Chobe National Park in Botswana is home to an estimated 50,000 African bush elephants, the highest elephant concentration in Africa.

In elephant country

With the largest wildlife reserve in southern Africa and a series of successful conservation stories, Botswana is one of the world’s most iconic wild destinations. Our writer follows the footsteps of legendary explorer Dr David Livingstone on his tour across this magical land, from the thundering Victoria Falls to the megafauna-dominated territories of Chobe and Okavango delta.

As a landlocked country, Botswana shares its borders with Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. The population of the country is about 2 million and about 37% of its total land area is set aside for national parks, wildlife reserves and wildlife management areas. The Kgalagadi (Kalahari Desert) covers about 10% of the total national area.

I travelled to Zambia and Botswana as a part of the Oxford Alumni Traveller’s tour titled, ‘In Livingstone’s Footsteps’. Back in the mid-19th century, Africa was a mysterious land to the outside world, until Livingstone spent over 30 years trekking through the interiors of the continent, unravelling its hidden secrets. Among his most famous discoveries was one of the largest waterfalls on Earth, which he named Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria. But the locals call it ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’.

Botswana is perhaps the most rewarding country in Africa in which to experience a safari. Each year floodwater flows into the Okavango from its source in the moist central African highlands southwards and into the Kalahari Desert to create a unique wetland that supports and sustains a huge diversity of wildlife. Apart from year-round excellent game viewing, the beauty of this water wonderland is awe-inspiring. To the north-east of the Okavango Delta are the Chobe and Linyanti Game Reserves, where the many varied habitats are renowned for its predators and large concentrations of game, particularly elephants. The grasslands of the Kalahari together with the lunar expanse of the Makgadikgadi saltpans complement and are in thrilling contrast to the verdant, gamerich north. As many as 580 bird species have been recorded in Botswana with 75 larger mammal species known to occur and more than 80 fish species identified in the Okavango.

By the Chobe

I started my wildlife journey in Botswana from the Chobe National Park. Chobe is famous for its huge herds of elephants. Unlike most other parts of Africa, where the African elephant population is on the decline, conservation efforts in Botswana are paying off. Botswana has 1,20,000 elephants, and the population increases by 6% every year. This conservation success story is partially due to the fact that the army, involved in protecting the wildlife, has shoot-at-sight orders while patrolling inside wildlife reserves.

I stayed at the Chobe Safari Lodge, overlooking the beautiful Chobe River and with easy access to the Chobe National Park. Although the park is famous for huge populations of elephants, it is also home to Botswana’s varied wildlife. During the river cruise, I got to see the majestic African Fish Eagle, whose sound captures the essence of Africa – haunting and forlorn, yet filled with expectations of the unknown and unexpected. The sight of the Hippopotamuses searching for food in the waterways, along with egrets flying all around, was surreal. A hippo even displayed its tusk-like canines by opening its jaws 150 degrees wide, a threatening display much to the perceptible awe of the audience in the boat. A sighting of a contingent of elephants playing in the mud completed the perfect outing.

Hippopotamuses are capable of opening their mouths to a staggering 180 degrees.

Hippopotamuses are capable of opening their mouths to a staggering 180 degrees. | Photo: Ashok Mahindra

Botswana is also home to the Blue wildebeest – Africa’s most abundant antelope species. Although not as spectacular as the wildebeest migration of Serengeti and Masai Mara, the wildebeest of Botswana too migrate between the wetlands of the north and the Kalahari area of central Botswana.

At Okavango

From Chobe I moved to Pom Pom Camp, located in a private concession in the heart of the Okavango Delta. The area lies on the western boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve and offers superb Okavango scenery and a true wilderness experience. The Okavango delta is a 10,000 sq mile wetland, comprising channels, flood plains, lagoons and islands, and home to more than 2,000 lions and nearly 80,000 elephants, along with leopards, hippopotamuses and crocodiles. Private concessions, like Pom Pom, with sequestered wildlife areas are a common practice in Botswana, and can be even foreign-owned. These areas are leased out to private owners usually for a period of 30 years, with periodic renewals. Concessions are tendered out with very strict compliance and regulations, subject to stringent reviews from time to time.

<em>The African Fish Eagle’s species name, vocifer, means ‘the noisy one’ and refers to the common calling behaviour of the eagle. | Photo: Ashok Mahindra </em>

The African Fish Eagle’s species name, vocifer, means ‘the noisy one’ and refers to the common calling behaviour of the eagle. | Photo: Ashok Mahindra

At Pom Pom, I came across a pride of lions consisting of two males and four females. One of the females had made a kill of a huge 300-kilo Greater kudu. Despite the dangerous looking horns, the splendid kudu is a gentle and amiable animal and seldom seen fighting. Lions are renowned for their impressive manes and are infamous for spending up to 20 hours a day sleeping or yawning. However when they move about, they strut like kings. This magnificent beast epitomises African wildlife, being the largest and the fiercest carnivore on the continent. Two lionesses, who had separated from the pride, feasted on the carcass for four days, before the vultures added their finishing touches.

More than 80% of hunting done in lions is by females alone

More than 80% of hunting done in lions is by females alone | Photo: Ashok Mahindra

It was only on the last day that I saw a female Leopard on a tree. Ready to mate, she was calling out repeatedly. The Leopard, one of the Big Five in Africa, was a fitting end to the trip. My guide in Pom Pom, Leteng Sambano (better known as LT) was articulate, knowledgeable and humorous and went to great lengths to ensure that our safaris were successful. He was born and raised in a small village called Shorobe, but had trained hard to become a very good guide. Guides can make or break a safari and a good one is essential to enjoy the wildlife experience. I was more than grateful that my short trip could yield so many lovely sightings –a lot of which had to do with being accompanied by an efficient guide.

Victoria Falls

The famous Victoria Falls lie on the Zambezi River, which flows in southern Africa and forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The falls are also well known by their local moniker, Mosi-oa-Tunya, named in Tonga language by the Tokaleya people. David Livingstone is believed to be the first European, or any outsider, to have laid eyes on the falls while on a mission to explore the erstwhile unknown and mysterious African continent, although some European maps dating to years before Livingstone’s travels do show the falls marked on them. It was Livingstone who named the falls Victoria in honour of Queen Victoria of United Kingdom.

Victoria Falls is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world. It is 108 metres in height and 1,708 metres in width. But the Victoria Falls forms the widest sheet or curtain of falling water anywhere in the world. On an average, 1,088 cubic metres of water falls down from the falls per second, but the highest recorded flow is a staggering 12,800 cubic metres per second! The columns of spray rising from the falls can even be seen from miles away.

Close to a million visitors visit the falls annually, providing valuable income to the tourism dependent countries on either side of the falls. The area adjacent to the falls in both the countries is declared as national parks. The site of the falls is a World Heritage Site, but rapid development around the falls, improper waste disposal and lack of effective management of the fall’s environment has prompted the UN to consider revoking the status.

Photo: Wikimedia commons

David Livingstone

David Livingstone was a Scottish medical missionary with the London Missionary Society, and an explorer in Africa. Livingstone was the first westerner to make a transcontinental journey across Africa from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean coast. Among his discoveries were lakes of Ngami, Malawi and Bangweulu, and the famous Victoria Falls. He also explored areas around Lake Tanganyika, Lake Mweru and the course of several rivers, including upper Zambezi, which enabled the mapping of these regions previously left blank on maps.

Livingstone’s success as an explorer was because of his unique approach – he travelled light and had an ability to reassure chiefs that he was not a threat. For a large part of his exploration years, Livingstone was obsessed with finding the source of Nile.

Although he failed to find the exact source, Livingstone’s explorations revealed several unknown features of southern Africa. David Livingstone’s voyages allowed Europeans to travel, settle and colonise the interiors of Africa. His observations and notes on slave traders also inspired the movement for abolition of slave trade. There are several places named in Livingstone’s memory and also a few species, including Livingstone’s Turaco and Livingstone’s fruit bat, named to honour him.

Longest land migration

Scientists working with zebras in Namibia and Botswana have recently discovered that the animals take part in the longest landbased migration for any mammal. They followed eight radio-collared zebras which migrated between the floodplains of Chobe River in Namibia and the grasslands of Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park in search of feeding opportunities. It was earlier believed that the mass migration of the Blue wildebeest, along with zebras and a few other antelope species, across Serengeti and Masai Mara was the longest migration undertaken on land. But as the zebras do not migrate in such huge numbers, this migration previously did not catch attention.

Several countries in southern Africa, including Namibia and Botswana, have refrained from putting fences across their national borders, which is one of the reasons why this migration has survived, while most of the other spectacular migrations have been lost due to human impact. Still fences created to protect livestock, habitat loss and poaching are threatening the survival of this migration in the near future.

Photo: Wikimedia commons

Fact file

How to go

You can fly from India to Johannesburg by South African Airways. From Johannesburg, you can access Botswana by flying either to Livingstone (Zambia), Maun or Gabrone. Internal flights running between resorts/camps in Botswana are small aircrafts and there is a luggage restriction of 20 kilos per person, including hand luggage and camera equipment. All light aircrafts require luggage to be packed in soft bags rather than the usual rigid suitcases, because of their irregular shape and the small hold size of the planes.

When to go

Wildlife viewing at Botswana is good all year round, but each season has its own nuance and special charm. Game viewing is at its peak during the dry winter months of May to October, when animals are concentrated in ever increasing numbers at water sources as the dry season wears on. Botswana’s three Kalahari parks are arguably at their best in early summer. December is also a particularly good month as many antelope give birth then which means larger presence of predators.

Things to remember

Visas are required to visit both Botswana and Zambia, if you are accessing from Zambia. Insurance is essential. Immunisation against hepatitis A and typhoid is recommended, but not compulsory. Dosage of anti-malaria tablets is also recommended. If you are transiting via South Africa on return, South African authorities require everyone to have a yellow fever certificate. These are given by our government and are valid for 10 years. It is absolutely essential to carry a good insect repellent to reduce the possibility of being bitten by mosquitoes.

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Cover Photo: Wikimedia commons

Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild 

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About the Author /

Presently retired and practising wildlife photography, Ashok Mahindra has spent nearly 40 years in the accounting profession as Senior Partner of A.F. Ferguson & Co. and Co-Chairman of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells. He has also been the former Honorary Treasurer & Vice-President of WWF-India. He believes that children play an important role in the preservation of wildlife and accordingly has set up travel and wildlife funds in certain schools for underprivileged children.

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