The unique ecosystem of the Okavango Delta and its remote location make up for a memorable experience, while Chobe's great density of elephants and easy access is the perfect complement.
Sleeping with the sounds of lions, hyenas, zebras, elephants, and hippos in the background has absolutely no comparison.
I had been wanting to go to Botswana to see the Okavango Delta, a very unique inland delta ecosystem that floods seasonally where the Okavango river empties onto open land, flooding the savanna and creating a lush animal habitat. Then, I realized that Chobe National Park is another unique park, where the Chobe river becomes the source of water for animals of all size in the Park. In the rainy season, though, some water holes are created inland where animals can drink water from, thus making their way down to the river less frequently. It turns out that August, the month when I planned on going, was perfect to visit because it’s well into the dry season but the Delta and the Chobe river have enough water to attract wildlife while making both water sources navigable and walkable (for animals to cross from one side to the other).
I started in Gaborone. I had planned to spend two nights in "Gabs" but after some issues with my flights, I ended up flying from Johannesburg, not Cape Town, one day later, and staying at a cozy Airbnb near the airport. The AirBotswana website is not that easy to navigate, or at least not the payment platform, and my flights were never confirmed. This was the only flight I booked with AirBotswana directly and not with an agency, GoToGate. Though agencies have their issues too, for Bots it seems better to use whatever gives you high confidence that things are booked and in order, with several confirmation emails. Once in Gaborone, a friend took me around. We visited the Matsieng footprints, Notwane Crocodile Pool for a sunset boat cruise, and had dinner at the Mokokodi Game Reserve, only driving through the city at night. Clearly, Gaborone is very car centric as it is rather sprawling. In fact, Botswana is the third less densely populated country (just 3 people per square kilometer) in Africa, only after Namibia and Libya. Thus, with so much land and so few people, naturally the city is extensive. The next morning I took a short 7:00 am flight to Maun, which is the perfect flight start a trip into the Delta right away.
The Okavango Delta
My trip to the Delta was with Kalahari Breeze Safaris (highly recommended, as you’ll see below). Upon arrival to Maun, I got a SIM card right outside of the airport. Chris, the owner of the company, was waiting for me with a quick breakfast sandwich near their office, then I headed to the Delta entrance on a safari jeep. Since it was just me, we gave a ride to villagers who were dropped off along the way.
The trip starts at the Delta station. My guide, Thenix, was waiting for me. We loaded the Mokoro (traditional canoe) and did a one-hour long ride into the Delta, seeing several species of birds. It is fun to go through the tall grass as one thinks that the Mokoro is going to get stuck, but if anything, it just slows down a bit. There are no other people nearby and the only sounds are those of the birds, insects, and the mokoro. It is a true entrance into a surprisingly paradisaic environment where coexisting with game is possible in the most humbling way. At the camp, the chef and the two other guides were waiting for us. For lunch, Thenix and I joined a couple from Austria who were already on their second day. In the evening when the day cooled down, Thenix and I did a ~1.5 hour safari walk. We saw a few elephants close enough that they made us walk away fast, aiming to stay 100 m away. One of them followed us slowly but steadily for a few minutes, until, I suppose, it understood we were no threat. In the distance, we saw large numbers of zebras and buffaloes. We reached the camp right on time for one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, with a campfire, tea, and dinner. I could feel the effort and love the Chef and the camp crew put into making sure we were comfortable. Fresh food with vegetarian options was always served. That night we had pumpkin soup, fresh oven-baked lasagna, and chocolate cake for dessert. Everything was made on the spot, in the fire and sometimes using a small solar-powered oven. After dinner, we sat by the campfire before retrieving to our tents.
The second day felt long. Right at sunrise, around 6:40 am, we had coffee and tea, followed by breakfast. Then we were on our ways. That morning we walked 15 km between 7:30 and 12:30. We saw more and more zebras, elephants, buffaloes, and wildebeest; crossed some ponds on foot; and took short breaks by the shade. The only animals we missed were giraffes. As soon as we reached the camp and were waiting for lunch to be served, a group of about 20 giraffes showed up not far from us, chilling and eating. Maybe an hour later they started running away, almost showing off their beauty, as the herd run in unison and their long bodies move like they were dancing. It was so hot I took a shower (yes, from water straight from the Delta), read my book, and fell asleep for an hour. Thenix knew I was exhausted and didn’t even try to wake me up. By now the other couple had left, so it was just me, Thenix and the camp crew of three. In the evening, we went on a Mokoro ride to the hippo pool, were anywhere between 30-100 hippos make their way daily in the evenings to cool down, before they go around the water to eat grass. After dinner and the usual star gazing, we retrieved to our tents. I was reading my book for an hour or so, and what started as just the sound of a hippo eating grass right outside of the tent turned into the sound of elephants, zebras, hyenas and lions (maybe two or three) in the background. Our protection in the tents? Just the last bit of the fire burning and a (dim) light. Turns out that some animals, like zebras, fear humans. Lions also know that humans are a threat to them (their only threat in the wild), and none of the animals will attack unless they feel threatened. Elephants and hippos are the more deadly ones to humans, and it’s always best to maintain a good distance.
During the entire trip I felt very safe because the guides clearly knew what they were doing and were very alert. During the walking safaris, I was just trying to keep up with Thenix while he was guiding, paying attention to animal tracks and droppings, scouting the horizon, and making sure I was ok. Whenever I looked up, I was only pretending I was searching for animals because there was no chance I could actually find one before Thenix. The last morning over breakfast I asked Thenix when he went to bed, to what he replied “when you went to your tent, I waited for you to fall asleep. Then I went to my tent.” That, and the delicious breakfast with freshly baked bread, made me feel so lucky to be surrounded by caring people who put so much passion into their jobs.
After a quick last safari walk and lunch, Thenix and I went back to the gates on a Mokoro. Back to civilization. They took me to meet Chris again at a brewery, and Chris took me to one of the best restaurants in town, Tandorium, where I finished my book and killed time before my 9 pm bus to Kasane. Chris knew everyone at the restaurant and everyone treated each other like long time friends. I couldn’t be happier with choosing Kalahari Breeze Safaris and this time of the year for this tour.
Bus from Maun to Kasane
I took the overnight bus with Lawa Holdings because I wanted to have an extra day in the Delta and wanted to make good use of the days. (There is a flight Maun-Kasane around 8am but it’s only a few days a week, and one must leave the Delta the night before. There are plenty of accommodation options in Maun, though.) Interestingly, I had never seen a bus like this one: 5 seats per row. Luckily, I got a window seat in the two-seat side, but it didn’t matter because it wasn’t full. The bus doesn’t have toilets so I made sure I got off to use one whenever the bus stopped. Around 3 am, in the middle of nowhere, it was pitch black when I woke up. The bus engine was off but I ignored it. I was very cold and tired. I then woke up at 6:30 am and realized we hadn’t moved. People were calm but were packing up. Only then I realized the bus had broken down hours ago (that’s why I was sleeping so well) and there was another bus coming to rescue us. When the minibus came, 15 of us got in, quite tight, and were on our way to our destination. We were supposed to get to Kasane by 5 am and didn’t reach town until 8:30 or so. They were dropping people off at their destinations, so I got dropped off at mine. Luckily my Chobe tour didn’t start until 9:30am, so it worked out perfectly - I got more sleep than expected and didn’t have to wait 3 hours on the road before my tour.
Chobe National Park
Over the two days we got to see hundreds, if not thousands, of elephants, lots of buffaloes, impalas and kudus, small groups of zebras, giraffes here and there, and some lonely jackals. As if that wasn't enough, we saw three lionesses and three leopards. On the first day, one lioness walked past us to join the other two. A little later, a group of maybe 30-40 elephants was crossing their path. We thought we may see some action if the lionesses were hungry (given they, not lions, are the ones that typically hunt). But the number of elephants was so large and their determination to go through so firm that the three lionesses saw them, got up, and calmly walked away before the elephants came too close. A little later, we saw a leopard and their cub coming back from the river to the bushes. The cub was left behind and was hiding in a small bush, but the parent wouldn’t come back. The second day during the morning drive, a leopard was chilling and stretching by the shade, just three meters or so away from what quickly became a group of 10 safari jeeps.
Three lionesses and three leopards in a day is no small thing.
This camping was, surprisingly, more rustic than the one in the Delta, but it was also cheaper. (It’s a lot harder to transfer materials into the Delta; Chobe is a lot more accessible.) The tent was comfy but there were 2 toilets for 15 of us. And food was good, wine was too, but there was no dining table. All in all, it was great still, we had everything we needed, and the guides were also as kind as they always are. No animals sounds that night, though. In the afternoon of the second day, they organized transportation within Kasane (Bots), Livingstone (Zambia) and Vic Falls (Zim). We were all coming from different places because that’s one of the perks of this agency, their pick-ups and drop offs are flexible.
Botswana was such a wonderful country to visit. My time there was extremely relaxing. I was able to take a break from thinking about work and the hustle and bustle from city life. It is relatively easy to navigate the country as everyone speaks English and a lot of people are willing to let you use their phones to make a phone call, or to get on the phone to speak with someone to get/give directions, instructions, etc. Of course, safaris are always pricey. But Bots has many special qualities (e.g., geography, people, and climate) that make it unique and absolutely worth a visit.
Some useful websites to look for safaris are African Budget Safaris, Tourradar and Safari Bookings. I also always recommend asking the hotel/hostel for recommendations, as they have trusted providers that will typically also include transportation to and from the place. For air travel, the only option for direct flights is Air Botswana, and some routes are not frequent at all, so one needs to plan around that. The buses sometimes have schedules online but it’s not possible to book online. So again, ask people in the hotel for help. I used Lawa, and while it left on time, it broke down (and apparently this happens relatively often) but they did what they could to resolve it and I wasn’t terribly impacted.