Did you know that for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s third date, he whisked her off to a safari camp in Botswana? Is that strictly a royal thing? Or are there people out there who will take ME to Botswana for our third date? (Honestly I’d accept it regardless of which number date we’re on.)
During my time in Botswana I certainly felt like royalty.
I stayed at three different safari camps, and each one was wonderful enough that I found myself mentally planning to stay there another time for weeks. Maybe months. Maybe I’d try to move there. Staying for only a few days was just enough to show me the magic in these camps, and necessitate a return trip.
A Little Bit About Botswana
Botswana gained their independence from Great Britain in 1966, and is currently the country with the longest continuing democracy in Africa. In the 1970’s diamonds were found, which means that, unlike so many other African countries, the money made from these mines stayed in Botswana. To use these mines in a way that directly supports Botswanans, they’re owned and operated in a 50 – 50 agreement with De Beers and the government. The partnership, called Debswana, uses De Beers’ experience in the mining industry, and the Botswanan government’s property. As such, Botswanan’s have a high GDP and quality of life. Cattle and tourism are other major components of Botswana’s economy. It is decidedly easy to see why tourism thrives here.
The Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta is one of the most lush areas of wildlife in Botswana. Travel to this area is best during the beginning of dry season, from August to October. When water is less accessible, the animals flock to the only water source. The Okavango River almost always evaporates in the early months of the year, followed by flooding in March to June. The Kalahari Desert surrounds the Okavango Delta, so the delta is quite literally an oasis for the wildlife.
Belmond Khwai River Lodge
To get to the Belmond Khwai River Lodge, we boarded a teeny tiny plane, flew for about an hour, and landed at the resorts “private airport,” literally just a runway with safari trucks waiting for us to deplane. I had no idea that after that flight, the most stringent airport security I would encounter over the next 10 days was a curious elephant.
Once we arrived, we were greeted by a welcoming ceremony, something that appears to be ubiquitous at the lodges. These places rely on animal sightings to draw in tourists, but you’re never TRULY safe from those same animals. That means that there are a lot of rules and safety briefings. Most notably, we could never go anywhere after dark unless we were accompanied by lodge staff.
One night, a hippopotamus felt that under my neighbor’s deck was the best place for him to hang out. Hippos can be very territorial, most human/animal encounters that end in fatalities in Botswana are because of the hippos. The guides had a system to shoo it away though, and we were all able to safely go to sleep. (His method was admittedly way better than my, “hey hippo, hi hippo” chant until I’m able to safely run away. Seriously, I do this with every wildlife encounter I have. And if I know there are dangerous animals around I do it to preemptively ward them away.) My last thought that night was, “wow I probably would never have known that hippo was out there,” without a second thought about what could have happened to me if I hadn’t been with someone trained to handle these situations.
At this lodge, our debriefing took place in the open air dining area. We signed our life away in wavers, but there were hippos and elephants in our direct line of sight, so if you asked me exactly what I agreed to in the contract I would never be able to tell you.
I knew going in to this trip that it would be on the more luxurious side, but I also knew we would be staying in tents while on safari, and I had a very difficult time reconciling those two ideas. When I walked into my first tent, it all clicked. This lodge was nicer than some resorts that I have been to, if you’d like to know the exact details, look out for my post dedicated entirely to my time at Khwai River Lodge.
Eagle Island Lodge
After only two nights, but a lifetime’s worth of experiences, at the Khwai River Lodge we moved on to Eagle Island Lodge. Somehow, this resort was even more luxurious than the former. We still stayed in tents. They were beautiful, and even more house like than the previous place though. My favorite parts were the outdoor shower (there was an indoor one too) that let me look at the stars at night, and not miss an elephant sighting during the day, and splash pools overlooking a lagoon. (Well, they told us it was a lagoon, but a drought made it seem like a small creek to me.)
The common area of the lounge was a sprawling open air lobby. Complete with dining area, bar, and lounge. If that wasn’t enough, nearer to the water is a second bar, that apparently the NY Times has named one of the most romantic bars in the world. The only proof I can find of that is a claim on Eagle Island Lodge’s own website, but I think the title is appropriate nonetheless. Here we went on both canoe and helicopter excursions. We traveled with Tauck, so those were experiences that I believe they arranged. I cannot say with certainty that they are available for other guests.
That is something worth noting, while traveling with a tour group, we were often the only people at the camps. There was one single other couple at Eagle Island Lodge with us, but that was the only time there were regular guests. Booking these lodges independently could prove difficult if you don’t have flexible dates.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Again, after a mere two nights, we packed up and went to our final safari camp. We left the Okavango Delta behind us, and went to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. This area was formerly Lake Makgadikgadi Lake, but it dried up, leaving about 2,400 square miles of salt flats behind.
After being completely spoiled at the previous two camps, we came to this one with some reservations. Each tent had one light in the bedroom, and one in the bath, and one outlet for a fan. You could charge things in the common area, but that was your only outlet opportunity.
I came prepared with portable power bank, so I thought the more rustic aspects of this lodge would be minimal. Until I factored in my favorite part of the day at home, a long and hot shower. Each tent had its own water tank, but it was heated by leaving it in direct sunlight. That meant, as we always got up before the sun, that a morning shower was often tepid at best, and it would be downright cold if your “tentmate” used up the hot water the evening before. The afternoon break was when you were most likely to have hot water. Personally I tolerated the lukewarm morning showers, but figuring out a shower plan was an unexpected hurdle.
All that being said, my absolute favorite night in Africa was because of Camp Kalahari. You can read more about that soon, as I get a detailed post about our time here written up.
What a Day on Safari Looks Like
Drives into the bush revolve around a well defined, and seemingly universal schedule. You pull into the lodge just after darkness blankets everything, and dinner is served before you even have a chance to brush the dust off your boots. As you finish off dessert, or run out of photos to show off, you’ll realize that it’s barely 9 PM, but you’re exhausted. So you’ll find a guide to walk you back to your tent, where it’s been turned down for sleep. In the beginning you’ll sacrifice a few precious sleep minutes to rinse the dust off your body, you’ll crawl into bed, and you’ll likely be asleep before you finish your journal entry for the day.
Then, at “6 AM,” which always was closer to 5:45 for us, a guide will knock on your door, and stay there until you take a tray from them. The tray has coffee, tea, hot chocolate and biscuits, and even if you decline the service in the evening, you’ll still have to physically get up to make the knockers go away. It is an effective practice though, because every single morning I had a morning shower, I got to breakfast by 6:45, and I was sitting in my favorite spot on the truck by 7. (I highly recommend the highest seat possible. It will be bumpier, and rockier, and you’ll have to haul yourself up there, but the pictures are better, the views less interrupted, and there’s always someone with bad knees who can’t take that spot anyway.)
Following a morning of animal sightings, you’ll break for coffee. Somewhere in the bush a team sets up tables, laden with snacks, coffee and tea or juice and lemonade for the less caffeinated of us, and we’d have basically our second meal of the day by 11 AM. Here a tree would be designated as the men’s room, and a termite mound for the women’s. If you can’t wait for a designated break, you just have to let your guide know that you need a stop, they’ll find a safe area for you, and everyone will look the other way while you do your business. I would like to point out that I never once had to use the bush as a bathroom. We made frequent enough trips to the lodge for me.
I really have to say a special thank you to whoever took this picture of my mother and I starting on second breakfast of the day before anyone else even got a chance to sit down.
After the morning break we’d follow animals around for a few more hours, until we met back at the lodge for lunch. As the days grew hotter, the animals sought out shade, or just naps, so us humans did the same. We took about 90 minutes for naps, or catching up on those journal entries, or using the lodge wifi (when available) to brag about your trip to the folks back home.
Towards the end of the siesta, I would meander my way back to the dining room, where without fail, an afternoon tea was always set up. I swear, the lemonade served here is the best I’ve ever had. You have to call it “homemade lemonade” though, otherwise you’ll find yourself holding a can of lemon lime soda. It was during these afternoons that I realized that Americans do not serve nearly enough biscuits with cream, and when that wasn’t served the world’s best brownies were. The food was incredible.
You’d then hop on the trucks again, to track animals until nighttime. Here the schedule varied slightly. You might have sundowners, which are evening cocktails served in an opportune place to watch the sunset, before heading back to the lodge for dinner. Alternatively, you might have a more extravagant dinner that included performances, either educational or cultural, as you enjoyed dinner.
Which brought 9 PM around again, just in time to fall asleep immediately. My waking hours in Botswana were some of the most magnificent in my life, but the sleeping hours were more crucial than normal.
What to Wear on Safari
If you’re anything like me, you googled the above phrase 100 times before even committing to going on a safari. You always see pictures of people in browns and greens, big hats, and a seemingly endless supply of pockets.
It might be different on more rustic trips, but you could truly wear anything you wanted on our trip. Most people did tend to stick with earth tones. Hats and sunglasses were helpful, but I could have rocked my red St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat and been fine.
I would never wear open toed shoes, your feet will never recover from the dust. I also wore layers every day. It was cold in the mornings and evenings, but pleasantly warm during the day.
I found that pictures looked nicer in more traditional safari attire, so that’s what I wore most days. My advice would be to choose clothes that you’re comfortable in, as long as they align with what your guides suggest.
Reading on the Road for Botswana
I read Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide by Peter Allison. I started this book about a week before my trip, with the intention of reading a bit, and then using the long flights to devour the rest. The joke was on me, I finished it before I had a chance to go to sleep again. If you know you won’t ever get to Botswana, you should at least read this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it gave me an extra level of respect for the guides, while also driving home the fact that a safari is a dangerous place to be.
I’d like to say that my detailed accounts of my time in Botswana will be up soon, but considering that I put off writing these for months, who knows? Covid has us living in a time with no structure, who knows what I’ll be up to doing tomorrow.