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First Week of August: Sleeping Under the Stars on Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pan

Date

30 Jul

Posted By

Amanda Mitchell

The Makgadikgadi is inextricably linked to Jack Bousfield, in whose memory the famous Jack’s Camp is named.  Admittedly one of the more barking characters that you could hope to meet, Jack arrived in this part of the world during the more wild and woolly part of the nineteen hundreds when it was actually a necessity to be one sandwich short of a picnic to make it in Africa.  His resumé includes a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for killing 53,000 crocodiles, surviving seven plane crashes and being gored by at least one elephant.  An extreme kind of person well suited to an extreme place. The Makgadikgadi Pan is about as far removed from your stereotypical safari experience as you can get.  Viewed from the lofty vantage point provided by Google Earth, the pan appears as a white smudge to the southeast of the rich greens and blues of the Okavango Delta.   On the ground, the glaring flatness stretches to the horizon and it is possible to see the curvature of the earth.  Around the edges of this once great lake, the vegetation struggles to regain its tenancy - coarse grass, stands of palm and rugged bush.

san_camp_02

As you can imagine, there is a certain knack to survival in the middle of this hostile environment but this doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see.  In fact, the tougher the environment...the more interesting the beasties and this gives the Makgadikgadi a special story-book quality; rather like stepping through the looking-glass.  Of a morning you might be foraging with a family of meerkats or tracking the strange brown hyena on foot alongside the intuitive San bushmen, sinuous and clad in little more than a small leather kilt and ostrich egg beads.  Areas of the pan host colonies of vivid pink flamingos.  Scattered fossil sites and ancient human habitation allude to the indelible history of this place. You should come to the Makgadikgadi with an open mind and be prepared to be surprised on a daily basis.  There’s very little in this world that could compete with unrolling a bedroll amid towering baobabs on the lunar rock kopjes that mushroom from the pan, or the sense of freedom imparted by riding a quad-bike hell-for-leather across the vast emptiness.  It’s just one of those things that you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. The camps here are also far from ordinary.  Jack’s is famous for its museum-like collection of weird and wonderful objects.  San Camp’s stylish simplicity lends itself to its lovely location without detracting one iota from the natural beauty.  For a more laid-back experience, Meno a Kwena lies between the Delta and Makgadikgadi. For safari ideas from Natural High that include Makgadikgadi, click here. Search for camps and lodges in the Makgadikgadi and Kalahari. Find out more about the Kalahari, when to visit and other useful articles. Image courtesy of San Camp

  

Fourth week of July: On Safari in Style on the Lower Zambezi, Zambia

Date

23 Jul

Posted By

Amanda Mitchell

The Lower Zambezi harks back to a more romantic time when dashing rugged hunter-types tangled alternately with bad-tempered savage beasts and pouty heroines who somehow remained crease-free throughout their dusty ordeals.  The flight in a wee plane over the creased escarpment to land on a dirt strip all seems rather “Out of Africa”.  Straight away you are in big game country (the planes have to sometimes go around again while elephants traverse the airstrip), and being borne along in an open safari landrover by a khaki-clad professional guide garnishes the experience. The camps in this area cut a dashing wild style; Sausage Tree’s high canopied white tented roofs, Chongwe’s unique Albida and Cassia suites where you can hear hippos while you do your own wallowing in roll-top baths.  You may find yourself indulging in the ultimate liquid lunch aboard an intimate launch, cruising peacefully down the river with birds and animals aplenty laid on for your entertainment.  Game-drives are interspersed with scenic interludes under palm trees where coffee is served on a crisp cloth on the bonnet.  You may find yourself enjoying a sunset, glass of wine in hand with your feet cooling in the mighty Zambezi.  It is all very Clark Gable and Ava Gardner...and what a pleasure. It is impossible to separate the guilty pleasures from the adventure here; walks, river cruises, game-drives and canoe trips offer up a rich game experience.  In fact, this is one place where you really feel as though you are a visitor in wildlife country.  For example, in Chiawa you may find that an elephant sees fit to wander into camp during lunch, while hyena and lion call around the camps through the night.  In Kulefu, the dawn-chorus is so overwhelming in its variety and volume that it renders that lie-in impossible. If you like the idea of a safari in style, click here for some ideas from Natural High.

  

Third week of July: Discovering the Ancient Bushman Art of the Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe

Date

16 Jul

Posted By

Amanda Mitchell

It’s hard to conceive of a place where so many incongruities collide. The title of this article is infuriatingly over-simplistic and does little justice to the depth of interest of the Matobo Hills in south western Zimbabwe. So to put that right, here’s why you need to put this place on your bucket list.

'mother and child' rock formation

Standing at Sir Cecil Rhode’s grave gazing over the “View of the World”, it’s easy to see why this driven, visionary (if controversial) pioneer wanted this to be his last resting place. The landscape is a stormy sea of granite boulders caste as far as the horizon in oddly familiar shapes of animals or people. The human history of Matobo rolls back over 13,000 years when the oldest example of rock art tells of the stone-age hunter-gatherers that once inhabited this place. Among the tens of thousands of bold and striking pieces of art still brightly evident (no faint scribbles, these) more recent ones chart the arrival of the colonial settlers in ox-wagons and pith helmets. Matobo has been a key strategic area for the Matabele king, Mzilikazi, who, like Rhodes, still lies interred in his rocky tomb, and his son Lobengula. Overrun by Rhode’s troops, the hills werre subsequently the battle ground for the Matabele wars in the late 1800s. It has been the spiritual centre for the Mwali cult and remains a religiously significant place for the inhabitants of Matabeleland. A living museum, it is not over-dramatic to say that the hills are tangibly steeped in this melting pot of history, sacrifice and spirituality; it is deeply haunting. Named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2003, the Matobo Hills also possesses a great natural history; the highest known density of (elusive) leopard in the world, a valuable population of white and black rhino and the largest numbers of black eagles found in southern Africa. The game has taken a bit of a knock over the last troubled years in Zim but it’s still one of the best places to track rhino on foot and enjoy the varied birdlife. So interesting and scenic is the area that, provided you don’t come here expecting the big five, you won’t be disappointed if you don’t see a thing. Matobo is a perfect addition to safaris that include Hwange National Park (for your animal fix), Mana Pools (for great canoeing, walking and big game), and the Victoria Falls. It’s important to choose a specialist guide to get the most out of the place and to allow sufficient time. Look for trips that include Matobo Hills Read our blogs about Matobo See a map and places to stay in Matobo

  

Second week of July: Exploring the Okavango by Mokoro

Date

09 Jul

Posted By

Amanda Mitchell

Sliding over the calm, clear shallows of the Okavango Delta with the regular sound of the pole gently splashing and propelling you smoothly forward, the calls of fish eagle, kingfishers and bee-eaters, the warm sun lighting up the reeds and jackal-berry trees, and the deep blue sky overhead... It’s hard to choose words that don’t make this sound like syrupy marketing spin but there’s no avoiding the fact that that travelling through the Okavango in a mokoro is really quite idyllic. Mokoros are long, sturdy canoes traditionally hewn from hardwood trees such as ebony and bleached a pale grey by the sun and water over time.  The “River Bushmen”, amongst other tribes, still use the canoes for transport and fishing.  However, with the influx of tourism into the Delta, some of these seasoned fishermen have turned their skills to guiding and what better way to undertake this unique experience than in the capable hands of a local? The core of the Delta remains water-logged all year round, but the seasonal inundation fills out a vast swathe of channels and lagoons between March and June, swelling the Delta to more than three times its permanent size.  The water that rises in Angola gradually creeps down hippo “highways”, creating seasonal islands and enriching reed-beds.  Annual migrations bring an influx of elephant, buffalo and antelope into the area along with hundreds of birds as the Kalahari loses its green mantle to winter.  For this reason, the period between July and the end of October is the best time of year to visit the Delta for the quantity and variety of wildlife. Travelling by mokoro allows you access to areas otherwise impossible by motorboat or vehicle and the quiet is very much part of the appeal.  It allows you to enjoy the sounds as much as the sights and gives you the opportunity to cruise quietly up to animals without disturbing them with noisy engines.  It goes without saying that the view of an elephant is quite different from a few feet off the surface of the water and many animals are surprisingly relaxed in the presence of water-borne humans. Many camps and lodges in the perennial Delta offer mokoro trips as part of the day’s activities while other camps which benefit from seasonal flood-waters will do so if the water is high enough, so you do need to choose your area carefully depending on the time of year.  For those that wish to experience full immersion (not literally) in the Delta, there are safaris solely dedicated to exploring on foot or by mokoro in the old ways of the local people. Look at ideas for safaris in the Okavango. What are the main areas to visit in Botswana? When's the best time to visit Botswana? I want to see birds in Botswana!

  

Out and about in Zambia: Two leaps and I’m a cat’s dinner.

Date

05 Jul

Posted By

Amanda Mitchell

It’s an uncomfortable feeling when a lion looks right into your eyes.  I felt like one of those cartoon roast chickens that appears in a thought-bubble over Sylvester’s head when he looks at Tweety Bird.  The lioness had unusually pale eyes, the colour of a lemon, which made her stare even more disconcerting.  Add to this the fact that she lay no further than five metres from the car, and you’ll appreciate my need to squirm sideways, a little closer to my guide.  And then I registered that I was sitting in “suicide seat” (the front passenger seat), and I didn’t have a door. During this trip in Zambia, I’ve been incredibly lucky with big game sightings; five beautiful leopard in ten days, several prides of lion with cubs, lots of elephant doing interesting stuff, buffalo, giraffe, hyena and masses of stately impala and cute puku to name but a few.  Among the high points was this time spent sitting quietly and watching a pride of twelve lion on a recent buffalo kill. Incidentally, what an interesting reflection it is on our species that some of the highlights of a safari include one animal being ruthlessly hunted and killed in full, live, 3D, gory reality by another animal.  Take the migration for instance; everyone hopes to see the spectacle of several thousand wildebeest crossing the Mara River under the hungry gaze of some enormous crocodiles (and many will secretly want to see what happens when one or two come to grief).  Similarly, the vivid scene of a pride of lion bringing down an adult buffalo will be recounted with excitement around the camp-fire later in the day. I watched with morbid fascination as these lion gorged themselves, ripping at the carcass, gnawing the bones and when just too stuffed to eat another morsel, almost lovingly licking the fur.  The sights and sounds were graphic and I was assailed by an olfactory cocktail of buffalo innards, feline musk and ferrous blood.  Every now and then, a junior of the pride would get a swatting from a big male for insubordination and a great racket of growling and snarling would erupt. I mentally calculated the distance between this raw, wild scene and my bare legs, clearly visible in the open vehicle and figured that if I looked as tasty as the buffalo, I’d be tickets in a matter of seconds.  Fortunately I am apparently not as attractive as a dead buffalo (at least not at that particular moment in any case) and have lived to tell the tale.

mfuwe lions on buffalo_01

  

First week of July: On a Walking Safari in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley

Date

02 Jul

Posted By

Amanda Mitchell

Every now and then it’s quite nice to push the envelope a little and step out of one's comfort zone. More often than not, the experience is a good one and it’s a way of re-tuning your perceptions and discovering a new aspect of the world. Walking in the bush is just one such example, and for those that have never been or safari, or have only ever seen wildlife from the relative confines of a vehicle, going bipedal will certainly open up a whole new way of seeing Africa. Walking in the bush is more than just a game drive without a vehicle, as you’ll quickly realise. It’s not a hike or a route march either, although it is great to get out and about and stretch your legs. Simply “spotting” animals is just the superficial tip of the African safari experience and by getting out on foot, a whole rich tapestry of interesting stuff is laid bare. You may be following the recent tracks of a lioness or discovering the filigree nest of a praying mantis, learning how termite colonies work or establishing which way a breeding herd or elephant walked last night. It’s pretty cool to watch an experienced guide call in half a dozen different species of bird by imitating the call of a pearl-spotted owlet. Curiously, you spend an inordinate amount of time examining poo. It’s amazing what you can learn from it! In the 1960s, Norman Carr pioneered guided walking safaris in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Both a hunter and passionate conservationist, he was also one of the first to acknowledge the importance of involving local people in the development of tourism and care of resources. Since then, the Luangwa Valley has carved a well deserved niche as one of the best places to experience the bush on foot. The landscape of the Luangwa is perfect for walking. The broad sandy river winds through forests of ebony and winter-thorn, leaving lagoon-like oxbows and grassy floodplains which attract wildlife like a magnet. Animals are creatures of habit and carve their own footpaths through the bush, so we can follow literally in their footsteps. Animals tend to be more wary of people when we are not camouflaged in a land-cruiser so you may not get as close or see as many animals as you would on a game drive, but there is always the possibility of unexpected encounters. If the wind is in your favour, you can approach an elephant thrillingly close without it even realising you are there. Things that seem ordinary from a car take on new significance when you part of the action. The good news is that whether you are new to Africa and/or walking, or a veteran of the bush, there is a range of options to suit your interests. You can try out bush-walks as part of the daily activities, or alternatively go on multi-day safaris where you walk at a leisurely pace from one camp to another, stopping to check out interesting things along the way. Mobile walking safaris (where your camp moves with you) offer one of the best ways to explore a different, and usually more remote, area every couple of days. Zambian guides are rigorously trained and there are some who have worked in the Luangwa Valley for decades. Many of them have been brought up in villages nearby, with their ancestors’ understanding of the environment ingrained within them. They know the local beasties, where best to go to see them and how to keep safe if you encounter the big ones. In Zambia, you always walk with a guide that is specifically qualified to do so, an armed game scout and often, the all important tea-bearer. Look at some ideas of Luangwa walking safaris