NWS Ellen Returns to Botswana

Ellen Cantle

01 Mar 2019

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NWS Ellen takes a whistle-stop tour around some of Botswana's finest safari camps

Back in December 2018, I had the pleasure of travelling to Botswana for the Botswana Travel & Tourism Expo, hosted by Botswana Tourism, which brought a total of 150 agents from around the world to the town of Kasane. The first day comprised of workshops on the different regions of Botswana, followed by an afternoon and then a full day of meetings with various suppliers. This enables us to keep up to date with the latest news on the camps and lodges we affiliate with, and the strong relationships we build with people on the ground that allow us to enhance our clients’ safari experiences.

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Networking also gives us the opportunity to source new and exciting products. Guests on our photographic safari with Ami Vitale are in for a treat! During BTTE I was invited for an afternoon on the Pangolin Photo Boat to try my hand at photography. This is one of the most amazing and intimate ways to experience the Chobe River, as your very own photo guide will assist you with different camera angles and settings to get the perfect shot. Experienced and beginner photographers are welcome! The smaller boats allow you to travel quite far downstream to avoid the buzzing crowds that the river is known for. It was an afternoon well spent and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to either hone their skills in photography or learn more about their camera. All the cameras are provided and the seats turn 360 degrees, giving you the best possible position without moving the boat and disturbing the wildlife.

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After BTTE I was fortunate enough to be offered a trip with our local partner to travel to some of the camps within the Okavango Delta On the first morning we did site inspections at some of the lodges situated within Chobe National Park This included Chobe Elephant Camp, a basic camp which is the most budget-conscious within the park and is the furthest away from Kasane. It is situated next to a wildlife corridor, guaranteeing excellent wildlife sightings from camp including large herds of elephant during the dry season.

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Next on the list was Muchenje Safari Lodge, situated up on the hill overlooking the Chobe River – this is my favourite lodge in the region. Being owner-run it offers an intimate, homely atmosphere. Lastly we visited Ngoma Safari Lodge which is the most luxurious option out of the three lodges, with large glass windows in the chalets offering spectacular views of the Chobe River and floodplain below. This is the perfect option for honeymooners or couples looking for that extra bit of romance. All three lodges share a boat jetty to alleviate having to travel the hour to Kasane and compete with the large crowds during the peak season.

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Although busy, I would highly recommend a visit to this region as it offers a completely different experience to the rest of Botswana and excellent elephant numbers during the dry season. Around midday we met up with the rest of our group to fly across the northeastern part of Botswana to the Moremi Game Reserve The 55-minute flight offered stunning views of the Savute Marsh and vast Mababe Depression. With the little rain they have had so far in the region, the landscape is extremely barren and dry at the moment. The dry season is the best time to visit Savute, as the elephants and other wildlife rely on the pumped waterholes in front of the lodges, offering excellent wildlife-viewing straight from camp.

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When we arrived at Xakanaxa Airstrip we were met by our guides and driven the short distance to Camp Moremi where we would spend our first night. Once settled into our rooms we travelled a short distance to Xakanaxa Camp for high tea and a quick site inspection before heading out on an afternoon game drive. The game was a bit dispersed in this area and not as prolific as the other areas we visited, but we did see a gorgeous female leopard in a sausage tree, as well as plains game and good birdlife. The summer months host the arrival of the summer migrant birds, so this is the best time to visit for keen birders.

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The following morning we headed on another game drive within the Moremi Game Reserve to an area called Third Bridge. The wildlife was a bit better here but not great. We saw a spotted hyena early on the drive and again a few plains game. We had a bit of excitement when we spotted a large concentration of vultures but did not find any evidence of a kill or any predators. After our game drive we had a site inspection of Okuti Camp which is next-door to Xakanaxa Camp. We transferred by motorboat to Shinde Camp, further west of the Okavango. The boat trip was one of my favourite activities we did. It was wonderful being on the water and we saw many elephants crossing the river.

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Our arrival at Shinde was met by happy singing staff and a generous glass of bubbly. After being shown to our tents we had the option of a mokoro excursion or a game drive. Another agent and I decided to go on a game drive which turned out to be the better choice of the two. We headed over to an area known as the "killing fields" where we found three lions. While watching them I spotted a herd of red lechwe sprinting in the distance, and on further investigation I spotted a female cheetah who had caused the disturbance. The sprinting lechwe interested one of the young lionesses and she headed off to investigate. We watched with excitement as to what would unfold next!

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The cheetah luckily spotted the lioness first, and crouched down so the lioness did not see her. She then proceeded to unsuccessfully chase the lechwe around the open plain. Eventually after a few failed attempts the lion spotted the cheetah and started heading our way. We all held our breath waiting to see what would unfold. Lions and cheetahs compete for the same prey animals, and lions, being the superior predator, will catch and kill cheetahs if presented with the opportunity. However “cruel” we think this is, it is a natural way of life for these predators. The lioness circled around the back of the vehicle and came face to face with the cheetah; luckily cheetahs are much faster and she managed to outrun the lioness! This was an incredible sighting and a first for me after all the years I have spent in Botswana. It just goes to prove that you never know what the bush has in store for you and it is constantly full of surprises!

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The following morning we headed out on an early-morning game drive to the Kwara Concession. We were met on the boundary by a picnic lunch and a surprise helicopter flight to Kwando Splash Camp! We were treated to 10 minutes low-flying over the concession with the doors off! This is the best way to see the Delta and we highly recommend it for short transfers between camps. A few of the camps have helicopters stationed there bringing the cost down significantly. As helicopters can land anywhere, you are transferred door to door without having to transfer to the airstrips. These pilots are excellent and know the region incredibly well. They circle around the wildlife giving you an excellent aerial view of them. Helicopters are also marginally quieter than fixed-wing aircraft meaning you can get closer to the wildlife without disturbing them.

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Kwando Splash Camp is a new camp located in the Kwara Concession and is the more modern option in the concession. The advantage with the Kwando properties lies in their guide and tracker system, which works wonders for finding the variety of wildlife in this region. From our first drive we were amazed at the concentration of wildlife here. Being a private concession there are not many other vehicles here, so driving off-road and at night is permitted. Our first afternoon was spent on a game drive to the aardwolf burrow where we saw his head popping out. We then continued on our drive and saw a male lion and cheetah. The rest of the group headed out to see the painted dog den and were treated to an incredible sighting of them. After our sundowners we headed back to the aardwolf den where we patiently waited for him to emerge. After about 30 minutes he finally came out and started foraging where we followed him for a bit before continuing on our night drive.

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One of the benefits of the guide and tracker system is that the tracker can concentrate on operating the spotlight and the guide on driving the vehicle while keeping his eyes peeled too; that extra set of eyes definitely enhances your wildlife experience. On our way back to camp we found a serval foraging in the grass, it was so relaxed and offered us a great sighting before wandering off into the night. The following morning we headed out to find another cheetah as well as two male lion and another lion pride with six cubs! We got a great example of how well the tracking system works, as we were tracking the two male lion through dense Kalahari apple-leaf. Their tracks were zigzagging back and forth and we could not keep up in the vehicle. The two trackers then started out on foot while the vehicles pushed forward to keep an eye out for any potentially dangerous game. As we took off the trackers quickly whistled as they spotted the two males not even 100 metres in front of them! Luckily we had not gone far and quickly got them back in the vehicle. These two males were trespassing on the territory of the resident males and were on edge, which explained the zigzagging tracks through the bush to avoid them.

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The Kwara Concession no doubt delivered some of the best wildlife viewing of all the areas we visited and the guiding was superb. What I loved most about Kwando was that they understand that wildlife does not follow a schedule, therefore they don’t either, giving them the ultimate flexibility – which is key in the bush. The last property we visited was Mapula. Although the wildlife sightings were decent, they share the area with two other camps, so the area is quite busy.

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From Mapula I extended my trip to Duba Explorers Camp This is a lovely camp situated on the northern edge of the Duba Plains – not to be confused with Duba Plains Camp, this is in a completely different area and does not offer the same experiences. Instead this is a dryer woodland area perfect for walking! The Explorers brand focus on more adventurous activities such as walking, canoeing and mokoro safaris. Unfortunately with the water levels, canoeing and mokoros are not suitable at this time, so we stuck to walking in the afternoon and the following morning. What was exciting was we found the large male lion tracks on our walk the following morning, and although they were not too fresh, it was still exhilarating to know you were in the same area on foot.

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In my opinion there is no better way to explore the bush than on foot. You get to see so much more than what you do when you are in the vehicle. You really do feel a part of the food chain and your senses are on their highest alert. My guide, BT, was excellent and blew my mind with his knowledge of the smaller things that other guides may not talk about. He explained the different types of bird tracks and we spent a lot of time around the termite mounds talking about their structure, both inside and out. It was fascinating!

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The following day I had a short helicopter flight from Duba Explorers over to Duba Plains. Although only lasting for about four minutes, it was amazing to see the terrain change so drastically. The woodland areas of Explorers quickly ended to make way for the wetter, more open areas of Duba Plains. Due to the water levels you are not able to drive from Duba Explorers to Duba Plains so the only way to get between the two is either by boat or helicopter. The game viewing was excellent over at Duba Plains and it far exceeded expectations. This area was once known for its large buffalo herds and the lion who hunted them. These days the buffalo herds are more seasonal and the large herds of lechwe have moved in. For as far as you can see there are lechwe. The lion have now set their sights on them as well as the numerous warthogs. During my stay I saw the Tsaro Pride of lion which consist of two lionesses and their six cubs. We spent the whole afternoon watching the cubs playing with each other.

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From Duba I flew up north to the Selinda Concession where I spent my last night at Zarafa Camp The wildlife here was brilliant. This is where I saw the most amount of elephant throughout my whole trip. We saw six herds alone from the airstrip to camp. The birdlife was also brilliant here, with many kori bustards and wattled crane. We saw a pride of lion en route to the boat station where we spent the afternoon on the water. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my last night in Botswana than with a fishing rod in my hand!

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After sunset we made our way back from camp, checking on the lion before heading back. They were mobile and we followed them through camp on their hunting mission. Suffice to say we did not return to our tents to freshen up! The following morning I headed out early to visit Selinda Explorers Camp The game en route was brilliant and we had the most amazing elephant sighting. We sat quietly and they crossed the road right next to us. We also saw a lone roan antelope. The birdlife was also brilliant with carmine bee-eaters being my favourite!

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