Botswana and Victoria Falls

If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!

Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:

1. Take a country like Kenya or Tanzania
2. Smooth off any surface imperfections (like Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro)
3. Sprinkle with dead trees
4. Add water
5. Serve hot

The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...

Itinerary

The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.

My route from Maun to Victoria Falls

The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:

Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg

19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun

20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta

23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta

24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve

26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park

28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park

30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)

2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg

Wildlife

The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).

 African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

 Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!

As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.

Birds

I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!

 It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

Lions

We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.

 I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

Elephants

Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!

 "Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

Lions & elephants

As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...

Elephant 1 Lions 0

Leopard

The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...

 The cat who walked by himself...

The cat who walked by himself...

Victoria Falls

The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.

It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...

Dr Livingstone discovered them, I presume...

Verdict

I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.

List of species

Animals

  • Banded mongoose
  • Black mamba
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Burchell's zebra
  • Cape buffalo
  • Chacma baboon
  • Cheetah
  • Common warthog
  • Eland
  • Elephant
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Leopard
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion
  • Nile crocodile
  • Red lechwe
  • Sable antelope
  • South African giraffe
  • Steenbok
  • Tsessebe
  • Vervet monkey
  • Water monitor
  • Waterbuck
  • Wild dog
  • Yellow mongoose

Birds

  • African darter
  • African fish eagle
  • African green pigeon
  • African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
  • African hoopoe
  • African jacana
  • African marsh harrier
  • African skimmer
  • Bateleur
  • Black crake
  • Black egret
  • Black-collared barbet
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Brown-headed snake eagle
  • Burchell's sand grouse
  • Burchell's starling
  • Cape turtle dove
  • Cape wagtail
  • Cattle egret
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Crowned eagle
  • Double-banded sand grouse
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Gabor goshawk
  • Glossy ibis
  • Great white egret
  • Great white pelican
  • Green-backed heron
  • Grey heron
  • Grey hornbill
  • Ground plover
  • Hadeda ibis
  • Hammerkop
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Hooded vulture
  • Kori bustard
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Little bee-eater
  • Little egret
  • Long-tailed pied shrike
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Marabou stork
  • Martial eagle
  • Meyer's parrot
  • Monotonous lark
  • Ostrich
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Pygmy goose
  • Red cormorant
  • Red-billed francolin
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Red-billed teal
  • Red-breasted korhaan
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Sacred ibis
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • Secretary bird/snake eagle
  • Slatey egret
  • Southern ground hornbill
  • Southern pied babbler
  • Southern red bishop
  • Spoon-billed stork
  • Spotted eagle owl
  • Spur-winged goose
  • Swainson's francolin
  • Swallow-tailed bee-eater
  • Three-banded plover
  • Water dikkop
  • Wattled crane
  • White-backed vulture
  • White-browed robin chat
  • White-crowned plover
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Yellow oxpecker
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Yellow-billed stork