6 Reasons Why You Should Go to Botswana, Again & Again
Botswana was rolling out the red carpet for me all the way to the horizon. It was woven out of swamps and streams and fractured by a hundred million hippo paths. It was speckled with the exposed backs of elephants, marching in slow motion, and long shadows that betrayed giraffes. I was seeing big game before the rattling aircraft had even hit the ground.
A lot of people choose Botswana for their first safari. And they should: This place is packed with the big animals that travelers come to see. Plus it’s accessible, and peaceful, and there are even toilets that flush at some of the airstrips.
But this wasn’t my first safari. And while I’m embarrassed to say it now, everything had gone so smoothly—planes running on schedule, friendly immigration officers—that as we descended toward the airstrip, I felt an egocentric anxiety that Botswana wouldn’t deliver the gutsy Africa experience I craved.
Happily, Botswana took that anxiety and tossed it aside. From the moment I was released from the aircraft into the crackling-dry air, I was surprised and delighted by its wildness.
Botswana bestowed numerous lessons during my safari trip, and all of them helped me realize that this place richly merits first, second, and fifteenth visits. Here are six of my most memorable revelations.
1. Listen to the Animals
On my first game drive, two teenaged elephants prepared to attack the vehicle. They flapped their ears so wildly, it appeared they were going to detach from their heads. (“They are feeling very unrelaxed,” the guide said, and I was starting to feel kind of unrelaxed myself.) They bent their knees and sliced at the ground with their tusks. (“They are saying, ‘This is going to be you,’ ” the guide interpreted.) They stomped on trees to show their might and burst through bushes to show their stealth. (“They impress us now with the element of surprise,” he explained.) Then they were discouraged by their mother, who improbably ran between us and them and slapped one with her trunk to discourage their battle behavior. (“She is saying, ‘What are you doing? Please chill.’ ”)
Before we’d started this drive, the guide had asked me what I hoped to see, and I fumbled for an answer (“Uh, cats. Leopards!”). But now I felt like I had seen elephants for the first time. I realized that checking the box on a new species isn’t as important as learning about the things they’re saying. Nature sometimes just needs a translator.
A few days later, we were parked at the airstrip, enduring midday heat as we waited for a late flight to appear. Oblivious to our stares, a pair of crowned plovers danced a futile mating dance on the runway. The female shrieked and shook her legs seductively, but the male coldly showed her his tail feathers. The guide leaned on the steering wheel and narrated this tale of unrequited love. (“You could say he is just not that into her.”) Keep in mind that these birds are about as common as seagulls at a Burger King, but I was completely transfixed by their romance. Until the delayed aircraft burst onto the scene and totally killed the vibe.
Botswana put a huge check in my safari checklist. You see, I was desperate to see a leopard. I had spent so many previous safaris with my neck perpendicular to my body, struggling to see a tail drooping from a tree. I was always disappointed.
After six days, the guide knew that we were hungry for leopards. On the last morning before moving camp, he unexpectedly went off-road on the way back to breakfast. We plowed over young trees and skirted ditches. Thorny acacia trees threatened to strip the paint off our vehicle. The guide parked us underneath one, cut the engine, and rubbed his hands together. We were cold and wanted breakfast and were ready to complain about taking the scenic route. Then we looked up.
Looking down from the mottled leaves was a male leopard, observing us with some anxiety as he perched on his kill. It was marvelous and totally unexpected and everyone in the vehicle was breathless with delight. If it hadn’t been completely inappropriate, we would have given the guide a standing ovation. He’d heard this feline gentleman calling gleefully, in the middle of the night, and he’d driven out at 3:30 in the morning to investigate, knowing how much his guests wanted to meet one of these cats.
3. Austral Winter Is Cold
(First of all, I learned the word “austral” in Botswana. It means southern, as in Southern Hemisphere. You’re welcome.)
Let me tell you one thing about 5:30 A.M. wake-up calls. You never want to get out of bed if the temperature is just above freezing and there’s a single layer of tent canvas between you and the elements. You’d rather hug the hot-water bottle and wait to emerge until the sun is shining in its afternoon glory. But you know that if you do this, it will be the day that everyone else sees lions take down a kill. So you walk into the frigid pre-dawn darkness and dress for the day.
This is where you are confronted with your ignorance of Africa. My fellow Americans, we grew up thinking of Africa as a sun-warmed raisin of a continent with a snowcapped Kilimanjaro poking through the clouds somewhere in the middle. I’ve spent many months in Africa, and still I did not comprehend the cold of the austral winter. I packed some long-sleeved shirts, and a fleece, and a college rugby jersey for the sole purpose of wearing to bed, where I wouldn’t have to inflict bad taste on fellow travelers. Yet I layered all of these things each morning before I waddled out of the tent.
Luckily, our camps were prepared for our ignorance, and they outfitted us with complimentary fleece-lined nylon ponchos—unflattering for all body types!—to shield us against the austral African winter. I didn’t know, but now you do. And if you don’t want to wear an A-line khaki poncho every day for two weeks, please learn from my mistakes.
4. Camp Is Part of the Experience
You don’t come to Botswana to hang around at the lodge. The action is out in the bush. Camp is lovely, and you might even get a massage there, but in many ways it’s just a staging area for the adventure that waits in the wild.
But I didn’t care. In Botswana, I learned that I loved camp. I loved coming back for the midday siesta and shedding my boots. Then I’d sit on the deck and let my feet exhale, and I’d listen to wildlife without the pressure of searching for them: the screams of a bird with the lung capacity of a human, the grunts and belches of a hippo, the pitter-patter of mongoose feet running across the top of the tent.
I loved the way camp revealed itself first to the nose as I approached, with the smell of fire and dinner, promising that I was about to eat a seriously genteel meal on a table set with flickering lanterns. I inwardly thanked the engineers of the bucket shower: 40 liters of pre-heated water suspended on a tree, a rope pulley to get the show going, and then, like a Biblical miracle, there’s steam materializing in a freezing night.
And while a safari is about wildlife and such, in camp you meet some pretty wild members of your own species. There’s a conviviality to camp life that modern civilization has killed, but which camp has resuscitated. Deprived of devices, we must turn to others—strangers!—for entertainment. You hear about the time one guide threw some old barbecue detritus under another guide’s tent, which invited a pack of hyenas to howl and snarfle beneath him all night. Or the time a guest blew the “in case of extreme emergencies only” air horn in night’s darkest hour and sent the staff running, only to request a double gin and tonic when they arrived. Or the time a leopard got too comfortable being around camp, and dragged her kill into an empty tent so she could eat in peace. Suddenly your story about the time you heard an elephant trumpet doesn’t seem so impressive, and that’s when you’re eager to leave camp and get back out into the wild again.
5. Sometimes, the Wildlife Finds You
It was in camp that I had one of my most memorable sightings. The evening drive was over. I’d walked back to my tent to make myself presentable. I was contemplating my dusty visage in the mirror when a rat hurtled out of the ceiling. At me. It trapezed onto a high beam and flipped around to face me. Its eye sockets widened until they took up most of its skull. It was then that I realized with delight that it wasn’t a rat, but a small-spotted genet—a catlike creature that I’ve always wanted to see!
So great was its terror that the genet urinated, a stream that fell about 10 feet from the ceiling to the ground. Then it leapt to another beam, fell short, scrambled with both paws, gained purchase, and finally disappeared into the roof thatch. When the guide came to escort me to dinner, he found me flipping fervently through my field guide, confirming that I’d identified the right species. He listened to my breathless tale and promised to ask a staff member to clean my floor. The camp manager muttered that he was glad that I hadn’t blown the air horn.
6. This May Not be the Same Botswana You Saw Before
The Savute Channel is on its way to becoming a marsh—or re-becoming one, since for 30 years, the channel was dry. Apparently, during this dry spell, the natural world order heaved with a ferocious turbulence not seen since prehistoric times. Prides of lion swelled to 30 strong and became unmatched killers, leaping into nearby water, claws out, to surf on hippo prey. Violent baboon hordes tore trespassing leopards into furry shreds. Crocodiles continued as usual (they’re always pretty gnarly). This clash of super-predators was disrupted when tectonic shifts caused the Savute Channel to trickle, then flow, and the water somehow brought tranquility to this region.
Now, the water had sunk so low again that boating was out of the question. What I often mistook for hippo ears were actually curling lily pads, and the white-faced ducks must have had their bellies tickled by the grasses that poked through the surface.
I always thought of “tectonic shifts” as geologic cataclysms, not the equivalent of nature softly turning on the faucet. I asked a guide about this—why the tectonics were so shifty, and why they didn’t result in destruction on the surface. Well, he said with guide-like patience, most of Botswana is a desert, and the Okavango Delta just happens to occur in the middle of it. Or really, on top of it: The sand covering the ground can be 200 meters deep at any given point. That’s a lot of sand to muffle a quake, and there are probably lots of them because northern Botswana sits on a whole nest of fault lines. Smothered by a skyscraper of sand, the earth moves, and up on the surface the channel gently begins to flow.
And now, the ducks let a breeze propel them across this water, and swamp ferns that look like they slapped against the ankles of the dinosaurs grow, and hippos wobble down to the water and ease themselves into it with a liquid-sounding ploosh. That’s what you’ll see for now in this part of Botswana. For now. But maybe not the next time you visit.
Which, for me, I hope is very soon.
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