Botswana is a land bursting with incredible wildlife and known for its high-priced luxury camps, but there is another way to safari through the country, if you’re prepared to muck in…
Her amber eyes narrowed as she sashayed towards him and nuzzled his neck. He stood up, shook his luxuriant mane and mounted her with a guttural grumble. Five seconds later, it was all over; she rolled on to her back, waving plate-sized paws in the air, while the king of the jungle flopped down with a satisfied sigh. They would keep this routine up every few minutes or so for up to a week.
It’s unforgettable sightings like these frolicking felines that can help to justify the hefty price tags attached to a safari in Botswana. As one old Africa hand told me, the country offers the crème de la crème of game viewing. But I was here to prove that you don’t need infinitely deep pockets to get close to the wildlife.
With a population of just over two million people spread across an area the size of France, huge swathes of Botswana’s pristine wilderness has been given over to fence-free national parks and private game reserves, allowing the local animals to roam as they please. And unlike some of its near neighbours, commercial hunting was banned here in early 2014, to preserve the very things that visitors come to see.
In 2002, however, the country also adopted its current conservation strategy, focussing on a policy of high-end, low-volume tourism. Eye-wateringly expensive lodges began to open up, with some of the top camps now commanding as much as $3,000 (£2,350) per person per night in high season, making them solely the domain of the mega-rich. But I would be foregoing glitzy lodges and camps with every conceivable comfort – butlers to draw a bath, crisp G&Ts that magically appear as soon as the sun begins to dip, tasting menus to rival Michelin-starred restaurants – in order to get closer to nature.
I wanted to go back to basics and return to the way safaris used to be, when they weren’t fixed to one location and were (in the original Swahili sense of the word) ‘a journey’. I was on a ‘participation mobile safari’, which meant pitching in with the washing up and helping daily to set up and dismantle the camp.
It wouldn’t be five-star, but for seven action-packed days I would travel through some of Botswana’s most unforgettable landscapes, from the riverine forest of Chobe National Park to the banks of the Okavango Delta, and on to the baking plains of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan. I would experience the sheer thrill of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, and best of all, I’d do it in the cheapest way possible.
Landscape and animals of Chobe National Park (Dreamstime)
I flew into Johannesburg, then hurtled through a boundless landscape of arid desert and scrub bush by car, following the one solitary road to Kasane. This city in northern Botswana lies at the meeting point of four countries: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as the Chobe National Park, one of Africa’s most prolific wildlife areas.
Game-spotting began on the way to our first campsite. As the sinking sun began to soften the stark terrain, a matriarchal herd of elephants were already drinking at the river, enormous crocodiles sun-basked on the banks and pods of grunting hippos wallowed in the shallows.
Our eclectic group of eight ranged from safari addicts like me to firsttimers, including a drone designer from California, an Italian actor and two Dutch psychiatrists. And, of course, there was Sam, our knowledgeable and passionate guide; and Noga, a human dynamo who could rustle up a feast of spaghetti bolognaise and flambéed banana just as easily as scaring off the hyena that launched a nocturnal raid on our rubbish bin.
Camping in a national park meant no barriers between the rustle and hum of the bush and our tents. Humans may have been given designated areas to sleep, but these weren’t always respected by the resident wildlife. So Sam’s rules had to be obeyed: no walking around at night without a torch and no leaving your tent after everyone had gone to bed, not even to visit the bush toilet.
As the campfire flickered and died, the embers glowing red against the night sky, we retired to our tents acutely aware that there was just a thin wall of canvas separating us from Botswana’s largest predators. Sam’s words rang in our ears: if we met a lion, we had to ignore our instinct to turn around and run as fast as possible in the opposite direction, but make ourselves look bigger, stand still and stay silent.
I lay for a while, wide-eyed in the pitch darkness, my ears adapting to the nocturnal sounds. Suddenly I heard a guttural roar: the unmistakable call of a male lion patrolling his territory. Magnified by the stillness of the night, I knew that he was far away, but his sonorous call still made my heart beat that much faster.
Male lion at Chobe National Park (Dreamstime)
The following morning, we were woken at 5:30am to start dismantling the camp before sunrise – taking down tents, packing away sleeping bags and mats, closing up the kitchen-cum-trailer and hooking it to the Land Cruiser. Distances are huge here and it took five hours of bone-jangling dirt roads to reach our next stop, Savuti, but it gave us a feel for the sheer vastness of the country and an overwhelming sense of isolation. Every journey, it seemed, was a game drive.
The air was thick with the scent of wild sage as we crossed boundless stretches of sun-scorched grass, punctuated here and there with mopane and acacia trees. Rainbow bee-eaters swooped and dived alongside us, picking off insects.
We were entranced by a journey of giraffes, their long, tough tongues delicately plucking tender acacia leaves from between razor-sharp thorns. They looked at us, docile and curious, before loping away. Ostrich sprinted in formation across the plain, a dazzle of zebras were reflected in a mirror like watering hole, and, for an instant, doe-eyed impala stopped and posed for our cameras before running, bucking and hopping back into the bush.
As we stopped to let a herd of elephants cross our path, one of their babies – still young enough to have a fuzz of reddish hair across its back – turned and trumpeted sweetly in our direction. But behind it was a fearsome adult, who wasn’t pleased at our presence. With her enormous ears flapping and trunk waving, she started towards the jeep until, for one moment, we were close enough to see her long eyelashes and the sensitive tip of her trunk. Abruptly, she pulled up, gave a loud snort and lumbered off to join the rest of the herd.
“Don’t worry,” said Sam, “that was just a mock charge.” Mock charge or not, we all agreed that our adrenaline rush was very real.
Day three began with a stop off at a hyena den, where three fluffy puppies huddled together to keep warm in the first weak rays of the sun.
Then it was off to Moremi Game Reserve, on the fringes of the watery wilderness known as the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas. This extraordinary ecosystem starts with rain in the mountains of Angola and ends 1,600km away in Botswana, where it fans out into a maze of channels, lagoons and islands, covering as much as 22,000 sq km in the wetter years.
Safari vehicle in Moremi Game Reserve (Dreamstime)
The days settled into a typical safari rhythm and we were soon dismantling the camp in record time before hitting the road. We’d become attuned to looking and listening but it was Sam who spotted the leopard prints in the sand. We set off in a dramatic swirl of dust, bouncing along secluded pathways and alert to any movement. But our leopard remained elusive.
As if to make up for it, we caught sight of a hippo emerging from a watering hole. Surprisingly nimble, it had no problem keeping pace with us, and to our delight it even ran in front of our vehicle for a moment, its wet leathery skin glinting in the sunlight. And then, in a flash of grey and pink, it was gone.
Of course, there were small animals, too, which eagle-eyed Sam would stop and tell us about. There were the ubiquitous but nonetheless beautiful lilac-breasted rollers, which displayed their jewel-coloured plumage; a pair of wiry side-striped jackals, outsized ears poking out of the grass; and a stately tawny eagle surveying its terrain from the high branch of a dead tree. We saw all this and more.
One of the best ways to view the Delta up close is from a mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe – once carved out of wood, now made from fibreglass – which sits low on the shallow waterways. With a long wooden pole, Mogale, my Botswanan gondolier from the Boro community, steered me along the narrow channels. The only sounds were the splash of the pole and the swish of reeds as we passed. Metallic-blue malachite kingfishers darted among the vegetation, dainty jacanas hopped between lily pads, and majestic fish eagles circled overhead.
We landed on one of the Delta’s islands, many of which began life thousands of years ago as termite mounds. Walking through the bush here was a very different experience to driving through it. After a safety briefing, we silently wandered in single file behind Mogale, cutting through thigh-high grass and trying to avoid stumbling into aardvark burrows, though occasionally stopping to play detective, as if piecing together the clues at a crime scene. The grass had been flattened by a herd of skittish wildebeest en route to a watering hole. They were still there, and we watched them from a distance just as intently as they watched us.
Through binoculars I saw a young bull elephant harrumph with delight as he laid his trunk flat against a towering ilala palm, before shaking it hard and plucking a haul of fruits from the ground. By my feet, Mogale pointed out an iridescent dung beetle, zealously manoeuvring a lump of elephant poo over three times its size.
But it’s only when you fly over the Delta, as five of us opted to do from Maun, does its size become apparent. Below the wings of our small plane was a vast expanse of vibrant blues and greens, a land cracked by floodplains, dotted with reed beds, water lilies and sun-bleached islands where clumps of trees resembled outsized broccoli. Soaring over the water channels, we spied on wallowing hippos, elephants plodding through the shallows, and one lone giraffe standing on a spit of land.
Aerial shot of Okavango Delta (Sarah Gilbert)
Our final stop was the arid landscape of Botswana’s saltpans. In Nxai Pan, the smallest of the country’s four national parks, there was little shade, just a large grassy plain scattered with clumps of short umbrella thorn trees. A springbok bounded through the bush, white rump on display, as the impressive horns of a stately gemsbok soared above the grass and a diminutive springbok licked salt from a puddle by the road.
But it was the elephant bachelor party that held us captivated. Five large males were lolling in a watering hole, immersing their whole bodies and using their trunks like snorkels, rolling over in the mud and spraying each other with obvious delight.
That evening, we set up camp on the crusty white surface of the Makgadikgadi Pan, the remains of an ancient lake. As the sun set, the sky turned from tangerine to dark, and with no light pollution and nothing to block the view, the night was dazzling, as though a great swathe of black velvet had been encrusted with Botswanan diamonds – the jewel that made this one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. Above me, the Milky Way was as bright as I’d seen it and, tucked into my sleeping bag, I felt like I was drifting to sleep under a celestial snow globe.
The next morning, dirt tracks turned to tarmac roads; mud-and-thatch houses turned to concrete and corrugated iron; and safari vehicles turned to SUVs. As we departed, we devoted city dwellers from LA to London, agreed that we’d much rather be back in the dry, scented air of the bush, driving under endless skies in search of lions. The thrill of a safari can’t be measured in five-star service.
I’d been immersed me in the incessant hum of the bush, showered under the Southern Cross and been woken by an elephant’s breath reverberating against my tent. My journey had given me an undiluted connection to the land and that, for me, was priceless.
The author travelled with Okavango Expeditions (email@example.com, +267 686 1211) on their Botswana Adventurer Safari.
Main image: Lion in Moremi National Park (Dreamstime)