Botswana makes up for what it lacks in alluring white sand beaches and islands with unparalleled abundance of wildlife and one of the largest inland deltas in the world. Covered by savannahs almost from top to bottom, this African beauty is home to around 2500 species of plants, over 500 species of birds, and more elephants than anywhere else in the world. Without skimping on wilderness, Botswana delivers arguably one of the most exhilarating African safari experiences on the continent.
It was dry season in November when I found myself on a journey that took me from South Africa, to Zimbabwe, before enduring a three hour car ride through the backroads and crossing into Botswana, greeted by a gleeful immigration checkpoint in the middle of freaking nowhere where they had to convert our US dollars into the local currency at the nearest town for visa fees. After an hour of waiting and spotting one of the most peculiar customs allowances signage ever, I made my way to Chobe National Park which is around 45 minutes away from the border checkpoint.
Chobe National Park is supposedly home to the highest concentration of elephants in the world. There’s such a high amount of elephants in the park, that culling elephants was once proposed because of the environmental damage the pachyderms inflicted. A glimpse onto the Chobe River will make a person believe that the park really is a haven for elephants and other large mammals such as hippos, buffaloes, and zebras. Go slightly up a hill that flanks the Chobe River in midday and you’ll see far into the distance the sight of flickering water reflections blended together with hints of green from islets adorned by gray dots of pachyderms.
On safari anywhere in Africa, there are usually two game drives each day; one in the morning and one late in the afternoon. The middle of the day is usually too hot and there aren’t many active animals. There’s an inimitable thrill in going out on an open-top 4×4 jeep through dirt roads, traversing through mud, sand, water, while scanning every crease in a tree, the shaking of bushes in the distance, every paw prints left on the sandy road while thinking to myself that I could probably somehow, somewhere in another universe become a tracker or a ranger. The silence that ensues after the jeep’s engine is turned off inflicts an adrenaline rush and a sense of excitement akin to waiting for midnight on New Year’s Eve barges in.
With Chobe down, I headed off into the depths of the famed Okavango Delta by a small plane.
In Botswana, wilderness camps and lodges are much more down-to-earth and “natural” than the ones found in South Africa or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in a South African game lodge prior to Botswana, and the camp at Chobe was very similar to what I had seen previously in South Africa. Then came Sandibe Safari Lodge on the skirts of the Okavango Delta. Apparently, most of these game lodges in rural Botswana were very concerned about the well-being of the wild animals that they simply do not put up electric fences around human buildings. Oh, rangers and trackers don’t carry guns in Botswana. Hardcore mode and I loved every minute of it.
Many of the watering holes near Sandibe were almost dried up aside from the permanent channel conveniently situated right behind the lodge. Game drives covered more ground and lasted longer. There was a noticeable increase in wildlife variety around Sandibe. At night, there isn’t much to do after dinner but sleep. Electricity goes out after 10pm and I can’t explore the area on my own because due to the lack of electric fences, there’s a chance something might make a meal out of me. On the second night at camp, my attempt at returning from dinner to my discreet mud hut was thwarted for twenty minutes by two roving elephants that decided to set up a picnic right by my hut. On the third night, loud lion roars from the surrounding area were heard from the main lodge, and the rangers had to form a posse, seek the lions and drive them away from the lodging; I think it was a big deal. It was then I fully realized the meaning of “natural.”
My next stop, Xaranna, was much more of a relaxing place compared to Sandibe. The camp is situated right in the heart of the delta, perched on the shores of a channel where hippos and crocodiles regularly make their presence known. Here, gliding through the waterways on a mokoro outshine game drives. Having seen the delta from the sky, actually being in the midst of the Okavango Delta was rather moving. Riding a boat out at sea is great, but a boat ride through the narrow channels while avoiding bathing hippos and then finding a deep enough pool to fish for some gigantic African catfish was undeniably special.
In between the spectacular sunsets on the delta, the crooning lions in the middle of the night, the delicious delicious pap and seswaa, the elephant blockade, spectacular stargazing, and not to mention an appearance by his eminence the honey badger, epiphanies kept on coming; from the typical life appreciation caused by two different thoughts of death, to the downright obscure which I shall not disclose. The entire trip itself was very special. Just being out there in the wild where human intrusion is minimal. Ideal, may be the best word to describe the environment out in Botswana’s wilderness. Personally throughout my travels, only a few places have made me feel that everything is right where it’s supposed to be, and here lies one of them: an amalgam of nature’s best, a much needed reprieve for the weary kind.
Words and Photos by Hario Priambodho