An Unforgettable Botswana Safari
by Leon van Wyk
In December 2019, I had the privilege of accompanying a lovely family on safari on Botswana, in my capacity as their CUS Private Guide. In every aspect, it was a wonderful experience, and I greatly look forward to many more Completely Unique Safaris in Botswana, a country that is justifiably considered Africa’s best safari destination. The camps we visited were Chief’s Camp, a Sanctuary Retreats destination in the Moremi Game Reserve, and Zarafa (which falls under the Great Plains Conservation umbrella) in the 330 000 hectare Selinda Reserve, in northern Botswana. Without rambling on too much, I would like to share with you some of our experiences.
Our guests had decided on the private charter option, and this certainly added to the comfort, convenience and enjoyment factors of their trip. Completely Unique Safaris arranged their charter flights through Fireblade Aviation, a very slick and professional operation. The guests had first spent some time at their beloved Mala Mala, which is where I met them to fly to Botswana as their Private Guide for the final week of their safari. We took a short flight to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport for a painless customs and immigration clearance, then flew to Maun (the “tourism capital” of Botswana), for the same formalities that side, before flying to the airstrip closest to Chief’s Camp. While the service at Maun was not the fastest, it was satisfactory, and our time at that border post was not unpleasant. Having been in the industry for some time, it was almost inevitable that I saw some familiar faces, and it was also reassuring to be met at Maun by a representative from Sanctuary Retreats.
“About to board plane at Mala Mala”
Our guide, Tim, who met us at the airstrip and drove us to the camp, immediately impressed us with his charm, his air of quiet authority and confidence, and his genuine desire to pull out all the stops to make our stay memorable – he is a true gentleman and an asset not only to Sanctuary Retreats, but to the whole Botswana guiding community.
“Peter with guide Tim Chika”
Our Stay at Chief’s Camp and the Geoffrey Kent Suite:
I am not going to attempt to describe the accommodation, as this can easily be viewed on websites and online brochures. Suffice it to say that the Geoffrey Kent suite, along with a nearby luxury tent, provided the perfect accommodation arrangement for our party of 6 guests, and I was also beyond impressed with my accommodation as Private Guide – certainly surpassing any guide accommodation I had previously experienced, even at some of South Africa’s top lodges. The food was very good indeed, and I cannot speak highly enough of the staff – they really were extremely hospitable, friendly in a warm genuine way, and made us feel like royalty the whole time. Nothing was too much trouble, and everything was done with a smile.
The main purpose of being in Botswana, of course, was to be on safari. That whole Okavango Delta is just such a spectacular and fascinating ecosystem, the dynamics of which fluctuate hugely from season to season. Again, a lengthy description or explanation of how it all works is beyond the scope of this blog, as it can be found in a great selection of already-existing literature. Our visit took place in a season when the water level of the swamps was still low, and it was actually much lower even than normal. In no way did this detract from the game-viewing, which was superb. For guests who had come from Mala Mala, and had seen the “Big Five” more times than they could remember, there was no need to focus only on the “higher profile” species.
The birding was of a very high standard, not just for variety, but also for sheer numbers of some of them. To say that we saw thousands of marabou storks would not be an exaggeration. New “lifers” were added to all our bird lists, but apart from just ticking off birds from a list, we enjoyed wonderful sightings of them in the most beautiful surroundings. And those surroundings really are beautiful! I have always loved the Botswana landscape – the vastness and wildness of it are almost too good to be true!
“Marabou storks near Chief’s Camp”
“Lala palms in Moremi”
On our game drives from Chief’s Camp we did enjoy some very good carnivore viewing, featuring a female cheetah and two youngsters (a little shy), some sleepy lions, active hyenas, busy black-backed jackals, adorable bat-eared foxes and some fabulous leopards.
“Mother cheetah at Moremi”
“Bat-eared fox at Moremi”
It is fair to say that the leopards were the highlight, predator-wise, and we saw at least six different individuals. An early morning start one day rewarded us with a beautiful sighting of a female leopard dragging a freshly-killed impala across the road in front of us. On another occasion, our perseverance in staying out on drive during a heavy afternoon shower was richly rewarded afterwards, as we followed a very pretty female leopard on the move, and then she posed for us on a huge fallen tree in late afternoon light – a photographer’s dream!
“Impala kill near Chief’s Camp”
“Late afternoon leopard at Moremi”
Botswana sunsets are often spectacular, and it is worth stopping for a while to stretch the legs and have an appropriate sundowner beverage or two. On one evening, the food and beverage staff from Chief’s Camp surprised us with a beautifully hosted gin and tonic set-up, with all the trimmings and delectable snacks.
“Chief’s G & T setup”
It is worth noting that since Chief’s Camp is in the Moremi Game Reserve (a national park), guides do not stay out too late after sunset on game drive. To my mind, this is not a negative point, but it is good to know these things in advance, so that guests do not have unrealistic expectations of long night drives.
We left Chief’s Camp with heavy hearts, and it was also almost time to say goodbye to part of the party, whose safari had now come to an end. We all agreed that our time at Chief’s Camp was a highlight we would never forget, and vowed that we would be back.
“Evening entertainment at Chiefs”
For three of us, though, we still had one more amazing place to visit – Zarafa!
Our Stay at Zarafa:
Our intrepid pilots flew us from Chief’s to Selinda Airstrip in Northern Botswana, where we said our goodbyes to those returning to Johannesburg via Maun. We were met by our guide Mokopi, who gave us a good introductory chat, before we boarded the Land Cruiser (immaculately cared for) for the approximately 45-minute drive to Zarafa. In his briefing, Mokopi informed us that the drought had taken its toll, especially on elephants and hippos, and that there was not much water around, other than in the famous Zibadianja Lagoon and in some pans that had filled up overnight after heavy rain. It soon became apparent to us that Mokopi was a very proud man who takes his job seriously. He had been briefed that we were keen birders, and his birding knowledge was very strong.
On the way to the camp, we saw, among other things, a beautiful lioness lying on a termite mound. The landscape was totally different from that at Chief’s Island, but still spectacularly beautiful. We arrived at Zarafa to a warm welcome from the management couple, who immediately made us feel special…as did the rest of the staff we met.
Zarafa is a Relais and Chateaux “member”, and so there are certain standards and criteria that have to be met. The food was of such a high quality and so well-presented, that I would have to describe the food experience at Zarafa as “fine dining.”
“High tea at Zarafa”
The camp was quiet in terms of guest occupancy, but we were still surprised at the high staff-to-guest ratio. All members of the staff were very polite and willing, and somewhat more formal in their dealings with guests. Their service was polished.
The setting of Zarafa, overlooking the vast lagoon, is absolutely magnificent, and it was very easy to recline on a pool lounger with a pair of binoculars. As expected, the birdlife on the lagoon was superb, and we added a few more “lifers” to our growing lists.
“Leica + size 11 at Zarafa”
Our game drives with Mokopi were most enjoyable, and he really impressed us with his bird knowledge as well as his good vehicle positioning, anticipating animal movement quite expertly at times. While we didn’t see leopards at Zarafa, we saw evidence of them, and we had superb viewing of other species. We enjoyed numerous sightings of roan antelope, and had one good but long distant view of a magnificent sable antelope bull – a first for my guests, after more than a dozen previous trips to Africa. We also saw an abundance of red lechwe, particularly in the vicinity of the lagoon. The birding really was excellent, but quite different from Chief’s, in terms of quantities of certain species. While marabou storks were in abundant supply at Chief’s, we saw relatively few of them at Zarafa. Pelicans, openbills and black herons were numerous, and provided fine viewing, as did the ubiquitous African fish-eagles. One of the birding highlights for me was a good sighting of an African snipe.
“Roan antelope Zarafa”
“Sable antelope bull at Zarafa”
“Male red lechwe”
“Youngster at Zarafa”
“Pelicans on the lagoon at Zarafa”
“African fish-eagle at Zarafa”
“African snipe at Zarafa”
Mokopi invariably selected some really beautiful spots for our “drinks and snacks” breaks during our game drives, and one of the special highlights for the guests was a hosted bush breakfast, where a chef prepared a delicious meal for us next to a beautiful water hole.
“Zarafa bush breakfast”
Our last evening at Zarafa featured a really spectacular array of thunderclouds, which at times were beautifully gilded by the low sun. We were convinced that we were going to get drenched, but somehow managed to avoid getting caught in a storm.
“Sunset storm brewing”
“Dramatic sky at Zarafa”
In this modern era of technology and connectivity, guests have become accustomed to having Internet access, even when in remote places. Both Chief’s Camp and Zarafa have WiFi in the rooms / tents, and at Chief’s Camp, this extended into the “public areas” as well – at least in the Geoffrey Kent suite. A thunderstorm one night led to temporary loss of WiFi, which was something of an inconvenience for the guests, but did not detract too much from their enjoyment of the experience. At Zarafa, WiFi is only available in the tents / rooms, and not in the main public area. This is probably a good thing, as long as guests are aware of it.
All in all, we were hugely impressed with Botswana and its people. Sanctuary Retreats and Great Plains Conservation are both very reputable operations, and proved themselves totally worthy of their reputations. The guests and I all vowed to return, and it would certainly be very interesting to visit the same places in a different season.