Spring in Northern Botswana
How good is good enough? What defines a great level of guest experience in a safari camp? At what point does a prime safari destination slip towards average, or even to below acceptable? And what does this mean for safari travellers focussing on achieving special photographic results?
Of course I have had some great wildlife observations on this trip and I found what I sought for whenever I travelled to the African bush: a time of peace and calm, immersed in wilderness. To clear my mind, relax my spirit and, above all, to learn about life. At the same time this excursion clearly reminded me of the limitations that come with standard operating procedures currently implemented at many or most of Botswana’s safari camps in private concessions.
To reach Kasane on the banks of the Chobe river in northern Botswana one can, depending on daily schedules, fly from Johannesburg on Air Botswana or on SA Airlink (a regional carrier by South African Airways). As Air Botswana was not available on the day I would fly in, I had to find a third option: SA Airlink run very small planes and getting the photography hand luggage on board is not easy. My preferred route therefore, a British Airways service from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. BA operates Boeing 737 aircraft that allow for enough hand luggage space. From Victoria Falls I had pre-arranged a 2hr road transfer via the Kazungula border to Kasane. For travellers carrying big lenses and camera stuff I really recommend to travel via Zimbabwe, even if a Zim visa and the road transfer to Kasane are extra costs. The alternative is that one may find oneself stuck in Jo’burg, having to hand over the camera bags to be checked in… no thanks. Not there. Not ever.
This is a year of Ebola and while I find it very annoying to see how our media is treating this serious topic (especially in the US and in Europe) I was glad to see that the matter is addressed in a professional way across southern Africa. Remember: the Ebola epidemic is confined to a relatively small area in western Africa. Geographically speaking, the core areas hit by Ebola are closer to the US east coast and to Europe than they are to South Africa. Yet I was checked at Johannesburg, at Victoria Falls and again at Kazungula. The border formalities both at Vic Falls and Kazungula were relatively quick and painless and less than three hours after landing in Victoria Falls my driver pulled up in front of Thebe River Lodge.
Ebola information poster at Victoria Falls Airport
Thebe is a fun place. The lodge accommodation is simple but nice and clean. Many self-drive campers and the brave folks travelling on large overland safari trucks frequent the restaurant and bar near the river. This makes for a very interesting, lively mix of locals, ex-pats and travellers. Regarding safari activities, however, Thebe has a lot to build up still.
When I strolled up to reception I was surprised to look into a familiar face: Kanawe, a very experienced guide whom I had met on a trip to the Selinda Reserve (the old Motswiri camp) in 2008 stood next to the welcome desk and was discussing safari itineraries with the receptionists. As I had booked some private boat outings on the Chobe I was very pleased to learn that Kanawe would be looking after me during my stay at Thebe.
No, no and no again were the answers I got from the Thebe front desk at first. It was 15:30h now, I had just spent 20 hours to get to Kasane. The cameras were about to be unpacked and I was ready to dive into the bush. But my enquiry about whether a private boat could be arranged for a cruise was met with a no. No again in reply to the question whether a drive from Sedudu along the flood plains could be done instead. Another no to the question if one of the larger lodges upriver, like Chobe Marina or Chobe Safari could be asked for a boat. My rescue eventually came from Kanawe, who managed to explain to the receptionists that I would actually be prepared to pay for this extra outing. A moment later Kanawe and I headed down to the boat station but found a boat that wouldn’t start. Eventually we decided to drive to Sedudu Gate and go for a short safari along the river front. –
And what an experience this was. Because of the very many self drivers, overlander trucks and safari vehicles from several lodges (some of which have become rather huge), a new regime for game drives was implemented some time ago. Moving along the river flood plains was only possible in one direction now and by a set time around sunset, all vehicles had be out of the park. Across the main channel and around Sedudu Island, dozens of boats were cruising up and down the river. Some of them were carrying a hundred passengers or more. Then there were the numerous houseboats. Across Chobe river on the Namibian shore even more large lodges, as well as dwellings and villages could be seen. Fishermen, cows, more boats. And in between all this were herds of impala, zebras, waterbuck, common reedbuck, lechwe, elephants, buffalo. In the water hippos and large crocodiles. Birds typical of the season all over. But the Chobe at Kasane had lost its magic. That much was clear to me.
The next two days finally saw boat outings. While it was cool to have an experienced professional of the caliber of Kanawe guiding me, it took a lot of persuasion with Thebe reception to have the morning trips leaving at sunrise. Standard procedure was for boats to leave at 08:00h. Needless to say that for photography this would mean missing out on the best morning light. In the end it worked, but my disappointment in the people of Kasane increased. The river was a mess with floating garbage all the way up to the ranger station. The shore behind the Spar was literally used as a rubbish dump and none of the fancy or more basic lodges, camps and hotels cared to do anything about it.
One of the many houseboats in a channel behind Sedudu island
I used to call this place my home away from home. Very fond memories of great adventures about to start or just having come to an end tie me to Kasane. But now this little end-of-the-world border town on the Chobe river, starting point of many of my trips to Nogatsaa, Savute, Linyanti, and south towards Moremi, as well as across to Zambia and Zimbabwe or into Namibia has become a dirty mess. The Chobe crowded with huge and ugly floats.
Signs of the times, I suppose. But to all the lodge operators on the Chobe: if you want me back as a guest, then the least you will have to do is to clean up the rubbish along the river and while you are at it, hire Kasane’s people to keep Kasane’s streets clean, too.
To Kwando Lagoon Camp
On this excursion I would travel together with my sister and after having met up at Thebe the previous day, we were now standing in 42° C noon heat outside Kasane airport. We were ready to find our Mack Air pilot who would take us to the northern Kwando concession, to Kwando Lagoon Camp. The sky was a hazy yellowish brown with smoke from field fires across the river in Namibia and Zambia. As I was somewhat heavy on camera luggage I was much relieved to see a squeaky clean Cessna 208 Grand Caravan shining in the sun, ready for boarding. It took a little under an hour to reach the Kwando Lagoon airstrip. The route leading west along the Chobe river, past Ngoma Bridge border and then in a south-westerly direction along the Katchikau road (now tarred all the way to the village), across the border into Namibia, and eventually over the main channel of the Kwando river, back into Botswana. Typical for the season many bush fires were visible both on Namibian and Botswanan ground.
At the airstrip our guide and our tracker greeted us and took us back to camp. We passed the Botswana Defence Force base (the guys have been doing excellent anti poaching work for many years now) and the Wounded Buffalo border post, the latter consisting of a small tent and a flagpole in the middle of nowhere.
I am familiar with bush safety and etiquette and I am absolutely fine with being informed about individual camp standards. Though I may say: getting to Kwando Lagoon Camp felt more like being lectured by the guide. Instead of trying to find out where my sister and I stood in terms of safari travel experience the chap was referring to an impala in the distance as “McDonalds” and spoke about “Pumba” as we went past a female warthog with youngsters. Need I say more…
Kwando Lagoon Camp is a very beautiful place, situated along the western-most sidearm of the Kwando river. The main area is set in a stand of old trees and the recently rebuilt tents are well designed and very spacious. Very friendly, welcoming staff and great bush cuisine make for a fantastic guest experience.
The very first raindrops of the season fall on Kwando Lagoon
October is the hottest month of the year. There is little food left for the herbivores and survival is all about treading extra carefully and conserving energy wherever possible. Many antelopes and zebras are heavily pregnant. Dry heat and skies filled with smoke, from field fires across the border in Namibia, as well as slowly building up clouds and some dry thunderstorms create the dramatic atmosphere so typical for this time of the year.
The Kwando Lagoon area provided some excellent wildlife sightings. Elephant, buffalo, kudu, roan, wildebeest, waterbuck, tsessebe, red lechwe, common reedbuck, impala, zebra, giraffe, warthog and baboons frequently crossed our path and the waters were alive with hippos and crocodiles. Birdlife was typical for the season with just over 80 species that I managed to identify. There was a pack of wild dogs with a dozen pups, old enough to follow the hunting party around and black-spotted hyenas were never far from the dogs. Black-backed and Side striped jackals as well as a very shy pair of Bat-eared foxes and occasional sightings of Slender, Banded and Dwarf mongoose added to the variety. Highlights certainly were the five cat species we observed: lion, leopard, caracal, serval and African wildcat.
This gorgeous, wild bush filled with such a fantastic diversity of wildlife should have made for outstanding observations and photographic opportunities. However, a guide not in tune with his guests was all it took to limit the experience.
My first surprise was the morning departure time. Although sunrise was around 06:00h camp management had arranged wake-up calls at 05:30h and departure of the safari vehicles from camp at 06:30h. This would have meant that the best morning light would be spent waiting for the vehicle and guests to get ready in camp and then driving away from camp. I asked camp management to consider shifting to an earlier departure and after some discussion with fellow guests it was soon confirmed: wake-up at 05:00h, breakfast at 05:30h and departure just before 06:00h.
It happens from time to time that I get a guide who does not use a camera and thus has no practical understanding of light, perspective, and position related to obstacles in the foreground and background. If such a guide then is not very open to friendly, well-meant suggestions regarding vehicle position the result is that cameras stay silent. There simply is no point shooting from a poor position.
Lion observing a herd of buffalos behind our vehicle
My guide at Kwando Lagoon had very little interest in working with his photographer guests, but that was not all. He also drove away form spectacular observations about to unfold (and witnessed by another vehicle with a more patient guide) and to make things worse, he choose to misuse our last morning outing to arrange a lodge transfer from Kwando Lebala to Kwando Lagoon. The transfer was for a travel agent from California, i. e. a non-paying visitor. Not what I would expect from an organisation of the format of Kwando Safaris.
Understandably, the photographic results from Kwando Lagoon are relatively meagre. But still, as always in the bush I could just sit back and enjoy. “The heart is warm, but the camera is empty”, as André von Thuronyi from Araras Eco Lodge in Brazil once put it.
Important to know: Travellers combining Namibia and Botswana may want to consider including Kwando Lagoon in their itineraries, as this enables border crossing without having to travel through Ngoma Bridge or having to interrupt a bush experience by embarking on international flights from or to Windhoek.
In a straight line the flight from Kwando Lagoon to Kwara would take about 20 minutes. Especially during the spring months these lodge transfer flights are very busy and stop-overs at other camps are the norm. Our Cessna 208 Caravan from Mack Air was perfectly on time and there was plenty of space and weight allowance for a safe flight. We would stop over at Khwai River and this meant that our flight would take about 45 minutes. We would cross Selinda and the Zarafa lagoon before heading to the Mababe depression and on to Khwai River. Smoke columns from bush fires could be seen all around and on the short hop from Khwai to Kwara we could clearly make out fires nearby.
In February 2013 I had spent a couple of nights at Little Kwara, the slightly more exclusive sister camp of Kwara. The main camp’s tents are much smaller and should probably undergo renovation sometimes soon. The main area is beautifully set and there is great wildlife and birdlife in the camp. Impala, lechwe, baboons, vervet monkeys and three breeding pairs of Broad-billed rollers, as well as Bennett’s woodpecker I observed from the pool deck every afternoon.
Broad-billed rollers playing above the pool at Kwara Camp
Kwara is very beautiful and diverse concession. About a month before my arrival there was fire on the open grassland to the west of the lodge. Fresh grass shoots now made these tracts look like the fairway of a huge golf course. The green cover attracted herds of buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe and impala. 2013 was the last year where the legendary coalition of three male cheetahs that had been resident here for nearly 10 years was in tact. Two of the three brothers had died in 2014 and the third one had not been seen for a while when I was there. However, there were now two young, strong males and a female cheetah hunting in the dry, sandy bush northeast of the camp and there was a split group of three wild dogs in that area, too. So with these cheetah sightings we had now observed 6 of Botswana’s 7 wild living cat species (though I have never heard of any sighting of the tiny Black-footed cat in the Okavango area). Besides the cheetahs we again saw two different leopards, a serval, an African wildcat and many beautiful lions.
On the second last day the bush fires had finally caught up with us and tall flames were rolling through the Kwara concession. It was very interesting to get close to the fire and observe wildlife calmly moving around the burning grass and gathering on burnt ground behind the flames. Obviously this is a much better strategy than dashing off to unknown territory where predators would be waiting.
A wildebeest cautiously making its way around the fire
The first guide who looked after us at Kwara had to join the team controlling the fire. He was not a photographer, but he was very keen to find out what we would be looking for and made a big effort to position the vehicle right and without disturbing whatever we were observing. The replacement guide we had for the last two days was used to handling a camera and we had some great sightings with him, in good light and position. Both guides were very patient and happy to spend time at a situation, waiting for events to unfold. That patience was rewarded on several occasions.
A major speciality of Kwando Safaris is that safari drives are arranged with a tracker and a guide. Therefore, when a track is found, vehicles will follow the track and try to find the animals (mostly predators). As far as safari drives go, this is a very exciting way to experience the bush.
The limiting factor is of course the vehicle. On many occasions I would have wished to be allowed to get off the car, put the camera on ground level and turn good photos into amazing photos. But at the moment this is not possible in Botswana, as standard operating procedures simply do not allow it. An unfortunate limitation a photographer has to deal with in Botswana today.
Guide and tracker at Kwara Camp
A fantastically beautiful and diverse area full of wildlife, Kwara is definitely on the list of places I recommend to travellers planning on visiting northern Botswana.
Revisiting Planet Baobab
From Kwara my trip continued via Maun into the Kalahari. For this part of the trip I had arranged a rental vehicle in Maun. A standard sedan Toyota was all it took, as Planet Baobab is situated just off the Maun – Nata main road, about 5km after the village of Gweta.
For a long time I had wanted to find some meerkat colonies and one of the best ways of getting to see these cute creatures is to join Uncharted Africa Safaris. This safari company owns and operates legendary places such as Jacks’s Camp and San Camp, but also Planet Baobab just outside Gweta. My first visit to Planet Baobab was in July 2004. Set in a grove of ancient baobab trees and run by the people from Gweta it is a basic, yet very stylish and wonderfully friendly place with a very good cuisine and what may be the best-stocked bar of the Kalahari. Taking a plunge in the large pool underneath one of the huge baobab trees on a sweltering afternoon certainly is one of the highlights of Planet Baobab. And then there are the sunsets. The trees and round cottages make for stunning silhouettes.
The pool at Planet Baobab :-)
Planet Baobab offers a variety of activities such as visits to Gweta village, traditional lunches on a cattle post and, of course, the sleep-outs in the Makgadikgadi salt pans during the dry winter and spring months. Visiting a wild meerkat colony on Ntwetwe Pan included. From here one can also endeavour to Kubu Island in the heart of the Makgadikgadi, or to Chapman’s Baobab, one of Africa’s largest and most iconic trees. The entrance to Nxai Pan National Park is about an hours drive away, on route to Maun.
The sleep-out was of course a superb experience. I remembered the dead quiet of the Magkadigkadi from trips in 2006 and 2008, but then I slept in roof-top tents on vehicles. Now it would just be a field bed on the open ground… It took about two hours by safari vehicle to reach a remote cattle post near Ntwetwe Pan, where we switched to ATVs (quad bikes) and carried on to a grassy fringe of the pans. Uncharted Africa Safaris habituates a meerkat colony. This is done not by interference, but simply by having a person being near the meerkats every day. The colony gets used to having humans on foot around and this makes it possible to get close to the animals as they move around outside their burrows.
Guide and habituator with the meerkats at Ntwetwe Pan
Sunrise after a night under a billion stars at Magkadigkadi
We probably spent a good half hour with the meerkats before we had to leave to find our night quarter in the middle of nowhere. After a great barbeque supper I ended the day at the fire and I was the last of our group of four to retire. On the next day after an early breakfast we headed back to Planet Baobab where we arrived at around 09:00h, just in time to freshen up, pack and start making our way back to Maun, an easy two hour drive straight west.
Air Botswana flight BP211 to Johannesburg was scheduled for departure at 13:55h and this gave us plenty of time to hand back the rental car, check in and then go for a farewell Windhoek Lager at Bon Arrivée café just outside the airport. Perfect to finish a great safari in northern Botswana.
Flight BP211 ready for boarding
I arranged this trip through Safari Specialists in Maun. Many thanks to Erica Wilson for her support in booking all the lodges, camps, transfer flights and rental car.
Patrick Meier, December 2014