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I Speak (briefly) of Africa: Vic Falls and Botswan April-May 2007

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Hello everyone,

As promised, here is a brief trip report on my visit to Botswana. The itinerary was as follows:

Sindabezi x1
Tongabezi x1
River Club x2
Motswiri x2
Selinda x3 (including a visit to the newly renovated Savuti)
Chitabe Camp x1
Chitabe Trails x2

Mobile safari with Uncharted Africa x6
* 2 nights in the Delta (Moremi Game Reserve)
* 2 nights at Jack's Camp
* 2 nights with the Bushmen in the western Kalahari

Joburg x2 (Melrose Arch)

Originally I had planned two nights at Tongabezi, but when I arrived the management persuaded me to spend a night at Sindabezi. I’m so glad I did – this place is very special and really needs to be experienced to understand its unique charm. It’s an idyllic barefoot luxury retreat on an island on the middle of the Zambezi, with a tranquil ambiance and a very personal feel – it’s a place for relaxing, recharging, and enjoying the experience of just being in Africa. There are only 5 chalets (all facing the river) and the atmosphere is very informal. The food was excellent. There’s no electricity and at night the camp is lit by hurricane lanterns which is lovely. The honeymoon chalet has a particularly nice view of the river, and the ‘Parker’ chalet (the favourite of the owner, Ben Parker) has a little lawn with a table in front. There is a little eddy in the river which generates the sound of running water and you fall asleep to the sounds of hippos laughing. At the same time, you’re only 15 minutes by boat from Tongabezi and all the activities on offer there.

Tongabezi is definitely a front-runner for the title of ‘most romantic place I’ve stayed in Africa.’ The houses are even more gorgeous than they look on the website, and the cottages are very comfortable as well. Sitting in one of those tubs and looking out onto the river has to be one of the most romantic experiences I can imagine. Each house is unique – the Dog House is the most spacious (it can theoretically sleep four), the Honeymoon House has a lawn in front, and the Tree House is the only one on two stories. The Tree House, the Dog House, and the cottages are down at the river’s edge, whereas the Honeymoon House and the Bird House are further up the river bank and have better views. The accommodation is so nice it almost seems like a shame to leave the lodge to go out on any activities! The food was superb (I definitely recommend do the san-pan dinner on the pontoon) and there was a warm, personal welcome from the staff (each room has its own valet). While at Tonga I visited the Zambian side of the Falls (it’s about a 30-minute drive) and went canoeing on the Zambezi (a first for me – we canoed to Sindabezi). Unfortunately, as it was the weekend, I wasn’t able to visit the school.

The River Club is just downstream from Tongabezi (I transferred between them by boat). If you’re driving from the airport you actually take the same turn off for both lodges. RC is set higher on the bank than Tonga and all of the rooms have sweeping views of the river (though the views from the family cottage, Litunga, are especially nice). There are two types of accommodation at RC -- normal cottages and honeymoon cottages. The main difference is that the honeymoon cottages are less 'safari' looking (they're yellow stucco rather than dark reeds and wood) and they're on one floor instead of two (the loos in the normal cottages are on the bottom floor -- though ground-floor loos are being installed as we speak). I think both are equally nice in terms of accommodation, but the honeymoon cottages are a bit more spacious and have a little private garden in front which is nice. You can ask for a double bed in the regular cottages as well as the honeymoon cottages. There is also one family cottage with two bedrooms -- this is the only one which can't be closed off with screens (though there are mosquito nets for sleeping). Peter Jones is a fantastic host in the eccentric Englishman mode -- he's been in Zambia for over 14 years and has a lot of interesting stories to tell! Beware the bugle, though...I'd advise you to pass it on if it comes your way at dinner :S- The staff at RC are excellent and very welcoming (as is Peter’s yellow Labrador, Charlie) though a bit more formal in manner than those at Tonga (this does not, of course, apply to Charlie – who ever met a formal Labrador?). The food at RC often gets a bad rap (it's described as British, and you can't get much worse than that :-S) but I found it to be quite good -- much more high table than school dinners. While at RC I did a helicopter flight over the falls, visited Simonga Village, and visited the Zimbabwean side of the falls. Some people on the forum have commented that the village visit wasn’t great (people trying to sell shoddy curios, begging children) but my experience at the village was excellent. The villages whose homes we visited have given permission for people to take photos so there was no awkwardness involved on that score. We were guided by a member of the local community and people went on about their lives as if we weren’t there. No one tried to sell us anything, and the only thing the children begged for was the chance to see themselves on the screens of our digital cameras. I’d probably credit Peter’s policy of encouraging guests to give to the community fund rather than to individuals for the changes. Sunset cruises are wonderful, and Peter knew of a place where there was a colony of white-fronted bee-eaters for us to see (and in my case to fail to photograph).

Motswiri is an unusual camp with an unusual location, on the western edge of the Selinda reserve on the border between the Delta and the Linyanti. Motswiri offers some unusual activities, including canoeing and swimming in the Delta (and, in the near future, snorkelling). You can canoe right from camp when the floods are in, and I spent one morning canoeing through the Delta with my guide, BB (Barberton) who some people may know from Selinda. There’s no pool, but I did swim in the hippo and croc-free Delta swimming hole (very refreshing!). They were awaiting some snorkelling gear so I didn’t have a chance to try that activity but it sounds fun (this will be done only in shallow clear channel where the bottom can be seen). In the past Motswiri was a hunting camp, and the game is still noticeably shier than at other camps I’ve visited. That being said I had very good sightings of a large herd of buffalo, elephants, and I even saw a sable as well. I also had a stunning sighting of a fish eagle drying its wings after diving for a fish. According to the guides, the game-viewing really comes into its own during the dry season (following a Linyanti pattern rather than a Delta one in that respect) with animals coming down to the water in front of the camp. Motswiri is a very simple camp, with only 4 Meru tents on concrete platforms and a small lounge/dining area. The tents are set along the Selinda Spillway, and while I was there the floods were coming in and slowly moving down the spillway. I could see and hear elephants coming down to drink from my tent, and saw buffalo as well. The camp prides itself on a personalised approach, and there’s no set programme – it’s all planned around what the guests would like to do.

Most people fly from Motswiri to Selinda, but I elected to drive so I could see the middle section of the reserve which isn’t visited very often by vehicles from the camps. I’m very glad I did, as we found two young male cheetahs about 17km from Motswiri. They’re the sons of the Savuti Boys and have been pushed out of their fathers’ territory. Motswiri is good cheetah country, so hopefully they will take up residence there.

NB Renovations are scheduled for this camp which will include adding one more tent (in a great location, surrounded on two sides by water) and replacing the tents with the current Zib tents. Zib is due to be completely rebuilt at a six-paw level this summer (December 2007 – January/February 2008).

Selinda was a striking contrast to Motswiri. Guiding at Selinda (by Motsamai) was superb – activities were very flexible and we went out as early as we wanted and stayed out as long as we wanted, even doing a late night drive after dinner. I’d hoped to do the full moon count but it didn’t coincide with my time in camp. Even without the full-moon count I had superb sightings of the Selinda pride of lions (with five little cubs) including seeing them on a kill, as well as large breeding herds of ellies, hippos coming out of the water, and plentiful plains game. Selinda is a larger, more luxurious camp with 9 rooms spread out along the Selinda Spillway. (Zane, the manager, said that they are shooting for six-paw status, but I’m not sure about this given the plans to make Zib a six-paw camp as it seems a bit odd to have two six-paws effectively next door to one another…). The Selinda lounge is certainly of a six-paw level, and the rooms are gorgeous (though not so spacious at those at other six-paw camps). The bathrooms in particular are lovely – an interesting architectural compromise which uses mesh windows to bring the breezes and sunlight of the outdoors in while keeping the insects out. Both the lounge and rooms have great views over the Spillway – I saw elephants coming down to drink and a hippo with a small calf forgaing in the reeds. The food at Selinda is excellent and diner is served ‘six-paw style’ with a menu rather than a buffet. I missed the opening of what has to be the only art gallery in the Botswana bush by a few days – the art hadn’t arrived yet. It’s since been installed in the upper part of the former dining area (the lower part is the curio shop and wine cellar). The gallery will feature the work of Mark Joubert (Dereck’s brother) as well as promoting the work of local artists.

NB Upgrades still to be completed are a new pool (the old one will most likely go to the honeymoon suite) and replacement of the furniture in the fireplace area. Zane is also considering building a star-gazing / birdwatching deck with a spotting scope. Internet access is due to be installed in the near future.

I was fortunate enough to be able to drive over to the newly renovated Savuti Camp while staying at Selinda. We were on a mission to get to Savuti (it’s a long drive, about 2.5 hours) so we didn’t really stop to look for game, but I still saw plenty of ellies, buffalo, and lots of plains game. It’s been dry in Botswana this year, and there were already ellies and zebbies at the waterhole in front of the camp. The camp is stunning – the tents are much larger and all of them now have indoor loos and showers. The new colour scheme uses lighter colours and gives the tents an airy feel, as does the use of curtains to separate the sleeping and bathroom areas. One tent has been added (for a total of 7 tents) but it still feels very small and intimate. The new family room (now located where the honeymoon tent used to be, at Tent 1) was particularly impressive, with an innovative design which has two tents side-by-side, each with its own separate bathroom – this would also be a great choice for two singles travelling together, though out of all the rooms this one has the least impressive view of the waterhole. The lounge has undergone a rebuild which makes it much more spacious. Perhaps most important, the staff are as warm and friendly as ever – several people recognised me from my last stay and welcomed me back.

NB There are plans to add some more special features to the new honeymoon tent, which will probably be the new Tent 7 (on the far side to the right when you are facing the waterhole from the lounge).

Game-viewing at Chitabe was incredible – I saw wild dogs on three out of six drives, and followed them on two hunts. The alpha female is pregnant and Dave Hamman thought that she was likely looking for a place to den (so if you’re going to Chitabe soon, keep your fingers crossed!). I also saw lions stalking a large herd of buffalo (unsuccessfully), had a superb sighting of two honey badgers, and was mock-charged by three animals in one day (an elephant, a hippo, and an impala). Life never gets boring at Chitabe! I had two guides during my stay – OT at Chitabe Camp and the legendary Newman at Chitabe Trails. Both were excellent – OT has been in the reserve for 9 years, and Newman as many of you know has been there basically forever. I’d highly recommend either one. I also unexpectedly ran into some familiar faces on the management side – Selene and Dawson, who had been at Duma Tau when I stayed there, are now managing Chitabe Camp. The common areas of both camps have recently been re-done and are lovely – the fireplace area at Chitabe Trails is particularly nice, and the views out into the little channel in front are great from both the lounge and the tents at CT. The tents at both camps are identical – very comfortable walk-in Meru tents with wooden floors and indoor and outdoor showers. They’re 10 years old and are beginning to show their age a bit, but are due for renovation this summer. Chitabe Camp is larger and more sociable, whereas Chitabe Trails is smaller, quieter, and more intimate – it depends on what you prefer. CT has better views from camp with the little channel in front drawing animals down to drink – I saw elephants, impala, and kudu. There are also some lovely resident bushbuck in camp. One night I had a close encounter of the elephant kind when I was walking back to my tent and found a large bull elephant browsing the tree next to it – Newman sent him on his way with a few words and some of those cryptic Newman gestures (those of you who have travelled with him will know what I mean).

NB I’ll admit that we cheated a bit with the wild dogs – I had a meeting with Tico McNutt (head of the Botswana Predator Conservation Project and author of Running Wild) and he saw them as he flew in and provided the coordinates. But Newman and Dave did spent two hours bashing through the bush to find them, so I think we earned it!

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