Have you ever taken the time to look at an elephant’s trunk? Have you sat 15 feet away while it uses this improbably useful flexible appendage to pull up the local grass and eat it? I suggest you try this sometime. They are a fascinating animal. They are the kind of animal that would be hard to convince the product review committee was a particularly good idea. “How’s that again?”, they would ask, “You want to design an animal with a, particularly large and snake-like nose that it will eat with? That’s never going to make it out of the focus groups.” That idea, like your idea about an animal with a particularly long neck, would be doomed to the dustbin of product ideas.
But darned if someone did not design both of those animals… and He put a fair number of them in northern Botswana in the Okavango Delta. Fully one-third of Africa’s elephants can be found in the Okavango.
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The Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is an interesting phenomenon. It is an inland delta. It does not drain into any lake, sea, or ocean but basically drains the rivers that flow down from the Angolan highlands into the Kalahari desert. The whole area is lush as the water brings life to it. The area used to be a large ancient lake, but after the Chobe and Zambezi rivers were redirected, the area turned into this out-of-place delta. 90% of the water that flows into the Okavango either soaks into its sandy soil or evaporates from its shallow waterways.
I was in the Okavango as a guest of Bill Burns from Dewan Adventure Travel. Bill fell in love with Botswana 28 years ago as a young teacher with the Peace Corps and now brings groups to the area.
We camped in the Khwai Concession which is a community-owned conservation area instead of one of Botswana’s many National Parks. On the way there we drove through a corner of the Chobe National Park in an area along the river with a stunning variety of life. We saw wildebeests, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, gazelle, and waterbuck. And all that was just the first day.
We are exploring the area not from a luxury safari lodge but from a different form of luxury in the form of a mobile (that is to say camping) safari.
Mobile Safari Camp
I woke to a friendly “good morning”, but there were few signs of the morning and it would take me a while to evaluate “good” at 4:30 am. A member of the safari crew had unzipped the back porch area on my tent to bring me a fresh warm basin of water so I could wash up before our morning game drive.
My tent had an awning in the front of it and at the back of it, there was a private area with a suspended bag of water for a shower, a basin, and a simple pit toilet covered with a toilet seat. Beside the toilet was a bucket of sand and a trowel that I would use to “flush”.
Inside my tent, many of the vents were still open to let in the breeze as I was in Botswana in December which was the beginning of the hot rainy part of the year and it was already shirt-sleeve weather at 4:30 am. There was a comfortable camp bed with bedding, including two monogrammed pillows that said Royale Wilderness, which was the name of the mobile safari operator who was showing me the Okavango delta area of Botswana.
Both the inside of the tent and the back porch area have an LED light that is connected to a large battery that should last for the whole week we are out in the bush.
We have a dining tent nearby where we eat our meals. This safari comes with a chef and the food is plentiful and tasty. The only problem I had with dinner was trying to keep the staff from endlessly filling my wine glass.
Best time to visit Botswana
The rains started in the afternoon as the heat of the day broke. I woke to thunder from a quick power nap between the morning and evening outing. December is supposed to be the rainy part of the year. Temperatures are warmer this time of year (hitting over 100°F or 40°C during the heat of the day) as well so there are fewer tourists out on safari. The rains have come late this year so animals and humans alike will be glad for this downpour if tourists are a bit more inconvenienced. As the rains have come a parade of at least 100 elephants from different groups has paraded past our camp heading in the direction of the lightning and the refreshing rain.
This is a good time of year for birders as the migratory birds are coming back from their summer in Europe. Over 450 different species of birds visit or inhabit the Okavango Delta area. Of course, it is good to note that one reason that the birds want to come to this area in the wet season is that as soon as the rains hit the many many termite mounds, the mounds open up and disgorge flying termites which will mate and found new colonies… or will become lunch to some migrating bird. Flying ants will also come out and one morning after a rain, the flying ants sounded like rain on the side of my tent as they swarmed around the outside light.
Most tourists come to in Botswana winter which is colder and drier. This early December safari will be the last one that Royale Wilderness will do for a few months. The hot summer months can become too wet to get around much of the Delta so it is a time for the guides and crew to take vacations and for refitting for the next safari season.
The typical schedule is to get up before sunrise, eat breakfast in the pre-dawn, and head out for a game drive in the early morning light. Herds of herbivores are easy to find but most of the carnivores are more active at night or in the early morning or late afternoon light.
We would drive around in our safari vehicle as our guide Johnny Ramsden would lean out of the vehicle to read the tracks left the night before (like the rhino tracks pictured above). He wanted to see those tracks before other safari vehicles would drive over them to know which direction to head to find lions for instance. Johnny and his wife Tasha own Royale Wilderness. Johnny still does some of the guide work while Tasha does all the hard work of keeping the company running.
Mid-morning we would find a place to park and have our morning tea. Johnny would set out the tea, coffee, and biscuits on a fold-down table in the front of the vehicle while we enjoyed watching some hippo pool or herd of elephants.
We would then continue the game drive until around 10 am or 10:30 am when we would return to camp. The middle of the day would be a break for lunch, naps, editing photos, telling stories, or catching up on that book you had been meaning to read. We were out past cellular or wi-fi signals so you bring your own entertainment with you.
In the afternoon we would have tea around 4 and then get back in the vehicle for a second game drive until just after sunset. We would find some pack of lions or wild dogs (see Hunting with African Wild Dogs on Safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta) and watch them as they woke up and headed out to hunt.
In fine safari tradition, we would stop for a “sundowner” drink and watch the sunset. The traditional drink would be a gin and tonic (the tonic meant to help prevent malaria) but mine was as often a glass of red wine or a Diet Coke.
As we lost our light we would return to camp for dinner.
We camped at Khwai for 3 nights and then repositioned to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve for another 3 nights. On the days that the camp is being broken down, transported, and set up we would continue to drive through the middle of the day, stopping for lunch somewhere along the way. A typical game drive is around 10 days, changing locations about once every 3 days.
We had an up-close encounter with a bull elephant that ambled up to our safari vehicle just to get a good look at us. He definitely seemed more interested than upset, as if we were also the highlight of his day.
One morning game drive was the Okavango version of “uneventful”. We watched a mother giraffe and a juvenile, but we were trying to find carnivores. After a few hours, we spotted a leopard… no pun intended. We watched a mother leopard for at least half an hour as we crashed through the underbrush in the vehicle at times, to get to where she would pass by. She seemed unconcerned by our presence and would walk directly in front of the vehicle at times.
After our coffee break, we heard the news on the radio that her daughter had joined her and continued to watch the pair as mom tried to encourage the daughter to get a place of her own. It was time for this one-and-a-half-year-old juvenile to establish her own territory before the mom would have her next offspring in about 6 months.
Besides the African wild dog encounter which rated its own blog post, we lions rise from their nap and start the hunt. One group of 3 sisters included a lioness who had injured her paw and could no longer keep up with the pride. If her paw did not heal quickly then she would stand little chance of survival,
We heard a lioness roar on another occasion, just outside our camp. We sat by the fire as she strolled by 50 feet away in search of the rest of her pride.
We spent quite a lot of time trying to identify some of the many species of birds that visit the Okavango Delta in a year. Some of these are locals and some tourists coming from as far away as northern Europe.
The Safari Vehicle
The typical safari vehicle in Botswana is a highly customized Toyota pickup truck that has been modified to add 8 tiered seats in the back. Royale Wilderness will never take more than 7 guests in the vehicle at a time even though that leaves 2 middle seats empty. There are no windows and even the windshield is usually folded down so this is a bumpy, dusty ride.
Our morning game drive started a little late one day as one of our group had dehydrated the day before and was ill. As you drive for hours in the open vehicle you can stay cool with the breeze and not realize how much you are dehydrating. So you keep your water bottle near you. This vehicle also had a fridge with cold drinks that the crew kept stocked and places to plug in your electronics to recharge them.
This is not basic camping. When you leave your dirty clothes on the floor of your tent they come back laundered. Dinners are much better than any camping outing where I was in charge of the cooking.
Prices for a safari with Royale Wilderness start at about $360 per person per day. Each group is a private group. It is the kind of “once in a lifetime experience” you hope to have more than once in a lifetime.
For more information about Botswana listen to the only episode of the Amateur Traveler podcast which I have ever had interrupted by a lion: Botswana Safari – Amateur Traveler #639
- What to Pack for a Mobile African Safari
- Hunting with African Wild Dogs on Safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta
I was on this safari as a guest of Dewan Adventure Travel which can find the right Botswana safari for you.