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Great Wilderness Journey ~ Botswana

The Pearson Family went on safari to Botswana and Victoria Falls this summer. John was kind enough to share his impressions of the trip with us — and now we’d like to pass along his story to you. Enjoy!

After planning this trip for over 2 years, we finally took our Great Wilderness Journey with Wilderness Safaris in August of 2012. Why did we choose this particular trip? Botswana (even though much more expensive than other African destinations) was appealing because of the individualized and more varied experience it promised. We “discovered” Wilderness Safaris through the referral of a friend who had traveled with them before, and we chose the Great Wilderness Journey because of the exposure to various biomes that it offered, as well as a stop at Victoria Falls.

We took the South African Air flight from JFK direct to JNB. All I can say is be prepared with plenty to do and plenty of sleep meds. I sense this plane is usually pretty full since it is the only direct flight from the NY area, so don’t count on spreading out in some empty seats. The coach seats are a little narrower than other international seats I have been in, and I need every available inch, so they were a bit uncomfortable for my wide 6’3” frame. Food was good and plentiful and the individual video players were great for movie watchers (bring your 2 prong headphone adaptor).

Connecting through JNB to Livingstone was pretty easy. When you land you are bussed to the international terminal. You will have to go through customs and security, so leave time (we had about 2.5 hours which was plenty). They wanted to see our yellow fever inoculation cards at JNB since we were going to Zambia.
The SAA flight to Livingstone was about 1.5 hours, and we were fed again with sandwiches and beverages. Livingstone airport is small and the customs area only had one or two agents, so sitting in the front of the plane was definitely a plus for us time wise. Drivers for our first Wilderness Safaris camp, Toka Leya, were waiting for us with their van right outside the front door.

The drive to Toka Leya Lodge goes through downtown Livingstone, a busy little city with tons of people on foot and bicycle. It takes about 15-20 minutes to arrive, and we are brought to a small boat to transport us on the Zambezi River to the Lodge, while our bags are delivered via the van. Wildlife is immediately visible on the river as 4 hippos dash into the river at the sound of our boat. Upon arrival, we are offered cool towels and a drink, and then are briefed as to the camp and activities available, as well as making selections for dinner entrée. We then were escorted to our rooms, which were drop dead gorgeous!!! Great view of the river from the deck in front of the tent/cabin. The inside had beautiful wood floors, chairs and a great bed, with A/C and heat. Indoor and outdoor showers! Within two hours we were treated to our first close up with wildlife, as a small elephant herd came in to the property to feast on the brush.
After high tea, we went out on the Sunset Cruise and saw a huge variety of wildlife and birds, not to mention a great sunset over the river. We returned for dinner and and were joined by Jackie, a member of the staff, who was great company. Food was excellent, as it was throughout our journey. While at Toka Leya we did both a helicopter tour and walking tour of Victoria Falls, a visit to a nearby village to deliver some school supplies we had brought, and took two game drives in the nearby national park (one to see the white rhinos in their preserve area). Two of our group bungee jumped off of the Victoria Falls Bridge. On the last night there we met our guide, Richard, who was to be with us for the balance of our journey.

Our group of seven departed early in the AM for Livingstone airport (bring your departure tax in LOCAL currency) to fly to Kasane airport in Botswana on a Wilderness plane, only a 15 minute flight. There we were shuttled to the Chobe River Lodge for about a 3.5 hour trip on the Chobe River (lunch included), which was full of wildlife (no big cats). We had close encounters with several different animals and got incredible pictures there. Returning to the airport, we then flew to Linyanti airstrip (40 minutes) where two vehicles met us… one for us, one for our bags. We took the long route (about 3 hours) to Linyanti Discoverer Camp as a game drive while our bags preceded us. A lion pride with cubs was the highlight on this trip, and we arrived at the camp after sunset to the staff singing us our welcome.

These tents are not as luxurious as Toka Leya, but certainly more than adequate. 12×18 or so plus the bathroom area. Water is solar heated at all camps so sometimes it takes a while to get warm, but is certainly plentiful. 5 tents here plus a very comfortable common area with bar, seating area, and dining table. The common area is waterside along the Linyanti River and has wonderful views along the shore where elephants often come for their daily drink. This camp also has a boma area where we had dinner one night, eating a meal cooked over the nearby fire. After dinner at this and all locations was generally spent sipping Amarula (think Bailey’s Irish Crème) around the fire. Activities here were generally day and night game drives, but we did take a short hike with our guide, where we dodged a few elephants and studied dung… which is a lot more interesting than it sounds.

Our next 3 day stop was Khwai Discoverer Camp, which was quite similar as to the camp style, but we saw a different mix of wildlife here, as well as endless downed trees from the elephant population. There were Canadian style canoes available at this camp, but because of the lower water levels nearby and the heavy brush, we were unable to use them. We did night and day drives here as well as a hike of about 5 km. Make sure that you take an opportunity on your night drives to turn out all the lights in your vehicle and just look at the stars. Just spectacular to see the Milky Way so clearly. And by the way, the staff here love to sing. We were entertained with 6 songs around the campfire on our last night here.
Our last stop was the recently redone Jacana Camp in the Okavango Delta. Great beds, a beautiful bathroom with an outdoor shower that had an incredible view. The hosts here were especially wonderful and friendly. Most of the activities here are water based (mokoro trips, boat rides looking for birds), but we did take a ride to the Jao flats area for a game drive. At this location you are likely to see many more birds of interest (fish eagles, kingfishers, egrets, storks)… we actually did find a Pel’s fishing owl on our trip. Elephants and hippos were regular visitors to the little island that Jacana Camp is on. One night, 5 feet away from our front door, an elephant spent about ½ hour eating brush. The noises were just amazing … we could have reached out and touched this giant if we had the guts to.

Some things to remember? Bring layers of clothes and be prepared for some cold nights. We had two nights with no heat in the 30s, and even with the hot water bottles (AKA bush babys), it was chilly. Baldy’s like me should have a fleece hat to sleep in. Bring your battery chargers and a few different adaptors for your camera equipment. Every camp could accommodate charging batteries, so bring these things plus extra batteries as you will be taking thousands of pictures.

The camps are not necessarily close to the air strips, and while that is basically a good thing (no noise) it also means a long drive of 2 plus hours each way. Keep that in mind also when considering your medical situation. As we found out when one of our party needed to be flown out for an X-ray, it ain’t easy to get to health care (although the staff made it as easy as it possibly could be).I cannot overemphasize how valuable it was to have one guide all the way through our trip. Richard Avilino was an amazing tracker and source of invaluable information. He also had an incredible 6th sense about where animals were that made it all seem so easy.

In summary, we were thrilled with the service and hospitality shown by all the staff at every location. Every one of them were caring, concerned individuals. We would highly recommend the Wilderness Safaris group…. They would often surprise us with special things like dinners at remote locations, and of course the famous sundowners as well. And since WS owns so many concession areas in Botswana, we often felt like we were totally alone out there. No cell phones, Ipads, etc., just made it that much nicer. We will probably never get to go again….but we were so glad we had this wonderful two weeks together.

Thank you to African Portfolio in Old Greenwich CT for helping to pull it all together.

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