eagle owl and the yellow-billed hornbill were really stunning to see. About the only large animals not to be found in the areas we visited are hyenas and rhinos.

Another great thing about Botswana is the small scale of the camps and the personalized service. It's hard to beat. Our trip was also made more interesting by its variety. Sango Lodge is in an area of the Delta with a lot of dry land, making it possible to travel by vehicle while still seeing animals that depend on good availability of water - like hippos and elephants. Oddballs, on the other hand, is in a more watery area explored only by boat. The water also sustains a large and diverse bird population. The scenic Kalahari Desert region south of the Okavango offers quite a different look while still supporting a rich diversity of animal and bird life.

This trip was expertly arranged by in New York.