We departed Namibia February 9th for a week exploring Botswana, the Okavango Delta, and Chobe National Park. Thankfully the Namibia to Botswana border crossing went smoothly. As we passed into Botswana our guides reminded us of two local rules:
- Animals always have the right-of-way
- Never, ever try to bribe the Botswana Police
We spent the night in Ghanzi – a small town in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Known as the “capital of the Kalahari” Ghanzi has cattle farms and a “conglomeration of ethnic groups”. The San and Bakgalagadi were Ghanzi’s original inhabitants. In the late 1800s, the Herero, Batawana, and others settled in the area.
Ghanzi villagers maintain an abundance of cattle, donkeys, and sheep – all affected by serious drought over the past several years. Animals graze along the roadside and even on the roads! Driving in the area is tricky with the government imposing a severe punishment for injuring animals.
Botswana is socially conscious and invests substantially in the education and healthcare of its people. The country doesn’t have the racial issues of many other African countries. The Botswana government uses a form of ecotourism – “high income and low impact tourism”. Botswana charges more for services than adjacent African countries, prohibiting some travelers from visiting, and thereby reducing the number of tourists entering the country. Luxury safari camps are common but comfortable, more basic mid-range accommodations are also available.
Botswana won independence from Britain in 1966. Today it’s a politically stable country with one of the greatest economies in sub-Saharan Africa.
Botswana’s diamond mines are the richest and most abundant in the world and the highest producing. The mines exist on volcanic kimberlite pipes composed of a rare type of rock formed millions of years ago. During volcanic eruptions plumes of magma pushed up tearing off chunks of diamond-containing rocks depositing them near the earth’s surface.
During our first evening in Botswana, we enjoyed a special treat – traditional tribal dancing performed by the local San community. Previously known as “Bushmen”, the mellow San are indigenous to Southern Africa.
The San have lived in Botswana for over 30,000 years and survive in the harsh desert environment by living “peacefully in harmony with nature”.
“The word ‘San’ was believed to mean ‘wild people who cannot farm’. Historically the San didn’t have a word for themselves. Today they call themselves ‘Ncoakhoe’ meaning ‘red people’. The San are hunter gatherers who roam the area to find food and water. There are about 55,000 San left in the world. Sixty percent of them live in Botswana, the others live in Namibia and northern South Africa where their interesting cave paintings are abundant.”
After arriving in Ghanzi, San Bushmen took us hiking in the Kalahari Desert. They shared ancient survival methods and secrets about how insects, animals, and humans live in the desert. Later they danced for us by campfire in the moonlight!
The Okavango Delta
The next morning we headed for Maun – the third largest city in Botswana. Maun is known as the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The name comes from the San word “maung”, which translates “the place of short reeds”. After an overnight in Maun we boarded small airplanes and flew low over the Delta to our secluded safari camp – home for the next two days.
To comply with luggage safety restrictions in the small airplanes we packed lightly leaving most of our electronics and valuables back in Maun locked inside the safari truck. Our guides stayed behind and waited for us.
“Eons ago, the Okavango River flowed into a massive Lake Makgadikgadi, now known as the Makgadikgadi Pans. Tectonic activity disturbed the river’s currents causing a backup that created the Okavango Delta. The Delta forms a complex network of over 5,000 sq. miles of waterways that sustain a large variety of flora and fauna.”
The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s best locations for game viewing. Massive numbers of large mammals live in the Delta where prey and predators are forced together in the floodplains. Lion, elephant, hyena, buffalo, hippo, and crocodile gather with antelope and smaller animals like warthog, mongoose, baboon, and bush baby.
The Delta is also home to the endangered African Wild Dog with one of the richest pack densities in Africa. Many animals pass through the Delta during their summer migration. When the countryside dries up in winter, they cross again on their way home.
After lunch at our beautiful safari camp – Fallen Baobab – we took a game drive and nature walk with a local expert. Hundreds of bird species live in the Okavango Delta. Brilliantly colored Carmine Bee Eaters welcomed us by following the safari vehicle. Much to our delight, they flew low and close to the jeep “buzzing” us on both sides!
That afternoon guides took us on a boat trip in traditional dug-out canoes called Mekoros. Skillful African polers navigated through narrow fragrant waterways strewn with waterlilies. We lavished in the magnificent environment while taking photos and sharing the scenery with birds and hippos sunning in reed-covered Delta waters. It was an unforgettable, idyllic day! After dinner, we retired early and fell asleep to the sweet sounds of African night birds, elephants, and lions.
Early the next morning we departed on a long game drive viewing more of the Delta’s vegetation and plentiful populations of cheetah, elephant, warthog, buffalo, and wildebeest. We spotted a Silver-Backed Jackal and many large antelope including Reedbuck, Red Lechwe, Tsessebe, Sable, and my favorite – the beautiful Greater Kudu.
Our guides educated us about Delta flora and fauna, insects, and giraffe physique, pointing out some interesting details. Graceful giraffes have long tongues for reaching vegetation, thick saliva to help with digestion, 7 collar bones, and large hearts to pump blood up their long necks!
Plants indigenous to the Delta include pungent turpentine grass and exotic trees like Baobab, Camel Thorn, Jackal Berry, Leadwood, and the funny-looking Sausage Tree. Dung Beetles are one of Africa’s most interesting insects. They play an important role in stabilizing the African environment and fighting climate change.
That evening at camp we enjoyed a beautiful open-air candlelight dinner under bight stars and a full moon! Despite our best efforts, we finally succumbed to the relentless, nagging insects, moved away from the dining table, and spent the rest of the evening dancing and singing close to an insect-repelling campfire.
The next morning it was sad saying goodbye to our kind, gracious hosts. I wished we had more time to spend there… During a leisurely drive to the airstrip we said farewell to the Okavango Delta and boarded small airplanes for the flight back to Maun.
Burglary and Fire
After landing in Maun we made our way through the airport to our waiting guides. Their long faces alerted us that something was wrong. We listened carefully as they told us that vandals had burglarized the safari truck and stolen our personal belongings.
In the middle of the night thieves tossed a heavy metal garbage can through a truck window, cut locks off storage lockers, and stole our stuff! While the burglary occurred, our guides were fast asleep in nearby lodges. The burglars stole laptop and tablet computers, cell phones, camera equipment, cash, clothes, food, drinks, and anything left in the truck.
My possessions were in a bottom locker without a padlock. The padlock I brought from the US didn’t fit the lockers, so I stored my belongings without locking them. Shocked and bummed by news of the burglary, we left the airport and drove back to the lodge to prepare handwritten inventories of everything stored in the safari truck – #@!*…
The guides alerted the Maun Police soon after discovering the burglary. The police advised them not to enter the truck, touch, or tamper with potential evidence until police arrived to investigate and take fingerprints. Six hours later, the police still had not appeared!
After waiting for hours we disregarded their orders, got into the truck, checked our lockers, and drove to the Maun Police Station. Many safari members lost everything including electronics, clothing, and gear. Surprisingly, the burglars did not bother unlocked compartments, and my duffel bag and its contents were intact and unharmed!
When we arrived at the police station the guides accompanied those with loses inside to file reports. After about an hour they came out with a policeman who dusted the lockers for fingerprints. The Maun Police’s casual attitude and lack of concern over the burglary was disturbing. My conclusion – Botswana is not a good place to have a police emergency.
We thought the theft was an “inside job” with employees at the campground / lodge tipping off the burglars of our absence. It would have been difficult for outsiders to invade the fenced grounds with security guards posted at the entrance.
Those who sustained losses spoke with safari company representatives in Cape Town. Some losses included hard-to-replace items like photo memory cards, jewelry, and favorite gear. Surprisingly, they would not receive compensation from the company’s insurance. Even more surprising, the truck was not equipped with an alarm!
A few hours later, the police returned bringing stolen and discarded items they found tossed in the bush near the lodge. Of course electronics and cash were never recovered. It was a sour note after a relaxing and beautiful experience in the Okavango Delta.
In the middle of the night thieves tossed a heavy metal garbage can through a truck window, cut locks off storage lockers, and stole our stuff!
The guides managed to get the broken window repaired, and we continued to Botswana’s Nata Bird Sanctuary and Makgadikgadi Salt Pans stopping along the way so people could replace essential items like toiletries and clothing. We would soon discover that our Botswana woes had not ended with the disarming Maun burglary!
We spent the night at a lodge in an isolated area near Botswana’s saltpans. In the middle of the night a fire broke out in the grass thatched roof of one of the lodge buildings. We were rousted from our beds and evacuated to a safe area nearby.
The grass thatched roof over the kitchen burst into roaring flames – a wild, vivid, unforgettable orangeish-red image against the ebony African sky!
As the flames grew higher the lodge owner feared the fire might spread to other buildings – all with thatched grass roofs. Fortunately it did not. The fire department arrived the next day – after the building had burned completely to the ground!
The cause of the fire was not determined, but it seemed suspicious. One possibility was a thunderstorm with lightning that occurred earlier in the night. I heard someone in the crowd say the kitchen was known to have electrical problems….
Chobe National Park
Shaken but unscathed, the next morning we pulled together and made our way to the town of Kasane and Chobe National Park for a much-needed day relaxing on the Chobe River. The day began very hot but as evening approached, it grew cool and moist on the river. Chobe riverbanks have abundant game, and the region is known for enormous buffalo and elephant herds.
Chobe National Park is the second largest park in Botswana covering over 4,000 square miles. The Park forms part of a medley of lakes, islands, and floodplains created from the Kwando, Linyanti, and Chobe Rivers
During dry season Chobe elephants migrate and travel hundreds of miles from the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers in the north to Botswana’s saltpans in the southeast. Kalahari elephants are known to have frail ivory and short tusks, possibly due to the lack of calcium in the desert soil.
“During 1932 over 9,000 square miles in the Chobe region were declared a non-hunting zone. Throughout the years the boundaries of the Park have been modified and settlers in the region relocated. Finally, in 1975 Chobe National Park became completely rid of human occupation. In 1980 and 1986 the boundaries were once again altered, growing the Park to its current size.”
A bit like a migrating herd of animals, the next morning we left Chobe and headed for Zimbabwe, carrying mixed memories of Botswana with us!! More later…