We didn’t disappear. But there is zero connectivity in the area of Botswana we were visiting.
Botswana, the final leg of our journey was the country that originally inspired this trip. Botswana is the second flattest country in the world after Mauritius, and is home to the largest population of elephants in Africa. Landlocked by Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Zambia, the country is about 582,000 square kilometres, 80% of which is comprised of the Kalahari desert. The entire population of this vast country is a mere 2,030,000 – less than the City of Toronto! We headed to the southern region of the world famous Okavango Delta wetlands, the largest inland delta system on Earth.
Our 4 seater flight from Livingstone, piloted by the knowledgable Kirsty, took us to the first point of entry into Botswana – Kasane- a teensy spec of an airport in the middle of nowhere. Our passports stamped, we hopped onto another 4 seater, commandeered by James, to be whisked to the airstrip near Vumbura Plains, our final camp.
The site from the air was breathtaking as James obtained permission to fly low along the banks of the Chobe River, so we could see large herds of elephant and hippo drinking at the waters’ edge for miles. The stunning scenery only highlighted the vastness of the landscape as the horizon stretched for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see.
As we got closer to our destination, the terrain became dustier and drier. When we landed the temperature was 38 Celsius.
We were greeted at an airstrip in the middle of nowhere with cold, wet towels and warm greetings from our driver as we began the 40 minute ride to camp along the very sandy and sometimes very wet roads. Compared to the groomed roads of Sabi Sand, these were very rugged and bumpy and I was thankful for my sports bra. Along the way we saw giraffe, buffalo, baboons and elephant. A good start.
Our arrival at camp was greeted by camp manager Annabelle and her boss Roger with more cold towels and refreshing drinks. Our first impression of this camp was how very different it was from Londolozi. The terrain is really flat and rather than being elevated and surrounded by lush foliage, the main lodge is right at the edge of magnificent wetlands with an unspoiled, natural view that goes on forever.The lodge itself is very contemporary for Africa, with low buildings stretching north to south, joined by elevated wooden walkways.
Annabelle filled us in on the ebb and flow of our upcoming days at camp, reviewed the safety procedures and had us sign our lives away in the event of any animal encounters. Vumbura Plains is a very isolated camp, as are most, if not all of those in the Delta. No Internet, no telephones – no connection with the outside world at all. In the event of a real emergency, Annabelle has a satellite phone, but that’s it. If there is an emergency while in your room, you have an air horn – three long blasts and turn on all your lights so they know which of the seven cabins has the issue. Camp staff communicate via walkie talkie only. Staff work three months on, one month off, and until they return to civilization they have no way of knowing what’s going on anywhere in the world unless a guest fills them in. But honestly, they don’t seem to care. Not one person asked about what’s in the news. What an amazing way to live.
Our room, #7 in North Camp, was the farthest from the main lodge which meant a lengthy walk both directions, something we both needed after all the eating and drinking we’d been enjoying. North Camp has 7 cabins, as does South Camp, though South Camp is about a kilometre down the path and operates separately. We were instructed not to walk the paths in the dark, either morning or night, without an experienced escort as the game travel right through camp. In fact the walkways dip down in several spots to allow the animals to cross from one side to the other. We were reminded to stop and look in both directions before continuing along the path.
Vumbura Plains is a Premier Camp in the Wilderness Safari portfolio and is appointed beautifully, but it is very rustic compared to a camp like Londolozi, so it had a very different feel – much more like “glamping”. Our cabin was completely open on three sides but screened in. The suite was huge and comprised of the sleeping area, a sunken living room, exposed sinks, an amazing shower, as well as a separate outdoor shower, private water closet and a beautiful outdoor area with loungers, a plunge pool and table and chairs. There are no door locks so it’s important to remember to latch the room to keep the baboons out!
At night a mosquito net drapes the bed but it feels like you’re sleeping right outside as the sounds of the Delta are almost deafening. From the insects to the frogs, the night birds to the hippos chomping and sloshing 30 feet from your bed, to the elephants wandering through camp, and the baboons issuing warning cries, sleeping does not come easily at first. In fact the first night I think my eyes were wide open the entire night as every sound had my imagination running wild. Eventually you succumb to the sounds and they lull you to sleep. In fact on our final morning I mentioned to Michael I thought it had been a very quiet night because I had slept so soundly. He,on the other hand was up most of the night listening to the two hippos conversing for hours, one on either side of our cabin.
Mornings come a bit later than at Londolozi, with a knock on our gate at 5:30 a.m. followed by an escort to breakfast at 6:00. Look at the sunrise we awoke to every morning!
By 6:30 we were in the trucks and headed out to see what the day would bring. The topography is very different here, as compared to South Africa, and we kept reminding ourselves to stop comparing and go with the flow. Literally!
By March, the water has receded and there are huge swaths of dry lands with water pans spread throughout the landscape. Occasionally we encountered stretches of water which the Land Rovers manage handily. By April the floods will start and much of the land will be completely underwater with only islands here and there and necessitating the use of boats to get around. The road quality is pretty poor and we had to get used to lots of bumping around. The grass is extremely tall at this time of year and smaller game sighting can be difficult. Unlike Londolozi where there was game at every turn, we had to look for it here, often driving long distances. But the rewards were great, particularly when it came to elephant as there is an abundance of large family groups of these huge creatures throughout the reserve.
We saw one pride of lions a few times, as they seemed to stay in the same area.
There were several types of antelope we hadn’t previously encountered including the Lechwe, who runs like a dog with his head low to the ground, a Tsessebee, the fastest antelope, and the rare Sabl, not often found in this part of the continent. The female Sabl is red and the male is black.
We watched baboon families groom, frolic, eat and scold, remarking on their many human characteristics.
What are we looking at?
We had one lone leopard sighting, but she was very skittish and we didn’t have much time to observe her behaviour.
This hyena is pregnant and also has a den of cubs right nearby. She has some sort of abrasion on her back but otherwise looks to be in good health.
One day as we crossed this wooden bridge, we encountered this big guy moving slowly under our vehicle and slinking away.
We noticed a huge proliferation of many types of birds including many we had not seen previously.
Vumbura Plains provided many special and thoughtful touches we hadn’t encountered before. As the sun was setting, Russell, our guide/tracker would pull off the road into a clearing and poof, there would be an entire bar set up with lovely hors d’oeuvres and the other guests of North Camp gathered together to enjoy a traditional “sundowner”.
On another occasion, we had finished the morning drive and pulled off road to discover this gorgeous lunch set up in the bush.
These surprises were very special and were highlighted by the presence of many VP staff members who were wonderful hosts. Camp managers, trackers and guides shared our communal table at mealtimes and the conversation was always lively. We loved that at VP, cocktails and mealtimes were communal, providing a wonderful way to meet people from all over the world, share stories of sightings and discoveries, and make new friends.
On our final day we wanted to go on a macuro ride in the Delta. This traditional dugout canoe with a shallow draught is propelled through the water by skilled polemen, most of whom learn to pole as kids. Once the main way to transport goods throughout the Delta, the macuro is now mainly used for fishing, scenic viewing and to share tradition and culture with visitors. We lowered ourselves into our macuro as Pro poled us expertly through the lily festooned marsh, explaining the wildlife and the delicate ecosystem. The millions of midges danced all around us as the skater flies feasted and the frogs began to sing as daylight was waning. It was a peaceful and beautiful sight to behold.
On our final night at Camp, we enjoyed a traditional Botswana meal around the fire in the Boma which started with the camp staff singing traditional music and sharing their cultural dances. The harmonies were beautiful but what I will always remember is how happy the music sounded. These are a joy-filled people!
It was hard to believe our trip of a lifetime was coming to a close. The rugged beauty of Botswana had captured our hearts. We know we will return.