In search of a more affordable option in this notoriously expensive wildlife destination, Sarah Gilbert joins a group mobile camping safari
“Look, behind you!” Still clutching my coffee, I swung around just in time to see an impala flash past. Swiftly followed by a blur of five African wild dogs, lithe bodies outstretched in hot pursuit — and less than a couple of metres from where I was standing. We jumped into the Land Cruiser and sped off in a dramatic swirl of dust. A few minutes later, we came across the wild dog celebration, yelping as they rubbed bloodstained muzzles, a head and spine all that remained of the luckless impala.
Botswana is known for its wealth of wildlife. With a population of just over two million in an area the size of France, vast swathes of pristine wilderness have been given over to fence-free national parks and private game reserves, allowing wildlife to roam as it pleases. It’s also known for its policy of high-end, low-volume tourism and eye-wateringly expensive lodges, some of which command almost US$3000 per person per night in high season. But I was forgoing the five-star treatment — butlers to draw a bath, tasting menus to rival Michelin-star restaurants and well-stocked wine cellars — travelling on a budget and going back to basics on a mobile safari, sleeping in a tent, eating under the stars and leaving no footprint. For ten action-packed days, I travelled through some of Botswana’s most stunning landscapes, from the riverine forest of Chobe National Park, south through the arid Savuti Channel to the abundant wildlife of the Khwai Concession and Moremi Game Reserve on the edge of the Okavango Delta’s watery wilderness. Our eclectic group of seven ranged from safari addicts like me to a British family of first-time safarigoers and two intrepid pensioners from the Australian outback. There was no Internet, no TV, and we all got on famously, sharing campfire tales and convivial meals.
And there was Moosa who could rustle up a feast from a portable stove, KP and KB who ran the camp like a well-oiled machine, and Gee, our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, whose rules had to be obeyed. Camping in the bush meant no barriers or an end to game viewing. Humans may have been given designated areas to sleep but they weren’t always respected by the resident wildlife, and the wild dogs that interrupted our breakfast weren’t our only visitors. At lunchtime, elephant often wandered into camp in search of the tastiest tamarind, a magnificent male lion even loped by while we were having dinner — luckily we weren’t on his menu.
Wildlife spotting began on a morning boat trip along the Chobe River. A matriarchal herd of elephant were already drinking, along with a bachelor herd of buffalo; enormous Nile crocodiles basked on the banks and pods of harrumphing hippo wallowed in the shallows. Distances are huge in Botswana, and it took five hours over bone-jangling dirt roads across boundless stretches of sun-scorched grass to reach our first camp at Savuti, but it gave me a feel for the sheer scale of the country and every journey became a game drive.
On the first night, as the campfire flickered and died and I retired to my tent — spacious, with its own en-suite long-drop toilet and bucket shower — I lay for a while, wide-eyed in the pitch darkness, acutely aware that there was just a thin wall of canvas separating me from Botswana’s greatest predators. As my ears adapted to the nocturnal noises, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of a male lion patrolling his territory. I knew that he was far away, but his sonorous call still made my heart skip a beat. By day, we were entranced by a journey of giraffe, their long tongues delicately plucking tender acacia leaves from between razor-sharp thorns. Ostrich sprinted in strict formation across the plain and, for an instant, a stately roan antelope posed for our cameras before disappearing back into the bush.
If carnivores had been elusive at Savuti, it was a different story at Khwai. We headed straight for a wild dog den just in time to see them waking up and greeting each other, before the month-old pups began tumbling out, blinking in the sunlight. It was a lesson in wild dog parenting techniques, as I watched the pups play rough and tumble and receive a nip if they tried to follow the adults.
The days settled into a typical safari rhythm and we all became attuned to looking and listening, but it was Gee who spotted the leopard prints in the sand. And we soon found him, lolling on a termite mound eyeing up a zebra foal. But the zebra had him in their sights and when he made a move, six of them formed a barricade and chased him away. In Moremi, one of the best ways to see the Delta up close is from a mokoro, or traditional canoe. With a long wooden pole, my Botswanan gondolier steered me along the narrow channels. Skimming across the water was utterly tranquil; the only sounds the splash of the pole and the gentle swish of reeds as we passed. Metallic-blue malachite kingfishers darted among the vegetation, dainty jacanas hopped between lily pads, while majestic fish eagles circled overhead.
Later, as we stopped to let elephant cross our path, a baby — still young enough to have a fuzz of reddish hair across its back — turned and trumpeted sweetly in our direction. But behind was a far more fearsome adult. Enormous ears flapping, trunk waving, she started towards us until we were close enough to see her long eyelashes. Then she abruptly pulled up, gave a loud snort and lumbered off to join the rest of the herd. There were smaller creatures, too. Perhaps a pair of wiry black-backed jackals, outsized ears poking out of the grass, a splendid tawny eagle surveying its terrain from a high branch of a dead tree, or red lechwe leaping through the water. We saw all this and more.
Who needs gourmet food or a pillow menu? After nine nights immersed in the bush, learning from a first-rate guide, showering under the Southern Cross and being woken by an elephant’s breath reverberating against my tent, I’d realised that it was this undiluted connection to the wild that was priceless.
• Getting there South African Airways, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Johannesburg, from where you can fly to Kasane in Botswana with South African Airways. The writer was hosted by Yellow Zebra Safaris (yellowzebrasafaris.com) on Letaka Safaris’ Northern Highlights mobile safari. It is all-inclusive with the exception of international and domestic flights.
• When to go The Northern Highlights trip (Kasane to Maun, taking in Chobe National Park, the Khwai Concession, Moremi Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta) runs on fixed departure dates from April to November. The best time to visit is in the cool, dry season between May and October. Days are warm but nights can be cold in June, July and August, with the hottest daytime temperatures in October. Rains start in November and continue to April, with the heaviest rainfall from December to March.
• Health Consult your GP about recommended vaccinations and antimalarials.
We asked Grant Reed of Letaka Safaris to advise us on how to make travel in Botswana more affordable
1 Participation mobile safari If you’re happy being hands-on, pitching your tent, sharing the toilet and bucket shower, doing the washing up and helping to dismantle and set up camp, this is the cheapest option.
2 Self-drive If you’re confident driving a 4WD, going off the beaten track and having close wildlife encounters, you can your hire your own vehicle and use public campsites. The main costs will be fuel and food.
3 Go in the green season Safari lodges often cut their rates by as much as a third between December and March. But the rain can make some roads impassable and wildlife is harder to spot.