On safari: wildlife and nature photos

A personal view

The magic of darkness enveloping the African landscape-- no creatures in sight, big or small, hunter or hunted

The magic is in knowing that they're there, immersed with you in the wilderness

I rate all eight of my safaris highly, because none disappointed me. But some were better than others for various reasons, and I mark them here with points out of 10 and a short description. The list is in chronological order.

My emphasis is on the wildlife/nature experience, not the cost and comfort of the accommodation, the standard of meals and other things that pampered travellers often complain about-- bumpy, dusty roads, heat and cold, insects, even lack of internet and mobile phone access.


Here's the rundown:

1996, BOTSWANA-ZIMBABWE. Okavango Delta (Mombo Trails and Xigera camps), Linyanti region (Savuti camp), Chobe River, Victoria Falls, Matobo Hills

7.75 points. So good that it might have rated 10 at the time, but it's been overtaken by later experiences. The highlights were at Mombo Trails, then a modest little brother to the main Mombo camp. Both camps were relocated and upgraded soon after, and Mombo became what some regard as the over-the-top flagship of Wilderness Safaris in Botswana in cost and appointments. A cheetah running down and killing its prey, lions stealing a kill from cheetahs, and wild dogs at their den are sights many never have singly, let alone in quick succession- as I did on my first two days. Location and luck are vital on safari.
Mombo Trails tent-- simple but spacious
Xigera camp,in an area of permanent water and therefore with such activities as mokoro voyages and island walks, was a must for somebody going to the delta. This safari finished with an anti-climactic stay at a touristy lodge in the Matobo Hills in southern Zimbabwe-- scenically and historically interesting but wildlife-poor (though I glimpsed white rhino and a distant leopard).

1997, KENYA. Mobile camps, Samburu and Masai Mara National Reserves; The Ark lodge in the Aberdare Range; and Delamere's Camp (lodge) at Lake Elmenteita in the Rift Valley

7.25 points. The Samburu and Mara experiences were by far the best, although my stay was too early to see the spectacular wildebeest-zebra migration in the Mara.

Eating out on the Masai Mara
The highlights were elephant sightings in Samburu NR, and leopard and cheetah sightings in the Mara. Our camps were small and private, a huge blessing. But we couldn't entirely avoid a common affliction of high profile safari areas, traffic jams of vehicles at wildlife sightings. The Ark experience was spoiled by noisy children who were more interested in playing chasey than watching for wildlife outside the viewing lounge. This was the only safari in which I suffered an 'upset tummy', a giardia infection which I could have picked up anywhere.

1998, ZIMBABWE. Leon Varley walking safari with mobile camps in Chizarira, Hwange and Zambezi National Parks

7.75 points. Light on wildlife at times, but still the experience of a lifetime-- walking in remote wilderness up to 30km a day for a total of about 170km, trying to encounter and watch dangerous animals on foot. Chizarira is rugged country, with a high escarpment overlooking Lake Kariba. We did meet elephants, got very close to a black rhino (in Hwange NP), saw wild dogs at their den, and tracked lions without success. The rhino was in thick bush; we saw it, but it didn't see us. Also in thick bush, heard but not seen, were giraffes which kept noisily moving ahead of us
Walking in rugged Chizarira NP

2000, BOTSWANA. The Selinda Reserve, in the Linyanti region north of the Okavango Delta. Permanent 'tented camps' and trails camps

8 points. The start of a love affair with this remote part of Botswana. Yvonne and I stayed at Selinda and Zibalianja camps, and walked with armed guide and tracker to the Mokoba and Tshwene trails camps.

A palm island at sunset, Selinda
We met the magnificent Selinda and Bridge prides, and were enchanted by the lion cubs which were soon to be struck down by an apparently natural tragedy. The story can be accessed at The Lions of Selinda. We also had our first encounters with the famed three cheetah 'brothers' of the Linyanti region.This landscape captivated us (just as I was captivated by the Mombo landscape four years before)...the yellow floodplain grassland dotted with palm islands and criss-crossed by the trails of elephant, giraffe, zebra and antelope which drank from Zibalianja lagoon and the Selinda spillway.
People to avoid: the walking part of this safari was spoiled by the unwise behaviour of two of our companions, who engaged our guide in argument and risked distracting him from his job of ensuring our safety in the wild. Only the year before, the guide had had to shoot a charging elephant which took his group by surprise, badly injuring one of the clients who had failed to follow the guide's instructions.

2002, BOTSWANA. Selinda Reserve

8.5 points. Selinda camp. We would have returned anyway, I suspect, but we went back especially to see the recovered Selinda pride, which had suffered so badly just a short time after our first visit.

A morning break in the bush
We had marvellous sightings of the pride, the Selinda wild dog pack, the three cheetah brothers on a kill, a cheetah with her cub, and leopards. This visit was also notable because, less than a year after 9/11, safari operators were short of clients, and we had the whole camp (capacity 12 guests) to ourselves for a day or two. With our guide, we spent much time seeking out birdlife rather than concentrating on the big mammals which so many other safari-goers prefer.

2004, BOTSWANA. Selinda Reserve

7.75 points. Selinda camp. The Selinda pride had come upon bad times and was much diminished, and wildlife in general was more scattered and harder to see because of an exceptional rainy season early in the year. Still, Selinda didn't let us down, and highlights included the three brothers having a hunt sabotaged by a baboon, a leopard on a kill, and a lioness suffering fatal wounds inflicted by a buffalo. Water moving into long-dry sections of the Selinda spillway afforded us the special sight of the three cheetahs sprinting across the shallow waterway to continue their wanderings.
Selinda- canvas under thatch ŠYvonne Milbank

2005, BOTSWANA. Selinda Reserve, Kwando Reserve

9 points. We stayed at Selinda and Zibalianja camps, and Lagoon camp in Kwando Reserve. In a nutshell, our best safari photographically, with fine lion, cheetah, elephant,leopard and wild dog sightings. Features were lions and cheetahs hunting and killing, many buffalo on the move, and elephants converging on the flooded spillway in large numbers nearly every day. Kwando is Selinda's northern neighbour, so we took the opportunity to move between the two by vehicle...tiring drives on sometimes deep sandy tracks, but better than air transfers to appreciate the landscape. This was the end of an era, for the Selinda concession had new owners who were to remove what many fans regarded as the jewel in the crown-- the small, intimate and lovable Zibalianja camp.

Herds gather, Selinda spillway
It was to be replaced by a luxurious, expensive camp in a new location. Selinda camp also was upgraded and made more expensive, as the new owners aimed upmarket. We haven't returned. Coincidentally, some reports suggest wildlife viewing has not been as good-- possibly a cyclical thing, maybe the result of greater inundation of the floodplain which is the heart of this area. Remarkably, a trip report from neighbouring Kwando in late October, 2011, said no cheetahs were seen, as the water had forced these predators farther north.

2008, ZAMBIA. Mwamba and Kaingo camps, South Luangwa National Park

8 points. Mwamba is an idyllic small camp (only six guests) with its natural-material chalets and other buildings having to be pulled down every year because of rainy season flooding. Kaingo is twice as big, with more permanent structures overlooking the Luangwa River, but still closed every wet season. The country is beautiful, with no shortage of wildlife-- most of the usual suspects, though cheetah are absent. We spent most of our time here by design at Mwamba camp, for as three couples we had it to ourselves. Like the old Zibalianja camp, it has the simple intimacy that we find so enjoyable. This safari would have rated higher if we'd had better luck with the local lion prides and leopards. We saw them, but not enough. But that's the way of my kind of safari. I always say there's something unnatural about finding the big spectacular critters behind every bush. Features of these camps are the well-placed photographic hides with wonderful views of elephants, hippos, carmine bee-eater nesting holes, and wildlife drinking spots.

Luangwa River from Kaingo camp

Mwamba chalet ŠYvonne Milbank

TO SUM UP: It's evident that I regard Botswana as the best safari destination, and my experience puts the Linyanti region at the top of the pile. Of course other people feel differently, and I could be persuaded by other destinations. North Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and the Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania come to mind; Selous has long tempted me, and emerging Gabon is intriguing. I probably won't be enticed by Tanzania's northern circuit or by Kenya again, nor by South Africa's Kruger National Park and its attached private areas, as they of necessity are heavily managed or have too high a tourist profile, or both. It seems to me that if an area has to be strongly managed, its time as a true wild place is up.

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© John Milbank