On Safari in Botswana
Botswana is a place of almost mythic names: the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta. Our 10-day safari is your guide to turning this land of boundless beauty into your wildlife-watching dream come true.
Arid and landlocked, Botswana is an unlikely success story. Once a poor, obscure British protectorate, it achieved independence in 1966 during the wholesale dismantling of colonial Africa. The following year the discovery of enormous diamond deposits cemented its economic prosperity. Unlike neighboring South Africa or Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Botswana avoided racial strife--its first president, Sir Seretse Khama, had married a white woman while a student in England. Stable civilian leadership unmarred by corruption, along with visionary environmental policies and a well-managed parks system, have resulted in one of sub-Saharan Africa's highest standards of living and an ecotourism-based travel industry to rival any nation.
Like most visitors to this world-famous wetland in northwest Botswana, I'm delivered to a remote airstrip--in my case, the faint gravel trace of Xakanaxa on the delta's eastern fringe--via a puddle jumper from the central town of Maun, a burgeoning ecotourism hub. There's no baggage claim, no arrivals hall--just Brent Reed, the lanky, laconic co-owner of Letaka Safaris, waiting in an open-cab Land Cruiser packed with equipment for almost every occasion, from birding scopes to a picnic basket complete with gin-and-tonic sundowners. After regarding a warning sign as we exit Xakanaxa airstrip--"Please Keep Your Tents Closed, Or Wild Animals May Eat You"--we wind south, traveling six miles through mopane woodland, a dry, open forest dominated by 100-foot-tall hardwoods with butterfly-shaped leaves. We reach our campsite near a pond where hippos trade chuckling calls as if sharing a joke.
"Botswana's probably the only place in southern Africa where you can still do this kind of thing on such a large scale," says Reed, a South African who quit a lucrative IT job in London to guide mobile safaris with his brother, Grant. "There's such a massive amount of wilderness. There are very few parks in Africa where you can drive around and not see anyone else."
The allure of these wild, wide-open spaces--this Texas-sized nation has just two million people--has brought me to Botswana for a 10-day safari of its untrammeled scenery. I'll visit Chobe National Park, followed by the Okavango Delta and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which all teem with dense, diverse populations of animals and birds. Nearly 40 percent of Botswana is set aside in national parks, game reserves, and wildlife-management areas. Almost entirely unfenced, the preserves allow one of Africa's greatest concentrations of wildlife to roam free across an immense landscape that doesn't strain for superlatives: the 6,200-square-mile Okavango is the world's largest Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance); at nearly 20,400 square miles, the Central Kalahari is bigger than Switzerland.
One of its must-see destinations is 4,080-square-mile Chobe National Park, in the northeast, which has few African equals in terms of big game and birds. Established in 1967, the Jamaica-sized national park, the country's first, holds an estimated 70,000 elephants, including what is considered the largest bull elephant population in the world. Its spectrum of undisturbed habitats--riparian forest, seasonal pans, swamps, and savannah--also supports approximately 450 bird species, three-quarters of Botswana's nearly 600 recorded species.
The two-and-a-half-hour flight from the capital, Gaborone, to Kasane crosses the Makgadikgadi Pans, at 11,500 square miles the world's largest salt pans, which shelter tens of thousands of nesting greater and lesser flamingoes during the summer rainy season. At the 48-room Chobe Game Lodge, warthogs and bushbuck browse the lawn rolling down to the river separating Botswana from Namibia's Caprivi Strip, a cartographic curiosity created at the 1890 Berlin Conference to give Germany, its colonial-era master, access to the Zambezi River's eastern trade routes.
During my April visit, the rain-swollen Chobe River is busy with birds: an African darter using its pointed bill to spear fish; a green-backed heron employing a fly-fishing technique--placing an insect upstream in the current--to attract a catch; and overhead, an elegant African fish-eagle, with its distinctive white head, chestnut-hued forewings, and piercing, gull-like cry--one of the signature sounds of the African wild.