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BOTSWANA OKAVANGO DELTA SAFARI—CHIEF'S CAMP

Story and photos by

We're on safari in Botswana, Africa, at the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta. To get to our safari lodge, Sanctuary Chief's Camp, we flew on Mack Air from Maun.

Relaxing on deck of Sanctuary Chief's Camp cabin
Relaxing on deck of Sanctuary Chief's Camp cabin
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The flight to Chiefs Island and land transfer to the safari camp took less than one hour.

Safari accommodation

Chief's Camp has twelve canvas-walled bungalows with hardwood floors, large teak decks and ensuite washrooms, complete with double sinks, glass shower, thick terry towels and bathrobes.

Locally made baskets and coffee table books on African elephants and birds decorate the rooms. We relaxed on our deck chairs overlooking the savannah, which is illuminated at night for game-viewing.

On safari

That night, a spine-tingling scream woke us up and started our hearts pounding. "Wa-hoo, wa-hoo!" Another deeper growling sound followed. With eyes as wide as the full moon above, we listened to the high-decibel encounter for a full 20 minutes before silence resumed.

At that point, we knew only two things for sure. First, although something or someone was being threatened outside, we were safely and comfortably ensconced inside our room at Chief's Camp. Second, we knew we were not on vacation, but on safari.

Chacma baboon sits in tree
Chacma baboon sits in tree
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Nocturnal shenanigans

When we gathered for breakfast in the main lodge the next morning, we learned that the screams had come from a baboon challenging a leopard that had invaded Sanctuary Chief's Camp.

It was not unusual, we discovered, for African wildlife to visit the Okavango camp after dark. One night, lions killed a zebra behind the staff quarters, enticing a host of scavengers including hyenas and vultures.

Okavango safari

"If you want to see predators when they are most active at dawn, we must leave now," said July, our safari vehicle driver. Lurching over the wheat-colored savannah, our vehicles startled some warthogs, which trotted off.

As we approached a herd of zebras, a phalanx of stripes surrounded us. A parade of trumpeting elephants, led by a massive matriarch, diverted our attention.

We followed them to a pond where they gleefully rolled in the water with all the finesse of boulders. A titanic tusker emerged, coated with mud.

Elephants parade through bush in Moremi Wildlife Reserve
Elephants parade through bush in Moremi Wildlife Reserve
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Waterbucks stopped grazing to watch us pass. A mother cheetah coaxed two cubs across the trail. When they stopped to play with her tail, she snarled, demanding their attention.

A male kudu rotated his large ears toward us like satellite dishes. The donkey-sized antelope had impressive spiral horns.

African wildlife

We arrived at a pond where hippos surfaced like corks. Their eyes bulged like ping-pong balls behind their snouts. "Before charging, they show aggression by yawning or growling," said Gavin Ford, our safari guide.

"Every year, hippos tip over boats. Local people drown because they don't know how to swim," he explained.

A Nile crocodile, the length of a canoe, drifted like a log in the pond. A hip bone jutted from the water, the remnants of a carcass, hidden by a predator.

Red-billed hornhills perch on branch
Red-billed hornhills perch on branch
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A white-headed fish eagle snatched its prey from the water mid-flight. Two hornbills courted on the branch of a partially submerged tree.

"It's dangerous to go on a Botswana safari on your own in rented jeeps, because you can get lost, stuck in mud or run out of fuel," warned Gavin.

We didn't have to worry during our Okavango Delta safari in the Moremi Wildlife Preserve. The 4WD vehicles were new.

Each safari vehicle carried two spare tires, extra fuel and 455 gallons (1,000 liters) of water. One of their six radio channels was devoted to a medical evacuation service, one to safari headquarters and the remainder to communications between vehicles.

Safari tour

After lunch and a siesta at Chief's Camp, we boarded our four-wheel-drive vehicles for a sunset safari tour. Within minutes, we spotted a coalition of white-backed vultures devouring a baby giraffe carcass.

Flies buzzed around the hole in its neck, its hollow eye sockets and missing tongue. The parents looked on from a distance, as if they were mourning.

Birds and animals gave us clues to predator hideouts. When a flock of Northern black korhaan skittered nervously and a vervet monkey cried out in alarm, we followed the gaze of a baboon, sitting like a sentry in a treetop, to a prowling cheetah.

Okavango Delta seasons

When it comes to wildlife watching, what you see and how you see it depends upon the time of year. When is the Okavango Delta wet season? It occurs between December and February, and is ideal for viewing newborns, new foliage and the migration of rare birds.

Floodwaters, which originate in the Angolan highlands, work their way down into the Switzerland-sized Okavango Delta by April and early May, infiltrating the flood plains until July. Animals gather on elevated areas of forested land, which become islands. Game-viewing is by mokoro, or dugout canoe, poled through papyrus-lined channels, by boatmen.

Viewing lions from safari vehicle
Viewing lions from safari vehicle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When is the Okavango Delta dry season? From late May to October, water levels drop and animals search out water holes. Visitors exchange mokoros for open-sided four-wheel-drive vehicles to view herds of buffalo and elephants.

Because predators gather around the water holes as well, there are great opportunities for wildlife photography. Our visit was during the October dry season. We weren't disappointed, even though the green grass was now parched and straw-colored.

Botswana wildlife

Each day brought so many animal sightings that we felt like we were traversing the set of The Lion King. The beauty of Chief's Camp is that it is located in Mombo Concession, which is a private part of the Moremi Game Reserve.

Unlike East Africa safaris, where dozens of vehicles can surround a single animal, at Mombo Concession, guests have the animals exclusively to themselves.

More than 30 percent of Botswana's land mass is protected wildlife habitat. Botswana is home to 90,000 elephants and 550 species of birds.

Impalas in head-to-head combat
Impalas in head-to-head combat
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Throughout the year, there are an estimated 9,000 species of flora and fauna in the Okavango Delta. Each day, we picked up the Chief's Camp Eco-Checklist in our room before boarding our 4WD vehicles for morning and afternoon game drives.

Wildlife photography

The booklet filled quickly as we photographed giraffes, tsessebes (highly gregarious antelope), spoonbills, grey herons, reed cormorants, wild dogs and wildebeest.

Beside a termite mound, we spotted a bleached white antelope skull. As we examined it, a banded mongoose ran by and began digging a hole, powdering its nose with flying dirt.

Two impalas broke into head-to-head combat. The scrape and crunch of hollow horns filled the air.

Tsetse flies

Suddenly, Gavin swatted a tsetse fly that bit his hand. "You're guaranteed to be bitten by tsetse here, because they're all over the Okavango Delta," he said.

"Don't they cause sleeping sickness?" we asked.

Dead tsetse fly in palm of hand
Dead tsetse fly in palm of hand
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"They transmit disease to animals, but rarely to humans. Large moving objects like vehicles and dark animals like Cape buffalo attract them. See those black and blue fabric rectangles in the bush?"

Gavin explained that they were traps for tsetse fly control. "They contain hormones that paralyse tsetse flies. Buffalo urine, sprayed on the fabric, entices the flies to bite it."

The sun sunk, like a gold coin, as we boarded our 4x4s for our final Okavango safari. A herd of Cape buffalo made dusty tracks to a water hole.

Three crouched lionesses, their amber eyes fixed on an aged straggler, ignored us. Zebras and antelopes turned to watch.

Marabou storks (also called undertaker birds) waited in a treetop, silhouetted like hunchbacks against the tangerine sky. Turkey-shaped ground hornbills foraged for insects.

Staff serve brunch at Sanctuary Chief's Camp
Staff serve brunch at Sanctuary Chief's Camp
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sanctuary Chiefs Camp

Hot and dusty from the game drive, we returned to Chief's Camp where staff welcomed us with songs, cool wet towels and frosty glasses of orange juice.

The beating of an African drum announced dinner. Under a canopy of stars, we enjoyed glasses of South African cabernet sauvignon and appetizers around the fire.

Moving inside, we dined on beef filet, spareribs, chicken, vegetables and mocha cheesecake, served on white linen by candlelight. It could've been an elegant meal in a Toronto restaurant—at least until the lions roared. All conversation stopped.

Yes, we were definitely on safari.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Abercrombie and Kent (A&K)

More African safari and wildlife information:

Luxury African Tented Safaris

Namibia Travel - Flights, Hotels, Safaris and Tours

The Africa Book