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Trip Report Solo in Botswana: Banoka, Chitabe, Duma Tau

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This was my first trip to southern Africa (late Aug to early Sept 2011) and my second trip to Africa. I used Africa Adventure Company and the planning and execution of the trip were excellent. I would highly recommend this company and would use them again. I was traveling solo this trip and never felt the slightest bit uncomfortable with anyone or any situation.

I traveled with only carry-on bags this time. A small duffle bag that would fit in the overhead bin and a backpack. The only thing I would have changed was to bring 3 t-shirts instead of 2 and a slightly heavier fleece as it was cold in the mornings and my fleece was light. It got warmer as the trip went on however.
Here is a link to my trip photos:

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/BotswanaZim-2011-1/18933683_Bc75N7#1469162940_LgsVPcP


I flew from Atlanta on Delta’s non-stop to Johannesburg, about a 15 hr flight. Arrived about 5:30 pm local time and was met at the airport by someone who escorted me to the Southern Sun OR Tambo Hotel – just next to the airport – where I spent the night. This is a nice hotel, a typical airport high rise, but they offer complementary wine and cheese on check in and they have a restaurant and wine bar on site that are nice. It was very comfortable and I would recommend it. The next morning, after an included breakfast that was generous, I took the hotel shuttle back to the airport (less than 5 min) and checked in on British Airways for the 1.5 hr flight to Victoria Falls. The customs process at the Vic Falls airport is very slow… not onerous but clearly a couple decades behind other countries where things are computerized. They were hand writing receipts for the $30 visa fee.

Again was met by someone who drove me to the Illala Lodge where I stayed 1 night. This is a nice hotel and very near the falls. They have complementary internet access on 1 computer in the lobby. They have a restaurant on site and while the food was pretty good (not great) the service in the restaurant was poor. But the room I had was very comfortable, had a nice view and I would recommend this lodge if anyone is staying in Vic Falls.

I was met by Esther, who works for Africa Adventure Company, and she took me on a tour of Victoria Falls. The Zimbabwe side has 75% of the falls, whereas the Zambia side has 25%. So I do think you get to see more from Zimbabwe. The weather was perfect and there was a rainbow over the falls, making a great photo-op. This was low water season, so the falls were gorgeous but there was no problem seeing them from too much mist. We walked to the bridge and saw someone bungee jump off of it. I did not do any other activities in Vic Falls such as helicopter ride, river boat tour or lion walk. But there are several things to do in this area if you have time and inclination.

Next morning was picked up and with some others in the van and driven to Kasane in Botswana where we went through customs (no visa fee) and then I was dropped off at the airport, my guide staying to be sure I was checked in for the flight before he departed. Only 2 other passengers on a 14 seater airplane for the 50 min flight to Banoka – my first Botswana camp. All of the camps I stayed at were Wilderness Safari camps, and Banoka is their newest, only being open for 11 months. All of the WS tents include power strips for recharging (bring your own converter) and safes for your valuables. These were really nice touches that I hadn’t expected. They also include laundry and an open bar.

The safari vehicles are Land Rovers with 9 seats in 3 rows. Since I was traveling solo I always had a row to myself. Usually there were 4 other people and myself in 1 rover. It was never an issue with being able to see things well. These vehicles are not the best for photography, however. There is no place to brace your camera, so the bean bag I brought was useless. This is in contrast to the vehicle (Toyota Cruiser) I was in when I visited Tanzania where bean bags easily sat on the open windows or the top of the vehicle when the roof is popped open.


Banoka: This camp is in the Khwai River Concession, close to Moremi in the Okavango Delta. It’s almost entirely solar powered. Very nice comfortable tents, wonderful staff, nice bar and lounge area. There is a large pond just outside the tents with hippos and lots of frogs singing all night long. Seriously, the first night I could not believe the NOISE from the frogs. When I went on a mekoro ride and saw the tiny Bell frogs and was told it was them making the racket all night it was amazing. Banoka is a mixed water and land camp. One evening we did a mekoro ride and another evening a boat ride. Both were really fun and relaxing. We saw lots of birds, hippos, the aforementioned frogs, water snakes. The land portion of the Banoka area was my first surprise in Botswana… I’d read about the mopane forests, and that elephants like this type of terrain, but what was stunning was the devastation the elephants wreak upon the trees. Greater than 90% of the mopane trees are shorn off by the elephants, so that they are scrubby and leafless and about 4 to 5 feet high. When you come across the occasional large mopane tree that has been spared, you see how beautiful they are. But just looking out over the landscape it almost looks like an area that had a hurricane come through.

We saw lots of animals in Banoka, but I would say it seemed a little on the sparse side to me (especially when compared to my next camp). We’d see something, drive a few miles, see something, drive some more, etc. The animals we saw included, giraffe, hippo, elephants, kudu, impala, buffalo, warthogs, banded mongoose, zebra (only a few), steenbok (one), red lechwe, lots of birds, one beautiful large male leopard resting on the ground under a tree – his belly full and a kudu carcass nearby.

One of the nights during dinner, we could hear lions roaring nearby. Our guide, Chris, said that anyone who wanted to go look for them should come with him. About 6 of us jumped up, leaving our dinner half eaten, and jumped in the vehicle. We found 2 juvenile male lions very near camp and followed them for the next 45 min. They didn’t go too far before plopping down for a rest. These would be the only lions I saw at Banoka. When we got back our dinner had been cleared and everyone else had gone off to their tents. Oh well!

The next day we saw a female leopard, also resting on the ground with her impala kill nearby, partially eaten. With both of the leopards we were able to get quite close to them without seeming to bother them. Only 3 vehicles are allowed at any one animal sighting, which is great. A huge difference from what I’d seen in Tanzania.

After 3 nights at Banoka, I flew 15 min to my next camp, Chitabe.


Chitabe: Still in the Okavango Delta, but much different terrain than Banoka. Lots of palm trees which seemed an oddity. They say the palm trees follow the migratory path of elephants because the palm nut seeds are deposited in the elephant droppings as the animals travel. Chitabe is a land only camp. It was a lovely camp and my favorite of the 3 I stayed at. Super staff, very nice tents, a small gift shop. The terrain is much more grass land, water ways, some mopane. The animals in general were the same I’d seen at Banoka, just more of them. Seemed everywhere we drove we saw something. We saw 2 honey badgers the first morning right next to camp, and female bushbucks and elephants were hanging around right in camp the 3 days/nights I was there. The first afternoon I was there I heard this very loud strange noise I couldn’t identify… like a sheet of corrugated metal being shaken. I was told it was an elephant shaking a palm tree to get the palm nuts to fall on the ground. I would hear it many times, and fortunately I finally got to see it my last morning there. Here is a video….

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Botswana-Movies-1/18957528_CDZn4D#1475506325_s7qdpzM

We saw more leopards, including an amazing sighting I’ll relay below, and the first wild dogs. We also found some lions during the day, but they were all sleeping, as lions do! Saw a couple of crocodiles (small) but nowhere near the number I’d seen in the Serengeti. One day there was a huge herd of impala mixed in with a large troop of baboons, many with babies. They put on a great show for us, running around. Nearby were some zebra, wildebeest and giraffe. Such a profusion of animals made the Chitabe visit very special.

The first morning out we came upon the Chitabe pack of wild dogs. There are 27 dogs in this pack, including 7 pups about 4 months old. All the dogs were up and about, playing. Then we noticed nearby that there was a leopard in a bare tree, so we drove over there to check it out. A female leopard was precariously perched in a small dead tree. Her front feet were balanced on a branch that looked like it could break and send her to the ground at any moment. Why was she up such a tree? Dogs below! They were circling, looking up, yapping. Oh no. I had a sinking feeling. The last thing I wanted to see was a pack of dogs get hold of a leopard. But some interesting things were in store as we were to see over the next 2 hours that we watched. Fortunately dogs are easily bored and they finally wandered a short distance off (not far). The leopard immediately came down to the ground, which instantly caused the dogs to come rushing back. She dashed up another tree, which at least was more sturdy. You could see that the leopard had blood on her front legs as if she’d had a recent meal. There was a dead impala nearby that the dogs occasionally went over to and gnawed upon. We surmised that the leopard had killed the impala, eaten some but the dogs had come along and chased her up a tree, stealing her meal. After about an hour, the dogs wandered off to a nearby tree and collapsed in the shade to snooze. The leopard came down again, cautiously looking around for the dogs, went to the impala carcass, grabbed it and dashed back up the tree! Amazing. See the video here….

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Botswana-Movies-1/18957528_CDZn4D#1471703480_rDF8Krv


Day 2 at Chitabe (Sept 1): MY BIRTHDAY! This turned out to be one of my best birthdays ever. The day was fantastic with animal sightings. We found the dogs again, happy to say they were far from where the leopard had been. It was early morning and they were chasing each other, having a grand time playing in a shallow stream. So entertaining to watch. Here is a video…..

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Botswana-Movies-1/18957528_CDZn4D#1471720414_3rmrLdp

Found a pair of mating lions on the afternoon drive. There was also a female lion nearby with 3 cubs who were about 4 months old. So cute! Here a couple of videos of the lion action:

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Botswana-Movies-1/18957528_CDZn4D#1471711522_bBNgvPF

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Botswana-Movies-1/18957528_CDZn4D#1471722296_G9kwc3H


It was so hot in the afternoon that I decided to indulge in the outside shower of my tent. As I did so, a female elephant and her baby wandered by. Who could want a better birthday present than that??? In the afternoon we found some sleeping lions, and saw a gorgeous crescent moon rising while we drank wine at the sundowner. The evening was splendid with a birthday cake and singing Happy Birthday at dinner time.

I had wanted to do the sleep outside offered at Chtiabe but could not because the area where they have the sleeping platforms is under water right now!

Duma Tau: Third and last camp for me. This one is in the Linyanti Concession – north east corner of Botswana out of the delta. It is supposed to be a land and water camp, though they never offered any water activities. It’s a nice camp but as with Banoka, is mostly surrounded by mopane forest with consequent elephant destruction. It’s a pretty old camp and the tents were not as nice as the other camps. They are in the process of building a new camp, although when I questioned people about when the new camp would open no one knew. The current camp is slated to be completely removed when the new one opens. The existing camp is beneath a mangosteen tree stand with water nearby. I could hear hippos most nights. The first afternoon I arrived it was super hot and I wasn’t feeling too well, so I decided to skip the afternoon drive. Of course when everyone came back they reported a rare sighting – a pangolin! People even got out of the vehicle to touch it. Drat. Doesn’t it always happen that you miss something special when you stay behind?

While the mornings were still cool (not cold as they had been in Banoka) it was really hot in the afternoon each day. Rather than location, I think it was because each day I was in Botswana summer was coming closer.

Duma Tau resembles Banoka in terrain – most mopane forest, stripped by elephants. There are waterways (Linyanti river and the Savuti channel which is flowing for the first time in something like 26 years (started flowing again in 2008) which break up the monotony of the mopane areas. There was a large fire burning in Botswana while I was there and I saw it from the air on the flight from Chitabe to Duma Tau. This made for some days with a smokey, haze filled sky.

First morning out we found a young female leopard in a small tree. We watched her close up for about an hour and she finally came down and strolled around for awhile. Although she didn’t seem stressed by the vehicles, it did seem as though she tried to walk away from us. I was happy when we finally left her as she settled under a tree in the shade, as I felt she deserved some peace and quiet. In the evening we found more wild dogs – this pack has 20 dogs, including 9 pups about 4 months old. The dogs were chasing a female kudu and she ran into the water, standing about chest deep. The dogs prowled around the shoreline for a bit but eventually wandered off. We watched the kudu and she stayed in the water without moving for about 15 min then came out, dashing into a thicket of bushes, with the dogs no longer near. Whew. Although some people feel cheated somehow if they don’t see a kill, I don’t feel that way. The next morning we found the dogs again! This made 5 consecutive days of dog watching for me, spanning 2 different camps. This time the dogs successfully brought down an impala. It’s amazing how fast they devour a kill. Like 3 minutes. I also didn’t know that they eat their kill while its still alive, whereas most predators kill the animal before devouring it. Ok then…. The guides are extremely keen to find and follow the dogs. We crashed over trees and brush off road in every effort to keep up with the dogs. The guides are quite skilled at driving and tracking, no question about that! Three of the dogs in this pack were limping, one quite badly. The one looked like his hind leg had been broken as the foot jutted out at an angle and he couldn’t bear much weight on it. The guides reported that 2 of the 3 dogs had been limping for the past year. It’s interesting that the other dogs take care of the injured ones, bringing them food. So it’s not just survival of the fittest, but a social security system prevails.

Last day at Duma Tau we found a rock python coiled in a bush. We were allowed to get out of the vehicle for some close up shots.

Next day I had a 3 hr game drive from 6-9am in the morning, then back to camp for a shower and breakfast and then to the airstrip. I flew to Maun, though we made stops at 2 other airstrips to let people on or off. Flew from Maun back to Jburg, 4 hr layover, then to Atlanta, then to Indianapolis, then the drive home. I think it was about 26-28 hours of travel coming home.

Final Thoughts: This was a wonderful trip, very relaxing. Loved the remoteness and low number of other travelers. Loved the Wilderness Safari camps. I would visit Chitabe again in a heartbeat. The other two camps I would forego in order to see something new. Water levels are reportedly high again this year, though I have nothing to compare to. I know parts of Chitabe and Banoka were closed to vehicles due to high water levels.

I never really felt mosquitoes biting me, but should have been more attentive to using insect repellent (which I brought in the wipe form). On my last day at Duma Tau I realized my legs and feet had about 50 bites each – no kidding. They only itched mildly though, so no big deal really. There is not a big malaria problem in Botswana although I was taking Malarone.

In comparing my first trip to Africa (Tanzania) last year to this one, I would say excitement was higher for Tanzania, but that is likely because it was my first trip to Africa and I’d wanted to go for so many years. We had a private guide and vehicle in Tanzania which definitely beats sharing as in Botswana. On the other hand as a solo traveler I wouldn’t have wanted a private vehicle in Bots. The remoteness and low tourist numbers are a distinct advantage in Botswana. So apples and oranges.

I would encourage anyone who doesn’t have a travel partner to go solo! There are plenty of people to talk with along the way. You won’t feel lonely. And you will be well cared for at every step.

Cheers! Jean

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