Botswana 101: The Classic Safari

In this second part of my great African adventure, My mom finally meets up with me and we travel to Botswana to experience the amazing classic safari. I had only two hesitations about this entire trip. The first was I did not plan it myself. So, the normal feeling of “I know everything that’s going to happen” was not accompanying me this time. The second was “is this going to be a new experience or am I going to feel like I’m in a really big zoo?” Fair enough. I’ve put my best tips at the end of our adventure below!

Wrapping up in Livingstone

My last few days in Livingstone were spent enjoying the sites with my mom. We walked through the National Park at Victoria Falls and did a little shopping at the local markets. However, we were looking forward to moving on to Botswana and the Chobe National Park Area.

Crossing The River

In order to get from Zambia to Botswana, you must go through customs and cross a Zambezi River. Normally, this is an inconvenience. In this case, it was all part of the adventure! The Kazungula crossing point is famous as a commercial border. In fact, as we drove up, over 300 tractor trailers were lined up to ferry across the border- 2 trucks at a time. For us, we were expected to clear Zambian customs, ferry across as foot traffic, and meet our new guide on the Botswana side of the river. (This is a dying experience as the new bridge is almost done.)

Bakwena Lodge

The lodge that we checked into was an oasis. An eco-friendly establishment, Bakwena Lodge provided everything that we could possibly need during our stay. With 15 rooms that were either tree houses or round river level huts, Bakwena had every modern amenity we needed. The centerpiece of the lodge was the main pavilion with plenty of room to enjoy the meals, entertainment, and river views.

My mom and I settled in and the unbelievable staff began to explain how the lodge worked. It was amazing! The staff had scheduled all of our game drives and river safaris for us. They had taken care of all of our meals with a few short questions. Our room was a river chalet with gorgeous mosquito nets draped over the bedding. And before you ask, the bathroom was fabulous complete with an optional outdoor shower. What more could we ask for?

The Essential Safari Question

Will a safari experience be any different than going to a zoo? Don’t deny it! You’ve all thought it at one time or another. I mean, really, will it make a difference to see these animals on the plains of Africa or will it be a total let down? Hear me now: you bet it does. It is the circle of life moment you hope it will be. As animals large and small make their way at sunrise toward the river, you literally hear Elton John singing in your head.

Chobe Game Drive

5 a.m. The sun isn’t up and it’s cold. What in the world am I doing getting up at this frightful hour?! We make our way to the main lodge for a bit of breakfast and then climb by flashlight into the classic safari jeep. We drove in the cold dark with our guide, Max. Certified as an environmental guide, Max was the expert we all hope for. On the 20 minute drive to the Chobe Reserve, he knew every nook and cranny to see hyenas and badgers in the dark. Then he drove us into the reserve.

Max and his trusty radio knew where the latest sightings were and just as the sun started to show itself, our first encounter with animals was just around the corner. As we crested the hill, our view over the river was unbelievable. The sun rose as elephants lumbered toward the water with impala and kudu. Hippos were just gray hills in the water that let birds perch easily away from predators. Guinea fowl scurried along in long winding rows and every so often, a solitary giraffe peeked out over the trees. Yes, it was the circle of life and yes, it was worth every one of those 6,000 miles of travel to see it.

River Safari

Bumping through the bush on a jeep isn’t the only way to get out and see the game reserve. Our afternoon excursion was by boat. And it was fabulous! Our guide, Max, ever ready, took us along the Chobe river to learn and see more of what Botswana had to offer. We saw so much: hippos, crocodiles, plenty of lizards and birds as well as herds upon herds of elephants. Safari on the water offered a certain closeness that just couldn’t be achieved on land. Elephants swam right by the boat and hippos bathed in grumpy groups not too far away.

We stopped in the middle of the river on a grassy island where a few elephants were grazing. There, we enjoyed cocktails on the boat as the younger elephants edged closer as their curiosity won out over wariness. The sun set framing the fishermen leaving for the night’s catch as we rode back between Namibia and Botswana.

The most elusive animals for us were the giraffes, zebras and cats. However, Max was intent on making sure we were not let down. Early on the third day, Max got word that a family of lions was napping close by. Max drove us right up to the little pride that couldn’t care less if we were there. Amazing. They allowed us to take plenty of pictures and take in the moment.

On our way out of the reserve, we came across a solitary cheetah in the distance. It was an amazing way to wrap up our time in Chobe.

Meeting The Locals

Max was a guide for us for more than just the game drives. He also took us to the local shopping area. Half outside market and half modern strip mall, the market was a great change of pace. Even the little family of warthogs that trotted through the parking lot seemed a bit surreal!

We were also treated to a tour of the local elementary school. Of course, the teacher in me was thrilled to see all those smiling faces! I loved the fact that the lodge was a true stakeholder in the community’s future.

Our last night at the lodge we were invited to a performance that explained the history of the local area. I loved how the evening was full of dance and laughter. It ended around the fire pit with a glass of wine and a few stories. The staff was superb and sent us off with a wave and a smile. After one last look at our beautiful lodge, we were bound for the river crossing again.

Elephant Cafe

Back across the river, through customs, and past the hundreds of 18 wheelers wishing that bridge was complete, we were back in Livingstone with a few hours to spare before our flight. We decided to circle back to the Elephant Cafe and enjoy our last bit of time in this perfect corner of the world. I’m so impressed with all of the people we met on our travels. Africa’s great safari experience still exists. And it cares far more about the flora and fauna we come to see. Perhaps even better than it ever has.

5 Tips To A Great Safari!

Research, research, research! Understand the area that you are going to and the typical expectation for accommodations, security, and safari animals that naturally inhabit the local area.

Be flexible! Early mornings and late nights are all part of the safari experience. Be prepared that you will be off your regular rest and relax schedule. Be prepared to take a mid afternoon nap and eat at the crack of dawn.

Go Eco-friendly! There are more and more establishments that put the environment first. Often, they are smaller and employ local staff. They are worth it!

Certified guides only! Do not use guides that have not learned how to follow the rules of the preserves and parks. These guides are important not only to give you the experience of a lifetime but also to keep you and the animals safe. Most hotel and lodge guides are but it’s a good practice to ask.

Take time to meet the community! While the focus may be animals, it is the people you will always remember. Always. Meet, learn, commune. You may want to bring a few VERY small gifts with you to give to those people who have touched your heart.