A DREAM SAFARI in BOTSWANA and southern ZAMBIA – August 2009
By Marie-Louise Cardwell
Botswana solidly deserves its reputation as the top wilderness experience in Southern Africa , and as a photographic birding safari destination there can be no equal. I felt very fortunate to go on an educational safari to Zambia and Botswana in August this year.
Sunset in Delta
Elephant in Delta
My trip started in Livingstone with a stay at Wilderness Safaris' Toka Leya Camp, situated right on the mighty Zambezi River. A relatively new camp (just over 1 year old), with décor in muted creams and taupes, the luxury tents are extremely comfortable with air conditioning, beautiful outlooks onto the Zambezi, and the dull roar of the rapids in the background. Although the lodge is about 15 kms from Livingstone in its own reserve area, the sky above the Zambezi is very busy with sporadic helicopters, light aircraft and microlites punctuating the dull roar of the rapids, as they fly tourists to view the Falls from the air. The river too is busy especially in the late afternoon when there are many paddle steamer look-alikes filled with happy tourists on the ever popular sunset booze cruise .. We were thankful to be on an exclusive game drive through the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park , downstream towards Livingstone. From there we boarded a small motorboat and traveled slowly upstream birding and game viewing along the riverbank. Highlights were a great view of the very rare White-backed Night Heron, and then my all-time favourite bird, the elegant African Skimmer! We stopped on a small island for a sunset drink and then as the sun set we were on our way back to Toka Leya, skillfully skirting particularly noisy looking hippo. Darkness comes quickly in Africa and we had to move quickly to get into camp before it was too dark to distinguish hippos from rocks in the river. Dinner by candle light was both delicious and romantic. The thoughtful personal touches in our tent included a sweet treat, a handwritten note and a very welcome hot water bottle – weather in August is hot during the day but nights can be very cold!
After our visit to the Falls, we transferred via a combination of road vehicles and motor boats to the very eastern edge of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia . The lodge of choice was Ichingo River Lodge on Impalila Island on the Chobe River side – this is where the Chobe River joins the Zambezi at the point where all three countries – Namibia , Zambia and Botswana – converge. The lodge is a family run affair, relaxed and comfortable, with the main activities being fishing, birding, wildlife viewing and photography. Here they don't have to rely on contrived ‘personal' touches – the whole place is genuinely intimate and personal with owners Ralph and Dawn always present to help, listen to safari stories or pour more wine with the compliments of the lodge! And it has to be the best place I know of to see African Finfoot – you practically step on them on the river bank! Each group gets their own guide and motorboat and so your experience is exclusive. The roar of the rapids is loud here as the river is narrow and the lodge is perched on the riverbank.. the boat takes you over the rapids into calmer waters and then upstream past Kasane and into Chobe National Park where wildlife and bird viewing is spectacular. The river here is also quite busy as there are many lodges in and around Kasane, but when you get back to Ichingo, you're as remote as anywhere. From here we boarded a luxury houseboat (or safari-boat as it's called here), and headed upstream to a quiet area of the Chobe River . Wire-tailed and Lesser-striped Swallows follow the houseboat and nest underneath …as we dined under the stars in Elephant Bay, I heard lions roaring in the distance and hippos snorting loudly close by. In the early morning as I lazed in bed I watched the sun rise to the sounds of the fish eagle calls over the water, a fisherman poled past and began throwing his net for the day's catch. This felt like the true African safari: where one falls in love with the romantic ambience of an unchanged wilderness of exquisite beauty and charm ...
The next leg of my safari was via a small 4 seater aircraft to Selinda Camp in the Linyanti, in Northern Botswana… these flights are part of the whole experience, and the aircraft range from 4 seaters to the larger Cessna ‘caravan' seating 12 passengers and flying up and down the Delta area of Botswana dropping and collecting tourists with mimumum fuss – they don't even turn the engines off on the runway! Selinda itself is a very polished act, very professionally run, with excellent food and service. Our guide Mots was also excellent and since birds were top of our wish list he focused so hard on looking above the ground, that he almost missed the mating lions right in the road! Sundowners are part of the experience too – the mark of a good guide is his ability to choose a good spot from which to enjoy the sunset and take memorable photos while sipping sparkling wine or gin and tonics according to your preference! A cacophony of sounds from the tinkling of the bell frogs to the croaking of the bullfrogs accompanied us on our way back to camp, intensifying as we passed one of the many lagoons in the by now dark wilderness, the pervasive smell of wild sage even stronger at night-time ...
By now I was used to the routine: an early start with coffee and rusks before setting off on the game drive, returning around 3 hours later for a sumptuous spread representing breakfast, tea and lunch! Then a chance to relax in the tent or at the pool or walk around the camp. The afternoon drive starts after tea and more delicious homebakes. Dinner is often under the stars, a selection of wonderful food with an African theme.
The highlight of my stay was a ‘secret' spot in the wilderness we were taken to after dark where a sumptuous feast was been laid out under the star-studded African sky, lit by hurricane lamps.
I know I'm going on about the meals but it is an important element on this sort of holiday!
I haven't touched on the excellent wildlife and birding we had in this area – you can read Dr Kim Frost's report which covers this in detail, but the highlights for me were two young adult Cheetahs reclining in the shade of a tree, an Ayres Hawk Eagle, a pair of Secretarybirds nesting in a tree that looked way too small for their size, and a few Black Herons doing their ‘open umbrella' act ...
We flew by ‘caravan' to Tubu Tree Camp which is on an island on the western side of the Delta. The rains this year resulted in much higher levels of water than anyone could remember, and this dominated much of the camp discussion. There are 4 Wilderness Safaris camps in this area: Jacana, Kwetsane, Tubu Tree and Jao which is a Premier Camp. Land and water game activities are possible but this year in particular was a wonderful year for water-based activities, and that includes mokoros. Our mission here was to find Pel's Fishing Owl, Sub-Saharan Africa's most sought after large owl, the one with the large black extra-terrestrial eyes. By a special arrangement made by Justin, the manager of Tubu Tree, we traveled by Landrover to the edge of the island, then glided by boat through the curves and channels in the papyrus till we reached Jacana, a beautiful camp surrounded by water. As we traversed the papyrus-lined waterways, Malachite Kingfishers and Squacco Herons peeled off left, right and centre ahead of us.
Switching to mokoros, 2 per vessel, our guide poled us with immense skill through the water till we reached the island where the owls were last seen. Our guide went ahead onto land to investigate, to make sure it was safe for us and also to try to spot the owl. I was resigned to the fact that we might have to pole across to many small islands before we found Pel's, so it was very exciting when Kambango came back to say that This is The One! The owl was very high up in a very large jackalberry tree partially obscured by moving branches and leaves (how DID he find the bird??) we were able to enjoy ongoing views of this rare bird, so the mission was successful!
My final evening was spent with a glass of sparkling wine, watching a sun-splashed herd of Red Lechwe grazing on the flood plain while the sun set in spectacular African fashion.
Overall I was extremely impressed by Wilderness Safaris' commitment to truly excellent and helpful service, as well as to conservation and the eco-friendliness of the lodge itself. For example no hairdryers are allowed, as part of the drive to conserve energy, many camps have converted to solar power, and the newer camps (for example Zarapa in the Linyanti, a Premier Camp) are being built in an eco-friendly way from the start, completely reliant on solar energy. It all adds up to a superb wilderness experience.
My itinerary was perfect for a photographic birding and wildlife safari in Botswana and Zambia :
Day 1: Fly to Livingstone and transfer by road to Toka Leya
Day 2: After a visit to the Falls, transfer by road and boat to Ichingo Chobe River Lodge for 2 nights
Day 4: Transfer to the Ichobezi Safariboat in the Chobe River for 2 nights
Day 6: Transfer by boat, road and light aircraft to Selinda Camp in the Linyanti, Northern Botswana for 3 nights
Day 9: Travel by light aircraft to Tubu Tree Camp on the western edge of the Okavango Delta for 2 nights
Day 11: Fly to Maun by light aircraft and then by a scheduled flight back to Johannesburg
For more information on how we can design a safari tailor-made for you to Botswana , Namibia , Zambia or South Africa contact Marie-Louise & Patrick on email@example.com