Explore with Sven: Botswana Trip Review

Twin Cities Meteorologist Sven Sundgaard hosted a tour to Botswana in October of 2019 as part of our Explore with Sven travel series. This blog details his experience as well as highlighting many of the climate and conservation issues that are happening in Botswana. 

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The interesting thing about Southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia) is that you will see pretty much the same animals in each of these countries, but you’ll have a very different experience in HOW you see them.

I was interested in visiting Botswana & the Okavango Delta for many reasons:

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1) You learn that in this mostly arid region, WATER truly is LIFE. It’s remarkable how large animals like elephants and rhino scratch out an existence here. 

2) The Okavango is a river system that fizzles out through hundreds of small channels onto the plains of northern Botswana. Due to the water levels, you will find an unusually high density of life in this area. 

3) Botswana has been one of the most successful countries in Africa at striking a balance between its people and its wildlife. With increasing human populations, the destruction of habitats, and climate change, there is a marked increase in wildlife-human conflict. Botswana is maintaining this balance for now, but for how long? 

4) Botswana has been identified as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. It’s already a hot, arid place with a long dry season and a brief but vital rainy season. It’s heating up at twice the global rate, which means that the dry season is becoming more severe and animals are more stressed. Botswana is currently in a severe drought with water levels in the Okavango at record lows. 

I have been to Namibia twice, another place that is very arid. Like Botswana, Namibia relies on a short rainy season, and by the end of the dry season, water is confined to a only a few watering holes. This means the density of wildlife is less, and safari-goers have to work harder to find the wildlife (which is a different but gratifying experience in itself). 

Our Journey!

Day 1Nxai Pan Camp

After about 20 hours of total flying time, departing Saturday and finally arriving at our destination on Monday, we arrived in Johannesburg (South Africa) for an overnight. A morning flight to Maun, one of the few larger towns in Botswana, connected us with a bush flight to the Nxai Pan region. We began our safari here, seeing what most of Botswana looks like in October: very dry, with wildlife congregated around what water is left. Nxai Pan Camp, which was our base for a few days, has its own watering hole, providing a really unique experience. Elephants in the dozens came to the watering hole throughout the day and night, even walking through camp. We routinely saw elephants carefully feel out the boardwalks between our rooms and step over them. On our first game drive we saw a jackal, many elephants, and a few other critters. We ended the busy travel day with a “sundowner” drink watching a sunset underneath our own Baobab tree. These funky-looking trees look the way they do because they store enormous amounts of water (you’ll read more on these later). 

Day 2Baines' Baobabs & A Close Encounter

WOW. All night we could hear the elephants at the watering hole. They have such a diversity of sounds, from typical trumpets to growls. It sounded like they were right outside our rooms (and at times they probably were!). You start your days early when seeking wildlife, because that’s when the animals are moving. Temperatures at this time of year soar to nearly 100 degrees Farenheit at midday, but at night cool into the 50s and 60s because it is so dry. 

Today we went on a drive to search for wildlife, an activity commonly known as a “game drive,” en-route to visit Baines’ Baobabs, a cluster of trees made famous 150 years ago by Thomas Baines when he painted them. Baobab trees are notorious throughout arid regions of Africa. They look as though they’re almost bursting as they store water for the lean times. Climate change is causing these trees to disappear in many areas as droughts become more extreme. One very evident thing we saw almost daily were dust devils, caused by the extreme midday heating of the dry, dusty surface. 

Late that afternoon when we returned to camp, I wanted to cool off in the small pool at the lodge and I received some visitors! A couple of bull elephants left the watering hole in the distance to come to the pool. They very nearly stuck their trunks in the pool but at the last minute realized a human (me) was in the pool already. These guys would come by every night and drain the pool of water. Every evening at the campfire, we could hear them sucking water out of the pool nearby.

Day 3A Walk with the San Bushmen & Off to the Okavango Delta

This was our final morning at Nxai Pan, but before departing we received a few survival lessons from some of the San Bushmen who work at the lodge. The San have historically lived a subsistence or “off the land” life, and they showed us how they set traps to catch small birds and how they start fires, as well as how to disguise their scent with wild sage plant.

It was then time to hop on a midday bush flight, heading northwest to a very different place: the Okavango Delta! This is an area of water, greenery and, as a result, abundant wildlife. About 30 minutes into the flight it became evident the landscape was rapidly changing. Here we could see mud potholes and bits of water here and there. These are areas that flood seasonally, and all that was left looked like the water’s “footprint” on the land along with a few stubborn holdouts of puddles. We traveled to the very head of the Delta at Setari Camp, where the Okavango River starts to branch out into tributaries, creating this inland delta.

We arrived at Jao village and its tiny airstrip. From here we took a 50-minute boat ride along winding channels of water, surrounded by 5-10 foot tall grasses (which almost looked like bamboo shoots) and papyrus, among a plethora of different birds and even a crocodile or two!

We arrived at Setari Camp and wow, was it cool! It’s like a tree fort. The tented rooms are high off the ground on stilts with boardwalks in the air connecting them to the main lodge. We were literally in the trees, and monkeys and baboons reminded us of this!

After settling in we went for an evening sundowner boat ride, seeing more birds, hippos for the first time, and another gorgeous African sunset. 

Day 4A Mokoro Trip into the Delta

Today we embarked on a special local excursion: a mokoro trip. A mokoro is a traditional dugout canoe, though now for sustainability purposes they’re made of fiberglass imitating a dugout wooden canoe. These canoes allow locals (and travelers) to get into the nooks and crannies of the Delta and into small, shallow tributaries to really see how this watery ecosystem operates. My mokoro paddler, Mots, explained how the water levels in the Okavango this year are the lowest he or his people can remember, which matches up with recorded data. Since the locals began keeping records, the water has never been this low. Prolonged and severe droughts in this already arid place, which is dependent on seasonal rains and flooding, are taking a toll. 

Day 5Mobile Camping in the Khwai Region & A Leopard Sighting!

This morning, part of our group participated in a helicopter ride over the Okavango Delta. WOW — it did NOT disappoint. We flew over many separate herds of elephants, pods of hippos, and flocks of egrets flying below us.

We then had more hippo and elephant sightings via boat, as we made our way back to the Jao village to get on another flight to the Khwai region. This area has some of the best game viewing in the country. It has water, a necessary ingredient, but also vast areas of vegetation as a result. 

Immediately once we’re in the air, following the Khwai River, a northern tributary of the Delta, we watched as it got more and more narrow. As we followed it, we saw the landscape changing back to an arid area surviving solely from this river and the water channels hippos and elephants make from it.  

Within 30 minutes of our transfer to camp by safari vehicles, we spotted a leopard! They are notoriously difficult to find during the daytime; this was a somewhat young male and we watched him for well over an hour to see what his next move might be. During the hot afternoons, though, wildlife generally lay low. 

Then it was time to head to camp. This time we were literally camping, not staying at a permanent lodge. For the next several days, our group experienced what is called “mobile camping.” Our tents were traditional canvas tents set up in a temporary fashion. Each tent had a couple of cots and a “short drop” toilet/latrine dug in at the back, complete with a “bucket shower” (literally a bag camp attendants can fill with water and, by the pure force of gravity, you have a running water shower). Meals were cooked by the fire, and the campfire was the social epicenter of the camp. 

Days 6 - 9Exploring the Khwai River & its Wildlife

It’s all about the wildlife in the Khwai area, so for the next several days our entire daily routine/schedule was dominated by this fact. This means that we got up in the dark when it was cool to get ready to go on game drives in the hopes of spotting wildlife and especially wildlife in action. Each morning we were woken up by camp attendants at 5:00 a.m. as they filled a basin of water to freshen up with. We were given oatmeal, yogurt, and coffee brewed at the campfire (and they made it strong, thank heavens!). 

We were usually on the road by 6:00 a.m. just as the light was starting to appear. Most predators hunt at this time during the coolest part of the day; once mid- to late-morning hits, much of the wildlife (especially the big cats) are hunkered down in whatever shade they can find. Hyenas at this time of day are wrapping up their “night shift,” getting in some last-minute hunting or calling to each other as they make their way to their dens for daytime slumber. 

During our game drives, we saw many lions, hyena, giraffe, and TONS of elephants and birds. We also got to see hippos more closely in this region. Hippos and elephants are the cultivators and builders of the landscape in these areas. The rather narrow and shallow Khwai River is kept open and flowing in many areas thanks to the hippos. Elephants also prune vegetation and create potholes that act as temporary water holes until later into the dry season.

Botswana has the highest population of elephants in Africa. There are a few reasons for this:
1. The Okavango! It’s one of the largest sources of water in Southern Africa.
2. Botswana has historically had a hunting ban or been heavily regulated, so it’s a safe haven.
Many elephants are migrating into Botswana from neighboring countries. Increasingly though, as Botswana becomes hotter and drier, there is more conflict between elephants and humans. They are big animals and can be destructive in the search for food and water: routinely digging up pipes and buildings or destroying boardwalks as we saw at Nxai Pain Camp in their pursuits. Botswana has been identified as one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. It’s warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet (much like the Arctic, but a very different system).

After a few days in the Khwai region, we were all really getting anxious to see African wild dogs. These canines are critically endangered and hard to spot. Botswana, as with elephants, has the highest population of them. Finally, on our last evening, we found wild dogs (also called painted dogs or wolves)! Our guide told us wild dogs are his favorite animals because they’re very social. They hunt in a coordinated way and they take care of each other. If one dog is injured, the pack will bring them food. The dogs’ highly intelligent and social behavior helps them be much more successful hunters than, say, lions, which you learn are actually rather lazy opportunists more than skilled hunters. Wild dogs have nearly twice the success rate of lions. Lions will often steal food from other predators purely because of their large size. 

We also saw a mother leopard kill an impala. The poor leopard was exhausted after the struggle, but she knew she could only rest briefly before needing to eat and bring the food to her cubs before lions would likely come and steal the kill that night. We later found out this is exactly what happened. Life is definitely tough here. To quote our guide, “out here it’s EAT or be EATEN.”  

On our final morning we did one last game drive on the way to the airstrip. We again saw wild dogs, this time a separate pack! It’s crazy how in three days we saw not a single one, but then within 12 hours we saw two different packs. It turned out to actually be two competing packs fighting over an impala kill. A hyena caught wind of the kill and called for back up to steal it. This resulted in several hyenas showing up and the wild dogs left, high and dry. A hyena has one of the most powerful bites, and if it bit your leg you’d be out for the hunt. They crush their food, bone and all, and digest it! This is why you see hyena droppings that are often white.

After quite the adventure, we were off to Zimbabwe for a more low key final couple days and to have a real shower, some A/C (though only occasionally with frequent power outages), and to see the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World! 

Day 10The Magnificent Victoria Falls & My Swing through the Gorge

What an amazing sight to see this huge waterfall system. At this time of year, at the end of the dry season, the Falls were less than what they would be months earlier (and this dry season was drier than most). Zimbabwe and Zambia both share the Falls, with a country on either side, across from each other. 

Here a few of us decided to try a total adrenaline rush: the GORGE SWING! It’s like bungee jumping, but instead you dive out and swing from the ropes over the gorge of the falls and valley! This was quite the scary (but cool) way to cap off an adventurous trip. 

So long Botswana! Thank you for the incredible experiences and new friends.

On to the Next Adventure
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