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Botswana: Five To Know

From its inception as a safari destination in the 1960s, Botswana has emphasized a low-impact, high-yield wildlife experience. Using lessons learned from such wilderness powerhouses as Kenya, Botswana chose to focus its safari experience on exclusivity, conservation and sustainability. Accommodations are luxurious, but simple (although there are some exceptions to the rule, like the extravagant Sandibe) and most camps have a policy of allowing no more than three vehicles per sighting, so experiences feel authentic, conservation-minded and remote.

1. Botswana is Back-to-Basics

One of the unique features of Botswana is that there is no private land ownership within protected areas, and the government strictly regulates the leases granted to various companies to ensure the land's protection. This means there are no graded or paved roads, gridlines or telephone poles. Most importantly, there are no fences, so animals are free to roam. This is integral for the migration patterns of such “home-range” species as elephants, buffalo and zebras, which do not have specific territories. Visitors see wildlife in a completely natural manner as the game viewing is uninterrupted by human constructions. It is clear that Botswana is the animals’ land, and humans are merely spectators.

Since the properties are set up in the middle of the bush, each camp has brought in their own generators, solar panels, water geysers, batteries and septic tanks. While the drinking water systems are sophisticated, guests are asked to take quick showers and brush their teeth with bottled water. Because I had to think about these things – how soap can damage the soil and how much energy is required to heat water – I became fully invested in the camps' conservation and sustainability efforts.

2. Botswana is Seasonal

For visitors who have two weeks, my ideal itinerary would include four to six nights in the Delta at two or three camps, two to three nights in the Linyanti at one camp (such as Zarafa, King’s Pool or Duma Tau), and at least two nights in the Kalahari at one camp. The daily schedule while on safari is rigorous: 5am wake-up call and light breakfast, morning game drive, lunch, an afternoon game drive, dinner and bed; rinse and repeat. Camps will add some variety with boating, walking safaris and night drives.

While planning a visit to Botswana, it is important for guests to consider what they would like to see and do during their stay.The country has much to offer as a safari destination year-round, however it is also seasonal, with the Delta floods dramatically altering the landscape and the harsh dryness of the Kalahari desert. Since it is necessary to plan safaris far in advance to ensure availability, it’s important during the decision-making process to consider such factors as the specific activities, game viewing and rates offered throughout the year.

Game viewing in the delta is arguably the best between May and November, which includes the winter or dry season in Botswana. Counter-intuitively, this is when the water levels in the Delta are at their highest (after the floods have come down from the Angolan highlands in March and April). This can be the best time for seeing high concentrations of both predator and prey animals, who come to the delta for water, and visibility is high because the trees and bushes have shed their leaves for the winter. The evenings and mornings can be very cool at this time. The most temperate weather is in the shoulder months of April and late August.

The first rains usually occur in early- to mid-November and herald in the much-needed wet season. At this time, trees branches begin to thicken with leaves, grasses become fuller, and game viewing can be more sporadic as animals scatter to find alternate water sources. That said, birding is fantastic this time of year, as hundreds of species migrate back into the area.

Rains become consistent from January through March, which means that game visibility can be low, and on some days game drives are delayed or even cancelled.  The exceptions to this rule are such camps as Jack’s Camp and San Camp in the Kalahari, as game concentrates on the open plains during the rainy season.

Bottom line: there’s something to see at any time of year, and it’s important to discuss your personal preferences regarding weather, rates, animal-viewing and activities with your Indagare specialist during the initial trip-planning stages.

3. Botswana is Small Planes

As with most safaris, small planes are a requirement for traveling between camps in Botswana (and they actually can end up being a high point of the trip). To get between destinations, travelers fly in small, 5- to 14-seat bush planes on flights that range from 10 to 45 minutes in length.

Since the planes are so small, they are almost always operated by one pilot, which may make some people uncomfortable. Sometimes the larger Caravans will have two pilots present for training purposes, or in some instances passengers can request a second pilot at additional cost (but this is more for peace of mind as some of the co-pilot seats don’t even have controls). Specific sized planes cannot be guaranteed for any shared air transfers; so anyone who needs a confirmed type of plane needs to charter a private flight.

In addition, most airstrips are primitive constructions consisting solely of packed sand or dirt strips that have been cleared in the middle of the wilderness. Sometimes, on approach, pilots will find herds of elephants walking across the landing strip and have to circle around for another landing. During certain parts of the year, airstrips can be too wet or even flood, requiring pilots to reroute flights into other neighboring airstrips.

That said, the small-air pilots go through rigorous tests and weeding-out to create an elite team. Since the terrain is almost entirely flat in the Okavango Delta, you can see for hundreds of miles, and the flights can be highlights of any African safari trip. The patterns and colors in the land are incredible, and you can often spot herds of elephants and buffalo from the air.

4. Johannesburg and Victoria Falls are easy, logistical add-ons

There are no direct routes to Botswana from any major cities and getting there requires some logistical planning on both ends. Most people traveling to Botswana will fly in through Johannesburg, while others will fly into Livingstone in Zambia and include a stop at Victoria Falls.

Johannesburg: Although Johannesburg is coming online as a destination in and of itself, most travelers still only overnight there after international flights to acclimate to the new time zone. Visitors will then continue on to Maun or Kasane, in Botswana and then connect to light air transfers to camps. In Johannesburg, most guests choose to stay at either at The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa or the newly renovated and completely revamped Four Seasons Westcliff.

Victoria Falls: Many travelers consider adding on time at Victoria Falls at the end of the safari to take advantage of the more relaxed schedule and adventure activities. That said, there are fewer luxury hotels there, and some might prefer to begin at the Falls and end at one of the spectacular Delta properties. Travelers can access the Falls from both the Zimbabwean and Zambian side; and there are pros and cons to considering either as your home base (read Victoria Falls). Seasonality comes into play, as the water levels of the Zambezi dramatically change throughout the year, affecting the visual impact of the water. The months of highest water (March and April) are not an ideal time to visit, as the extensive spray makes visibility almost nil. That said, there are many other activities to take advantage of despite the water levels, including elephant safaris, white-water rafting, bungee-jumping and helicopter flights. Two nights here will typically suffice.

5. Botswana is life-changing

There are countless reasons to choose Botswana as your safari destination: The Batswana people are warm and welcoming and the country is stable politically and economically in comparison to other neighboring African countries. The country's landscape is incredibly unique: while more than 80% of the country is the Kalahari Desert, Botswana is also home to one of the largest inland deltas in the world. Due to the unique natural water system, the animals have developed territories and grazing patterns that draw large concentrations to such areas as Chief’s Island (where Mombo Camp and Chief’s Camp are located). A lack of fences allow the animals to have uninhibited range of the area, which makes for an incredibly unique and special game-viewing experience.

Most significant is the underlying current to Botswana, a soulfulness that is utterly captivating and truly unforgettable. The entire experience there is about conservation, and by the end of my trip, I was constantly mindful of my impact on the surrounding environment and fully invested in the efforts to protect the animals and land. After spending seven nights in the bush, I felt in tune with a core part of myself and the space around me. Some people say that traveling to Africa can feel like coming home, because on some genetic level, you sense that you are back in the original cradle of life where all humans originated. As a New Yorker, where everything is fast-paced, gritty and egocentric, traveling to Botswana restored my rhythm and put everything fundamentally in perspective.

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