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Trip Report Botswana safari in winter: trip report and packing tips

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I just got back from a great trip, two weeks on safari in the Okavanga Delta and Chobe, and since I profited from advice on this forum, I thought I'd offer some in return.

We flew nonstop from JFK to Jo'burg, and then, with a two-hour layover, to Maun. I was worried that our luggage would not make the transfer, or that collecting it and then transferring it ourselves would cause us to miss our connection, so I took great pains to condense our stuff to only what we could carry on: South African Air allows one carryon (which they weigh: limit of 18 lbs) and one personal item (which they didn't weigh) per person. Moreover, since we were limited on safari to squashable duffels of 10x10x 24 and 40lbs total (including personal item) per person, this seemed a reasonable limit. Since the camps do laundry, you really only need three changes of clothing (it is, however, true that most camps do not wash what they call "smalls," either for women or men, so either bring enough for the trip or wash your own). This plan worked very well for us, and although we saw plenty of bigger luggage at the camps, we did hear from others that they were forced to repack, pay over-weight fees, etc., and of lost luggage woes. The flight itself was not too bad, even in coach; the additional few inches of leg room on South African Air does help.

Our first camp was Chitabe, a somewhat mixed-terrain camp; that is, they had water where the animals, particularly the waterbirds, hung out, but no boat trips or water activities. Chitabe was great, the tents were comfortable, the food plentiful and good (although there was no choice of vegetarian entree), the staff both knowledgeable and patient. Wilderness Safaris, who runs it as well as other camps in Botswana and elsewhere, place special emphasis on sustainability, which I appreciated. We saw pretty much all the animals we could have hoped to see: elephants, wildebeest, impala, giraffes, zebra, lions galore, cheetahs, and leopard, and lots of birds. It was a great way to start our trip.

Our second camp was Shinde, run by Ker and Downey, and it was equally good, although different: Shinde is an island in water, so there are boat trips, both mokoro and motor, as well as game drives. Being on the water was very peaceful; we saw far fewer animals and birds, but the ambiance was great. I think it was lucky that we had been to Chitabe first, however: had we begun with Shinde, we might have been anxious to see more animals than we did. Having already seen so many at Chitabe, the relaxed atmosphere at Shinde was lovely. We also had a nature walk, which was interesting (five miles, though, so be warned), and the boat trips were varied (on one we saw an elephant running through the water at speed, and hippos bobbing up and down, making the most amazing noises). The absence of birds surprised me, until I remembered that this is winter, and many of the birds, particularly the most colorful, were summering elsewhere. We had a guide who had been born and brought up on the Delta, who had a good deal to impart about traditional ways. Shinde did have vegetarian choices, and generally seemed more elegant than the other camps we visited, although the tents were smaller and darker. Do bring flashlights; you'll use them, if only for reading in bed at night.

Our last camp was Lediba, which is closer to Chobe than to the Delta, and dryer, although there was lots of water by the camp, attracting lots of elephant and hippos (they get disconcertingly loud at night, right by the tents). Lots of animals, great lion viewing, leopards, jackals, hyena, mongoose, plenty of elephant (all sizes!), ostrich, secretary bird, and lots of waterbirds. Like Chitabe, there are no boat trips here; the only option other than game drives is a walk (similarly long; one challenge is that Botswana seems to be entirely sand, so the walks are like walking on a beach in loose sand, for the most part. Great for the thigh muscles.) I liked the staff at all the camps, and the people at Lediba worked hard and were very nice, but I think the camp itself is underfunded: there were fewer staff, less food (although still good--just few choices, and plainer, and less abundant), and a less luxurious feel overall. They need to buff it up, I think.

We ended up in Victoria Falls for two nights, and had the great good fortune of being there during the lunar rainbow, so my husband got amazing photographs of lunar and solar rainbows at the falls (quite a few people were unhappy at their inability to take the lunar pictures without a pretty sophisticated camera and gear--as well as the knowledge to use it! You wouldn't believe how many people were trying to take pictures with flash, of waterfalls hundreds of meters away). Victoria Falls itself is fairly dull, unless you're into adrenaline stunts like bungie-jumping. We stayed at the Ilala Lodge, which was perfectly fine, but we would have preferred the Victoria Falls Hotel, which had better views and fabulous atmosphere (especially if you grew up reading Agatha Christie novels). We had most of our meals there. The street touts make walking around pretty miserable; you can't go twenty feet without being accosted and harangued, although they do give up eventually if you just keep saying no. We did not go over to Zambia; we would have done so if we could have taken the Royal Livingstone train, but it wasn't running that night. In general, I think you're better off in Victoria Falls than in Livingstone, if you're there to see the falls, because you really can't see much from the Zambia side. 24 hours would have been sufficient, though; two nights was generous (it might have been different if we hadn't been on safari already; there are day trips you can take to see animals, boat trips, etc., but we'd already experienced much of that).

It was a fabulous trip, and winter is a great time to go to Botswana: no rain, lots of animals, few bugs (the only time I wanted insect repellent was on the boat in Shinde, and even then it wasn't bad. The insect repellent clothing I bought was a total waste, though: I watched a bunch of flies walk around on my husband's shirt, unfazed). I didn't need the shorts I packed, or the skirt (convertible pants were a good idea, no matter how dorky they look): you start the day in the dark (it's cold! 45 degrees), with layers of clothing and long pants, and you remove the layers over the course of the morning, until by 11 you're in short sleeves; then you return to the camp for lunch and siesta, and you're out again after tea, reversing the process, since you don't get back until well after dark. I was glad I packed the extra sweater at the last minute, and the gloves. Although it's hot at midday, you're usually indoors then, unless you're over by the pool. Everyone wears the safari stuff--khaki, etc. (no pith helmets! Hats are crucial, though). You feel conspicuous at first, but you get over it, and it is practical. Do not forget a warm jacket, warmer than you think you might need--I brought a light fleece and two sweaters, and would have been better off with a heavier fleece (or even a lightweight down sweater-jacket) and one sweater. I took only one pair of hiking sneakers, and a pair of flipflops, and I was fine, although tevas would have been better. Electricity varied: at Chitabe there were plugs in the tent, at Shinde there was a central charging place, and at Lediba you had to give your stuff to the staff to charge during the day. Water safety was a non-issue: all the water was reverse-osmotic, so there was plenty of water in carafes, although the tap water was not drinkable. We ate lots of fresh vegetables, cooked and uncooked, no trouble.

Our trip was planned through Expert Africa, a UK firm, and it was extremely smooth--all the arrangements went off without a hitch. It was a revelation to take a trip where I was not the head wrangler!

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