“You will be sick of seeing elephants”. That is what our guide, Lucky, said after
we got all excited about seeing our first giant elephant, just 1 minute or so into the Moremi Game Reserve. Although, he was partially correct, even after three days and several hundred giant elephants later, we were still stretching our necks to marvel at them and clicking photos as fast as we could.
Botswana celebrated Easter weekend with a Friday and Monday National holiday, and with the Peace Corps rules we were allowed to travel inside the country over the 4 day weekend without any charge to our vacation days. Not that we really need to ration them, but we wanted to take advantage of the long weekend and do our first travelling since we arrived back in September.
Maun is in the Central Northern part of Botswana and is host to some of Africa’s best safaris.
We had a choice of taking a 1 hour bus ride to Gaborone at 4:00 am to guarantee a seat on the 6:00am, 11 hour bus ride to Maun and then repeating that on the way back, or spending a whole bunch more money and catching a 1 hour flight. It was a pretty easy decision. After the travel discomfort stories we had heard from our Peace Corps friends who are not in a position to enjoy that choice, we have no regrets!
Our guide is named Lucky. That is his real English name. Many people here have English names that are the literal translation of their Setswana names. Lucky was great. He arranged for us to be picked up at the airport in Maun, taken to an overpriced, but very nice safari style lodge/hotel for our first night’s stay. The next morning Lucky and his cook and his camp-hand picked us up
in his freshly painted Safari Truck and we headed out for a 3 hour drive into the bush. There are several major Game Reserves in Botswana and the surrounding countries, all of them offering fantastic sightseeing and all of them protected heavily from hunting. There don’t appear to be many wild animals outside these reserves, with an occasional exception of a zebra or wild deer. But once you enter the parks, its animals galore!
We arrived at the entrance of the park in the late afternoon and drove slowly through very winding, sandy roads for several more hours snapping dozens of pictures at the elephants, giraffes and may other fun animals. We arrived at our designated camping site, which was as pristine as if it had never been camped at
before, around dusk and set up camp and started cooking a meal. To our delight, a herd of 7 or 8 huge elephants came trouncing right through the middle of our camp site, in no particular hurry, on their way to cross the river nearby. Completely oblivious to our intrusion into their existence. It was just light enough to see their huge ivory tusks and to really feel close to them. When they left a moment later we heard what sounded like loud thunder as they crossed the river 500 yards away.
That was a great start to our little adventure.
Lucky’s guide service was expensive, as they all are, but included everything. His cook tried his best to cook gourmet and did a
pretty good job overall. We had tables and chairs, tablecloths, place mats, real dishes, silverware and glasses and wine glasses. They put out lanterns all over the place to mark the tents, the portable, sit-down toilet in its portable bathroom and pathways for us. Our tent was clean, fresh and had two cots with nice mattresses and blankets with sheets and pillows. They even had nicely folded towels for us like a first class hotel. It was about as first class as you can get for camping! In the morning, (6:00 am) we were greeted with a portable camping “sink” filled with nice hot water, steaming in the quite fresh morning air. That was pretty cool!
A delicious hot breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon and all the other stuff like cereal and yogurts was again served by lantern light on a nicely laid out table. After breakfast Lucky drove us around the park for the full day while the cook and camp hand stayed back and prepared dinner. The truck was quite comfortable, however the roads in the park were very windy and had deep ruts and many were flooded forcing alternate routes to be taken. We drove very slowly as we scanned the surroundings for animals. There were plenty. Within an hour or so, we had seen pretty much all the traditional African animals except a lion (or any other cat) and a rhino. April is mid Fall here, so the grasses in the fields were very tall and it was still quite hot and we are told that the cats are more easily seen in the Springtime.
Video of: Giraffes in Africa (may take a while to download)
10 Hours sounds like a long time to be bouncing around in the back of a truck, but with frequent stops to set up Tea (again complete with tablecloths and chairs) and lunches, and with the excitement of seeing all the animals up close, it passed quite quickly and very pleasantly. We arrived back at camp to a hot shower in the portable Shower Unit they had brought with. That was very cool! Another hour later we were eating another great meal by lantern light, hoping for a repeat of last night’s parade. It didn’t happen, but we did have another fabulous sunset and a beautiful almost full moon that no picture can do justice to. Lucky sheepishly admitted that he had forgotten the wine he bought for us at the store. That would have been nice. We slept like babies that night and were a bit regretful in the morning when Lucky asked if we had heard the lions roaring all night just outside our camp.
Another great breakfast and again we were off for another day of sightseeing. This day took us deeper into the delta and we arrived at one of many tourist attractions known as the Mokoro Trip. Mokoro just means boat, but the Mokoro Trip is supposed to be a reenactment of the boat and standing pole pusher transportation that was used back when. A very specific large tree was cut down, hollowed by hand and made into a boat. The boats used now are fiberglass and much more stable (although not enough to stand up) and are meant to look like a tree boat, but
really are just funky looking plastic canoes. Our Mokoro guide was very nice and explained about some of the birds we saw and did a fine job as he balanced himself in the back of the boat while he pushed us along up the river against the current. We had the great opportunity to see a herd of elephants cross the river just in front of us. Our guide stopped the boat for a picture and even backed it up a bit to give them plenty of space. Apparently there was not quite enough space, as the last elephant (the hugest, dominant male) paused quite a while in the middle of the river and stared at us as if to let us know that this is HIS river. A little farther on, just about at our turning around point, we came across 3 hippos in the water.
We were told that hippos are the most dangerous of all the African animals. Not sure if that is really true, but our guide sure believed it, as he kept more than plenty of room between us and them. Not so good for pictures, so you’ll just have to imaging small icebergs in the water, with huge mouths and fun little ears, staring at you, while 90% of the rest of their body is under the water. I really wanted to see some Hippos out of the water so we could see their size and shape but they didn’t want to pose much for us. All the same, the distance viewing was exciting and even a bit frightening, mostly because the boat all of a sudden seemed even more unstable to us.
After we got back to shore (if you can call it that – really it’s a river that just appears out of nowhere in the middle of a huge African field) we relaxed a bit and recounted our adventures for the day. It would have been nice to take a nap just then, but the thought of laying in the grass, wondering what kinds of bugs and snakes might like to join us, pretty much kept us sitting in our chairs, sleepily enjoying the sun.
After another couple of hours of more animals and pictures we got back to camp and enjoyed a great steak meal. This time Lucky had made arrangement to “borrow” some wine from one of his many guide friends
If there was one downside to the safari, it was only that we occasionally passed other guides, driving their all White (or Asian) clients around in similar safari trucks, and didn’t feel like we were the only humans on the continent. On the other hand, knowing you are not alone out there (in the infinite fields) in the case of an emergency was comforting. There were no radios or communication or firearms, so extra vigilance was taken for safety issues.
Again we slept well and woke to the campsite being dismantled. A comfortable breakfast and some packing up and we were on the last 5 hours of our Safari. The Big 5 in Africa are the Elephant, Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Lion and Leopard. These are mostly named, sadly, for the hunting of these animals. On our way out of the park we spotted one of the Small 5. The Small 5 are the elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise.
We left the park in the late afternoon and arrived back in the small town of Maun and again stayed at the slightly overpriced lodge for our final night. Apparently, Lucky had an arrangement with the lodge to bring his guest for two nights and then he gets a free room too. We were ok with that, as it was a nice experience and came with a hot breakfast too.
The flight back was even more appreciated than the one up. We could not imagine at all how those other Peace Corps folks could stand another gruelling bus ride after the fun but exhausting weekend! We totally understood the story we had just heard about two of our PC friends who had recently bussed up, and then purchase very expensive, last minute one way flights back!
For anyone who is considering an African Safari, my opinion would be that 2 full days is sufficient to see what you are going to see in that part of the world. After the initial thrill and excitement wear off a bit, the roughness of the travel becomes more apparent and a third day is not nearly as exciting as the first two.
As we arrived back at our home, we were feeling a bit out of place. Not sure why. Maybe just heading back to routine from a great exciting adventure. Anyway,we thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and although it was very expensive for a short 4 day weekend getaway, it was well worth it! Now we are excited about helping Lucky to put together a webpage and help him grow his business with great referrals. That is, after I get through the 200 emails that stacked up while we were gone!