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Belmond Khwai River Lodge

On day three of our Tauck tour, we left Livingstone by bus, to make our way to a boat, so we could sail into Botswana. There we walked through passport control, which is always my favorite way to be admitted to a country, just in time to hop in a van. We then took the van to a bigger boat, saw some animals, had some lunch, before making our way to the airport, so we could finally fly into our first Safari Lodge – the Belmond Khwai River Lodge.

If your head is spinning from reading that, don’t worry you’re not alone. One advantage of traveling with a tour group is that they’re able to arrange such elaborate travel plans, but that also makes it difficult to know where you are, or where you’re going next.

A Luxury Tent Experience

As mentioned in my previous postwhen we arrived to the Belmond Khwai River Lodge in the Okavango Delta, we had a welcome meeting, and a waver signing, and then we were off to our tents.

The “tent”- honestly this is the loosest definition of a tent that I’ve ever used- was built on a platform, with canvas walls and ceiling. There was a porch overlooking the river, complete with a hammock. Inside the beds were draped in mosquito netting, which made me feel more like I was a princess in a fairy tale than trying to avoid getting malaria. Seriously, hang some twinkle lights and every teenager on instagram would have moved in immediately.

There was electricity, not enough outlets, but are there ever when you’re traveling? The shower was my favorite part, until I realized that it didn’t drain very well. It was still a million times nicer than a normal camp shower though, I didn’t even feel the need to wear shower shoes!

The First Evening on the Okavango Delta

After oohing and aahing at our new home, it was time to head out on our first real trip on the safari trucks. (Transporting us from the landing strip didn’t quite count in my mind.) Nearly everywhere I went in Botswana felt like it was painted with only orange, red, and yellow, but factor the sunset into that, and I felt like I had been transported to another planet. It seemed as if everything was glowing from within.

There were a few elephants grazing in the distance, and it felt perfect. I thought to myself, “this is what I came here for.” That satisfaction lasted for about 15 minutes. That’s when we came across the lionesses.

There’s not anything particular wonderful about this photo, except to show how little regard the lionesses had for the trucks.

This night was more crowded than most of my time in Botswana, so there were somewhere between 8 and 10 safari trucks packed into one area, waiting for our first lion sighting to really start. Lions hunt primarily at night, so we caught them in those lazy minutes before they had to actually get out of bed. That evening I made eye contact with a predator that could easily kill, dissect, and consume me without breaking a sweat. (Side note: do lions sweat? Even though I asked close to a million questions while actually looking at the various animals, I still have at least 7 million more questions that I wish I asked.)

I found that, although they can swim, lions have the same general aversion to water as their domestic feline counterparts. We watched the lioness version of a morning routine, and then one of them made a kill. A small lechwe met his maker that evening, and it was like someone flipped a switch amongst the lionesses. They were ready to seize their day. Night. Active hours.

Okay, I had a new standard. Now I was satisfied. I could hop on a plane back home and consider this trip to be a resounding success. This time, that feeling lasted less than five minutes.

We were one of the last trucks to leave the lionesses, and it was properly dark at this point, and properly cold. My mother looked like someone dumped her into the tundra, and I had full body shivers as I leaned precariously out of the truck to see the Southern Hemisphere stars.

Then our truck went very much off road, as tree branches were scraping the roof, I graciously ducked back inside to pretend like I wasn’t almost decapitated by a nearby bush. We then suddenly stopped, and our driver brought out one of those high beam flashlights. After swinging it around faster than a strobe light, it found one place to rest, and there was a leopard looking right at us. It scampered off quickly, but over dinner that night I got to incur envy from my table mates by saying, “I saw a leopard.”

This is also not a particularly great photo, but on the next new moon you should try chasing your cat around with a flashlight and a camera and see how well your photos turn out.

Minutes before they had all been awestruck by the sightings that night, but with those four words their moods changed. Suddenly we all realized that there would never be quite enough experiences to pack up and go home. If we could just stay one more day, we’d be showered with new sightings. A feeling of longing burrowed its way into each of us. From that point on we would celebrate each beautiful thing Botswana brought us, but we would always hope for just a little bit more. Just one more encounter. Just one more photo. It’s been months since that feeling settled into my stomach, and I still haven’t quite shaken it.

The Morning Game Drive

I was a little drowsy from my first early morning, but the cool morning air was a decent way to wake up. Our first animal sighting of the day was a kudu, a gorgeous deer like creature, that just wasn’t enough to get my heart rate up when it was that early. We then came across a zeal of zebras, you can also refer to a group of zebras as a dazzle, one of the few animal facts I knew before a guide could enlighten me. Zebras are also gorgeous, but we had seen them so much in Livingstone, I still needed more.

That was until we came across the hyenas. We parked alongside two hyenas, lounging in the morning sun. This was where I started to perk up. Then, with no warning, three hyena cubs ran out of their den. Like all young mammals, they were ADORABLE, and entertained themselves by play fighting and annoying their mothers. Just as we were about to move on, a third adult hyena head popped out of seemingly nowhere, took a glance around, and completely disappeared again.
Of course the only pictures of the cubs that I have are blurry. Someday I’m going to learn to use my viewfinder instead of blindly snapping pictures because I prefer to look in real life.

Now that I was finally properly awake, I was appreciating where I was a lot more. The sun was flitting through the trees, the truck was racing through the bush, and I saw the next thing to bring a massive smile to my face. We rolled to a stop, and there, right next to us, was a warthog.

The warthog might not be why you go on safari, and its certainly not one of the Big Five, but he was number one on my Favorite Five. There is nothing inherently impressive about a warthog. Its not vicious, it doesn’t have quite enough ivory for poachers to abuse as seriously as say, a rhino, and its coat will not look beautiful decorating your room.

What it does have, is the straightest tail, that it sticks in the air as it scurries away so that all its warthog buddies can find it. The females tend to have smaller tusks, but they make up for that with massive mustaches, and with their massive heads, I found myself wondering how they managed to stay upright. In short, they brought me pure unadulterated joy by simply existing.

We whiled away some more time viewing various birds and some lechwe that were more lively than the one we met the evening prior.

I could tell we were going somewhere, but unlike when there is a big cat sighting, our driver’s radio wasn’t emitting constant updates to their location. Eventually we found ourselves in a grove, with two giraffes towering over us. (Coincidentally, a group of giraffes is called a tower.) As we were enamored with the beauties next to us, more and more giraffes were arriving. They were absolutely silent though, and it wasn’t until they were on top of us that I had even noticed. This was a moment of absolute peace on the trip, hardly anyone spoke, we just watched and were watched.

And all of this was before the midmorning break.

After the Midmorning Break

After the break, we immediately crossed paths with an elephant, and then shortly after found a lioness resting with two cubs. In the wild, a pride is made up of all lionesses and cubs, and the males travel from pride to pride. There was a new male in the area, so as lion politics dictate, he was trying to hunt down and kill all the male cubs so the females would mate with him instead. This particular lioness spent the entire night protecting these two cubs.

It’s a common misconception that lionesses do all the hunting. The truth is that they do the majority of it, but that’s because the males likely aren’t around. The males are better hunters though, they’re stronger, and when they’re there the pride can hunt larger prey. One disadvantage of staying in one place for a short amount of time is that I never discovered the fate of the cubs I crossed paths with. It was likely an advantage though, because after spending the better part of an hour with this particular group of lions, losing them to a coup would have broken my heart.

Instead, I can fondly remember the young ones play fighting, and I can fully appreciate our guide, who not only found the trio, and got us the best viewing spot, but he also gave us around 10 minutes of interrupted time with them before calling the other trucks. When you only have three days in a camp, its difficult to size up the guides, but if you find one who is truly excellent, don’t give him up for anything. (That’s not to say that any guide was subpar, you’ll see magnificent things no matter who you’re matched with.)

Shortly after the lions had begun to prowl again, something they would do until the aggressive male either was victorious, or had moved on, we too moved on. We found a herd of cape buffalo, and soon saw a different lioness stalking them in the distance. I had mixed feelings about this. The previous night we had seen a kill, but it was small and there wasn’t much of a show, but it still hurt my little empathic heart. I was equal parts excited to see what these hunters were capable of, but also riddled with trepidation. When our guide said, “Well, the lions seem to be taking their time, and we have to go back for lunch,” I breathed a sigh of relief. I never saw how lions move as a group to run down their prey, finally attacking the neck when when its time to bring the animal down. I still don’t know if I missed out, or if I dodged a bullet.

The Second Evening Out

For the evening game drive, we stayed in the wetter areas. Here we saw hippos, crocodiles, elephants, and more lechwe, impala and kudu. Seriously, the latter three are everywhere.

When we went back, we were treated to a boma that night. A boma literally refers to a safe, enclosed area used to protect animals, or sometimes humans. The area has been adapted though, and now a boma is an open air dining area, used for storytelling. We ate, a lot, and were treated to a singing show, and then we made our way back to the tent to pack up our belongings for our departure the next day.

The Last Morning at Khwai River Lodge

We didn’t leave until the early afternoon though, so we spent the morning exploring the last of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. The morning was predominantly spent trying to track a leopard. It was lurking around a public campground, so there were way more trucks around than we, or it, were accustomed to. I was glad that we were leaving this camp behind us, because that was the first, and only, moment in the trip that left a bad taste in my mouth. The leopard was surrounded, and clearly very uncomfortable, but leopard sightings (especially in the daylight) are rare enough that every guide wanted their truck to get to experience it. We completely surrounded this animal, and it wasn’t until I got over my unexpected luck, that I looked around and realized that I didn’t want to be lucky if it caused that much harm.

I think the folks in my truck generally felt the same, especially when our guide confirmed that it was clearly agitated, and so we left everyone else behind to harass that animal, as we found our own, less rare, but still incredible animal encounters.

We left shortly after, hopping from one small runway to another, to arrive at our next safari camp.

To read about the next camp I stayed at, hang tight for a few days as I put it together. I traveled with Tauck, if you’d like to read about the other places we visited click here. And finally, if you want to know my thoughts on tour groups, I’ll put together a post about it soon.

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