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.