We bring you a delightful reflection from our most recent Botswana Wildlife Safari tour, beginning on March 8 and ending on March 19, 2020. The story is told by our very own operations manager Patrick Bates and is sure to make you long for the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta…take it away Patrick.
This tour was my first trip to Botswana, and it has proved to be memorable both for all the right and wrong reasons. The tour itself was a fabulous success, and although we didn’t see all the wildlife we had hoped to (the Cheetah and Rhino mustn’t have checked their emails for our tour schedule), we were treated to some terrific sightings and events (total number of bird species sighted was just under 200 and mammals sighted was over 35 different species with a good amount of reptiles thrown in for good measure). Below I will outline a brief bit of information about the tour itself to paint a picture of day to day experiences on safari and also share in detail a few personal highlights from the tour. Lastly, before I start, I just wanted to touch on COVID-19. We were fortunate with our timing around this trip and the travel and health restrictions put in place by this virus. The first six days of the trip we spent in bliss, away from the 24/7 news cycle you were all being bombarded with. However, towards the end of the tour, it was all-consuming with our group leaving Africa on a fully booked plane (the last flight from Africa for non-citizens to enter Australia). As we were leaving, we heard stories from other tourists how their two weeks holiday was being cut short to two days. I think everyone I met in Botswana derives their livelihoods from tourism. Although times are tough here, my heart goes out to our hard-working friends in Africa.
Sunday 8 March 2020
I met our group at the departure gate at OR Tambo airport for our afternoon flight to Maun. I had already met some of the group in Perth before our trip to Africa. Others had come early and we were meeting for the first time. What we all had in common was our excitement for our safari to begin. After a short flight, we arrived in Maun International Airport (the busiest airport for take offs and landings in the southern hemisphere). After we passed through the airport arrivals, our local guide Alex was waiting for us. Alex has been the local guide for all of Coates’ Botswana safaris for good reason. Being born and raised in Botswana, his passion for wildlife and birds combines perfectly with his personable nature, making him one top-class guide.
After rechecking through security, we were on our way via light aircraft to our first lodge, Tau Pan. Arriving late into the afternoon, we dropped our bags in our room and immediately went on our first game drive. We hadn’t gotten 10 metres down the road before we had our first official sighting, and adult and juvenile Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk. The game drive continued and finished just before sunset on the pan (dried shallow lake) with sundowners to celebrate a successful first day.
(Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk)
From this point, the sightings continued with both morning and afternoon game drives broken up by midday siestas. Located in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Tau Pan is one of two permanent camps. The three nights we were at the lodge we didn’t see any other tourists. It was this, along with the arid climate that reminded me most of outback Australia. As well as our game drive, one morning we went for a walk (typically something you can’t do by yourself due to lions!) with our Bushman guides. They took us through the bush, explaining how the bushmen lived off the land and what they do today.
Wednesday 11 March 2020
Today marked the last day in Tau Pan before we moved onto our next camp in the Okavango Delta and we hadn’t sighted a lion yet. “Tau” means lion in the local language. We all hoped to see one before we left. Although lion sightings are likely during our safari tour, when you are at “Lion Pan” you’d expect to see a lion. Before we went to get our next flight, we had time for one last game drive. To make things more interesting at 4:10 am that morning we had all been woken up by a calling lion, and he was close. The group decided to ignore what we had already seen in the previous few days and try and track down this noisy lion (the Lilac-breasted Rollers would have to wait). The hunt was on.
That morning we heard the lion at the eastern end of the lodge, and that is where we started. It wasn’t long before the trackers found his tracks and the chase was on. The tracks zigged that way and then zagged back again. The trackers told us that he was lost looking for the rest of his pride (hence the back and forth walking and early morning calling). We followed the tracks with no luck, the ground went from sandy to rocky, and the trail went cold. We continued to search, and as the day wore on it seemed that the lion had escaped us. But then success! While driving past the pan (which is actually west of the lodge) a lion sleepy from spending the night looking for his pride lifted his head to look at a passing vehicle. He was spotted.
After this great sighting, we continued to our next destination, the mobile camp in the Moremi Game Reserve on the Okavango Delta. Again, we arrived by light aircraft and right after landing we drove to a flooded quarry just off the far end of the runway. In the pool we could see a herd of elephants, a family of warthog and a couple of hippos using the water to cool off from the midday sun. Although seeing your first wild elephant is exciting my elephant highlight came a little later in the trip.
Moremi is almost a polar opposite to Tau Pan; water is everywhere! From lakes and rivers to flooded roads, you couldn’t turn around without seeing water. This abundance of water means an abundance of wildlife. Our new sightings in the delta included monkeys and baboons, elephants, hippos and giraffes, countless birds as well as a range of antelope including the very rare sitatunga. Like in Tau Pan, we enjoyed morning and afternoon game drives as well as an afternoon cruise through the delta’s channels to get a diverse perspective of the landscape.
The real highlight had to be the leopard found snoozing in a tree. Although we couldn’t get as close to the leopard as we had the lion days earlier, the view of the cat was spectacular as it perched on an open branch almost as if on display for us.
Although the camp in Moremi was a mobile tent camp, it was far from roughing it. Each tent had an ensuite as well as solar-powered lighting, a mattress bed, rug and side table (very posh!). Having a bucket warm water shower under the African sky will be one of my most cherished memories.
Saturday 14 March 2020
Today marked the end of our time in the delta as we flew onto Kasane and then transferred to our lodge. The Muchenje Lodge is in a fantastic spot, located on the edge of the Chobe National Park (allowing easy access to the park). It also sits on the side of a ridge giving all the rooms uninterrupted views of the Chobe River flood plain, the game living on the plain and the Caprivi Strip beyond. It wasn’t uncommon to see zebras, giraffes, impalas, baboons and elephants from the window of your room. As before we enjoyed morning and afternoon game drives as well as a cruise on one afternoon on the Chobe River and a visit to a wildlife rehabilitation centre.
We were lucky enough while in Chobe to have two particularly awesome game drives that rank in some of the top experiences of the whole safari. We came across a heard of elephants. Now by this point, elephants may seem a little old hat. We had seen many by this time, but this herd was much larger. We had seen groups of up to 5 members before, but this family had at least 20 (including 3 to 4 very young calves). The experience became even more incredible when our driver parked to give us a good view, and the herd continued to walk towards us. Eventually, the whole group was enveloping our vehicle. To be only a few metres from so many wild elephants is something I will never forget.
Tuesday 17 March 2020
The last day of the tour and our final game drive. We once again entered Chobe, but it was a bit more sombre as we knew the safari was coming to an end. As we drove along the Chobe River, a large herd of Cape Buffalo had formed along the bank. Driving through was slow going as we often had to wait for the buffalo to clear the road. We started to head back towards the lodge when we saw some other safari vehicles on the move. We got a call on the radio, a Wild Dogs sighting nearby. Only 500 metres away, we came across the pack of dogs (about 8 to 10 members) on the edge of the buffalo herd. Now the dogs working as a team could take down a weaker adult buffalo or calf, but the advantage the buffalo had was numbers. When the dogs would approach two to four big bulls would charge out and drive them off. The dogs tried a few times. Skirting around the edge of the herd, running into shrubs when driven off and emerging somewhere else to try their luck to snag a stray calf while no-one was looking. They were almost playing with the buffalo, sneaking in and running off.
This game all changed very quickly, almost like flicking on a light switch. As the pack worked its way around the outside of the buffalo heard they found themselves downwind of a herd of impala. Almost with military precision, the dogs stopped their playful haranguing of the buffalo and focused their attention on the impala. They broke off into pairs with their ears pulled down and stalked closer to the impala. Then it was on. The impala noticed them and bolted, and the dogs gave chase. As the herd of impala escaped over the ridge, it looked like they were safe, they had too much of a head start on the dogs. We followed the chase in awe of what we were seeing. We saw a warthog standing still as all the impala ran past it. I thought that impala might be off the menu for the dogs, and I didn’t believe this warthog is going to escape. The next thing we saw amazed us even more, seeing the dogs approaching, the warthog ducked down in a shallow hole (more of a dip) and the dogs ran past. The warthog then popped its head up, checked that the coast was clear, and promptly ran the other way. Talk about a lucky day!
The end of our last game drive marked the end of our Botswana Safari. We bid farewell to Alex and thanked him for all of his hard work to make the tour so memorable. Although it was the end of the trip, the whole group elected to do a two day add on to Victoria Falls. Only a short drive from our lodge we were transferred by minibus across the border into Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls.
These two days were not scheduled, so everyone was free to do whatever took their fancy. Many enjoyed helicopter flights over the falls, cruises on the Zambezi River or one last game drive at a local game reserve.
Thursday 19 March 2020
Today marked the end of our African Adventure. We started our journey home to Australia and to close out this report, I just wanted to make a few comments that apply to the whole trip. Firstly, just how incredibly well our group was looked after, not only by Alex but by all of the staff at the different lodges and camps. Not once do I think anyone went hungry and the sundowners each night spoiled us. Lastly, the group of people I got to share the tour with were indeed a delight to spend two weeks with, and I do hope to travel with them again someday.
Trying to sum up in a couple of sentences what this trip meant to me is proving very hard. The memories of what I did, who I did it with and everything I experienced will be with me for the rest of my life.
We hope you enjoyed reading Patrick’s story and that it inspires you to tick off some of your own bucket list wildlife encounters when you get the chance. In the meantime, we hope you stay safe and well and we look forward to travelling with you in future.
Happy wildlife spotting (even if it is within your own backyard)!