April 26 to May 8, 2012 Botswana Experience

in Blog, Botswana

It is always challenging to coordinate two people flying from different places to then fly to a third, but imagine doing that in Africa! After a week of visiting and working in Nairobi with friends and colleagues from the TechnoServe Kenya office, Wendy flew to Johannesburg, South Africa.  Rick would meet her a few hours later after his flight from Nampula, Mozambique.  If someone has to layover in an African airport, Johannesburg is THE BEST:  great shopping, decent food, nice clean lounge, and English-speaking staff everywhere.   However, no matter what, the “T.i.A.” rules* always still apply.  Wendy got stuck waiting for a Botswana Airlines agent who disappeared for several hours before she could get a boarding pass so therefore couldn’t go into the nice part of the Jo’berg airport.  Rick’s arrival coincided with the return of the agent who shrugged his shoulders and said “we only process airline passengers within two hours before the next flight.”  Soon after, the Walleighs took the Botswana Airlines flight to the capital, Gaborone, where they spent the night before starting their safari across Botswana.

* “T.i.A.” means “This is Africa” quoted by the character played by Leonardo di Caprio in the movie Blood Diamond.  It is similar to the “Gallic shrug” by a Frenchman.  However, even in the best case, many aspects of Africa—e.g., transportation, appointment time, schedules, people’s courtesy, etc.—don’t work as a Westerner would want—or even as many Africans hope.

Botswana Safari Itinerary:

4 nights in the Central Kalahari Desert at Kalahari Plains Camp;

3 nights in the Okavango Delta at Vumbura Plains Camp;

3 nights in the “little” Okavango at Selinda Camp.

Culture before Animals

The flight from Gaborone to Maun (Mah-un) was uneventful.  Upon arrival, they were met by a local guide to take them on a cultural tour.  Their main tour agent from  Wilderness Safari wondered why Rick and Wendy were not on the same flight as several others to the Kalahari Plains camp.  In retrospect, probably their local Maun guide didn’t want to lose his fee.  In any case, they left their luggage with Wilderness Safari.  Off they went with “C” (they never did understand his name) from the Maun travel agency to the Maun Cultural Center.Rick and Wendy spent the next two hours learning all about the culture, customs, food, medicine, and lifestyles of Maun’s dominant tribe, the Bayiye (bah-YEE-yeh).  One very nice man did most of the speaking through their agent/translator.

Several old-looking women (probably the Walleighs’ age or younger) who had been quietly basket-weaving got up to dance and sing, with one of them wearing a skirt hung with many strands of dried reed “beads” strung together that she swung around to the rhythm. Another of the women talked about typical foods on display with samples for us to touch. Then another demonstrated basket-weaving so that Wendy finally learned how the individual basket strands stayed together, were dyed from different plant dyes, etc.   Wendy asked if the women ever used a dye made from boiling dead Mopane Worms (colorful caterpillars from the Mopane tree common in the area, then dried and eaten by some Bayiye people).  The women said that they had never thought about it so maybe Wendy started a new trend for them! The Bayiye man then put on a calfskin hat and vest (very similar to the witch doctor in Bwindi, Uganda) to show / discuss several local medicines, play some local musical instruments, and generally conclude the talk.  At one point Wendy passed around pictures of her family which made them smile–one woman kept saying “nice, nice” probably her only English words.  Of course some baskets woven by the women were for sale.  Wendy met one weaver who seemed very pleased that Wendy really liked her work.  After a quick tour of downtown Maun, it was back to the airport.

Smallest Plane on Any Walleigh Safari to Date Flew from Maun to Kalahari Desert

The Walleighs had lunch, picked up their luggage and went to the only gate until the plane was ready.  They were the only passengers on this flight.  The plane matched that requirement.  It was a 3-seater: pilot, co-pilot and small back seat.  Surjit, a nice young Sikh who grew up in India, trained in Jo’burg (they hoped for a goodly amount of time) carried their bags then ushered Rick and Wendy into the toy-size plane.   He explained that the flight time would be 60 – 70 minutes –not the standard 45 of a slightly larger charter.  Also this was a normally bumpy flight because of desert thermals, but would be fine because the last few days had been relatively calm.  Rick let Wendy sit in the co-pilot seat.  After Surjit carefully adjusted the many gauges and buttons, he gave them the flight instructions, including, where the air-sick bags were…just in case.  As they were taxiing for take-off Surjit put on his glasses.  Wendy remembered that her father who’d been a WW2 Air Force cargo pilot, had said that military pilots were supposed to have perfect vision—no glasses–otherwise they would be disqualified from training.

All together these facts made Wendy a bit nervous but she gritted her teeth during take-off then relaxed, took some pictures and enjoyed the flight for the first 60 minutes.  The last 10 minutes not so much as the desert thermals bounced the plane around.  It didn’t help that the pilot descended the plane then last minute pulled up, u-turned and approached again.  But Wendy held her queasiness in check long enough to land, then thanked Surjit and the airplane gods that the plane had touched down safely.

Typical Safari Camp Welcome

Once the plane lands, a driver from the safari camp is waiting to take guests and luggage to the lodging.  It often takes 30 or more minutes by bumpy trails to arrive at the camp. During the ride, the driver often sets expectations about the game and even stops briefly to spot some wildlife.  For instance, the Kalahari Plains Camp driver told the Walleighs that late April was not the best game-viewing time of year but that the “unique to the Kalahari” Oryx, Springbok, and Steenbok would be enjoyable.  They didn’t have the heart to tell him these animals were not unique to here but let him proudly carry on.  Upon arrival, the lodge manager and a staff greet guests with song, cool, wet towels to wash off the travel dust, and ostrich eggs filled with cold iced tea or other vessels with fresh fruit juice.  The Manager reviews camp policy (including blowing the panic horn in an emergency).   Depending on if arrival is morning or afternoon, soon guests are treated to a brunch or “high tea” generally with savory and sweet snacks and lemonade and iced tea.  Then guests and driver/guide go off on a siesta (if morning arrival) or afternoon safari.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Premium Safari Camp between Two “Classic” Camp Stays

The government of Botswana consciously decided what kind of tourism it wanted to encourage.  Rather than being over-run by backpackers, budget-minded campers and lodgers, Botswana charges its tour operators a premium to open and run camps which raises the prices for guests in turn limiting the clientele to up-market folks who can afford a more exclusive safari experience.  Then tour operators further striate their clientele into classic and premium facilities.

Kalahari Plains Camp in Central Kalahari National Park, is owned and run by Wilderness Safari* as a “classic” facility with 10 “tents”, 5 on each side of common area.  It is lovely, well-kept, with a very competent staff, comfortable common and dining area and high quality, creative food.  Nice canvas-sided, wood-framed cabins sit on wooden platforms about three feet off the ground.  Each cabin has a roof-deck to view landscape, animals, incredible stars, and even sleep on foam mattresses upon request (since nights were cold, most people went back inside their tent midway through the night).

For the next camp, because of scheduling issues, the Walleighs were serendipitously treated to the most luxurious safari camp ever—at a level of service they’ll probably not experience again due to luxury cost.  Vumbura Plains Camp in the Okavango Delta is a “premium” facility also owned and operated by Wilderness Safari.  Its twelve tents are divided into a north and south camp, each six tents with its own staff.  Our 50 ft. by 30 ft. “tent” was actually part of a compound–larger than the Kalahari Plains Camp common area–plus a private deck with a plunge pool, outdoor shower, and comfy outdoor living room with sofas and tables.  The 10 ft. by 10 ft. indoor shower, with screened windows on two sides open to the view, is larger than the Walleighs’ home bathroom, and also is open to the bedroom and sunken living room, all of which is larger than many U.S. city apartments.  The food and service is top-notch along with the staff.

Their third safari camp is independently owned but vetted and promoted by Wilderness Safari.  Selinda Camp is a lovely “classic” level facility with good food and staff, very similar to the Kalahari Plains.

*Wilderness Safari is a conglomerate that runs and owns tours, camps, planes, charter flights, training schools and guide certification processing.  Their highly qualified guides are gun-trained for walking or fully-mobile safaris.  800 staff are in Botswana alone.  Their very successful facilities and tours across eastern and southern Africa have enabled them to go public.

Who Goes on Safari in Botswana?

A very self-selected group of people are adventurous enough to try Africa. The Walleighs’ fellow guests in all the camps appeared well-to-do of course and mostly liberal and open-minded.  Probably more conservative-thinkers would have been in hunting preserves which are being phased out of Botswana as of 2012.  There were some honeymooners from the U.K. and U.S.; many Europeans—German, Dutch, Irish; and occasionally Asians or Pacific Islanders.  The only Africans we met were the staff at all the facilities.

Botswana’s Unique Combination of Geology: Desert, Salt Pans, Savannah, and Okavango Delta

When most people envision safaris, what they probably think of are animals on broad, open, mostly flat savannahs or grasslands, with the occasional low bushes or rows of acacia trees.  Botswana has many savannahs.  But there are also rolling hills, valleys, desert and major waterways.  Botswana’s open plains from the Kalahari Desert up through the Okavango Delta are mostly derived from former flooded areas.  Starting in the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia, there is a major fault line which ends in the Kalahari.  The occasional major and minor earthquakes have caused tectonic shifts that make the mountains, valleys, canyons, and rivers to become unique.

The Okavango Delta is the confluence of huge rivers including the Okovango and Chobe, which ebb and flow into the Delta. Thousands of years ago an earthquake formed a natural dam below the Delta which cut off water to the formerly lush central Botswana area, eventually causing the desert to form in slowly shrinking then disappearing bodies of water.  As the waters became large puddles in some low lying areas, minerals leached to the surface of the dry lake-beds which in turn became hardened, salty “pans” once the water totally evaporated.

According to Wikipedia, the Okavango Delta continues to be annually produced by seasonal flooding. The Okavango River drains the summer (January–February) rainfall from the Angola highlands and the surge flows 1,200 km. in approximately one month. The circa 11 cubic kilometers (11,000,000,000,000 litres) of water then spread over the 250 km by 150 km area of the delta over the next four months (March–June). The high temperature of the delta causes rapid transpiration and evaporation, resulting in a cycle of rising and falling water level that was not fully understood until the early 20th century. The floodwaters peak between June and August, during Botswana’s dry winter months, when the delta swells to three times its permanent size, attracting animals from kilometers around and creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

 Unusual Animal Viewings

Of course the Walleighs saw some elephants, hippos, buffalo, a couple of rhinos, lots of amazing birds, and Wendy’s beloved warthogs.  But below are some of the more unusual sightings.

Honey Badgers and Bat-Eared Foxes

One animal that Rick and Wendy had heard of but never seen in the wild was the Honey Badger.  Their Kalahari Plains driver/guide for four days, Ona short for Onaletatha Basemane,  finally spied the elusive animal running through the savannah during the Walleighs’ last morning safari at Kalahari Plains.  Shadowing the mother and baby Honey Badgers were a pair of Bat-Eared Foxes, which the Walleighs had never heard about.  Despite its cutesy name, the Honey Badger is a vicious, ill-tempered predator of eggs, birds, reptiles and whatever else they can catch.*  The foxes hung back from the badgers but awaited their moment to try to steal the badger’s hard-earned prey or at least grab the remains.  A couple of days later in Vumbura Plains at the Okavango, the Walleighs and guide located Black-Backed Jackals tracking a Honey Badger.  So now Rick and Wendy could call themselves familiar with the previously unfamiliar Honey Badger!

*A PBS documentary on Honey Badgers showed them catching cobra snakes, biting off their heads and eating the rest at their leisure.  When Honey Badgers consume poisonous snakes, most of the time the poison doesn’t affect them because it passes through their tough digestive track.  But if they are nicked by a fang, the poison enters their bloodstream which can knock the badger unconscious or even kill them. No wonder the foxes and jackals trailing them let the badgers do the hard work and then grab the dead prey.

Painted or African Wild Dogs

The one time Rick and Wendy had seen African Wild Dogs previous to Botswana was in central Kenya where they appeared to be moving back dots about 1.5 miles away, running after game on the hills.  On the Botswana trip, there were close-up wild dog observations on outings from each camp, sometimes multiple times!

The African Wild Dog is also called Painted Wild Dog because of the wide variety of blotchy browns, tans, black and white on their long-legged furry, slim bodies.  So while they would not be termed pretty, their behavior was so fascinating that it made them somewhat attractive.  They are very social.  They eat, sleep–often piled on top of each other, and hunt in large packs led by an alpha female as well as male.  If a male wants to create a new pack, rather than challenge the current alpha male to fight (other animals may fight to the death!), the restless male persuades a few females to go off with him and that’s that.  They hunt very strategically, often traveling long distances, then surrounding and tiring their prey.  If a sub-pack finds prey, they will consume the animal in often less than 20 minutes*, return to the main pack, and if the rest of the pack has not been able to find food, the successful ones regurgitate their food to share with their friends.  During one safari, Rick and Wendy observed them awakening from their afternoon nap and preparing for their evening hunt, and then followed the dogs for their initial tracking.  One dog went around to each sleeping group, licking and almost cuddling to wake them up.  After these experiences, it’s easy to see how domesticated dogs have evolved—and still sometimes have a wild side.

*Arriving after the take-down, Rick and Wendy with their guide watched them consume a baby Kudu incredibly quickly to ensure that bigger and/or stronger animals would not steal their prey.

Big Five and Other Celebrities

The “Big Five” are the African animals that are reputedly the most dangerously unpredictable: Cape Buffalo, Elephants, Rhinoceros, Lions and Leopards.  However, Hippos–which are grass-eaters–kill more people annually than the Big Five combined.  They are huge, very cranky, swim/walk quickly in water, and can run about 30 m.p.h. on land.  A bus in western Uganda hit a Hippo, killing the Hippo and several passengers.   Of course the Walleighs also viewed giraffes, ungulates (antelope and related), and Wendy’s beloved Warthogs.

Big Cat Sightings

Leopards are typically very difficult to see because they often rest in trees during the day, hunt singly, and drag their food up to the treetops to prevent stealing. However, Rick and Wendy spotted (pun intended) leopards during safaris from each of the three camps, multiple times.  And lions seemed to be lying on the road, under trees, and in the grass on multiple occasions too.  Certainly no complaints but it was quite unusual.  However, Rick took great advantage by capturing some amazing photos of the big cats.  It was the Cheetah that was elusive in Botswana.  There was only one not very close sighting so no photos.

First Time Seeing Tsesebe, Red Lechwe and Roan Ungulates

Antelopes and related grass-eating friends are categorized as Ungulates.  As a group of safari animals, they are the most viewed, most prolific and the most eaten by predators. Though Rick was particularly eager to see the Sable, this very shy creature remained hidden.  But along with Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Steenbok, Springbok, Greater Kudu, Impala, Oryx, Wildebeest, Hartebeest and of course lots of Giraffes, the Walleighs did see three others they had never seen before: Tsesebe, Red Lechwe and Roan—the slightly less shy close cousin to the Sable.  Very satisfying.

Kills are Part of the Cycle of Life but Hard to Watch

During a morning safari at Vumbura Plains, the driver located four hyenas busily feasting on a baby giraffe while a youngish adult giraffe hovered nearby. It was difficult not to anthropomorphize the animals in this scene: evil-looking hyenas tearing apart an adorable little giraffe with what probably was the young mother or sister frantically trying to figure out what to do.  Very sad and upsetting.  Didn’t like this part of the circle of life.

Birdy Diversity

Maybe the U.S. has as many different varieties of birds as Africa does but the ones typically viewed in urban, suburban and even rural areas don’t seem nearly as colorful and diverse as the birds in Africa.  Botswana alone has over 600 species.  On a separate page are just some of the birdy diversity that Rick captured and Wendy edited.

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