Travel Designer Nicole Smith spent 2 months exploring Africa. Here she regales with her experience of Botswana
Botswana is different. It is often called Africa’s success story. Unlike almost every other nation on this great continent, since its independence it has managed to avoid the military coups, dictatorships and rampant corruption that have plagued its neighbours. It has managed to sidestep the pitfall of the resource curse that so many other African nations have fallen into when valuable resources have been found – in fact the diamond mines discovered just after independence have been managed well to be an economic boost to Botswana. And all of this has been achieved whilst proving that a multiracial society can succeed in Africa with an interracial family leading a country (right in the face of neighbouring Apartheid), even displayed in the black and white on the national flag.
But that’s not what made Botswana different for me. I didn’t know what to expect from this little landlocked country in southern Africa but having visited 12 countries in Africa, Botswana definitely had lots of new and unique experiences to offer me. As with much of sub saharan Africa, safari is the key attraction in Botswana, but safari here came with so many other options. My first destination in Botswana was Chobe national park with a classic game drive, but then a su set river cruise, the focus of which was the fish eagle. These are magnificent birds, often seen in pairs. But for me the highlight was the incredible hippo sightings. Of the two months I was in Africa, these two hours were by far the best views of hippos (and crocodiles) - being in the boat meant that the hippos paid no attention to us as they grazed and wandered around on the banks. I even saw a hippo leap out of the water like a dolphin! (Unfortunately everyone else on board was watching the riverbank, so nobody believed me).
My next stop was all about elephants. I had seen elephants before on safari, but it doesn’t quite compare to the Elephant Sands lodge in Nata, Botswana. Here, the tents, chalets, and bar area surround a watering hole where wild elephants come to drink, refresh and play. This is the most up close and personal it is possible to get with wild elephants. The moment the first elephant appeared, drinks and card game were instantly abandoned as we rushed to the poolside to watch as 5 of the world's largest land mammals began to refresh themselves just a few metres from where we were stood. Throughout the course of the day and night many more giants made use of the facilities. It simply never got boring.
As incredible as the elephant viewing is, possibly my most exciting animal sighting in Africa happened not on a safari drive, but as we were leaving Elephant Sands. Just a few hundred metres out of the gate, we stopped in amazement. African wild dogs. 5 of them playing by the roadside. Not only are these canines beautiful and watching them play reminds you of the pets at home, but they are an incredibly rare sighting. There are approximately 6000 of them left in the world – it is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. Our guide has lived in Africa her entire life and been guiding overland tours for 6 years, and this was the first time she had ever seen them. We were incredibly lucky, but Botswana and South Africa are some of the best places to try and spot them.
Our destination this day though was Maun. Maun is generally visited as it is the gateway to the Okavango Delta, probably Botswana’s most famous feature. However, from Maun I was able to have 2 very unique safari experiences. The first was a scenic flight over the Okavango. I cannot express the incredible feeling of a safari from the air, seeing the vast and sprawling waterways of the Delta beneath you and spotting the animals below, but being able to look an eagle dead in the eye as it hovers before a dive. It is surreal and beautiful, the incredible landscape coupled with herds of giraffe and elephants, wallowing hippos and pairs of lions peppering the scene as if in miniature – a mind-blowing way to safari.
Maun also gave the opportunity for horse-riding. And in Botswana this meant safari on horseback. Horseback safari is so different to any other way of seeing the wildlife as suddenly the animals see you as one of them. We could get so close up to the zebras, giraffes and antelope on the horses, so much more of an immersive experience than a game drive.
As mentioned though, the Okavango Delta is truly the big draw for Botswana. Technically my visit was in the rainy season when the weather is supposed to be wet and the water levels in the many channels of the Delta are lower. But we had glorious sunshine and there was plenty of water for
us to enjoy the Delta to its full. The Okavango Delta is unlike anything else I have experienced. One of the most popular excursions here is what we did, and take a traditional Mokoro safari and stay overnight in one of the camps or lodges in the Delta itself. The Mokoro is a traditional type of canoe and local ‘polers’ propel you through the tranquil fields of water lilies. Once at our accommodation for the evening we were also taken out into the bush for a safari on foot, again a very unique experience amongst the wildlife without the barrier of a vehicle between you and the wilds. Hippo noses peeking above the still waters and the striking silhouette of a Baobab tree or termite mound
against the expanse of the Delta are some of the most memorable and beautiful scenes for sunrise or sunsets.
So whether you have ticked off all the big names in safari – Serengeti, Masai Mara, Kruger, etc. – or if you’re considering a first venture to Africa, Botswana truly has a new experience for everyone and is sure to take your breath away.