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Trip Report Three weeks in Botswana and Zimbabwe, August 2011

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We had a nearly three-week trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe in August of 2011. This was our first safari and our goal for the trip was to see a lot of different environments and have whatever sightings we were lucky enough to have. And we got very lucky!

Logistics:
-We used Travel Beyond (Pam Buttner was our agent) and were overall quite pleased with our interactions with her and the trip that she helped us put together. I might have liked a little less focus on just using Wilderness camps, but that’ll be the next trip! I felt like I needed to push a little to spend some nights at San Camp and am glad that I did.
-Flight was from Boston to Dulles, then on to Jo-burg with a brief refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal. We overnighted at the crazy Emperor’s Palace complex (we stayed at the stark modern Metcourt Suites: perfectly comfortable bed and a great soaking tub) near the airport in Jo-burg before heading to Maun in the morning. Pam had recommended Tribes restaurant there, which was great. My husband had a fantastic warthog steak there. We love trying game meat and were disappointed that more wasn't served at the camps (silly American tendencies). On the way back home, we had a long layover in Jo-burg which we spent having tea and dinner--and starting to look at photos from the trip--at the lounge at the Intercontinental right at the airport. SO much more civilized and relaxing than the airport terminal!
-Camera equipment: We rented a long telephoto lens (the successor to the “Bigma” Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3) from lensrental.com and were very glad that we did! It was great to have that range and never needed to change that lens. We used a monopod with that the whole trip and our photos were great. We brought two dSLR bodies and a high end telephoto point and shoot (Canon Powershot of some variety) the Bigma, a crummy kit Nikon 70-200mm, and a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 for landscapes. We used all of the lenses and cameras and felt perfectly outfitted!
-We bought trip insurance through SquareMouth and were happy with the price and options provided. Even happier that we didn’t need to use it!

On to the report!
Our first stop was two nights at San Camp, the sister camp of Jack’s in the Makgadikgadi salt pans, which is open only in the dry season. I want to move here. The Makgadikgadi salt pans are absolutely beautiful magical and we loved, loved, loved this camp. The physical camp as just gorgeous and the food was exceptional. I loved that there was no electricity at night and the glow of the paraffin lanterns was romantic. We really enjoyed the opportunity to see a different camp vibe than the Wilderness camps as well. After we arrived from the airstrip, we went in to afternoon tea right away, which is in a beautiful open air tent with a Turkish feel, littered with cushions. The first night’s game drive concluded with a fire and fully stocked bar with sundowners on the Pans. We had some good wildlife sighting for the desert--lots of wildebeest, zebra, black-backed jackals, kudu, springbok, and ostrich. We were fortunate to see a pair of bat-eared fox and a brown hyena (from the tea room at camp!) as well. We loved the morning that we spent hanging out with the meerkats and really enjoyed the cultural experience of walking with the bushmen. The excursion to see Chapman’s baobab took a while, but the tree as pretty darn amazing. Having drinks and a fire every night on the pans in front of the camp was a great time. We also liked that there was more of an international flavor of the guests here.
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100100732338381.2440666.10280&type=3&l=fd404fddc7

We then flew up to Chitabe Camp in the Okevango, where we stayed for three nights. On our brief drive to the camp from the airstrip it was clear that we weren’t in the desert anymore! The abundance of wildlife (giraffe, impala, elephants, warthogs, Cape buffalo) and the smells were crazy! I can’t say enough about the management and our guide here. We had some amazing viewings here and had the best guide of our whole trip (BB). We got lucky in that we had a private vehicle with him for two full days! He seemed to conjure a leopard out of thin air. It was nice to see real guiding, instead of just relying on radio communication for the sightings. He was also very aware of photography (took a ton of photos himself with good equipment) and would always maneuver the vehicle for prime light. The first evening game drive, we watched a baboon tribe for a while and also saw a cheetah with four cubs hiding in long grasses. On our first morning game drive, we saw all three big cats! We saw lions (including the pride drinking and an interaction between the males and females), 2 young leopard siblings with an impala kill—taken by a hyena later that night—a cheetah mother with her cubs. We also had a nice viewing of two cheetah cubs off on their own. Man, did they make a racket calling for mom! The last night was one of the trip highlights: a pack of wild dogs running back and forth along the river trying to figure out where to cross! The youngsters quickly got bored and played which the adult scouted. They were so much fun to watch. We were also really impressed with camp management who handled a situation in a very appropriate way; at one point during a viewing, a fellow guest got out of the vehicle to urinate without clearing it by our guide, endangering him, ruining the viewing, and potentially endangering the cheetah cubs that we had been watching. The camp manager came to us to find out what had happened, apologize, and make sure that we didn't feel that our experience had been impacted which we found impressive. They also set us up for a really nice private dinner on our night. Bonus point for the outdoor shower here!
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100100776958961.2440677.10280&type=3&l=c5355f3941

Moving further into the Delta, we spent three nights at Little Vumbura. Loved getting to this camp by boat every day, dodging the hippo pods. We enjoyed the water experiences here--we did both a mokoro ride and a boat ride in addition to the game drives--and really loved the laid back environment. Unfortunately, the camp manager who was there our first night was about to leave for her break, and it showed. We had a blind stuck down in our tent and we were only able to get it fixed for our last afternoon there. Once the staff change occurred, we felt like the service was better (others who had arrived before us concurred.) Viewing highlights included a malachite kingfisher, tawny eagle, spotted hyena den with youngsters playing, a great viewing of ground hornbills cracking snails for food, a kudu with the most amazing horns, two herds of sable, and a honey badger one morning. We were always on the hunt for the perfect bird-in-flight image of a lilac-breasted roller, too! A special lunch was set up for us in the bush prior to our flight out and we felt like a king and queen as we sipped our rose champagne.
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100100805037691.2440685.10280&type=3&l=226ab71585

We flew out of the Delta and, after a plane change in Kasane, landed in the Victoria Falls Airport. We were at the Victoria Falls Hotel, which was a (slightly decaying) oasis of imperialism, and spent two nights. In some ways, after the schedule of safari, we were a bit disoriented initially to be on our own! We felt that we spent just a little too much time here. Our original flight out was supposed to be first thing in the morning, which would have been perfect, but then was unfortunately rescheduled to the later afternoon. We were at the Falls during the full moon, but didn’t go down for the lunar rainbow, though I do regret that. We visited the falls on foot from the Zim side, took a helicopter ride over the Falls, and did the picnic lunch at Livingstone Island. Lunch (or tea or whatever) at Livingstone Island was well worth it, and really great particularly after having seen the falls from the Zim side earlier in the day. I'm glad that we did it in that order. We were definitely not very comfortable walking around the town of Vic Falls without an escort due to the constant harassment, and we spend a fair amount of time in NYC. We were frustrated leaving town, because our flight our was scheduled for the early afternoon (1:30), but we ended up leaving around 5 (so late that we almost left without them due to losing the light) because the couple who was joining us on our flight to Hwange National Park had been held up crossing the Zambia-Zim border. They also weren't aware to pack in small soft bags for the flights, so needed to repack all of their things after they arrived. From the sounds of their itinerary, it was poor planning on the part of their agent. We were really upset we spent the entire afternoon in the airport and that, because of that, we missed our afternoon game drive at Davison's.
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100105010973961.2441982.10280&type=3&l=b5738a72e2

Three nights at Davison's Camp in Hwange. Probably the low point on our trip, but not because of the camp itself. Our guide here was just awful. It seemed like all the game that we ended up seeing was purely accidental and usually not spotted by him. (A young girl was the one who spotted the lions that we saw from a distance.) Also a different experience because we had been used to going off road in the private concessions in the Okevango, and of course couldn't do that in the national park. And it was COLD and cloudy! We had to wear all of our layers even in the middle of the day. The clouds made for fantastic sunset pictures with elephant silhouettes, though!, I LOVED watching the elephants at the waterhole in front of the camp. I’m definitely glad that we went because of all the eles which was certainly the highlight here. We also saw a steenbok up close (my favorite antelope; I want one for a housepet!) and had a great experience when an eland leapt in just 10 yards in front of the jeep. Also saw waterbuck, lions drinking at a water hole, the world’s cutest curled up sleeping jackal (just like our dog at home!).
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100105202839461.2442033.10280&type=3&l=d1b9d980a1

From Davison’s, we flew to Ruckomechi where we departed for the three night Mana Pools canoe trail, but not before we walked up to a pack of wild dogs that were sleeping in the shade. A very nice welcome! We loved the different pace of this and dodging he hippos and crocs! Not just about seeing animals, but really about the experience, though we had some great viewings too, including elephants coming down to the water as we were floating by and swimming between islands. We enjoyed walking and seeing different things from that perspective. We're so glad that we did it. There were a total of four guests, and luckily was a nice group. With a group of that size, it could go either way! The highlight was watching a Goliath heron and fish eagle interact just as we were pulling up to the final camp. On the ride back to Ruckomechi, we were fortunate to see side striped jackals coming in from their evening hunt, a lot of Meribu stork, a variety of eagles (fish, tawny, African crowned), and a nice leopard tortoise that we hung out with for a while. We also barely caught a glimpse of a created guinea fowl in a thicket.
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100107054408901.2442545.10280&type=3&l=960b0d2f89

We spent one final night at Ruckomechi, which I loved. There was just such an abundance of wildlife and I loved the site and beauty of this camp located overlooking the Zambezi. The rooms here were gorgeous. I wish we could have stayed longer! It certainly felt its size, though, and it is a big, big place with about 10 tents. We only had one game drive, but we saw a ton of different animals (I loved the white fronted bee eaters) at a leisurely pace and really enjoyed our guide here and he was the first guide in our travels who had a star chart! (We had been asking everywhere). We spent a long time looking up at the stars after sundowners.
Photos here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100107527725371.2442727.10280&type=3&l=acfb1a61f5

I think we got just what we wanted out of the trip--we saw a lot of different environments, had a variety of experiences and, at the end of the day, came away feeling very fortunate in our sightings. It was perfect! Thanks to all who here who helped answer questions along the way!

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