Quintessential Safaris: Traveling Botswana

When most people think of Africa, they think of the rolling savannah, sunsets, elephants and lions. Botswana is this and more. Located in southern Africa, Botswana is land-locked between South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The country is dominated by the Kalahari Desert, the Okovango Delta, and rolling tablelands. Gaining its independence in 1966, the country is a wonderful example of how Eco tourism, when done well, can save not only the environment, but the citizens of a country. With the safari experience being well sought-after, numerous tourists visit the country every year to partake of the wildlife and wild vistas.

Our first major highlight was entering the Okovango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta. Emptying from the Okovango River into the Kalahari Desert, the influx of so much water creates a strikingly different environment to the rest of the country that is 70% desert. This also supplies the region with much needed water and allows numerous species to survive. Hosting elephants, giraffes, widlabeast, African wild dogs, lions, and baboons, the Delta is amazing ecosystem that brings out the best of the wildlife in Botswana.

After leaving the Okovango region, we headed into the Moremi Game Reserve. Different from national preserves and parks, game reserves host legal hunting of wildlife while restricting the number of people allowed into the area. While at first I was extremely put-off by the idea of hunting unique African wildlife, the guides explained that Westerners pay enormous amounts of money to shoot species that are overpopulated to begin with. The guides are generally locals so the money is going back to the community and while these trophy hunters usually only want to head of the dead animal and some photos, the rest of the meat is divided up and goes back to the community as well. One thing that I did notice about staying in a game reserve is how isolated it was. Since the number of people is restricted, we didn’t see a single other car or person that wasn’t in our group. This isolation afforded us something not experienced by the people who stay in massive game lodges. As we headed closer to the big park in Chobe, safari vans swarmed like locusts around any wildlife in the area. It definitely detracts from the “wild” experience most hope for in a safari, but it did make me appreciate the isolated days we had at the beginning of the trip.

During one night in camp, under a glowing Milky Way, we were sitting down to eat dinner when one of the cooks hurriedly ran over to our guide and whispered something in his ear. He jumped up and ran off, leaving us all to speculate as to what was going on. He came back a few minutes later, sat down, and calmly told us that a leopard was in our camp. Being a group of biology students were immediately ran off to find the leopard. A young male, he had been lured to our camp by the smell of cooking, and being a young male, recklessly decided that hanging out in a camp full of humans was pretty interesting. It was amazing to see a big cat that close, and not from the safety of a huge Land Rover.

Though that Land Rover did come in handy.  While traveling through a mopane forest (a type of tree that elephants love), we inadvertently got between a mother elephant and her calf. After some excited trumpeting, she charged out of the bush directly at the car. While sitting on top of the roof (and hanging on for dear life), our guide got into a battle with the pissed off momma. She’d charge and trumpet and the Land Rover would honk and charge (because if we didn’t charge back, she wouldn’t let up till she flipped the car and neutralized the threat)… this lasted a good minute before she finally took off back to her baby. Of all the cool experiences, I’ve had, this one has to be at the top. Charged by elephants, leopards in camp, we also had hyenas come through our camp at night and lions behind our tents. We even got the giraffes at sunset photo opportunity!

What started in the bush, surrounded by wilderness and wildlife, ended up in a colonial hotel at the top of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Nothing could be more different from camping under the stars, serenaded by lions, but after two weeks of camping and bucket showers, it was an amazing luxury. I can see why these falls are one of the Great Wonders of the World. They are stupendous! Words and photos cannot describe the sheer immensity of them. The falls create an oasis of tropical vegetation surrounded by savannah and desert. There are constant rainbows from the mist and on full moons, night rainbows (or moobows) can be seen. It was a stunning way to end an already incredible trip.

Each country I’ve visited in Africa has had its own unique experiences and it’s nearly impossible to compare them. But Botswana stands out for its constant immersion in wildlife and the sheer isolation once outside of the big parks. Camping with no other groups around, charged by elephants, leopard, hyenas and lions right outside your tent – what more could you ask for in a safari? If you’ve never been to Africa, Botswana is the quintessential gateway to a diverse and fascinating continent that has long held the imagination of generations of people.

*All photos are scans from film.

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Madagascar

Malagasy girl at sunset

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to Africa. When most people think of Africa, they think of the savannah settings with elephants and giraffes walking in a perfect line as the sun sets across the landscape. I chose a different aspect of the African landscape to experience. My first trip to the continent was to Madagascar. In my mind, it was an ancient landscape, cut off millions of years ago from everything we typically associate with Africa and filled with creatures literally found no where else on Earth.

Madagascar is located off the southeastern coast of Africa. It split from the super-continent of Gondwanaland around 135 million years,  which then split from India 88 million years ago, leaving its inhabitants to evolve in isolation. The entire country is a Biodiversity Hotspot, with 80% of its plants and animals found no where else in the world. The country is divided into regions based on climate and topography: rainforests, dry forests, and spiny forests.

Antananarivo

We arrived in the capital of Antananarivo after a grueling 18 hour flight to South Africa and another 4 hour flight into Madagascar (which I almost didn’t make after leaving my passport in the hotel… and the next flight into the country was in a weeks time!). We spent the first day exploring Antananarivo. It’s a modern city, just like any other in the world. The country gained its independence from France in 1960 and the official languages are French and Malagasy.

Ringtails blocking the road

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Land of a Sunburnt Country

Raven & Kookaburra fighting outside our flat

For 2 years I had the incredible opportunity to live in Australia. Being half Aussie I had visited Australia many times, but this was my 1st chance to live overseas. My motivation in moving Down Under was to get my master’s degree, as well as catch up with my family. I had also never lived anywhere but Florida and was starting to feel stuck. After 1st moving to New Zealand for 6 months, my boyfriend and I packed up, got rid of everything (besides clothes & electronics) and moved to the furthest place possible from FL.

Opera House

Sydney is the largest city in Australia, boasting roughly 4 million people (a quarter of the country’s population) with an eclectic, cosmopolitan feel. It rivals cities like New York City, Milan, London, and LA. It’s famous harbour, stunning coastline and profusion of numerous cultures have made Sydney a stunning international city. By taking the train for two hours inland you can go from the coastline to the picturesque setting of the Blue Mountains or north and south to more stunning beaches and quaint beach towns. Taking a note from their European ancestry, Australia is a cafe culture – lots of incredible coffee houses, open air markets, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, and veggie stands. Public transportation is also very well done, allowing most people to get to home and work through the train and bus systems. Being a socialist country, they afford their citizens and residents many socio-economic benefits unheard of in America. I’ll never forget the 1st time I went to a doctor and they were so apologetic about how expensive it would be since I didn’t have my health care card yet – the wopping total of $30 blew me away!  The prime minister Julia Gillard is a self-described atheist, and people openly laugh at the creationism-evolution debate. I have to say it was all very refreshing coming from a country founded by people who were too uptight for even the British. Don’t get me wrong, all countries have their problems – immigration, lack of resources, over population. But I have to say that in watching the nightly news, I felt that the government and its public figures were very transparent. People paid attention to politics and if they were doing something the people felt was wrong, they made them atone for it. I miss that transparency of government.

Kangaroo

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Life in Aotearoa

Looking over the Cook Straight to the South Island

Almost three years ago, I up and left Florida to move by myself to New Zealand for grad school. I had been to NZ when I was 2, but had no recollection of it and had no idea what I was getting myself into. I left my government job, my house, my pets, and (temporarily) my boyfriend to move to a country most people can’t even place on a map. But if you say, “Lord of the Rings” most people will know exactly where you’re talking about (but still probably have no clue where on the planet it is).

New Zealand is beyond stunning! I had no concept of what a unique, friendly, and overall amazing country I had moved to. It consists of 2 main islands – the North and the South, with hundreds of smaller islands surrounding its shores. It also has a massive fault line running directly through the country, has more active volcanoes than any other country, and is the second closest country to Antarctica. These unique geological features have created an environment like no other. The northern part of the North Island consists of lush rainforest, with summer temperatures convincingly tropical, while the southern tip of the South Island is craggy, windblown, and utterly beautiful. Nearly 30% of the country is protected lands for national parks and conservation areas, ensuring that the unique ecosystems are protected for future generations. The wildlife is like nothing else, with the oldest living reptiles, dinosaur looking birds, and wetas (cricket-like creatures) that appear to be something out of a nightmare. You can see how it’s separation from the mega-continent of Gondwanaland millions of years ago has allowed the biodiversity to evolve into a stunning array of flora and fauna. As an aside note, there are no native mammals to New Zealand other than 1 bat species.

Tui on Flax

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Namibia: An Ageless Land of Contrast

Desert Elephants

Over the course of 17 days, a group of students from the University of Tampa and I traveled 3,000 kilometers through the Namib Desert and Central Plateau of Namibia, Africa. Bordering South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola, Namibia is geographically situated for some of the most stunning landscapes in the world.

Namibia’s beauty is partly due to its lack of people; with 2.2 million citizens, there are more seals than people and it is the second least populated country in the world (Mongolia being the first). A relatively new country, gaining its independence from South Africa on March 21, 1990, Namibia has an extremely old geological and biological history. Home to Welwitschia—the oldest living plants with some individuals living up to 2,000 years, and 5,000-year-old rock art by the Bushman tribe, Namibia’s newly independent state provides a beautiful contrast to its ancient history.

Namibia is also unique in its endeavors at environmental protection. With 14.6 percent of the nation’s GDP invested in tourism, and 13 percent of the country comprised of protected lands, they are one of the few countries in the world to have environmental protection written into their constitution. Their endeavors to protect and maintain these irreplaceable areas are evident throughout the country and provided our group with the journey of a lifetime. Continue reading