Gaurang's Trip Report - 28 days in Botswana

Old Nov 30th, 2006, 11:09 AM
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Gaurang's Trip Report - 28 days in Botswana

INTRODUCTION

We returned from Botswana five days ago and as this report will be very long, I thought that I had better start it soon. Before I start this marathon, I would like to give special thanks and gratitude to the Fodorites whose knowledge and experiences helped me to put this trip together, especially every Botswana trip report during the last 18 months (you know who you are ). It was meant to be a 2-week trip but thanks to Fodors, it expanded to 4 weeks!!!! My wife, Jayna, made accurate records of all sightings made during the 28 days (including animals seen around camp, during day drives and during night drives).

Jayna and I are not new to safaris this was my 9th safari and Jayna’s 5th, but this was our first trip to Botswana. It was also our longest ever trip with 28 consecutive days in the bush and not a single night spent in any African city or town. I am probably what most people would describe as a hardcore safari enthusiast and treasure every moment spent out in the bush. Depending on the availability of flights, I always try to plan my itineraries so that I can maximize my time out in the bush and avoid spending time in cities and towns. This is not always possible but living in London increases your chances of accomplishing this. For example you can jump on an overnight flight from London to Nairobi, Lusaka, or Johannesburg (9-11 hours) arriving in Africa early the next morning to reach your first camp by lunchtime. Also if possible I try to spend at least 3 or more nights in each area as this allows me to explore and learn more about my surroundings. This also helps to build a better relationship with the guide - a very important factor.

For me, luxurious rooms and camps are not necessary (I would be happy in a sleeping bag and dome tent) but good guiding, location and the amount of time spent out in the bush are paramount. I don’t know why but when I am on safari even things like food and sleep seem to come in the way of what I have come to Africa for. But spending such a long time in private concessions in Botswana was not going to come cheap and considering amount of unavoidable luxury that we were going to face – we decided that this was going to be our second honeymoon (4 years after the first one). We thought we might as well get our money’s worth!!!!

My favourite animals are snakes, particularly the venomous ones. This is an animal that is very hard to see and even more difficult to find (also try telling a guide that you want to find snakes and take a photo of the unsettling look on his face!!!!). This trip was no different, where almost every guide I met had a serious phobia of snakes and thought that I was absolutely crazy. Many of the guides hate all snakes and even the harmless ones are regarded as evil. Jayna can not even look at them. I have total respect for these creatures and I am not stupid enough to try to touch them or track them but I really enjoy seeing them from a safe distance. Africa’s most feared and my favourite snake is the black mamba. All I wanted was one good sighting of this magnificent animal that has eluded me for so long. My second favourite animal is the honey badger, another animal that most guides try to avoid getting close to. Funnily enough, honey badgers enjoy eating venomous snakes!!!! The trip was also planned with an emphasis on potential wild dog sightings. Although I had seen wild dogs before in a fenced reserve in South Africa, deep in my heart I could not class them as true “wild” dogs. I needed to see the real thing where no fences hinder the expansive movement of these wonderful animals. I am too experienced to expect to see certain animals and I know that luck plays a major part in many sightings. I am also experienced enough to know that if you spend more time in your room or sitting by the pool, the odds of having great sightings are stacking up against you. You will also notice from this report that we spent most of our activity time on game drives and did not do too many alternative activities. This was our choice primarily because it increases the chances for better photography and video of game. I also enjoy night game drives they are not to everyone’s liking but I love them, where sleeping lions during the day become feared hunters during the night. Jayna was on photography duty and I was on video duty. We are not experts with the cameras but we really love and enjoy what we do.

Our itinerary was:

4 nights Chitabe Trails Camp (NG31, Chitabe)
3 nights Duba Plains Camp (NG23, Duba Plains)
4 nights Savuti Camp (NG15, Linyanti)
4 nights Lebala Camp (NG14, Kwando)
2 nights Lagoon Camp (NG14, Kwando)
3 nights Lebala Camp (NG14, Kwando)
4 nights Little Kwara Camp (NG20, Kwara)
3 nights Kwetsani Camp (NG25, Jao)

We witnessed some amazing spectacles in Botswana. We took 5000 photos and have 17 hours of video footage. This is our story…..
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 11:23 AM
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Gaurang,

I can see this is going to be a brilliant report. 28 consecutive days in the bush...for me, something to dream about! And not a care about luxury! I am also envious that you were able to reach the bush without an overnight stay in a city...unfortunately, airline schedules from Australia do not permit that privilege.

John
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 11:23 AM
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This is going to be a good one. I can just tell.
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 12:56 PM
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Gaurang,

I am looking forward to read your trip report. And you had a superb itinerary.

This year, I was lucky to see Johannesburg first because the dentist had to pull out a tooth there before I flew out to Lebala.

Best regards,

Johan

 
Old Nov 30th, 2006, 01:17 PM
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I totally agree on the sleep and staying in the room thing. When in Africa, my thinking is I can sleep plenty when I'm home.
And in between game drives (which I always push to the max time limit possible) I try and do bush walks.

And I'm glad to see another snake/black mamba fan. They are such cunning, fascinating creatures.

Waiting, with anticipation, for the rest of the story (and photos!)
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 01:42 PM
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Gaurang: your style sounds a lot like mine but I've never had that many days out -- I don't think I have been this excited for a trip report before.
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 03:11 PM
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Hey Gaurang!
Looking forward to the trip report proper! Sounds like it was a great trip! I too am what you call a hardcore safari enthusiast and on our last trip we had a LOT of safari time - there were some non-safari punctuations but our total safari nights on the trip came to over 30! I could have happily spent another 30 immediately afterwards but the finances and diary ruled it out!!!
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 03:54 PM
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I expect to savor this report. 28 nights, no cities?!? I'm exhausted--but exhilarated--for you. Can't wait to read more.
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 04:59 PM
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Gaurang,

A marathon (standard on) is 26 miles....with 28 days worth of report, sounds like you need to take a couple of additional steps.....and look forward to every bit of it, as i'm sure is going to be brilliant.

Thanks,
Hari
 
Old Nov 30th, 2006, 06:59 PM
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Have not had a chance to read it but wanted to let you know that I am looking forward to it with great anticipation.
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Old Nov 30th, 2006, 11:55 PM
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Cant wait to hear matey. This must have been awesome...
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 05:04 AM
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"I don’t know why but when I am on safari even things like food and sleep seem to come in the way of what I have come to Africa for. "

Guarang - now those two pleasures in life (sleep and food) are truly treasured in my "normal" day life, but like you when in Africa they are secondary to me. I am still a safari rookie only having been on 2 safaris, but on those 2 trips I never napped, as I did not want to miss one moment of viewing the wildlife all around the camps I stayed at.

You are truly blessed to have had 28 days in the bush and I look forward to reading about your experience.
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 06:02 AM
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Well? Let's get on with it!! ;-)
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 06:47 AM
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DAY 1 – MEETING A LEGEND

After an uneventful 10.5 hour overnight flight from London Heathrow (with Virgin Atlantic), we arrived in Johannesburg at 7:00am. We went through passport control, waited ages for our luggage to come out of hold (that will teach us to put fragile stickers on our duffle bags – which apparently come out last!!!) and went upstairs to departures to pick up our Air Botswana tickets. Our flight to Maun was at 10:00am so we still had plenty of time. In the departure lounge of Jo’burg airport, there is a very useful pharmacy where you can pick up any items that you may have forgotten to pack (as we did because we packed the same morning that we left). But they only supply antimalarials such as Malarone and Lariam on the presentation of a prescription from a South African registered doctor. Pharmacies outside of the airport may be more relaxed about such rules. The flight to Maun left about 20 minutes late (which was meant to be quite good for Air Botswana) and took 80-90 minutes. On landing in Maun, we were met by a Sefofane representative who whisked our luggage away from us and gave us a posh Wilderness Safaris itinerary pack. Before long we were boarding a Cesna 206 (5 seater) for our short flight to the Chitabe/Sandibe airstrip.

The flight from Maun was only 15 minutes but during that journey we saw 3 breeding herds of elephants (about 70 elephants in total), a small herd of buffalo and a herd of tsessebe – I was back!!!!! Despite only 2 hours sleep during the last 30 hours, I was now wide awake. We were met at the airstrip by Andrea – a new young guide based at Chitabe Trails. Andrea explained that our guide during the stay would be Newman who we would meet later before our first game drive. Little did we know then, that poor Andrea would be subjected to a very strange and scary experience during our stay. The drive to the camp was about 20 minutes, during which we encountered some magnificent male greater kudus, southern giraffes and impala.

Earlier this year northern Botswana experienced excessive rains and the “November” rains had started earlier during the first week of October – so there was plenty of water around and the big herds of elephants had already moved (but even during the driest times, the numbers were small compared to the gatherings of 2005). During September, Chitabe had a huge fire where 20% of the concession was burnt and the fire almost reached the camps necessitating the evacuation of all guests from both Chitabe camps. It was a very scary event for all involved but newly burnt areas combined with early rains are great ingredients for good game viewing – we would have to wait and see.

On arrival at Chitabe Trails we were greeted by Josephine who was managing the camp with Kenny. We were the only guests there but were to be joined by more guests later in the afternoon. The camp only accommodates 10 guests and had been recently refurbished – it was beautiful, very spacious and in a great setting but still had a strong African character about it. All rooms, lounge and dining areas overlook a small channel which still had small amounts of water in it. After a brief introduction, we were shown to Room 1 (Honeymoon room) via a network of raised walkways. The honeymoon room was furthest away from the main area – this was something we got used to during our trip but it at least it was a poor excuse for exercise. As we walked along the walkways, we were followed by a huge bull elephant parallel to us on the other side of the narrow channel. When we reached our room, he also stopped in clear view of our verandah and started to feed. What a wonderful greeting!!!! But we also needed to feed, so after freshening up we had a light meal before unpacking and preparing for the afternoon game drive.

At 4pm we met for some drinks and nibbles and then we met Newman – our guide for the next four days. Let me introduce Newman for those that do not know him. Newman has been a guide for 28 years and has legendary status throughout Botswana. Every other guide that we met during this trip had either heard of Newman or had met him. As well as guiding in Botswana, he has worked in Zimbabwe and South Africa (Sabi Sands). He took a small break in his guiding career to work as a camera assistant for National Geographic, but his love for the bush made him return to guiding. Newman is from a bushman tribe but does not drink, smoke and, surprisingly, is a strict vegetarian (his family think there is something wrong with him!!!!). He is the head guide for the Chitabe camps and was actually involved in the building of the original camp. The Chitabe camps are owned by Dave and Hélène Hamman and Newman was one of the first people they contacted when starting the Chitabe camp project, following previous work with him. The owners also co-produced the book “Running Wild – Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dog” and are still heavily involved in wild dog research. Jayna and I have never met a guide who is so in-tune with the bush and he is also the best bush driver we have ever experienced. In a spooky way, it’s almost as if he understands the different sounds of the bush and what they actually mean – you have to see him in action to understand. Newman is a very calm and modest man with a good sense of humour. When he talks on the radio, you can not hear him speak even when sitting right behind him – we were always wondering if the other guides could hear him? Newman is the type of guide that will suddenly stop unexpectedly and be completely silent. If it is important he will explain why he stopped, otherwise he will silently move on. It’s as though it would be an insult to even question such actions – this is a master at work. During night drives, he even notices the spotlight reflections from the eyes of spiders....yes spiders!!!!! He has had some amazing experiences from his earlier years before Chitabe, including being surrounded by a pride of lions during an unarmed walking safari. He had two guests with him that day that were hiding behind him when one of the females with cubs charged him twice during that situation. The second charge only stopped 2 meters short of him but he had to stand his ground to have any chance of saving the lives of his guests and himself. He has also had his vehicle turned on to its side by a bull elephant in musth also with 2 guests in the vehicle. He has many more amazing stories to tell. There are many good guides and even some great guides but I would class Newman as a phenomenal guide. He was amazing and fortunately, he was testing out a specially modified Land Rover during our time with him (I think it was designed to destroy mopane).....lucky us!!!!!!!

Newman gave us an update regarding the Chitabe pack of wild dogs. They had not been seen for 2 weeks and even leave the concession during their travels. For those that are familiar with the BBC’s Planet Earth series, it was the Chitabe pack that were filmed from the air during hunts. These sequences were filmed during June 2005 when the dogs were denning. Strangely, all of the dogs filmed during those scenes have now left the concession and the alpha male and female were last seen in the area of Stanley’s Camp. Fortunately, the surviving pups that were in the den during the filming have remained in the concession and are now 18 months old. The good news was that 5 pups grew to be strong, healthy adults BUT they were all females. Luckily, 2 male dogs (probably from Moremi) have joined these females to form a strong pack of 7 dogs. There is great hope that breeding will occur to cement the status of this new Chitabe pack. The researchers have already identified and collared the potential alpha male and female from this group. But it was fascinating to learn that the adults had moved out to leave the land to their offspring.

(to be continued.......)
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 07:04 AM
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WOW! How lucky for you have had Newman for your guide. He sounds just like my kind of guide!
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 08:37 AM
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Loved your description of Newman. I was privileged to have him on as my walking trails gude.

Thanks for the update on the dogs. I am glad that 5 of them have survived.
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 09:25 AM
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Wow! Sounding <i>marvellous</i> so far
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 10:32 AM
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As if I wasn't already anticipating Chitabe trails ! Keep those exc. details coming. I may have to request Newman, now.
Loving this report so far.
Sherry
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 11:56 AM
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how great you had such a legend for your guide.
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Old Dec 1st, 2006, 02:34 PM
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DAY 1 (CONTINUED)

The BBC seemed to have a permanent camp set up within the concession. When no filming is taking place, the camp is looked after by a man who stays there by himself. He does have radio contact with Chitabe camp but we did feel sorry for him being all on his own for weeks and weeks. The guides had no sympathy for him stating that he enjoys living there and spends most of his time sleeping. Even the BBC specifically requested for Newman to assist the ground team during the wild dog filming but he was already booked for a private vehicle safari by guests which took priority.

The schedule at Chitabe Trails was a 5:00am wake-up call followed by a quick breakfast at 5:30am (choices included cereals, toast, muffins, fruit, hot drinks and juices), leaving the camp between 5:45-6:00am. The return to camp was between 10:00 and 11:00am for a cooked brunch, followed by siesta time (if you need to sleep). At 4:00pm, it’s time for iced tea and another quick snack with the aim of leaving the camp between 4:15-4:30pm for the afternoon drive. After your return dinner is served between 8:00 and 9:00pm. You also get fed during the morning tea/coffee stop and during sundowners. I was expecting a 5kg increase during these 4 weeks!!!!

We headed off for our first game drive and were joined by another very nice couple from the UK (for the duration of our stay at Chitabe Trails, there were never more than 4 people in our vehicle). This concession was action-packed and we were being spoilt – during our first drive the highlights included zebra, blue wildebeest, giraffes, a few elephant bulls, wattled cranes, hyenas, impala, warthog, a secretary bird, ground hornbills, several slender mongooses, and a congregation of over one hundred great white and pink-backed pelicans . But the star of the show was a very relaxed female leopard. Newman received radio communication that she had been spotted and wanted to find her while there was still good light (it’s always a good sign when your guide is concerned about the quality of light at a sighting). We eventually found her with one other vehicle near the sighting but she was very mobile and was taking a stroll through mopane woodland. But this didn’t stop Newman from following her and it was nice to do some real off-road driving. This girl looked quite young but she was actually 6-7 years old and just small for an adult female leopard. She eventually settled down and gave us a wonderful display by rolling around on the ground close to the vehicle. The light was fading so we decided to leave her to avoid hindering any potential hunting (following an animal through mopane woodland is very noisy, so the stealthy approach of a leopard would be easily blown). We travelled a short and safe distance away from her to enjoy some sundowners. It was now time to head back to camp in the dark where Newman drove and controlled the spotlight. We encountered more hyena, a large spotted genet, African wild cat, giraffes, spring hares, scrub hares and a breeding herd of elephants (for me it’s always a heart-stopping moment when you’re suddenly surprised by elephants during a night drive – but highly enjoyable). All in all, not bad for a first game drive – let’s hope this continues!!!! This camp looks fantastic with its mellow lighting at night, especially the lounge and dining area with a fire burning close by. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner and spent time getting to know our hosts, guides and fellow guests.

Surprisingly we had no problems with insects at night-time during our stay here, which can be a problem during dinner time. Even the mosquitoes in Chitabe were well behaved. During our stay here Jayna only got 3 or 4 bites and I was ignored completely. But little did I know that this smile would be wiped off my face with a vengeance at some of our other camps
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