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"Totally Wild Botswana – The Ultimate
Safari Destination"

By Denise Bonnell

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Years ago, while at Los Angeles International Airport waiting for my flight to London, which was scheduled to go on to Nairobi, Kenya, I noticed a huge guy all decked out in safari gear carrying a long narrow case. Very excited about departing on my own African safari, I asked this guy what he had in the case. He revealed to me that he was on his way to Botswana for a hunting safari, hunting rifle and all. I was taken aback, for I thought hunting safaris had all but ceased in Africa.

I was wrong! For a hefty sum, one can still hunt in Botswana for real African game. I didn’t like the idea, but I was nonetheless intrigued by that “bigger-than-life” African game hunter at the airport. I decided at that moment that real life adventure still does exist in this technology oriented world of ours. From that day on, I knew I had to go to Botswana.

Although I have had the good fortune of taking groups to East Africa numerous times, Botswana seemed to me to be the ultimate safari destination. The Okavango Delta, where many safari camps are situated, is rugged, pristine, remote, and totally wild. This safari was everything I had ever imagined a safari to be; a true real-life adventure in Africa.

As with all safaris, there is much preparation at home. Since our transportation between safari camps was to be by light aircraft, we were strictly limited on the amount of luggage we could take. This was a huge challenge for me for no matter how prepared I think I am before a safari, I always forget something, and if you forget something, you simply go without. There are no corner stores in Africa.

Our safari included two nights at Gorges Lodge near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, plus two and three night stays at three tented camps in the Delta - Pom Pom, Machaba, and Shinde. Each camp is situated in its own eco-system. Shinde, for example, is an island camp located on the edge of the Okavango lagoon, while Machaba is situated on the banks of the Khwai river adjacent to the Moremi National Park. At Pom Pom, hippos make their home in a pool right in front of camp. All camps are surrounded by an abundance of wildlife. It is not uncommon to see or hear lions, elephants, or hippos in your camp at night.

Before our safari in Botswana, our group was flown to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where we were driven to the very beautiful Victoria Falls Hotel. As we got off the aircraft, I instantly recognized that wonderful, intoxicating fresh air of Africa; there was no pollution and no smog. On our way to Gorges Lodge, which sits on the edge of a gorge over 800 feet deep, our driver pointed out to us in the distance what looked like a huge cloud of white smoke. In reality, it was the incredible sight of water spray from Victoria Falls.

I was at a loss for words when I first saw Gorges Lodge. With only ten individual stone and thatch cottages, the property is uniquely positioned atop the escarpment of the Zambezi River gorge, a few miles downstream from Victoria Falls. The sound of the river echoes in the canyon below. The views from the individual bungalows are absolutely breathtaking. Each bungalow has its own private veranda, and there is an open bar and dining area. The food and hospitality was excellent and it was fun listening to all the stories from the camp manager and staff as we sat down for dinner each night. One story, in particular, was about the leopard that lived on the cliffs directly below us. Needless to say, we elected not to leave our sliding doors open that night.

As beautiful as Zimbabwe is, I was very sad to see that carved ivory products were for sale in some of the gift shops in town. Also, quite by accident, I stumbled upon a shop full of exotic animal furs. Actually, it was a taxidermy shop, and there were game trophies all over the walls such as Cape buffalo, Kudu, and Sable Antelope. While there, a couple was in the process of purchasing a cheetah skin. Although I was aware that Botswana and Zimbabwe allowed game hunting, I was not prepared to see the results from this. I could hear the hum of sewing machines at work in the back rooms while I stood mortified at what I saw. Cheetahs already have their share of problems with the land they live on being constantly taken away, but to kill them for their skins when their numbers are dwindling as rapidly as they are is heartbreaking.

As our plane took off from Victoria Falls to Maun, Botswana, and I looked out of the window at the beautiful African landscape, I thought of Mark and Delia Owens who wrote the book Cry of the Kalahari. This husband and wife team lived in Botswana for seven years while they studied lion and brown hyena behavior out in the middle of one of the most extreme environments in the world – the Kalahari Desert. Even though they came near to disaster several times while living in a tent out in the middle of this vast and isolated desert, their dedication and perseverance brought about an excellent account of wildlife in the Kalahari. And here I was, on my way to Maun, where the two of them used to go to regroup when they simply needed to be around people.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how excited I felt when we finally arrived in Maun. After two days, two long flights, and one short flight from Victoria Falls, we were finally in Botswana. As we checked our luggage, we could see the small aircraft waiting for us on the tarmac runway. With smiling faces, the pilots packed the plane with our luggage and showed us where we would be sitting. Even though it was quite hot, we were raring to go. This time, we were a bit crunched -- two in the back seat, two in the middle, Dennis, our pilot, and me. The neat thing about flying in small aircraft is the altitude you get to fly at: high enough to be safe, but low enough to see everything below you. Transfixed by the hum of the engine, we could see huge herds of elephant, giraffe, and Cape buffalo. Yes, we were in Africa, and we were off to our first camp, Pom Pom.

At Pom Pom Camp, the camp managers greeted us with a cold drink and a safari briefing. As with all briefings, it is important to pay attention because doing the wrong thing at the wrong time can have very serious consequences while on safari. As a guide myself, I know how serious camp rules and safari etiquette are. Such things as never going to your tent at night unescorted, or refraining from that short morning jog, are very important things to remember if you want to have a safe and enjoyable safari, and return home. We were all very excited to get going on our first game drive.

The game drives in Botswana were incredible! I have never seen so many lions and I was particularly excited to see so many males. They are amazing to watch while protecting their kill. The lion cubs were as cute as ever. I was thrilled when we suddenly came upon a pack of wild dogs. Two National Geographic photographers were interested in them too. Sadly, these incredibly social animals are on the endangered species list. I also saw some different antelope species that I had never seen before – red lechwe, tsessebe and sable antelope. The tsessebe and their babies could be seen roaming around the great herds of Cape buffalo.

We visited Botswana at the very end of the season, which is why we experienced more heat and more bugs. The peak season is from July through October during which the nights are very cool and the days warm, and there are fewer bugs. In late November, however, the days are hot. Fortunately, late in the afternoon on most days, cool breezes kicked in which cooled things down considerably.

One of the things most were surprised about was the wholesome and satisfying food served -- much welcomed since there is something about the African air that works up an appetite. Our camp managers went out of their way to make sure camp guests were always happy. Our camp managers at Machaba Camp, for example, made a special Thanksgiving dinner our group. They served two plump turkeys with all the trimmings, which was a great surprise!

Another indulgence is the Sundowner. After the afternoon game drives, we were treated with hors d’ oeuvres and a selection of delicious South African wines and beer, right in the middle of the African bush. It was there that we were able to relax and take remarkable pictures of Botswana’s magnificent sunsets. Some of my best photos were taken during this time of day. It is quite incredible to watch the sun setting with hippos only a few yards away from you. All we could see were their big eyes and round ears peeking above the water looking straight towards us.

Night at the camps can be a bit noisy, which is why we were provided with ear plugs in case we couldn’t sleep. To me, the sounds of the African night are nature’s own symphony. We are treated to this music every night while on safari. Once it gets dark, the symphony begins. I suppose to some, the loud grunts, roars, and bird calls from a variety of nocturnal birds, can be a little frightening. I, however, long for these sounds each and every time I am away from Africa which is why I return to Africa again and again. What’s that old saying? You may leave Africa, but Africa never leaves you.

There is nothing I enjoy more than writing about Africa, and this trip to Botswana has to be one of the highlights of my travel experiences. For one thing, we seldom saw any other tourists. All of our time was spent with our camp managers, our driver guides, and our fellow travelers. As we sat around the campfire at night, we listened intently to the wonderful stories told to us by our new found friends who were lucky enough to live there. One camp manager, who had lived and worked at Kruger National Park in South Africa for several years, was very knowledgeable about wildlife so we learned much from him. Another staff member, at Pom Pom, shared with us his story of the lion that made its way into camp one night while everyone was sitting around the campfire. As he tried to scare the lion away, it attacked him. Although he was left with multiple scars, which he showed us, he told us his story in his own humorous way. We were definitely more cautious as we were escorted back to our tents that night.

As for me, well..., true-life adventure is something is I always yearn for when I depart for Africa. It is there that I am able to rethink my life and put everything into perspective. My safari in Botswana did just that, and I look forward to the day that I can once again visit this totally wild place...one of Africa’s last frontiers.

Denise Bonnell is a safari guide in East and South Africa. Her website is http://safari-girl.com.

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