Botswana was a place I had never expected I would go. Yes, I knew it existed, I’d seen fascinating nature documentaries on the Okavango Delta; I also had heard that the country was geared towards the luxury end of the safari market. That, combined with the expense of getting there, and other destinations (such as Namibia) being higher on my to-go list, had left me somewhat indifferent to what is the wealthiest (and possibly well run) county in Africa. So when it came to jumping on this African road trip for my sabbatical, Botswana (or maybe I) got lucky. This would be the place I would fall back in love with Africa.
After a remarkably laid back border crossing from Namibia, I found myself in rural Botswana. Somewhere beyond the lush foliage and ubiquitous mud huts I knew the Okavango River was churning onwards to the Botswanan interior, all the way from its source in the distant Angolan hills. The road to Maun, Botswana’s biggest tourist hub and gateway to the Delta, seemed endless and the verdant monotony punctuated only by each pothole that rattled the car at infrequent intervals. Some hours and a narrowly avoided speeding fine later, I rolled into town in time to grab a beer as the sun dipped low over the waterways.
I arranged a scenic flight for late afternoon the next day. A minibus trundled along the baking tarmac, past all sorts of light aircraft, depositing my next to the smallest plane ever. Somehow I managed to squeeze my behind, which was definitely suffering from the effects of gorging myself in Namibia, into the tight cabin. The South African pilot gave a chirpy safety briefing, the propeller spluttered into a circular blurr, and the plane rattled towards the runway. For the first time, I could see directly out of the front of the aircraft I was in, the runway accelerating beneath me and then suddenly the rattling stopped and the ground started to pull away and the plane was facing a slightly diagonal angle and up and up and up and then it lurched and oh my goodness I hope this thing does not fall out of the sky…
Banking towards the north, tin roofs passed by below, then mud huts, bushes and then the elephant fence which demarked a clear boundary between Maun and the parkland nature reserve. Beyond the fence lay stillness as far as the eye could see. For several minutes I didn’t see anything, the air in the cabin was hot and stuffy, I grew restless, a large drop of sweat dribbled down my calf. Suddenly the plane banked and we swooped low over a grove of trees, distracting me from the sticky cotton of my t-shirt. Except they weren’t all trees – among them were the graceful, patterned necks of giraffes. The next grove was filled with elephants, then impala, then elephants, elephants, elephants… A herd of buffalo crowded around a watering hole. Hippos dotted the riversides like huge, wet boulders. The slender shape of a very large crocodile glided through the tea coloured water, others basked in their sun with their mouths open wide. It then sunk in; the Okavango was alive. The world is alive, and if we want a world with biodiversity, it has to be persevered – and this is a choice
Botswana continued to be a wild time after departing Maun as the trip skirted the edge of the Delta into Moremi Reserve where the 4×4 rolled and bounced through sand and mud, and the camp was visited by leopards and hyenas during the night. Taking a boat ride on the Savuti channel, guides would roll off the Latin name, breeding habits and feeding patterns of some bird, while you were still trying to spot it on a tuft of grass. From there it was up to Chobe Reserve where elephants would suddenly lumber out of the bushes right in front of the car and rumble out of sight again. In fact, the concentration of elephants in Chobe is so high that at there were points you literally couldn’t move for elephants – perhaps 40 or more of them sometimes.
The sheer quality of the experience I had in Botswana, especially after a somewhat disappointing trip to the Etosha Pan in Namibia which took away from spending more time in the action-packed deserts, would have me recommend for those looking for a good safari experience. That’s not just based on the opportunity to see certain animals, but also on the standard of service offered by the tourism industry there (which clearly knows what it is talking about), and ultimately your encounter with the country as a whole.
I’m definitely glad I got lucky with Botswana.