African Odyssey Part 1: Botswana

Trip Start May 04, 2011
Trip End Feb 20, 2014

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Where I stayed
Desert & Delta Lodges
What I did
Savute Channel, Okavango Delta, Makgadikgadi

Flag of Botswana  ,
Thursday, August 15, 2013

Packing for this break was an art. I decided to go without check-in luggage to avoid risk of missing connections or lost luggage with the tight layovers ahead. In the end it was easier than expected and maybe I should travel like this more often! Helps that laundry is included at each lodge I'm staying. On arrival at the Accra airport I went to check-in for the Kenya Airways flight via Nairobi to Jo'burg and was told that I couldn't check-in just yet as the plane was having "technical issues" and they weren't sure if the flight would go tonight. Great. But within 10 mins I was able to check-in, get all the way thru the process to be told at the gate that the flight was cancelled. Groans of annoyance filled the waiting hall. Fortunately I did not check luggage so was able to call the driver to come back and collect me with the promise that the airline would call me tomorrow to advise the next flight. This is only the second time a flight cancellation has happened to me which I think is a good strike rate, but meant I would miss a night at the Okavango Delta – the prize of my Botswana experience. It was not until my travel agent emailed me a news link the next day that I learned the Nairobi airport was engulfed in flames and the reason for my flight cancellation! After numerous phone calls, emails and waiting, Kenya Airways booked me on the South African Airways direct flight to Jo'burg meaning I could pick up my tour a day late. Not too bad and hopefully something I can claim on insurance. So after a delayed start I was back on track to enjoy my dream safari.

Savute (2 nights)
After breakfast in Jo'burg airport and then dozing for most of the two hr Air Botswana flight to Maun, I was finally in Botswana and met by the Desert & Delta team (all 3 lodges owned by this group) to usher me thru the transit to the small aircraft for the flight to Savute Channel, which is situated on the edge of the Chobe River National Park. This is actually my 2nd time to Botswana and Chobe – this is the scene of my very first overseas trip in 2006, but a very different part of the park. The light aircraft business is booming here and all the pilots seem to be young travellers getting experience doing short trips around the Okavango Delta. A little disconcerting but so far so good. The 1 hr flight stopped at a lodge on the way to collect four people. Was great to see the delta from the air. First impressions were of a large expanse but less open water than expected, I could see giraffe and elephant on the islands, very dry beyond the delta fan. Arriving at the Savute airstrip we were met by our guide Metal...odd name even for African standards. The five new arrivals (two friendly Italians, and a strange couple - Russian and American) quickly were asked to sign a liability waiver and then straight onto the afternoon game drive. A giraffe watched us sign our paperwork and I felt instantly back in 'real' Africa.

Here I saw two things I've not seen before - leopards and a lion kill. I've not seen male lions outside Kruger so this was excellent. Very happy and memorable to witness these rarities. A professional photographer with an all access permit found the leopard. Good to have him communicating via radio to the guides to find the animals off tracks. BUT I got sunscreen in my eye at the first leopard sighting and it was terrible trying to take shots, wipe my eyes and sniffle while trying not to be heard on the video cameras that were rolling. The landscape is plain, sandy and u easily drive an hr before seeing an animal. Not at all like Amboseli NP in southern Kenya where I saw animals right outside the lodge gate. The unique thing about this area is that the Savute River stopped flowing in 1981 and then randomly flowed again in 2010. There is limited understanding of why. The lodge has excellent food, cheap clean skin wines, over the top rooms but very comfy. It seems two extremes here – camping or luxury lodge accommodation. The activity program was the same at all lodges I stayed  - wake-up call at 6am (!), activity at 7am, brunch at 11:30am, rest, afternoon tea at 3pm, activity at 3:30pm that includes a sundowner drink, dinner at 7:30pm. Mornings and evenings require a guide to walk you from the room to the main lodge area to avoid guests getting eaten or attacked by a hippo.

Okavango Delta (2 nights – meant to be 3)
Getting to the Xugana Lodge was the only direct flight of the lot. By now I am getting very comfortable with the small charter flights. Soon I'll be able to fly the plane I’m sure. Three of us got off - I would tour with a young married kiwi couple, geologists working on mines based out of Perth! The activities here were walking safari on one of the islands, boat out to hippo pool, mokoro canoe, fishing. I couldn't do the latter as my flight left too early on the final day, but the rest were good. This was intended to be the highlight of my Botswana trip – the unique environmental experience of an inland delta that soaks into the Kalahari desert causing an ecosystem like no other. A world wonder. I have wanted to see the delta for a long time and remember a 60 Minutes story some years back that reinforced my desire to visit. I enjoyed it here but not as spellbinding or awe inspiring as I'd expected. I wasn’t expecting so much open water - it felt like a lake anywhere in the world. If I came again I would stay in a seasonal inundation area which is more swamp like and probably wouldn't have the motorised boat. The canoe trip was more what I wanted, but still not the abundance of wildlife that is made to believe.

This is a small lodge with max of 16 people, which makes for a more personalised experience and incredible how the staff remember everyone’s name and greet you constantly – gets a bit annoying as I hate repetition. But very welcoming and I met some interesting people. I love the fire pit concept with everyone retiring there after dinner to have a drink and reflect on the day or just chat. Such a cocktail mix of people who you bump into again and again at the different lodges. Mostly Europeans here for their annual holiday.  A French girl who looked about 15 taught the bar tender how to make a Mojito drink – funny to watch and great to see her enjoy learning a new drink for her bar.

Makgadikgadi (2 nights)
I flew from the delta via Maun to Leroo La Tau Lodge expecting to collect people in Maun but it was just me - no idea why I couldn't fly direct then. But excellent views of the delta and I sat in the co-pilot seat! I tell ya, I’ll be pilot soon.

Leroo is an isolated sandy desert place but the newest lodge in the portfolio and very modern rooms and managed by a white South African couple which is different to the others that are managed by locals. I didn't want to stay here but when booking I was told that my combo had to include this lodge. Wake-up call was half hr earlier at 530am to allow time to boat across the river to the safari vehicles. I toured with a retired Aussie couple from Melbourne who were lovely people with hearts of gold and loved their red wine – reminded me of Kath & Kel. They got excited about the simplest things (e.g. Impala and Ostrich) and it made me wish to share Africa with a friend/family member – I’ve seen so much of this continent and always solo! The mornings were insanely cold and the very chatty Aussies went quickly quiet when faced with the first morning boat trip as the icy wind cut straight thru u. I secretly laughed and still do as I type this. It was hilarious to watch them turn to ice blocks. The animals here are less densely populated than Savute and you drive for a long time without seeing anything. We eventually found the lions - a small pride with mum, dad and three 14 month old cubs. Fascinating to watch them interact. The cubs appear mature but still play with dad's tail and kill zebra just for fun. As u do. 

Other activities included boat trip on the recently flowing river that comes from the delta and a day trip to the Nxai salt pans to see the 3000 yr old Baines Boabab trees and the vastness of the pans. It was good to see but not really worth the 3 hr bumpy drive there. I'd intentionally stayed an extra night here to do the pans and it was ok but nothing overly memorable. But we were back earlier than expected so I joined an afternoon activity boat trip with a funny French family I'd met at Xugana and glad I did cause saw some new things and the lion family had come down to the river edge. Great to see them so close and just watch them. I want one as a pet. A lot cooler here at night so the fire pit didn't get much attention and all but one meal was inside. Typical desert weather of very cold nights but heating up to shorts and t-shirt weather about 1 pm. 

The water here has a high sulphur content and showering was like a reminder of having a volcanic mud bath in Rotorua, NZ. Yuk. I departed Leroo at 9:50 am with a posh English family who were going to Okavango Camp. I thought I'd get dropped first in Maun but instead I went to the camp, then another camp and finally to Maun. Silly and annoying to leave so early to only be in planes for the next two hours. By now I am a pro at this small aircraft flying – almost wishing for turbulence to make it exciting!

So I reflect on my Botswana experience knowing that it will take time to sink in everything I have seen in the past week. It feels like 2 weeks and hard to fathom I am only half way through this break. More than a few pinch yourself moments. No internet or phone or work for a week is incredibly revitalising and connecting in a whole other meaning. And Tanzania is supposed to be better! Bring it. 

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