Bliss in Botswana
Val goes on the wildlife holiday of a lifetime to Botswana...
For most people, an African safari conjures images of wide open plains brimming with large mammals - especially 'the Big 5'. "But Birders aren't most people!" I hear you cry. Well, Botswana certainly provides mammals in abundance, including the Big 5, but it also offers so much more. There's 'the Small 5' for a start, although I confess I'd never heard of them until they were introduced to us by one of our guides: the elephant shrew, the rhinoceros beetle, the buffalo weaver, the ant lionro and the leopard tortoise.
I have a great fondness for the natural world and, for many years now, my life has focussed on holidays and my holidays have focussed on wildlife. I have been lucky enough to visit some wonderful places and enjoy some amazing, even life-changing experiences. My priorities have certainly changed - who needs a new 3-piece suite when there are jungles to explore, mountains to trek, oceans to row?
I'd yearned to go on a wildlife holiday since being enthralled by Armand and Michaela Denis programmes as a child, but for various reasons, I'd never done anything about it. I finally took the plunge when I reached my 40th birthday; it was that first trip - camping in the jungles of Borneo in search of the orang-utan - that really opened my eyes to the brilliance of birds and I joined the RSPB as soon as I got home. I'd always enjoyed our feathered friends but that first holiday sparked a much greater interest which has continued to provide me with much joy.
The opportunities for exploration have expanded enormously and I'm a bit older and more sedate now. Camping has less appeal and I quite like hot showers and flushing toilets. Botswana has something for everyone, from supremely elegant luxury to 'basic' mobile safari camps with 'shared facilities' - a hole in the ground with a tiny portaloo-shaped tent on top. It's not cheap, whichever way you do it, but if you want a bit of exclusivity with an abundance of wildlife, including an occasional rare or difficult-to-see animal, then Botswana is definitely the place to go. It has also been relatively stable politically and economically for many years. We went for medium to upper end accommodation (but not the really top end!) and were delighted with our choices.
I travelled with a friend, Jenny, a big fan of Botswana; it was her pictures of a leopard on a previous visit that swayed me. We each spent enjoyable hours on the internet planning our itinerary, studying the opportunities and revelling in the pictures. This kind of holiday gives you so much more than the trip itself - the growing excitement and anticipation for weeks and months beforehand and the memories that you treasure for years after you get back, looking through the pictures and writing articles for the Knot.
This being my first and, as I thought then, probably my only trip to that part of the world, I was keen to see Victoria Falls, so that's where we planned to start. From there, we were to travel down into Botswana and stay at 4 different camps, each in a different terrain, to take in as much variety as possible and maximise the viewing opportunities. One of the camps was right in the middle of the Okavango Delta, where all travelling would be by boat, with oodles of birdlife pretty much guaranteed. The finale was to be the camp where Jenny had previously seen the leopard. As it turned out, the trip would far exceed all my hopes and expectations and set a standard that will make it difficult to think of ever going anywhere else - in Africa at least.
Some camps and reserves are government owned but there are many private ones. We stayed at one government camp, the rest private. The private camps are only accessible by very small planes and/or boats. Most are small, 6-12 tents or cottages, so numbers are limited and there are only 2-4 cars with a massive area to go at. You don't get queues of vehicles fighting for photo opportunities, full of noisy tourists, engines revving, cameras flashing. I find that scenario quite disturbing and it's not my idea of eco/sustainable tourism - I feel it must be having an impact on the animals and on the environment. The government areas are open for day-trippers so there are additional vehicles with 'less serious' tourists, although it's still not as busy as places like Kenya or Tanzania. The other advantage with the private concessions is that you can go off-road - a big plus when you're tracking wild dogs on the hunt and looking for leopards! The vehicles at the private camps are specially built to withstand driving over shrubs and even small trees - and there's no need to worry about the damage to the trees - they bounce back like rubber! There's a little seat on the bonnet for the tracker - you know there's excitement ahead when the tracker hops inside the vehicle - it means there are predators nearby.
The daily routine was similar everywhere; up before dawn with a quick beverage and straight out into the field to see the animals at their most active. Coffee and nibbles were usually offered en route and a serious brunch was available when we got back, mid-late morning. The middle (hottest) part of the day was reserved for relaxation - gentle dozes in your tent or a cooling dip in the pool when there was one. Up again for afternoon tea - delicious home-made cakes and savoury nibbles before the afternoon/evening game drive. Sundowners were served - yes - you guessed it - at sundown - usually at spots carefully chosen for their views and general ambience. The routine would be broken whenever special animal-viewing opportunities presented themselves.
The guides and staff couldn't do enough for us and they did it in a most charming and entertaining way. We were often welcomed with a song and were always waved off with cheery smiles and entreaties to come back again next year. Everything, apart from tips, was included in the price of the accommodation - all the transfers, game drives/boat trips/guided walks, food and drink (including alcohol, essential for sundowners). We were provided with bottled water in the cottages/tents and on the drives, insect repellent, mosquito nets and some of the loveliest toiletries I've ever used. Bird/animal checklists, torches, big umbrellas, ponchos - they had thought of everything. And all the camps have 'libraries' with field guides of all sorts and local information, plus novels left behind by previous guests.
After a long but reasonably comfortable flight to Livingstone via Jo'Burg, we transferred to our camp on the banks of the Zambezi where we were greeted by snorting hippos just a few yards away from our cottage. The walkways and cottages were built on stilts very close to the water's edge and, as well as the animal life, we were treated to delightful views of the sunset over the river. All the camps were really out in the wild and we were warned about the dangers of animals, particularly at night; we were under strict instructions to wait for our guide to escort us to and from the dining area after dark and all the cottages were armed with a very loud hooter to be used in case of emergency.
Not having the courage to go anywhere near Zimbabwe, we saw the Falls from the Zambian side, which is less spectacular but still pretty awesome. You need to go in April to see the waters at their most thunderous but then the spray is so dense you can't really see much - or so I'm told. We were able to watch the gradually moving rainbow that forms in the spray above the Falls and to see the bridge that people bungee-jump from - not an activity that appeals to me.
That evening we went for a gentle drift along the river to watch the sunset. The sky gradually turned flame red and we could just make out some black dots in the distance; within a few moments, there were thousands of Red-billed Quelea swooping and weaving in an astonishing kaleidoscope of shapes all around us - what a bonus! You might have seen them earlier this year when they were featured in the Swarm documentary.
This was only the first of many gorgeous African sunsets. One evening, we stopped for sundowners in a 'pan' (dry lake) where we had a perfect view to the horizon in all directions; there were tropical storms raging all around us - thunder shaking the ground and forked lightning flashing against skies that ranged from red to purple to black. Truly electric! We escaped the rain on that occasion but we were very grateful for the ponchos on a couple of trips. When it rains in Africa, it really rains.
Our first Botswana camp was in the middle of an area well known for Wild Dogs - sadly now very close to extinction. Over the course of the next few days, we were lucky enough to find and be able to follow 2 different groups, one with some pups. They have astonishing stamina and can cover many miles in a day, travelling at a good speed when they feel like it. We kept a respectful distance, bouncing over the brush in hot pursuit - an invigorating ride!
The area is also known for its Mopani trees, which attract cicadas. We were quite puzzled when, at one point, our guide suggested putting our ponchos on. It was brilliant sunshine, not a cloud in site. However, we did what we were told and were very grateful for the advice. I can't begin to describe what it's like driving through a Mopani forest in the breeding season. The noise is absolutely deafening and the air is full of them. We just curled up inside our ponchos and covered our heads whilst they battered us. We were still finding odd ones trapped in bags and corners for ages afterwards.
The birds were abundant here as everywhere else on the trip. Eagles were plentiful throughout, particularly fish eagles. Egrets, herons, storks, ibis and pelicans by the dozen, also the rare wattled crane and grey-crowned crane. Doves, guineafowl and francolins scuttled about everywhere in the dry areas where hornbills and lilac-breasted rollers greeted us from every tree. One morning after a rainstorm we came across a lilac-breasted roller sunning itself in the middle of the road, wings outstretched and head lifted skywards, absolutely stunning, iridescent in the bright sunlight.
Moving on to the heart of the Okavango gave us many more opportunities - flocks of bee-eaters flitting through the reeds and fabulous kingfishers flashing their brilliance all around us. On one of our evening canoe trips, there was a very obliging malachite kingfisher that flew from tree to tree alongside us for several minutes - such a gorgeous bird. There was a paradise flycatcher's nest in middle of our camp area - a tiny thing, about the size of an egg cup, you could almost reach out and touch it - but the pair didn't seem in the slightest bit bothered by the human activity, they just went about their business, taking turns sitting on the nest. And in the next tree along there was a Golden Weaver busily constructing its nest whilst we sat sipping fresh lime juice just a few feet away.
There were some amusing moments too. Waiting for one of our transfer flights, we had to gently shoo-ing a family of ostriches off the 'runway' (a grass strip in the middle of a field) to enable the plane to land; the following day we found 2 male lions, one either side of the runway but fortunately no planes were due. The red-billed hornbill has a very jolly mating display, bouncing frantically up and down and chirruping in between. We were startled a few times by the mating display of the Red-crested Korhaan - it's a rather clumsy bird that doesn't fly very much, hiding on the ground relying on its camouflage. The male will suddenly fly up into the air, then fold its wings and plummet vertically back down to earth, opening its wings just before it smashes into the ground.
Hippos have quite a reputation for danger and we were always careful to keep our distance when we were on the water. They are creatures of habit and tend to keep to 'hippo pools' so the guides usually know where they are. However, they sometimes wander down the rivers and we were surprised by a pair suddenly emerging in front of us as we floated gently around a bend. The guide, who had been very laid back until then, leapt into action and turned the boat around with alacrity; we could tell he was quite concerned. The hippos kept steaming after us for a while, gaining on us alarmingly; then, obviously satisfied that they had seen us off, they relented and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Later that same trip we got some excellent views of 3 that has splayed hooves enabling it to walk across boggy ground. They are very shy animals, hardly ever seen, so we were incredibly lucky.
Of course, we saw plenty of the 'usual' animals - big herds of ellies, giraffe, zebra, antelopes, warthog, hippos, crocs, wildebeest, squabbling baboons, mongooses, and a few snakes - python, puff adder and a boomslang in a tree. There were some rare sights too - a white rhino and a pair of honey badgers. We were fascinated one day to watch the way a herd of water buffalo saw off some lions. The lions thought they were hidden in the undergrowth but it became obvious that they had been detected by the herd. The herd gradually shifted until all the females and calves were in the centre with the males forming a protective barrier between them and the lions. Then the largest males gradually moved towards the lions, heads down, snorting, intimidating them. The lions had to give and sidled off, most disgruntled that their plan had been foiled.
We were so fortunate with the big cats, seeing several lions (all male), and a beautiful male cheetah. And then of course, there were the leopards. I'd only ever seen one at a great distance before, and felt lucky even with that. Our last camp was just amazing; on our first day we found a mother with 2 cubs. It was wonderful to see them; the experience left me positively glowing and I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day. I couldn't believe it could get any better but then it did! On different trips we watched 2 other females, one beginning a hunt and the other stashing an unfortunate impala up a tree; the grand finale, on our last day, was the huge male, father of the cubs. Needless to say, we were very happy with the whole experience and I'm certain I'll go back before too long.
Rather than give a bird-by-bird account of our travels, I've provided a list below and tried to give you a general flavour of the trip, picking out some of the most memorable events along the way. For those of you with Internet access, you can see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/ValerieKirkham