Nov 1, 2018

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My Trip to Botswana – April 2018

Posted in : Uncategorized on by : Mike

A jackal in central Kalahari, Botswana

Note: don’t forget to check out the photo gallery!

Contents

  1. Timeline
  2. Planning
  3. Weather
  4. Guides and Staff
  5. Accommodations
  6. Daily Routine
  7. The Wildlife
  8. The Safari Truck
  9. Where the hell was I?
  10. Summary and Suggestions

I’m actually writing this post about 6 months AFTER my trip to Botswana! Long story short, I had lots of website issues for many weeks, and finally got everything back on track just recently. Not to worry though – I always keep a journal while I travel, and I tend to remember my trips very well anyway : )

For this year’s safari I decided to go back to Botswana, and I booked with the same travel company I booked with previously, Gondwana Tours.

On to the details!

 

Timeline

My plan was to take a non-stop flight from JFK to Johannesburg South Africa, and then a connecting flight to Maun, Botswana. From there I would take a small plane to the first safari camp I would be visiting. I would spend 4 nights at that first safari camp, and then take a small plane to the second camp, which was located in the central Kalahari area. After 3 nights there, I’d head home.

So the schedule was:

Getting to Maun, Botswana, from NY is really not hard at all in terms of flights and logistics. There’s a daily flight from JFK down to Johannesburg that leaves around 10:30 AM and lands the following morning at about 8:30 AM if I remember right. Piece of cake, except that it’s 14 grueling hours. Then there’s a layover for an hour or so in Joburg (as the locals call Johannesburg), followed by a 2 hour flight up to Maun.

Once you clear customs in Maun, you take a small plane (maybe an 8 or 10 seater) to your safari camp. So you probably arrive at your safari camp around 3 or 4 PM.

The last flight is usually around 30 – 60 minutes depending on where exactly you’re going, and whether you’re the first stop or not. It’s kind of like taking a bus – there may be several other passengers who have an earlier stop, so you land at a little air strip somewhere, let them off, and take off again and head to your stop. You can book a private flight which will be direct, but that’s significantly more expensive. Besides, these small planes are awesome!! They only go about 4,000 feet up (I think?), and they have nice big windows, meaning you have an unbelievable view of the landscape. You’re high enough up that you can see everything, but low enough that you can spot individual elephants, hippos, etc.

Anyway, I must have been really excited for this trip, and as a result I didn’t sleep at all on the 14 hour flight to Joburg! I tried but just couldn’t fall asleep. It was miserable. Thankfully, I’d brought my Nintendo Switch with me, and I played tons of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Let me tell you, if you can’t sleep during a 14 hour flight, there is nothing better than a nice Zelda game!

I did manage to sleep for the 2 hour flight up to Maun, which gave me just enough rest to get through the remainder of the day. I was definitely a zombie by bed time though! I joked with the guests at camp that I was glad the evening dinner wasn’t soup, so I didn’t have to worry about falling asleep and drowning in it.

Planning

I booked this trip with Gondwana Tours, which I was already familiar with. I did all of the planning by email with Mark Hathaway, who was extremely helpful and informative, just as on my prior trip to Botswana. And as always for me, I was very glad to be able to coordinate so much by email.

Weather

A waterway in the Okavango Delta, BotswanaI visited in mid-April, which is just about the end of the rainy season / start of the dry season. I hoped this would give me a nice combination of A) no rain, and B) green grass instead of dead yellow grass. The drawback to traveling at this time of year is the minor threat of rain, and the tall grass. The problem with the tall grass is that it’s often 5 feet tall, and you can drive right by a pack of lions and have no idea. So in general, you can expect more sightings during the dry season when the grass has died down, vs the rainy (or end of rainy) season. I was willing to take this chance though, in exchange for more beautiful surroundings.

Mornings could be on the cold side, both in the Okavango Delta and in the central Kalahari area, with temperatures probably around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. By mid-morning / afternoon it would warm right up to maybe 75 – 80 Fahrenheit. So you’d want to bring a comfy sweater or hoodie to wear in the morning / evening, something that you can take off once it warms up. Besides that I just wore shorts and t-shirts, which was perfectly fine.

Guides and Staff

At Kwara Camp my main guide was G. and main tracker with him was A.T. I have no idea what their initials stand for, I don’t think they ever told me and for whatever reason I didn’t think to ask. I assumed that their names were probably difficult for foreigners to pronounce, so they went by initials instead. I also took one game drive with Hobbs.

At Tau Pan my guide was Matt, and tracker was P.K.

Overall I was very happy with my guides and trackers. I enjoyed my time with G and AT the most, maybe because we spent more time together and got to know each other a little better. I did enjoy my drive with Hobbs, and we had some very good conversations at camp and I was glad to see that we saw eye to eye on wildlife conservation, hunting (we’re both against it vehemently) and more. Since I was only at Tau Pan for a short time, I didn’t get to know the guides as well, but in general I enjoyed spending time with them as well.

Oh and just to clarify, the guide is the person who drives the truck, and generally does more of the talking / answering questions. The tracker sits on a chair welded to the front hood, so he’s raised up and has an excellent view, and obviously his job is mainly to look for tracks and spot wildlife. The guide also works hard to spot animals of course.

Accommodations

A viewing platform overlooking the small lake behind Kwara Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
Both of the camps I visited were run by the same company, Kwando Safaris. I’d never visited any of their camps before, so I didn’t know what to expect. That being said, for whatever reason I always end up at more “high end” safari camps in Botswana, and Kwara Camp and Tau Pan Camp were no exception, they were both beautiful.

Kwara had a nice sized lake behind camp, which was home to a group of maybe 20 hippos, but who can be sure. There was a raised platform where you could spend afternoons relaxing and looking out over the water, which was very nice. Kwara had a resident troupe of marauding baboons as well, which I found entertaining. One afternoon while we were eating lunch, the big male baboon sneaked up outside the lodge, stood up and reached into the dining area, and grabbed as much as he could! He made off with some tins of condiments – the staff saw him at the last minute and yelled to scare him away, but he’d already grabbed what he could. Another afternoon I sat in the main area reading my book, and the baboons marched through, unaware that I was watching them (I was the only person around, as most people take a break during the afternoon). I watched as they made themselves at home, walking around the dining area and seeing what trouble they could cause. After a few minutes they moved on. Often times as I walked from one place to another in the quiet afternoon, baboons would scatter ahead of me. Make no mistake, baboons can sometimes be dangerous, but I was never very worried because they always seemed more scared of me than I was of them (and discussions with staff taught me that this was the key to dealing with them). Once or twice a baboon walked around on the roof of my tent, causing a big ruckus as it took whatever shortcut it desired.

In addition to the baboons, there were also several impala that sometimes cautiously walked through camp, which is nice as impala are very beautiful, delicate creatures. I also often watched as little lizards crawled around the outside of my tent looking for bugs. One afternoon I saw one on the outside, then he crawled out of sight and a minute later showed up inside my tent. Obviously he knew the secret passageway! He hung out for a few minutes and then went back outside, where the bug-hunting must have been superior.

I was also very happy to hear lions calling in the distance during dinner one night – which was something I’d always wanted to experience. The camp supervisor heard them and told everyone to be quiet for a moment, and we all sat and listened to them calling to each other, out there somewhere in the darkness.

So after reading all of this you might be scared that Kwara seems overrun by wildlife, and if you’ve never been to Africa you might think it’s dangerous, but I found it to be the opposite. It was peaceful and calm, and I enjoyed the little disturbances caused by whatever creatures crossed our paths in camp. That is part of what I came to Africa to experience! Unfortunately, my understanding is that Kwara has been closed down in favor of a new Kwando camp nearby. I’m sure it’s very beautiful as well, but I wonder if it lacks the closeness to nature that Kwara seemed to have.

Tau Pan Camp was equally beautiful, but in a different way. It was well-placed on top of a small hill, giving an amazing view of the surrounding Kalahari desert. Camps I’ve been to in the Okavango didn’t have such amazing views, because the land was so flat.

Tau Pan had very few animals wandering around camp while I was there. But I was awoken around 3 AM one night by lions calling, and even roaring, nearby! It seemed like they could be very close, but books I’ve read have all pointed out that lion calls carry a great distance at night, and can seem much closer than they really are. In any case, it was still cool! Oh, most nights while we ate dinner in the main area there would be bats flying around eating bugs. One of them took a wrong turn and landed in my lap! I didn’t realize what it was at first, I thought maybe a big moth or something, but I realized it was somewhat heavier than a moth should be. I barely registered that he was there before he flew off, and I didn’t even get a good look at him. Cool though!

Daily Routine

The routine at both camps was very similar. Wake up call was around 5 AM if I remember correctly. By 5:30 you’d make your way to the main area for some coffee and a very light breakfast around a campfire, where you’d serve yourself some cereal or biscuits. Hopefully if everyone in your group moved quickly, you’d be in the truck for your morning safari by 6ish.

You’d spend a couple of hours driving around looking for wildlife, before taking a coffee break maybe around 8ish. For this you would get out of the truck and stretch your legs, which is always nice. I strongly prefer this over places like say, Kruger National Park in South Africa, where you’re not allowed to exit the vehicle at all. Ugh! But it makes a lot of sense in Kruger, since visitors can self-drive on their safari without a guide, and therefore can put themselves in very serious danger. At camps like the ones I was at, I was always with guides and trackers who knew what to watch out for.

Anyway, after coffee break you’d drive around some more, and then find your way back to camp by around 10 or 11 for a late breakfast / early lunch. Then it’s free time for a few hours. It would get hotter around this time, and you could take a swim in the pool if you wanted, or take a nap, read a book, etc. At 3 or 4ish we would have tea with light snacks, and then start the afternoon safari drive.

The plan was similar for this drive – you’d look for wildlife for a couple of hours, and then the guide would pick a nice spot to stop for a drink (beer, wine, or in my case, all the amarula the camp could supply!) and you’d watch the sunset. Then you’d climb back into the truck and see whatever nightlife you could spot for another hour or two, before heading back to camp for a late dinner around 8 PM.

After dinner you were free to do whatever you wanted. Usually I was pretty tired so I’d head back to my room and get situated for the next day’s drives.

I usually spend all of my time on safari drives, but the camps do offer several other activities which I did a little off. One evening we took a boat ride along a nearby river instead of the normal safari drive. It was very beautiful, and the boat has a raised level which provides great views of the surrounding waterways. Word of advice – bring a scarf to cover your face on the way back! Once it starts to get dark, bugs come out in the thousands, and they’ll be smacking into your face on the whole ride back. You’ll be fine if you cover up with a scarf and sunglasses, but without that, well, I hope you like some extra protein in your diet because you will definitely sample a few unplanned delicacies.

One morning we all took a mokoro ride around the lake behind camp, before starting the normal morning safari drive. Basically we all piled into mokoros, and many of the guides and trackers poled the mokoros along in a big circle, giving us close-up views of the marble reed frogs as they hung out on the tall grass poking from the water. Cool!

Wildlife

A serval near Kwara Camp, Botswana
What did I see?!

There was no shortage of impala and various other antelopes at Kwara, which I’d been expecting of course. As always, I was particularly hoping for leopards and cheetahs, and any of the small cats that are so rarely seen. I had excellent luck as far as that goes, with two separate sightings of servals. On the first sighting there were two individuals who were very calm and hung out while we all got a great view. On the second sighting it was just a solo traveler who was a bit more nervous. I was surprised at how small they were – in general they weren’t a whole lot bigger than a house cat, and were very beautiful of course.

I saw lions on the first safari drive I went on in Kwara, and we listened as they called to each other as they walked off. In fact there would be no shortage of lions at both Kwara and Tau Pan – we had many excellent lion sightings.

A leopard in a tree near Kwara Camp, BotswanaAt Kwara I also got to see the same female leopard who I’d seen two years prior, on New Year’s Day 2016 at Shinde camp. I was very happy to see her again! We spotted her one morning and followed as she hunted in tall grass, and another morning G and AT successfully tracker her footprints. That was the first time I’d ever seen a successful tracking! It was very impressive. I was the only person in the truck with them on this morning, and they both knew that I wanted to see a cheetah really badly. However, the leopard tracks were so fresh that we couldn’t pass up the chance, and sure enough within 15 minutes G and AT tracked her down!


Unfortunately I would have no luck with cheetahs on this trip. We tried very hard, but they just weren’t anywhere nearby. It’s ok though, everyone knew I wanted to see them really badly and tried their best to spot them, and I really appreciated that. There’s always next time!

Two Oryx at the central KalahariI also had a few first-time sightings on this trip. Firstly were the servals I mentioned above. In addition, I’m proud to say I spotted a small snake beside the truck – the first time I’ve ever seen a snake in Africa. It was very difficult to tell what it was, and it crawled away after a minute or so. But I did some checking after getting home and identified it as a small cobra! Cool!!

At Tau Pan Camp I saw Oryx for the first time, as well as bat-eared foxes and springbok.

The Safari Trucks

A safari truck at Kwara Camp, Botswana
The trucks in both camps were similar to trucks I’d seen elsewhere in Botswana and South Africa – basically they were big diesel land cruisers with several rows of seats placed where the bed of the truck normally goes. The seats are nicely raised up, so you can get a good view of the surrounding area. There are no doors or windows, and therefore nothing to separate you from the wildlife. So be brave, and do exactly what your guide tells you to do!

Where Was I?

I again used my Nikon D500 camera and paired it to my cell phone so it could grab GPS data. It seemed to work better on this trip than on previous trips, but I still used a GPS logger app as a failsafe, and I think it was more accurate. Then using a handy plugin on my computer, I was able to sync the GPS coordinates with each picture I took. I remove these coordinates from the pictures I upload to this website, for security purposes to protect the specific locations of any animals that might be targeted by poachers. But, here’s a nice little Google Map showing some random pinpoints so you can get an idea of where I was. Pretty cool! FYI, the trail of markers leading from north to south is when I was flying in small planes between camps.

Summary and Suggestions for Future Travelers

Overall I was very happy with this trip. I have to admit though, I didn’t like the central Kalahari area as much as I’d hoped. I’m sure that part of the reason is simply that I really wanted to see a cheetah, and time was running out while I was at Tau Pan, and I felt disappointed. I’d learned from other travelers that cheetahs were spotted at Kwara Camp the day after I left!! Furthermore, you’re not allowed to drive offroad in the central Kalahari because it’s a national park, and you have to be back at camp before dark every night. This cuts down on your safari time, which I don’t like at all. But, I wanted to see what the central Kalahari was all about, so I don’t regret that I visited it.

Here are some tips if you’re thinking about a similar trip:

    1. If you want to see the central Kalahari area, I’d suggest making it your first stop. That way you see what it has to offer right away, and you can head to the Okavango afterwards for (in my personal opinion) a more lush, beautiful environment with better safari opportunities.
    2. Don’t overpack! Most of the safari camps do laundry for you, so take full advantage of that and pack light.
    3. Do get your power outlet adapter / voltage converter situation taken care of well in advance! I had an awesome voltage converter by Bestek that I’ve used for my past few trips abroad. I’m a last-minute packer, so of course Murphy’s law – the night before my flight to Botswana I couldn’t find the converter anywhere. It was too late at night to go buy a new one, so on the way to the airport the next day I had to scramble to Target (they didn’t open until 8 AM and my flight was 10:40 AM – NOT good)! Target’s selection wasn’t great but I bought the best thing I could find. Of course it crapped out and didn’t work at all for the entire trip! Luckily, Kwando’s safari camps all had central charging stations with power strips that used Botswana outlets, European outlets, and American outlets.
    4. Definitely take at least one mokoro ride while you’re in the Okavango. You won’t regret it. Unless a hippo gets mad at you and topples your boat. Then you’ll regret it. But besides that unlikely scenario, you won’t 🙂
    5. Get up as early as possible, and don’t waste time dilly dallying! You came here to see wildlife, not drag your feet around camp all morning while the animals get away.
    6. In the central Kalahari, I’d suggest you don’t do the all-day safari drive to Deception Valley. It sounds cool, but honestly it’s just a big field. Yay. While you take this drive you’ll head through many areas where the shrubs are very tall and close to the road, and generally I think this will cut down on your sightings. Yes, we did see a few lions and bat-eared foxes and oryx and lots of birds. But it was a long drive and most of it was spent just driving for the sake of getting to the destination, not actually working on spotting wildlife. I’ll admit that a leopard did dart across the road in front of us as we drove, which I missed because I was looking off to the side and it was only in view for a second. But I don’t mind that I missed it – a 1 second viewing doesn’t count.
    7. If you like photography (as I do), I’d caution you to remember to put your camera down sometimes, and just enjoy the sighting. I have to remind myself that, for me, it’s not always about getting the perfect picture – it’s about seeing what I went there to see, with my own eyes, not always through a camera lens. For example, I was very happy that I wasn’t taking pictures when two male lions walked within feet of me and looked me right in the eye. I was similarly happy that I wasn’t taking pictures when the female leopard walked right behind our safari truck on her morning hunt, and I was in the back row so I could turn around and watch her from inches away.

    See you soon, Botswana…

    Botswana sunset

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