Excerpts From a Botswana Safari Diary
For the travel story, click here. For a planning Q&A, see below.
Monday, January 18
There’s an elephant staring right at us. It’s only been 15 minutes since a tiny, 5-passenger Cessna dropped me and my friend Cathy at a dirt airstrip in the middle of Botswana’s Okavango Delta region, near the Moremi Game Reserve. Now we’re in a 4×4 truck driven by Wilderness Safaris’ Chitabe Camp manager Dawson, and our observant elephant is at least 30 feet away, but in a windowless open vehicle a 10,000-pound animal can feel extremely close. I raise my camera, zoom in and snap away. That’s right when the elephant charges several feet toward us…and then suddenly stops. This dash (which I find out later is just a “mock charge” to show us who’s boss—as if we ever doubted him!) lasts only a few seconds, but I continue to hold my breath and hold very still for at least a minute. Then I very slowly lower the camera to my lap. OK, I get it, camera shy. He ambles off into the trees. Dawson tells us we did a good job keeping our cool. Some people scream, he says. Hmph, I think, what cowards! By the time we complete our 35-minute drive over muddy paths and a little bridge made of crossed logs, we’ve seen a warthog, a group of impala and a giraffe in the distance.
Tuesday, January 19
I’ll admit that after our magical arrival yesterday and after seeing staff communicate via walkie-talkies, the more cynical part of my mind imagined a Wilderness Safaris staffer on the radio just minutes before our elephant spotting, “They’re coming ’round the bend, cue the elephant! CUE the elephant!” I had dreamed of seeing a zebra, and after three game drives, I’ve seen dozens. In fact, even though we’re here in the “off season”—the hot, rainy summer when animals might be harder to find—we’ve seen an incredible amount of wildlife (giraffes, hippos, a pack of wild dogs, baboons, an ostrich family, kudus, antelopes) along with beautiful trees and flowers and dramatic skies in just two days. Even spotting just an animal’s tracks and following his trail (today we saw leopard prints) is a thrill.
Wednesday, January 20
I don’t expect the 5 a.m. wake-up call to get any easier. I’m not a morning person and never start my days this early at home. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling incredibly excited (once I’ve had a cup of coffee and a fresh-from-the-oven muffin) to be here. Today we left Chitabe Camp to fly to another Wilderness Safaris lodge at the northern edge of the Okavango Delta called Vumbura Plains. Honestly, it felt a little sad to say goodbye. The Wilderness Safaris lodges are charmingly arranged to encourage socializing with staff and other guests, especially during meals. And unless you pay extra for a private guide, you share your game drives with at least a few other guests. While I’m sure there’s the occasional cranky visitor (though that is hard to fathom), we’ve been lucky to go out on our Chitabe drives with a cool couple from New York who impress us with the seamless exchanging of their shared pro-style camera (with two lenses) and binoculars. Right before heading to the airstrip to catch our Cessna, we saw our first lions!
Thursday, January 21
New camp. New guide. New staff. But the warm and polished hospitality is still the same. Whenever we arrive at camp—whether for the first time or just returning from a game drive—there are staffers out to welcome us, often with a cool facecloth or refreshment. As if we’ve just been on a hardscrabble trek through the delta, and not a leisurely and comfortable chauffeured drive through stunning landscape during which we just happened to stop for tea and biscuits. A warning: A WS safari isn’t the time to go on a diet. There are four meals (light breakfast, sumptuous brunch, afternoon tea and dinner) and two snacks (during morning and afternoon game drives) served each day. We’ve had just-baked croissants, fresh fruits and salads, veggie samosas, unbeatable Bloody Marys, grilled fish, fruit smoothies, even ice cream for Pete’s sake! We’ll end up going home with most of the granola bars we packed “just in case” we didn’t like the food.
Friday, January 22
On our last morning in the Okavango Delta, we get a different perspective on the place by taking a mokoro trip on the water. Our two-seat mokoro is a low and slim hollow fiberglass vessel that’s powered by our poler KB. KB neatly keeps his balance standing at the back of the boat and pushing against the bottom of the shallow delta with a long wooden pole. We steadily glide along, cutting through tall grass, and the trip is a nice break from the bumpier game drives. Thankfully, we don’t see any crocodiles. Instead, we relish the smooth stillness, punctuated by our small wake.
Safari Planning Q&A
Did you get vaccination shots before you left?
Yes, several. Many are recommended by the CDC for travelers to Southern Africa, but I definitely did some research to figure out which ones I wanted to get based on my specific type of travel. You should do the same. I went to Dr. Marilyn Bradford at Jefferson’s Travel Medicine Services (call 215-955-0860 for an appointment). I had to pay cash for my shots; health insurance typically doesn’t cover these. She also gave me a prescription for antimalarial pills called Malarone, which I took each day of my trip and for several days when I returned.
What luggage did you take?
Rollerboard suitcases are a no-no because your bag has to be a little squishable to fit into the Cessna’s small baggage compartments. I purchased an inexpensive sturdy canvas duffel from I. Goldberg Army & Navy (1300 Chestnut Street, 215-925-9393, igoco.com). Also check out LL Bean for options. Don’t bring some fancy leather designer bag because you’ll worry about it getting scuffed (which it probably will) and because you’ll look silly.
What did you pack?
I stressed about this. Safari experts advise wearing natural colors like brown, khaki, beige, and green so you blend in and don’t stand out like a red alert sign to the wildlife. Maybe it’s because I’m city dweller, but I don’t have a whole lot of khaki in my closet, and I had to go shopping for the trip. I ended up packing about three outfits of basic cotton tees (from American Apparel), pants and shorts and one skirt. A lot of WS staffers were surprised about how lightly I had packed so I probably could have brought more, but I enjoyed traveling light for once. Each room had complimentary toiletries (just bring your own toothpaste) and sunscreen and bug spray. I ended up comfortably wearing my long lightweight pants (a North Face pair I bought on Cabela’s website) every day; they were an effortless sunscreen.
Did you ever dress up?
I saw some people who dressed the part of a luxury safari traveler—notably, an Italian woman who arrived for a morning game drive in a gorgeous white linen pants suit, complete with lovely jewelry, full make-up and a blowout—but the majority of people wore khaki pants and tees. Gals might like to wear a pretty top or skirt to dinners, which are often served at a communal table so you can meet and get to know other guests, but generally a safari is no fashion competition.
Is there a difference between camps?
Wilderness Safaris does put its camps in categories called “Classic” and “Premier,” the latter supposedly being a bit more posh. But when you consider the fact that you are in the middle of a wild game reserve and often far from towns and modern things like grocery stores and gas stations, and you’re still sipping good wine and eating ice cream, every lodge seems luxurious. The rooms might be a bit fancier at Premier camps (say your own private plunge pool instead of a common pool), but I think the things that make a solid safari—basic amenities, service and the guides—are exceptional at both categories.
Wilderness Safaris, wilderness-safaris.com.
For booking Wilderness Safaris trips, Premier Tours, premiertours.com.
CDC’s info for travelers to Botswana, wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/Botswana.aspx.
Jefferson’s Travel Medicine Services, jeffersonhospital.org/emer/article3600.html.