Wednesday, September 30, 2015


After a brief stint in Zambia, we took a ferry across the river to Botswana.  One of the most successful countries in Africa, Botswana has been stable and democratic since its independence from the UK in 1966.  Poor at independence, Botswana has been well-managed and now boasts the highest credit rating in Africa, the highest Human Development Index ranking in Sub-Saharan Africa (not including Mauritius), and the highest Democracy Index score in Africa (again, not including Mauritius).  Like with all countries, problems persist, including income inequality and one of the highest HIV rates in the world, but overall, Botswana isn’t doing too badly, and it definitely showed that Botswana was richer than Zambia.  Mining, beef, and tourism are major pillars of the economy and the government does their best to protect their industries, including quarantine and customs checkpoints to protect cows from disease and strict anti-poaching measures (including a law that states you are free to kill a poacher if you see one) to protect wildlife and keep the tourists coming.  Our main bases were the towns of Kasane and Maun, but we also stopped at Greta and Ghanzi.

A few highlights of my time in Botswana:

Chobe National Park:
Kasane is the jumping off point for wildlife spotting in Chobe National Park – the biggest tourist draw in Botswana.  I had high expectations for Chobe and it absolutely delivered.  We arrived in the afternoon in time for an evening sunset cruise.  Aside from a gorgeous sunset, we saw an abundance of new wildlife, including the animal Chobe is most famous for:  the elephant!  Ok, it wasn’t just one elephant, it was heaps of elephants!  They dotted the land all up and down the Chobe River.  Elephants are the first of the “Big 5” – originally the five most difficult animals for hunters to track and kill, but now a tourist rite of passage – that we saw, but we saw our second – the Cape buffalo – just minutes later.  We saw giraffes, a sable (an elusive, gorgeous black antelope with long curved horns), heaps of impala (a smaller antelope species that reproduces like rabbits), and a bunch of new bird species including the African fish eagle, little egret, yellow-billed egret, and the mighty helmeted guineafowl (which somehow quickly became our trip mascot thanks to a lovely British lad with a bird fetish).

To complement our sunset, we saw the sunrise the next morning on a very early game drive which proved to be rather incredible.  We saw a wide variety of birds including the white-backed vulture, lapet-faced vulture, marabou stork, odd-looking kori bustard, and the absolutely gorgeous lilac-breasted roller, which is very rightly the national bird of Botswana and which you need to Google right now just to see how pretty it is.  Go on, I’ll wait… Ok.  But the big fucking deal was: LIONS!  A whole pride!  First an adult male crossed our path and shortly after we saw several lionesses and juvenile males.  One of the lionesses passed right behind our game drive vehicle.  And by right behind, I mean she was less than about two metres from us. I was sitting in the back corner where she passed and I’m not going to lie: I was quite close to freaking the fuck out.  Our vehicle was open air: no windows, no doors.  Ummm…

In addition to our close encounter with the lion, we also had a line of around thirty or so elephants pass right by us – again, some within just two or three meters of our vehicle.  We also got a lot closer with giraffes, Cape buffalo, and a sable than we did on the sunset cruise.  Finally, we saw our first of many kudu – another species of antelope with curly horns.  For my Jewish friends, I later learned that they use kudu horns to make shofars.  Ooooo!

Baobab trees:
Moving on to Greta, we saw our first zebra and ostriches alongside the road.  We arrived to a campsite full of the odd-looking yet interesting baobab trees.  Cousins to the boab trees of Western Australia, the baobab also grow fat and produce a pod with a delicious powdery interior which reminds me of freeze-dried astronaut food that you can buy at NASA.

Okavango Delta:
Botswana’s next big attraction after Chobe, the Okavango Delta, is the world’s largest inland delta.  I’m a bit of a nerd (ok, I’m a big nerd) but I didn’t even know an inland delta was a thing.  Basically, water from the Okavango River flows into depressed land in Botswana.  With no way of getting to the ocean, the river forms a delta on the land.  The water eventually seeps into the ground, evaporates, or gets drunk by people and animals.  Who knew?

Based in Maun, we took a scenic flight over the delta.  We saw the delta from above and a bit of wildlife, but the plane was tiny, uncomfortable, and hot.  I didn’t really enjoy it and I wish I hadn’t paid the money for it.  Hindsight is 20/20.  The next day, we boarded mokoros – traditional canoes – to head into the delta where we camped for one night.  We witnessed the locals doing traditional song and dance and we did a fantastic game walk.  It was a bit unnerving being without any protection in the middle of nowhere (that was the first time I ever thought that it might be useful to have a gun) but our guides assured us it was safe.  We finally saw some zebra up close (yay!) and we saw a handful of new species too:  wildebeest, great egret, open-billed stork, and the red lechwe.  The red lechwe is an antelope species that has hind legs longer than the front legs to make running in the marshy delta easier.  It may be easier, but it looks absolutely ridiculous.

Khoisan culture:
We spent our final night in Botswana near the town of Ghanzi where we took a tour to learn about traditional Khoisan (bushman) culture.  Some Khoisan youth took us into the bush to show us medicinal leaves, popping seeds, various roots, and how to make fire.  When we asked if that’s how they actually live, it was a resounding “no”.  They are trying to keep the culture alive, but they put their Nike shoes and t-shirts on at the end of the day.

Feed me, Seymour:
Botswana is where I really dug into some local cuisine.  I had my first street food in Africa: a bread dumpling with chicken, spinach, and potato.  Our amazing guide, Jess, also cooked us mieliepap (maize porridge) with potjiekos (a stew which literally translates to “pot food”).  We had magwinya (aka fat cakes!) which are sort of like doughnuts but not sweet and you turn them into sandwiches.  Finally, I had my first of many malva puddings (a South African dessert) while in Botswana.  Yummy!

Botswana put on a show.  Can Namibia compete?  Onward!  But first, let me take an elephant selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Botswana, follow this link:

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