Into The Wild: Botswana

Karen Ting travels to Botswana for an adventure of a lifetime.

Sea Drive Through Floodplains - Caroline Culbert copy

A landlocked country in southern Africa, Botswana is bordered by South Africa to the south and southeast, Zimbabwe to the northeast and Namibia to the west. The country is largely made up of the Kalahari Desert in the west and south, and the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park in the north.

The Botswana government has set aside 45 per cent of the country as national parks and wildlife reserves, making it one of the top game viewing destinations in Africa. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2014, the Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta system in the world, covering 15,000 square kilometres of water channels, lagoons and islands. It is home to a diverse range of wildlife – from mammals and birdlife to species unique to the area such as wild dog. It also offers one of the richest varieties of flora and fauna. Botswana enjoys a low density of visitors, making its game viewing some of the most exclusive in Africa.

After a 20-hour journey involving three flights from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, where I continue on to Maun airport in northern Botswana for another 30-minute scenic flight to Abu, I arrive at Seba Camp exhausted but with an elevated sense of excitement as I begin my week-long safari adventure.

Sitting in an open four-wheel drive makes for an adventure in itself. I try to make sense of the surroundings as our guide Matamo manoeuvres the roads with an ease that only comes from years of experience, and an innate understanding of the wilderness. The guides drive everywhere without a map or GPS; they seem to know the area so well that they recognise trees and bushes like city dwellers recognise buildings and landmarks. The scale of the open landscape and the remoteness is invigorating.

Over the course of six nights in three camps, we see a wide range of mammals, from elephant and giraffe to African wild dog, an endangered carnivore, as well as lion, cheetah, hyena, leopard and many others – not to mention the countless colourful birds that I have never seen before. One of the most memorable sightings takes place in the Abu Concession and involves a fierce fight between two male giraffes. Matamo spots them from afar and drives our vehicle as close as possible. With their backs almost touching, it doesn’t look like the two giraffes are about to fight, but when they do, their neck wrestling produces loud pounding sounds, breaking the silence of the quiet wilderness.

At DumaTau Camp our guide Mucks has a cunning instinct in the wild. His intuitive ability to detect (or smell, as I’d like to say) and locate game makes our two-night stay at DumaTau an adventure, from an early morning drive when he tracks two lions walking majestically by the riverbank to an afternoon cruise when we see a herd of elephants crossing the river. It’s the first time I get to see lions at such close proximity, and it would be nerve-wracking if not for our guide’s calming presence.

The Linyanti region offers the combination of a land and river experience. After spending a few days on game drives, we take advantage of DumaTau’s barge to enjoy a relaxing cruise on the Linyanti River. Mucks spots two young elephants playing by the banks from afar and moors the boat nearby, sensing something ‘bigger’ is about to emerge. We wait for a while until a herd of more than 20 elephants – the baby ones walking underneath the adults – crosses the river. The act in itself seems ordinary, yet witnessing it in person is gratifying and makes for one of the most rewarding sightings of the entire trip.

By the time I arrive at Vumbura Plains, I am spent from the constant moving around and the rigorous schedule of game drives. The dedicated team makes me feel at home. Our guide, ST, is a walking encyclopedia of wildlife, leading us to lots of game, including unforgettable sightings of leopard on two occasions and African wild dog. He shares fascinating accounts of mammal behaviour and safari experiences, always balanced with his sense of humour and modesty.

We experience the pleasure of dining in the open wilderness. At DumaTau the entire camp enjoys a convivial gathering with pre-dinner drinks and a sumptuous buffet spread under the stars at an off-site location about 15 minutes drive from base camp. Staff welcome guests to a makeshift candlelit pathway as we descend from our vehicle. It is a magical evening with laughter and easy conversations among guests, guides and camp staff. On the last evening before our safari adventure comes to an end, we dance and sing with the staff and guides around a campfire at Vumbura Plains.

No safari in Botswana is complete without a ride on a mokoro, a dug-out canoe made from durable tree trunks. It has been the traditional form of transportation for the indigenous habitants of the Okavango Delta since they settled in the area in the mid-18th century. Today’s mokoro is made of fibreglass due to the shortage of hard woods. We have the pleasure of two mokoro rides during our visit – one during our stay at Seba Camp and again at Vumbura Plains. The first ride at Seba Camp is especially memorable; as the only canoe we enjoy a tranquility that’s only interrupted by the gentle sounds from the water as the mokoro glides through a channel overgrown with weeds. Our guide spots a few adorable Long Reed frogs, which at no more than 2.5 cm are one of the tiniest among more than 30 frog species found in the Okavango Delta.

Botswana surpasses my expectations. The wildlife, the magnificent landscape and the scenery of the Okavango Delta have left lasting memories, but above all, it is the strength and warmth of the people that has touched me. Part of the thrill – and beauty – of safaris is the element of unknown, and the fact that no experience can be replicated because we are at the mercy of nature and the wild. But in the hands of gifted guides – and a bit of luck – the surprise is often hidden just around the bend.

 

SEBA CAMP

Seba Camp Main Area Deck & Lounge - Caroline Culbert copySet amidst a scenic riverine forest of hardwood trees, Seba Camp is located within the Abu Concession overlooking a scenic lagoon. The Abu Concession is located in the southwest of the Okavango Delta and covers 173,000 hectares. Seasonal floodplains, channels, lagoons and palm islands are characteristic of the area, especially in the northern part. The Abu Concession provides plenty of sightings for big game, including giraffe, buffalo, elephant, zebra, lion and hippo. Bird enthusiasts can find up to 380 species.

Seba Camp has eight elevated tents, including two family suites. The communal area comprises a main lodge overlooking the lagoon, a bar and a lounge area with a small library of reading materials. The campfire makes for an ideal spot for watching the sunrise, as well as pre- and post-dinner drinks. What makes Seba Camp special is its rustic simplicity compared to the other two camps we stayed at; while DumaTau is the newest among the three and stylishly furnished, and Vumbura Plains luxurious with abundant space, there is a natural beauty unique to Seba that makes the experience more enchanting.

 

DUMATAU CAMP

DumaTau Landscape - Caroline Culbert 2 copyMeaning ‘roar of the lion’, DumaTau is situated in the private Linyanti Wildlife Reserve that borders the western boundary of Chobe National Park. The 125,000-hectare Linyanti Concession is bisected by the Savute Channel, which provides a year-round water source and attraction for wildlife. Famed for herds of elephant in drier months, the area is also popular with lion, spotted hyena and leopard, as well as rare wild dogs and cheetah.

Rebuilt in 2012, the camp is set on a lagoon in the Linyanti River between two elephant pathways. The entire grounds of the camp – including its 10 luxury rooms (with two family tents) – offer sweeping river views. On the afternoon that we checked in, two young elephants were seen playing by the riverbank facing our tent. The camp runs on solar power, above-ground sewage and energy-saving lights to minimise its carbon footprint. The rooms and communal dining, lounge and bar areas are stylishly furnished and have a modern aesthetic that appeals to discerning travellers. It’s one of Wilderness Safaris’ most popular camps in Botswana.

VUMBURA PLAINS
Vumbura Plains - Mike Myers copy
The Vumbura area comprises 60,000 hectares in the northern Okavango Delta. Known for its scenic beauty and diversity of wildlife, this area includes habitats such as a permanent swamp with small palm islands, seasonal floodplains, woodlands and extensive mopane. In addition to large herds of elephant and buffalo, this area is popular among sable antelope, zebra, wildebeest, impala, lechwe, kudu and giraffe, as well as lion, leopard and many others.

Vumbura Plains comprises two separate camps – North and South. Each camp has its own lounge, dining and bar area with expansive views of the seemingly endless landscape. The 14 rooms are generously sized, each with its own plunge pool, sala area and interior space with lounge, shower and bathroom – including both indoor and outdoor showers. All rooms enjoy unobstructed views of the plains. Though the most decadent in terms of space (and price), we find parts of this camp in need of a revamp.

WILDERNESS SAFARIS

WHAT? Wilderness Safaris is an ecotourism company founded in Botswana in 1983 and which has since expanded to over 40 camps and lodges in seven African countries. The company’s ethos of responsible tourism and sustainable conservation – through a proactive approach to commerce, conservation, community and culture – aims to protect the wilderness areas of Africa while also engaging the local communities.

WHY? While there are safari companies that pride themselves on deluxe lodging and gourmet dining, Wilderness Safaris sets itself apart with its stance on sustainable tourism and its dedicated team of professional guides, who undergo rigorous training. As the majority of time is spent on game drives, the overall safari experience is largely determined by the guides with whom you spend the most time. All three guides who took care of us at the three Wilderness Safaris camps (Seba, DumaTau, Vumbura Plains) were skilled and experienced, but more importantly, they were passionate about wildlife and their craft, and went beyond our expectations to make our safari experience memorable.

WHAT ELSE? Wilderness Safaris does not take direct bookings but works with a network of operators. Our trip was organised by A2A Safaris (a2asafaris.com), whose capable team in Hong Kong designed our programme and provided insightful information prior to our trip.


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