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My tips for Okavango trips

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My comments are made in regards to a trip taken in late July, when the weather was colder than usual. I went with my brother and two teenage girls. We stayed at moderate-to-expensive permanent camps, and traveled by light aircraft between them. This is not meant to be a list of complaints because this trip was THE BEST EVER. But I believe people should know what is in store for them and I write this with that objective in mind ? just wanting to be helpful. Everything I say is entirely my own opinion.

I decided not to comment on each individual camp, because I believe that each person will have a unique experience based upon variables such as weather, experience of the guide, and expertise of the manager. Game sighting is of course just a matter of luck and the skill of your guide. Email me if you want.

PLANNING YOUR SAFARI - BE PREPARED
--It would be interesting to know if you can request a guide. If so, have your agent ask for the most experienced guide in each camp. We had two inexperienced guides who clearly did not know the concession well and were not very good at tracking, but instead relied upon radio info from other guides. This resulted in several vehicles crowded around one sighting, thus detracting from the experience. Experienced guides can follow tracks at a glance and are much more confident in their driving skills. You will know at once if you have one, and he will spoil you in comparison to the others.
--Ask how many vehicles are in camp and how many maximum guests they assign per vehicle. July is part of the high season, and at one camp they tried to put 8 guests in one vehicle. (I must add that after a gentle suggestion they did divide us more equitably.) You might want to use this ratio as one of your important criteria. Each vehicle seats 10 guests max, 3 rows of 3 and one in the front next to the driver. Ideally you will have a maximum of four to six people in one car. Otherwise, your group might get separated on the vehicle (say, 3 in one row and one in the next), or you might have to take a middle seat, which is difficult when juggling camera equipment. In addition, the desires of the guests will be different, so the more people, the less likely that the guide can please all of them. --There is a thing going on to help the guides get the best tips. The camps like the guests to stay with the same guide throughout their stay, which is usually a good idea. But as guests come and go, things can get confused. For example, when they tried to put 8 of us in one vehicle, in the other there were only 2 people. This was because later that day driver #2 was expecting another group, and the camp did not want to put one party of four from our car with guide #2 only to switch them back to guide #1 later on, because then the party of 4 might not tip correctly. Don?t be afraid to say something if this happens to you.
--Next time I would consider paying extra to have a private vehicle, with a guide who would tailor the game drives to our wishes as much as possible ? at least in some of the camps. I?m not sure how much extra this would cost, but if you have a group of four it might be worth it.
--Although the price is incredibly high for the mid-range camps we stayed in (around $500 p/p p/night), be prepared for a very rustic experience. Tents are screened but the zippers often don?t reach the ends so insects can still get in. Toilets and showers are outside, and it?s very cold (night temps reached 30 degrees F). Showers are solar-heated and most people take showers during siesta time (at least they do in winter because morning and night are too cold). The hot water runs out FAST and there is little pressure ? enough to get you clean but for women, not necessarily enough to wash your hair. (However, nothing beats an outdoor shower in the bush! As my daughter was showering, baboons threw things at her from the trees above! I took one at night beneath the brilliant stars.) There is no electricity and no outlets. There are generators at each camp which generate a weak amount of power, which is just enough to power lamps in the tents for a few hours in the evenings. I felt more like I was on a camping trip than a luxury safari. However, all basic needs are met. Good beds, hot water bottles to warm your bed at night, towels, toiletries, laundry service are all provided. Tents also have an exotic and charming appearance and furnishings and a nice front porch with view. Just know what to expect!

ITINERARY CHOICES
-- If you can work it into your plans, I recommend one walking safari, which some camps offer. You will learn so much about the land!
--Try to visit Jack?s Camp if you want to add time to your safari; it is a completely different experience from delta camps. Plan to stay for three nights. There are animals to be seen, although not the big game, and the landscape is surreal. There are wonderful activities, such as ATV rides out on the salt pans, as well as a wonderful staff.
--If adding Victoria Falls to your itinerary, plan to stay for three nights to take advantage of everything on offer. It is a great way to end your safari; it was nice to have the markets, towns and adventure activities, not to speak of the gorgeous Falls. Your pilot will circle around them for you so you really don?t have to take the helicopter tour!

THE WEATHER
-In spite of the weight limit, take seriously the recommendations for bringing warm sweaters and winter parkas. We thought layers would do the trick, but we froze, in spite of wearing everything plus the ponchos provided in the vehicles. (Some ponchos are heavy and flannel-lined but others are flimsy windbreakers, so don?t count on them.) Remember there is absolutely no heat in the tents, so it will be freezing when you wake up. Definitely pack a knit hat to wear in bed. Take warm gloves. For men, a balaclava such as those found in ski shops is nice (it covers your neck and lower face). Bring flannel pajamas or better, a sweat suit to sleep in, plus socks to keep in your bed so they don?t get dirty. We hoped to find a warm fleece or sweatshirt to buy but didn?t find any until the last camp. Even hand and toe-warmer packets would be nice if you could manage to squeeze them in. Make sure your clothes protect your face too; otherwise bring a scarf because there is a cold bitter breeze when driving in the early morning and after sunset. Make your teenagers bring the same in spite of their objections! Also I recommend ?Under Armor? (can be bought at sporting goods stores) or such products to wear beneath your shirt and pants. They are extremely lightweight. Actually you could probably sleep in those too. Having said all that, it gets nice and hot about an hour after sunrise, so you'll soon be peeling off those clothes.
--Although it is true that you can get by with a pair of gym shoes as recommended on many web sites, my strong recommendation is BRING THOSE HIKING SHOES. Not only are they warmer, but far more practical. In our group, gym shoes melted in the camp fires, an acacia thorn pierced right through the sole of my daughter?s shoe, and the gym shoes became so filthy with dust and dung that they were thrown out at the end of the trip. My hikers looked good with all the dirt! That?s what they?re made for. Of course the problem is their weight so you have to wear them when checking into your first light aircraft flight.
--Bring crew socks rather than the fashionable no-shows (again, tell your teenagers). Burrs, insect bites and the cold are all worse if ankles are bare.
--Burrs: Grass burrs will get all over everything, especially knits and micro-fleece. The best pants are heavy cotton canvas, which is what the guides wear. Heavy polyesters and jeans are also OK. The convertible pants that zip off to form shorts are practical, but make sure they?re not too thin. Do not wear nylon pants if doing a walking safari because perspiration will become very uncomfortable and can cause a rash on your thighs! Also don?t bring tight-fitting pants because you will gain weight from all the delicious food.

THINGS TO KNOW
--You will be dirty. It can?t be helped; dust and dirt will be tracked into your tent and get all over your clothes. One camp used elephant dung as a covering over the front porch to absorb dirt. Of course this is the charm of the whole experience, and within two days you won?t care about being dirty at all since everyone else is. Don?t waste your money on manicures or pedicures ? until you get home! Your nails will quickly be ruined. It was a liberating feeling!
--No one dresses for dinner and it?s common to wear your coat while you eat.
--Sample day: You get up around 6:30, have coffee and oatmeal or muffins, take a game drive from 7 to 10:30, have a big brunch at about 11:00, siesta from 12:00-3:00, 3:00-ish tea, 3:30-7:30 game drive, 8:00 dinner, 9:30-ish you will be dead to the world and asleep.
--Good wines are not often encountered in spite of what we heard about the availability of South African wines. There?s plenty of other alcohol.
--For those traveling by light aircraft: Of course, wear your heaviest coat and shoes for your first light aircraft flight. You will only have to do that once. Once you have been weighed in you are not weighed again. So, when you?re packing at home, don?t weigh what you can wear. After your first weigh-in you can buy a few souvenirs and put your hiking shoes and heavy coat in your duffel.
--A small backpack inconspicuously held will usually not be weighed.
--Bring a ROLLING duffel. Get one with extra room, at least 32?, so later you can stuff it with your coat and purchases. Do not buy those with the retractable handle. Although better quality, the handle adds 5-6 pounds of weight! You only need wheels and you will pull the duffel by its fabric end handle.
--The food and water in the camps is totally healthy. I did not hear of one case of illness due to food. The four of us ate everything in sight, even salads and cut-up fruit, and it was delicious.
--Out of 5 camps, 3 had shops which were extremely small and limited. Of course that is not why one chooses a camp, but just don?t expect a lot of logo goods or necessities (we found film in only one camp, postcards in only two).
--Laundry is washed, hung out to dry, and ironed. Get into the habit of using this service every day. Obviously, don?t bring delicate clothing.
--SOUVENIRS. Don?t worry too much if you don?t find things in the camps, or if you don?t have time at the markets in Victoria Falls. If you connect through Johannesburg airport on the way home, there is an INCREDIBLE store called Out of Africa with every possible souvenir imaginable. If you are interested in this, plan to give yourself a longer layover there before your home flight. We only had an hour and it wasn?t enough shopping time! Admittedly most items are South African. If your heart is set on a basket made in Botswana, you must buy it at one of the camps although there is not much of a selection. The baskets in Zambia and Johannesburg were made by local people and were different in appearance. Johannesburg airport also has a duty-free shop with lots of South African wines, but you really need to know what you want or you?ll just be guessing! Amarula is a nice souvenir or gift; it?s a liqueur made from the nut of the marula tree. It?s like Bailey?s Irish Crème, and it has a cool label with an elephant on it.
--You don?t need any money besides your own currency if it?s American dollars, Pounds Sterling, or Euros. I brought a bunch of singles but they were not needed except for a few at the international airports. Tips for camp staff require larger bills. Traveler?s checks would have been useless on a trip to only Okavango camps and Victoria Falls. Bring cash. Some camps offer a safe for your valuables in the tent, and some in the manager?s office. However, you will find that the idea of theft seems impossible once you get there and meet the lovely people.

ABOUT GAME VIEWING
--Although fantastic, even the most enthusiastic guest can become a bit jaded after awhile (by the end, we were like ?Oh, lions, nice?? and wouldn?t even open our cameras). I think 10 days in Okavango camps is the maximum you will want. Eight might be better if you have kids along. Eight nights gives you 16 four-hour game drives. Be prepared to drive a long while between sightings. Sightings are fabulous, indescribable, and the whole reason you are there, but they can sometimes be few and far between.
--Water camps: During the flood, animals congregate on the dry islands, thus theoretically it is easy to find and view them. However, if these islands do not happen to be near your water camp, there will be very little game to see, which happened to us in one of our camps. You may have to boat 15-20 minutes to get to dry land, then drive. Driving in this season is limited to specific paths - which means you can?t go off-road to follow tracks - due to the wetness of the land and the possibility of getting stuck in the mud (which happened to us twice). You will definitely see animals but they can be hard to find.
--Mokoro rides: Although gorgeous and very relaxing, do not expect to see mammals unless very lucky. The pictures in the brochures are misleading in this regard (probably taken in summer months). When flood levels are high, the animals are driven back further inland and usually can?t be seen from the boat, and if you do get lucky, you cannot get up-close. Our guides told us that birding is much better during the summer months although we did see several recurring species. Most people we talked to, including ourselves, felt that one mokoro ride was enough. It is not equivalent to a game drive.

MY REVISED (LADIES) PACKING LIST (or what I would bring next time)
**2 heavy duty pants, comfortable and loose
**2 warm shirts such as a turtleneck and a long-sleeved microfleece shirt
**1 pair of capris or shorts
**3 pairs long sturdy socks
**Flannel pjs or a sweat suit for bed
**1 very warm sweater/hooded sweatshirt
**Winter coat
**Gloves
**Knit hat
**Sun hat w/long visor/brim ? needed for early morning and late afternoon drives when sun is in your eyes
**Underwear (Staff will not wash underwear but you can. I brought old ones and threw them out every night.)
**Teva-type sandals. Sandals will get instantly dusty so don?t bring nice ones.
**Hiking shoes
**Good polarized sunglasses and neck strap, since you will be jerking them off and on to take pictures.
**Ponytail holders
**LOTS of Chapstick and moisturizing eye drops
**An old watch impervious to repellant and dust
**Prescription glasses. Your contacts will cause you lots of trouble due to dust.
**Nail brush ? amazing how filthy your nails get.
**If you have thick or problem hair, the shampoo and conditioner supplied will not be sufficient. They are of low quality. Personally, I?d bring my own conditioner.
**Your own small but powerful flashlight. You are usually given a torch (large flashlight) to take back to your room after dinner but these are powered by the generators and often cast only weak light and burned out quickly. If you use the toilet at night or need to access your pack for anything like medicines, you?ll need a good light to keep beside your bed.
**Small mesh sponge for bath. Easy to dry out and bring along. Some camps did not supply washcloths.
**Sunscreen.
**Binoculars
**Cards or a book for down time. Some people wrote a lot in journals.
**Your favorite treatment for the common cold such as decongestant and cough medicine, as well as a pain reliever. If the plane ride doesn?t get you, the cold weather will!
**Anti-itch, anti-bacterial, anti-histamine creams for bites, cuts and sores.
**If your kids will have their own tent, walkie talkies would be great, especially at night when you?re all in your tents and not allowed to walk around camp unescorted.
**Eye drops and LOTS of chapstick

THINGS I WOULD LEAVE HOME NEXT TIME:
--Swimsuit. No way! Frigid water.
--Travel alarm. The staff will wake you.
--Water treatment tablets. The water was fine.
--Hair gels and styling products.
--Make-up ? forget it!
--Repellent was always supplied in the tent and on the vehicles. I did like mine though because I brought small one-use packets which were easy to carry around and no spraying involved.

MY OWN OPINIONS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY
If you are buying a new camera for this trip:
--Digital is the way to go. Those with film found it cumbersome and difficult to estimate how much would be needed. Also, their daily photos could not be edited or deleted. Those with digital cameras could fire away and then in the evening delete the bad shots.
--Buy a minimum 5x zoom. 10 is much better.
--Americans, make sure your battery chargers say 120-240 volts or you must bring a (heavy) converter.
--If your camera can only be charged as a whole (i.e. you cannot remove the battery), buy another one!! My brother had to leave his camera behind for a few game drives to get it charged. You?d also have a problem with cameras that come with a proprietary charging platform.
--A lighted LCD would be a great feature for night drives. Our cameras did not have this and it was impossible to see what we were trying to focus on.
--Image stabilizer is an extremely good feature to have for those zoom shots.
--Another excellent feature to have is a very fast ?ready? time after turning your camera on. I don?t know what the technical term is. My daughter had a tiny Minolta with supposedly the fastest start up time of any camera, and even though my camera was better, she was able to get shots that I missed because my camera takes about 2-3 seconds to start up. Believe me, this made a difference!
--A swiveling LCD would be nice though not necessary.
--Most new digitals have movie-taking capabilities, but some limit the time for the movies to say, 30 seconds or whatever. Try to find a camera that doesn?t limit the time.
Miscellaneous tips:
--Splurge on 3 batteries for your digital. Sometimes batteries could not be charged in time for game drives, and in one camp the generator was down and they couldn?t be charged at all. Two batteries are usually adequate but gave us a few anxious moments. If photography is a big part of your vacation, and you?re spending so much already, the 3rd battery will be very nice to have.
--Another worthwhile splurge: For a two-week trip, you can relax if you bring three 256mb memory cards. Otherwise, bring a portable hard drive that your group can share and use to download their photos. We had so much fun taking pictures, but some of us ended up deleting pictures we wished we could keep in order to take more pictures at the end of the trip. I used up my three 256?s.
--Figure out how to take movies on your digital, how to add audio to photos, and how to use your manual settings WELL BEFORE you leave home! I wish I had. Replaying movies at home is a treasure.
--Bring the South African adaptor plug. Magellan?s (travel catalog) plug supposedly for ?Botswana? was useless. Once the camp used my British plug, but all could use the South African.
--Sand bags to rest your camera on were supplied on all vehicles (but only about 2 or 3 of them). One guy had a one-legged ?monopod? which served him very well, and was light and portable.
--Buy an external flash. On night drives, a built-in flash is not powerful enough, and the spotlight does not illuminate the whole picture.
--Put LCD protectors on your camera before you leave home. Bring a brush to clean off the dust.
--Buy a polarizing filter and possibly a hood ? the sun is incredible in Botswana.
--If your lens cap isn?t connected to your camera, buy a lens cap holder which can be found at photo shops for about $2. (I lost my lens cap.)
--Get a wide neoprene strap; otherwise your camera strap will dig into your neck from wearing it so long. Try to find one long enough so that your camera can rest on your lap while on the drives, thus taking the weight off your neck.

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