From the elephant herds of Chobe National Park to the hippo-rich waters of the Okavango Delta, Botswana is a playground for lovers of wildlife
The best way to experience Africa is overland, where you feel every pothole in the dirt roads, smell the dust on your skin and catch the scent of cooking fires on the warm breeze.
As my overland truck – a great big beast of thing, but home nonetheless – bounced into Botswana, I was immediately struck by how vast the country is. Miles would flash past the windows without us seeing a soul; villages, which were few and far between, just a few simple huts with some chickens and goats. This was big sky country, a land of enflamed sunsets, where we slept beneath a vast canopy of stars and woke to clear, cloudless days. As I was to discover, however, what Botswana lacked in people, it made up for in wildlife.
Chobe National Park
My first port of call was Chobe National Park. This vast nature reserve is one of Botswana’s gems, with one of the largest concentrations of game in the whole of Africa. Leaving our trusty truck parked in a shady spot in our campsite near Maun, we made for the Chobe river, which slices through the park’s northeast corner. Boarding a small boat, we slipped out into the broad expanse of the river, keeping our eyes peeled for the telltale bubbles indicating the presence of submerged hippos.
An hour later and still no hippos, but the stunning scenery was reward enough. And then, movement on the river’s bank caught our attention. There, lumbering slowly through the trees towards the glinting water, was a bull elephant. Famously home to some of the largest elephant herds in Africa, this is the place to come for an intimate encounter with the tusked ones, and we weren’t disappointed. Following the lone male came a smaller female and, stumbling along behind her, a little baby. The three came right to the river’s edge, eagerly scooping up trunkfuls of cool water into their mouths. We were just feet away yet they appeared entirely disinterested in our clicking cameras. I could have watched their quiet intelligence forever but eventually we tore ourselves away and carried on downriver.
Further along the bank, we came across more elephants – this time 10, 20, 30 of them, following each other out of the trees in a seemingly never-ending chain. Adults of all sizes with playful babies congregated on the shore, wading into the water to drink and bathe. We were spellbound. Even the indignant snorting of hippos somewhere behind the boat couldn’t distract us from the magical scene in front of us.
And Chobe had even more to offer – six-foot crocodiles lying still as death on the sunny banks; a vicious fight between two male hippos; water buffalo locking horns; brilliantly-coloured bee-eater birds darting in and out of burrows in the sand; and regal fish eagles surveying the river from their lofty perches. Later, back on land, we stayed up long into the night, excitedly discussing the day’s encounters as the campfire died down to quietly glowing embers.
My next destination revealed even more of Botswana’s natural riches. The Okavango Delta is the largest inland water system in the world, its seasonal floodwaters creating an ever-changing network of swamps, canals and islands. The way to see the Delta is to get amongst it, taking a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) through the reed-lined tributaries to one of the islands.
Floating along through the crystal-clear waters of the Delta – so pure you can drink straight from it – with water lilies bobbing in our wake and the gentle splashing of paddles, it was hard to believe that back in London people would be trudging into work on their daily commute. By the time my colleagues would be having their mid-morning coffee, I had arrived at an island in the middle of the Delta and set up camp in the bush – just our tents and a copper kettle singing away on the campfire.
Late afternoon, as the shadows lengthened and the sun slipped behind the tall palms, we set off on a bush walk. We saw zebras darting between the trees, an ambling giraffe silhouetted against the sky, wallowing hippos, and the grisly remains of a lion’s kill – a sobering, but admittedly thrilling, reminder of just how close to nature we were getting. After dinner, our mokoro guides sang traditional African harmonies under the stars before we retired to our tents for the night, warnings about curious lions ringing in our ears.
On the road
Morning brought another mokoro ride, back to the mainland where we met our overland truck for the long drive to the fringes of the Kalahari, where golden-skinned tribesmen showed us their hunting skills and how they live off this ancient, unforgiving land.
Swapping the Delta for desert in just one day served as yet another reminder of how much Botswana has to offer. The distances may be long, but the drive is as much a part of the trip as the final destination and brings its own unique experiences – stopping at roadside stalls for drinks and homemade delicacies, bartering with locals for jewellery and handicrafts, even waiting at petrol stations for a couple of hours while the truck’s giant fuel tanks are filled. From these simple everyday experiences to exotic encounters with incredible wildlife, travelling overland through Botswana brings the country’s rich diversity vividly to life. It’s a trip I’ll never forget.
I travelled with overland company Acacia Africa. One payment covers food, camping and transport costs, along with the services of local guides, making this the most economical way to experience the country – particularly for solo travellers.