My recent trip ‘home’ to Botswana where I grew up, lived and worked in the safari industry, once again reminded me just how wonderful this country is. A recent good rainy season had replenished waterholes and the grass levels in some places were as high as an elephant’s eye.
On this journey I chose four specific safari camps to visit, included Sandibe on the fringes of the southern Okavango Delta, Xugana Island Lodge which lies deep in the heart of the delta, Selinda Explorer camp in the privately owned Selinda Reserve and Kalahari Plains in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).
The combination of these camps is excellent as they complement each other very well because the activities offered are different, the style of designs are different, there is a significant contrast between the landscapes and the safari companies that own them all do something for conservation or the local communities.
Kalahari Plains Camp is one of only two permanent camps in the CKGR and the staff are some of the friendliest too. They work as a family, a team and everyone who stays comments about this. The best time to visit this canvas roomed camp is between January through early July when the Kalahari shows its colours in the waving grasses and flowers and the animals are in abundance as the short grasses provide much needed sustenance after a long dry season. Here one can find desert adapted wildlife that you will not find further north – oryx and springbok, meerkats and brown hyena. This is also home to Kalahari black-maned lions and cheetah.
The company that operates Kalahari Plains is heavily involved in conservation and has relocated rhino back to Botswana where they are doing extremely well and also run a program to educate and introduce local children to wildlife through their Children in the Wilderness program.
Here one can meet the Bushman of the Kalahari including short walks with them, do game drives over the plains and also because of zero light pollution and dry skies, study the stars through the telescope.
The next lodge I visited was Sandibe, which is simply superb and luxurious. It serves some of the best cuisine in the country, has wonderful knowledgeable guides, a diversity of pretty landscapes comprising open plains, divided up by think outcrops of feverberry and palm trees and dotted with the mighty baobab trees, waterholes and reed beds of the southern Okavango.
Here one can do twice daily game drives and also walking, testing your senses, feeling the soft grasses and smelling the passing of elephants, or a scent of a flower. If you are ever considering a visit, I would encourage you to leave behind the noisy vehicles and immerse yourself in this wonderful wilderness and there is no better way to do that than on a walking safari.
Sandibe and its sister camps again do much for conservation. Their extended camps in other countries focus on communities and empowering and teaching local ladies the art of beading and providing a market for local development. In Botswana they have teamed up with Great Plains to form a wonderful programme called ‘Rhinos without Borders’ which aids the relocation of the endangered black rhino.
The camp has a clear ethos of taking less and giving more in return and therefore its make-up and structure ensures minimal impact on the area and surroundings and always tries to achieve the lowest carbon footprint possible.
Xugana Island Lodge – was my home for two years and still incredibly special as this is the only camp in the delta positioned on an open lagoon of its size. Being poled by a private guide in a mokoro (a canoe carved out of wood), across the floodplains, between flotillas of blue, white and pink water lilies, miscanthus grasses whilst surrounded by blue cheeked bee-eaters, pygmy goose, little bittern, and the various kingfishers diving for food, is truly a most memorable experience.
You don’t have to go far either – just gentle paddling (the poler does all the work - you just sit and vegetate/meditate with a G& T in hand), through water ferns and foxtail and pincushion sedge, as the day lilies start to close and the night water lily- lotus (Nymphaea lotus) emerge, is simply beautiful to observe and experience.
Xugana is the oldest established lodge in the Okavango and has been through several transformations over the years. Here the activities in this water wilderness focus on the islands and Mokoro excursions, motor boats that can to take you further down-stream and walking on the islands which are home to elephant, antelope and on occasion lion too.
Desert and Delta who operate Xugana is a wholly owned Botswana company and attribute a great deal of their success to the team of people they employ, the Group CEO quotes, ’While we have large financial investments in property, buildings and equipment, vehicles, boats, engines and aircraft, by far our largest asset is our people’.
Over many years they have worked tirelessly with social responsibility programmes focused on the staff. Training and improving skills is encouraged through initiates such as the Wellness Program started in 2002. The company also works with the International Labour Organisation, part of the United Nations, in a pilot programme to assist and support the local community and have won international awards for their commitment to this.
The last camp that complete this circuit is Selinda Explorers Camp, located in the privately owned Selinda Concession in Linyanti. This is a real treat – having only four magnificent tents within the camp, complete with safari campaign furniture, unique to any camp in Botswana. One is certainly taken ‘back in time’ and it feels like this is just set up for you. The camp is positioned in a remote area near the Selinda Spillway and with only four tents one could easily have the whole camp when travelling as a family on safari.
The area is fabulous – open grass plains for walking safaris and game drives – where you can stay out as long as you want, the spillway for canoeing, lovely forests to explore on night drives and for when the bushbabies emerge and perhaps a leopard or two and then the Zibalianja Lagoon where one can take a pontoon ride in the later afternoon and watch the hippo.
Great Plains who own the reserve have founded several initiatives and projects and all are producing good results. They have spoken to over 2500 children, urging them to be conservationists, they work with local women’s communities in the Betsa area where they teach them basket making and operate the Rhino without Borders programme in Botswana.
There are other projects too, such as described by the chairman of Great Plains,
’’ We founded the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic specifically to focus attention, funding and action on lions, cheetah and leopards in Africa, and that is progressing well. There are a lot of dedicated and smart people with whom we are engaging to tackle a range of action points with 43 projects in 18 countries.’’
Botswana’s people and wildlife are extraordinary. The landscape is varied and diverse, different habitats and eco-systems, the standards in food and lodge accommodations, right down to the Egyptian cotton sheets provides the comfort required.
My recent visit home re-iterated this and just why Botswana and its conservation efforts are well respected too. Yes a safari to Botswana can be more than in some other countries, but this is a privileged safari, miles of pristine wilderness, unspoilt, vast tracks of grasslands where you may not see another visitor, where you can spend the whole day with a pride of lions without anyone else there and passionate and knowledgeable people to look after it all. All just simply wonderful.