This May, we set off on a three-week safari of a lifetime, exploring northern Botswana by 4WD. Given our passion for wildlife, we decided to start off discovering the arid, semi-desert Kalahari first, before working our way north to the Chobe River, then west through the wild Linyanti and Savute regions, finishing in the magnificent Okavango Delta.
We would mix sleeping in our rental camper car with stays in luxury lodges, to ensure we always got to have a proper shower every so often as well as enjoy having our laundry done. Turned out it was the perfect way to see this gorgeous landlocked country – for us, anyway!
We designed our itinerary such that we would see smaller, more unique desert species such as meerkat first, then move on to the iconic big game species Africa is renowned for. While certain species were only seen in particular areas (such as springbok and oryx in the Nxai and Makgadikgadi region), zebra, elephant and giraffe were plentiful throughout our entire journey, as were photogenic lilac breasted rollers.
The self-drive program was as follows:
- Meno a Kwena, Boteti River – 2N
- Nxai Pan – 2N
- Camp Kalahari – 2N
- Nata Lodge & Campsite – 1N (stopover only)
- Muchenje Campsite – 2N
- Linyanti Bush Camp – 2N
- Savute Campsite – 1N
- Hyena Pan – 3N
- North Gate Campsite – 1N
From Maun, we would drop off the car and spend our last four days in the country relaxing at two beautiful lodges:
- Camp Moremi – 2N
- Camp Okavango – 2N
Both of these were located in the Okavango Delta, and we would travel to each one by light aircraft.
A Shaky Start
We flew our usual route with Qantas: Melbourne > Sydney > Johannesburg, staying overnight in Joburg at the opulent Peermont D’Oreale Grand. This Italian-inspired hotel is located about 10 minutes by free shuttle from the OR Tambo Airport and within the gated Emperor’s Palace casino and gaming complex, which is all fountains, statues and gilded, framed paintings.
That night, thanks to a stuff up by Qantas, we ended up unable to get our baggage which had been checked through to Maun. Fortunately, we were prepared with some spare clothes in our hand luggage and the hotel offered slippers and toiletries. This drama would continue, with Wayn’s bag arriving in Maun three days later by way of Gaborone.
The following morning, we flew Air Botswana to dusty Maun, gateway to the Okavango Delta. Realising that Wayn’s bag hadn’t made it on our plane, we hurried out to pick up our 4WD vehicle only to find out that our car company, based in Sydney, had also messed up and booked the car for collection two days later.
A call to our lodge, the amazing Meno a Kwena on the western flank of the Boteti River (which carries overflow from the Delta) and Nancy, the Ops Manager, arrived with her three adorable kids in tow. It was Saturday and her day off, but Nancy nevertheless cheerfully drove us for 90 minutes along potholed tar road frequented by donkeys and cattle to our lodge.
Pro Tip #1: Carry spare clothing, essential medication and any other necessities in hand luggage. We’ve travelled through Johannesburg three times, and twice our bags have gone astray.
Amongst our essentials on this trip – on top of requisite anti-malarial pills:
A good Botswana map – this one is the best one we’ve found so far (click here or on map image to purchase);
My trusty wildlife reference book – which I call my ‘safari bible’ and that you can buy here or by clicking the image below:
Our first stop: Meno a Kwena
In our opinion, there’s no better place to be stuck without a car or luggage than here. Meno a Kwena means “teeth of the crocodile” and has been in operation for over a decade, with the team, under young manager Justin’s watch, running like a well oiled ship. Perched high on a cliff overlooking the Boteti River and the Mgadikgadi National Park, this gem of a lodge is reminiscent of an old school safari lodge, decorated with leather chairs, old photos and antiques, but with none of the stuffiness some other places have.
Pro tip #2: Have a flexible attitude and always buy travel insurance. You’ve come all this way so try to enjoy your trip even if it means wearing the same clothes for a few days! Most safari camps also offer laundry so make use of this service and keep all your receipts!
There’s a small central pool and plenty of shaded seating at Meno a Kwena so you can admire the hippos below while enjoying a dip or a sundowner drink. Follow a path down to the riverbank and there’s a floating hide so you can spy on hippopotamus and thirsty elephant at eye level.
Meals, prepared by the super-experienced cook Kebofilwe, are buffet-style, with vegetarian options so you’re never left hungry. Breakfast and lunch are at a communal table in the canvas-shaded dining room while dinners are at a long table beside the central fire pit. The chicken pie served one afternoon was a standout.
There are so many things to do at this camp that two days was far too short. Our first activity was a private game drive into Makgadikdadi NP with our guide Cell. Crossing a dry section of the Boteti River, we entered the reserve and found elephants, zebra, a wildebeest, giraffe and plenty of birdlife including vultures and owls perched in the makulwani palms. On the way home, we took a small car ferry at Khumaga across the Boteti, just for the experience.
Incidentally Meno a Kwena is also the camp where Prince Harry proposed to Suits star Meghan Markle. We had heard this rumour before we arrived but had it confirmed as the BBC were there during our stay collecting B-roll footage for the upcoming royal wedding.
On Day 2, we went for a San Bushman walk. Sometimes, cultural experiences can feel fake or tacky but this one is really worthwhile for several reasons.
One: the family group that we went with all appeared to really enjoy themselves while sharing their customs and knowledge of the bush with us. They showed us how they tanned animal skins with a type of berry, got drunk on the fruit of the brandy bush and even dug up a scorpion, which they proceeded to stun by using their lips to clean the sand off the eyes of the animal. Yikes!
Two: Botswana has banned hunting (which is fantastic for the wildlife) but this has effectively destroyed the Bushman communities’ ancient nomadic way of life. Meno a Kwena arranges for a family group to come stay at their lodge for three months at a time so they can earn money while keeping their customs alive. The Jonkhusi tribe lives over 600km west of the camp, so this is no small undertaking for either party.
Three: it’s really interesting to interact with a group of warm, gregarious people who love chatting to you even if you don’t understand a word they’re saying. They dress in traditional garb, dance, play games and none of it feels staged. Plus, their language is fascinating, full of clicking and chirping sounds which I can only dream of imitating.
Pro tip #3: Carry a jacket for mornings, plus bring a hat and sunscreen as the day heats up. Insect repellent is also useful as dawn is when mozzies are quite active, even in May. I’ve also heard that drinking a lot of GnT will knock the buggers out after they’ve had a bite of you.
We hired the Ford Ranger Group L fully-equipped luxury vehicle for 2 people for our self-drive safari. Watch our review here:
To read about the next part of our trip, click the link below: