botswana 2017

Katherine and I were on the road (and in the air) for the month of October, 2017: 10 days in Amsterdam, eight in Botswana, 11 in South Africa. Botswana’s Okavango Delta, with its extraordinary wildlife, bold landscapes and friendly human inhabitants, impressed us deeply. It seemed to us that the country had a remarkable political and social culture. Because few people reach this unusual place, so different from the surrounding African nations, I decided to focus the entire travelogue on Botswana. Onward to the swamps! (Photos by Katherine Johnston)

Botswana is directly north of South Africa. Much of it is a high desert—the Kalahari—where the San people, commonly known as the Bushmen, have hidden away for 60,000 years. The Okavango, north of the Kalahari, is a bizarre chunk of geography: flat and dry, yet with several green wet seasons, courtesy of the part-time rivers that seep south from Angola’s highlands and disappear in a fertile welter of channels and islands. You can see the delta on the maps; it’s the tiny triangle in the country’s northwest corner.

Here’s an aerial view of part of the delta. (Most visitors get around on single-engine aircraft; dirt airstrips serve dozens of hidden-away camps and lodges.) There are rich grasslands for the antelope herds and cheetahs, reed and papyrus swamps for the hippos and crocs, and thick bush and woodlands for everyone. The delta is widely regarded today as the best place in the world to see a true abundance of wildlife in a natural, native setting.

On a corrupt continent, Botswana is impressively innocent. Safari fees are high and the number of tourists, lodges and fly-in camps strictly controlled. As a result landscapes remain pristine and animal densities are increasimg. There is no tourist big-game hunting anywhere; the only shooting allowed is with a camera. (Unfortunately, in 2018, a year after our trip, a new government lifted the ban on trophy hunting and disarmed park rangers. The result? An immediate, predictable increase in poaching and dead elephants.)

Most money from tourism goes to train guides and hotel staff and conservation officers, not into the pockets of politicians. Result: little poaching (see note above). White rhinos, for instance, are being repatriated to the Okavango from South Africa, where they are increasingly poached out. Tourism workers are decently paid and highly skilled. Indigenous people see the value of preserving wildlife habitat. The friendly employees at our lodge (three to one staff/guest ratio) were superb; many were multiple-language speakers with university degrees. Nearly all were local. Never had anyone catered so well to Katherine’s gluten intolerance! Every day the staff cooked her special dishes.

So what did we see? Well, on the first afternoon we encountered a group of African wild dogs and watched them hunt and play. These were a big hit. The dogs are an endangered species; only 3,000-4,000 are thought to exist, and Nxbega Camp, where we were staying, is one of the best (and last) places to see them. They are true predators, not scavengers like jackals and hyenas, and have an extraordinary successful kill rate of about 86%, working as a pack to bring down small antelope such as impala.

Nxbega’s private reserve area is huge: 25,000 hectares. Much of it is under water, and in such a mighty swath of wildlife habitat, lodge guests are unlikely to run into fellow “campers.” But they will run into elephants, both solitary males and family groups with youngsters and older females. There must be at least 200 elephants on the Nxbega concession. The pair above are feasting on succulent baobab fibres, which they love; elephant attention eventually kills the stately baobab, but also spreads its seeds, allowing future generations of trees to get a start in life.


Most people come on safari to see lions and leopards—plus other members of the “big five”: elephants, rhinos and Cape buffalo. Nxbega is an excellent place to watch big cats. Within hours of arriving we were entranced by a female leopard and her grown daughter playing in the low branches of a tree, completely ignoring our Land Cruiser and its human cargo. The reserve was home to two prides of female and juvenile lions, who spent most of their time sleeping. Two majestic males were also much in evidence. I was amazed (and made quite nervous) by how close we got to the large predators, and how oblivious they were of us. We were no threat, and in our vehicle we didn’t register as prey, so we were disregarded. Cheetahs were much less common; we saw the pair above on our last day.


The prey species were as fascinating to me as the predators. Vast herds of antelope were everywhere; impala were the most common (and seen in the thousands), but red lechwe were also prevalent, as were wildebeest (below), reedbuck, bushbuck, steenbok, tsessebe, duiker and the magnificent kudo (above, with the spiral horns). Other herbivores in the reserve included giraffes (with many juveniles, see above); massive, dangerous Cape buffalo (above); and zebras.

    Half the Nxbega concession was covered by water when we were there (in October), so a couple of boat trips were in order. For these ventures the camp maintains several small runabouts and a number of dugout replicas (made of fibreglass today instead of the traditional wood). The reserve’s wetlands are not as biodiverse as the uplands: reeds, papyrus and water lilies border a confusion of channels and lagoons; birds, insects and crocodiles are plentiful. The most exciting sights were the hippos (observed from shore, thank you, not from tippy canoes). They mostly stayed in the water, floating and yawning and (occasionally) fighting, but as daylight fell, they came out on land and began mowing down the surrounding vegetation. We watched them from the supposed safety of our Land Cruiser; hippos are enormous and can be deadly if they charge you.


I’ve only touched here on the varieties of wildlife we saw in the Okavango. I haven’t talked about the hyenas, one of which made his home under the Nxbega central tent platform. I haven’t mentioned the mongoose family, or the warthogs, or the green vervet monkeys or baboons. The birds alone could fill a website—cranes and storks, rollers and bee-eaters, kingfishers and starlings, southern ground-hornbills, the rare and fabulous Pel’s fishing-owl, fish-eagles, secretarybirds, kites and countless others. The plants and trees. We learned about the termite mounds (above) that litter the landscape. We crossed rickety wood bridges and forded waist-deep ponds. We were tearfully sad to leave this wonderful place, so rich and teeming with life.