Since my first visit in 1993, Botswana has been my favorite destination for
safaris. Not just because of the wealth of wildlife but also the diversity of its landscapes and habitats. In one day you can go from the arid, dramatic vistas of the Kalahari Desert or the baked saltpans of Mkgadkgadi to the lush swamps and river fronts of the Okavango Delta and Chobe or Savuti rivers. Alongside it all you can
enjoy the gentle, almost shy hospitality of the Batswana.
On any trip you will get a great view of the bush or bhundu you will be bashing in your Landcruiser (the workhorse of safaris trips) as youfly into the quaint but engaging little settlement of Maun. It’s the gateway to both the delta and the desert. Gradually developing over decades from a scattering of houses and rondavels, it is still small and pleasantly understated but has hotels, lodges and is the hub for
the safari companies who operate all the trips.
Gemsbok in the Kalahari
Driving south from Maun to the desert you leave the asphalt after an hour or
two and are on to the dirt and dust. You’ll drive for a few hours more through increasingly sparse bush and thorn scrub until you reach the vast dry grasslands of the Kalahari Desert.
It’s a true desert despite the great stretches of grass savannah. But it’s not like the Sahara or the Empty Quarter of northern Africa and Arabia. The grass, thorn trees and acacia stands provide enough food for herds of gemsbok, migratory wildbeest, giraffe and springbok. These and other grazers or browsers provide prey for the predators of the desert – blond-maned lions, leopards, chee
Gemsbok harass cheetah
Four days in the desert brought us a wealth of sightings as well as some of most of the beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in 30 years of safaris. The scenery is overwhelming in its sense of space, sky and light. Against the background of that scenery, you get fantastic views of the wildlife – a huge lion basking is the early morning sun as you
set out on the road after dawn, a leopard disappearing into the dusk or a bat-eared fox kicking up a cloud of dust in the midday sun as it digs for rodents or insects.
One of the great attractions of the Kalahari is the diversity of the fauna. Not only will you see, unless incredibly unlucky, prides of lions, cheetah (singly or in bachelor groups), solitary leopards but also the fascinating smaller animals – meerkat gangs, bat-eared foxes, caracal lynx with their amazing plumed ears, tough, tenacious honey badgers and maybe an aardwolf searching for termites.
Lion at sunrise
It’s an experience not to be missed and one you can pair up with the Delta
– where you can add hippos, crocodiles, elephants, wild dogs, shy sitatunga antelopes, lechwe and big herds of buffalo to your viewing list. And the landscapes change – in the dry season there are stretches of arid grassland but there is always some open water, swampland and water channels.
Whether you drive around the islands between the swamps or paddle through the the reeds in makoros (localcanoes poled expertly through the maze of channels) – you will get a great and different experience. The sound of a hippo dropping into the water as you weave your way through the reeds or the sight of crocodile silently patrolling the the water’s edge waiting for an unwary antelope will send a shiver down your spine.
In both the desert and the delta camping is the best way to get an all-round experience – you are close to nature – elephants will walk through your camp, lions will roar or hyenas whoop as you settle down at night and all in surround sound!
What you won’t see are the convoys of four-by-fours or minibuses that you
get in much of Kenya or Kruger. There are plenty of lodges and camps but the areas are vast and encounters with other tourists only sporadic.
Encounters with animals are constant – whether a blood-spattered wild dog
fresh from the hunt, lechwe running amidst a shower of spray in the shallows, herds of hippos cooling off in the swamp or huge herds of hunderds of buffalo kicking up their own dust storm, with, as were lucky enough to see, a pride of lions shadowing them waiting for a calf or a weak straggler to fall behind.
In both the desert and the delta the birdlife is as varied and entrancing as the big game. We were lucky enough to see some of the delta’s rarest birds – an elegant slaty egret hunting for frogs and insects along the edge of the swam and a beautiful, caramel-coloured Pel’s fishing owl perched over one of the channels.
I’m now planning my next trip and will add Savuti with its wealth of predators to my desert and delta itinerary.