South Africa & Botswana

Botswana: Safari Deluxe
by Jered Barclay
Genre - November 2000

Safari.  For me, the word had always conjured up images of trying to photograph animals through the backs of way too many tourists, who are trying to take pictures through the backs of way too many other tourists snapping away.  Happily, my assumptions were wrong.

I discovered on my first trip to South Africa and Botswana that these countries provide welcome detonations of the "Africa" stereotypes.  We got our immutable notions about a country usually from magazines that have taught us that Africa is only "The Big Five": lion, tiger, rhino, giraffe and elephant.  From the movies, we have learned that you can't go more than four minutes in the jungle without a crocodile, lion or python attack, from which, of course, Tarzan always saves Jane, and that these perils are punctuated by terminally cute antics by Cheetah the Chimpanzee.  Baloney!

Africa is full of the unexpected.  A dose of South Africa and Botswana is not unlike a bad face job that leaves one petrified into a look of eternal surprise.  But here, we are talking about genuine and pleasant surprise!

On the morning, we began our most exciting adventure.  We transferred to a regional Johannesburg airport, where David, of DavidTours [DavidTravel], had chartered a private plane for us.  We were excited to have aerial views between South Africa and our destination, the Mashatu Private Game Reserve in Botswana.  After the hour-and-a-half flight, the band-aid-like gravel landing strip and the Oregon-rest-stop-sized airport seemed fun! We were primed for our adventure.

A quick meal and deep sleep is what we needed, and what we got, in preparation for the morning.  Dawn and dusk game rides are the order of every day.  Wow!  Talk about thrills.  After coffee, tea and pastries, we climbed into the open jeep that comfortably sat seven, and watched the dawn crack.

We left our air-conditioned and two-bathroom cabanas early every morning, had breathtaking experiences with animals, came back to camp, had breakfast, slept, or swam in the pool, then went out in the evening, had the same encounters, eager to have another thrilling experience the next dawn.

On the third night, we had a uniquely amazing adventure.  One of the two game rangers who accompanied us slowly raised his spotlight to reveal the tiny face of a baby leopard in the crux of a tree.  Leopards are nocturnal and rarely sighted in Botswana.  But a one-month-old baby leopard, with no protective mother at its side? My five companions in the jeep were awed and frozen with delight.  I carefully mounted the long lens on my camera and with my heart slamming against my chest, shot a roll of film.  The other ranger/driver put his index finger to his lips and pointed upward. The spotlight slid 15 feet above and on a branch directly above us in our open jeep, thank you very much, was the mama leopard.  Gulp! Photograph or flee?  Congo, the ranger/driver, whispered that mama had just killed an impala and was napping after the feast and that I should shoot quickly before she awakened.  You can believe I did!

Forty-five minutes later, we were having cocktails and an opulent dinner al fresco at the Mashatu Game Lodge, with a sassy monkey drinking from the swimming pool nearby.  Heart pounding adventure and luxurious elegance within an hour of each other? Yup.

Understand that this is not the "jungle" that exists elsewhere in Africa, or in the Tarzan movies, but a high desert-like topography in which the roads are barely visible or non-existent.  Congo ascended and descended hair-raising gullies to track animals and used his cell phone to track animals with the other four Mashatu vehicles.  If one ranger spotted a rare or unusual sighting, each jeep would take its turn at the sight.

Every morning and night, we experienced zebras, impala, lions, cheetahs (rare), leopards (also rare), giraffes, hyenas, Vervet monkeys, suricates, ostriches, elands, blue wildebeests, white rhinoceroses and kudus.  Not to mention that this is the refuge for the single most populous number of elephants in all of Africa.

On one morning, our first sighting (fifteen minutes from the reserve) was of a herd of elephants circling a two-month-old baby from our possible invasion.  To be ten feet from a herd of unpredictable elephants protecting an infant was a breath-holding experience.  No bars, no fences.  You were on THEIR territory and the experience was, and continued to be, for the four days there, unparalleled.  Congo always had his rifle ready.

The sighting of a cheetah stalking a herd of impala, a night sighting of a lion and his lioness from 20 feet away were lifetime experiences.  If, when I die, my life passes in front of me, I want these images on parade in my cerebellum.

Before and after these staggering experiences with nature, came the boring stuff: food and drink, comfort.  After the morning game drive, comes a sumptuous breakfast, at about 10 a.m.  Then napping, a swim in the small but pleasant pool, and during lunches, the swapping of stories with other guests and the very informed staff.  The night drive was followed by an internationally influenced and varied cuisine, surprising because of its isolation from any food-growing landscape.

No doubt, this was one of the most exciting experiences of a lifetime-along with the Panatanal in Brazil-because you are on the animals' turf.  You, not they, are the outsider.  A singular experience.

Another skillful guide, Thom, accompanied us on our last stop, Sun City, where we had accommodations, at the Palace of the Lost City, a five-star-rated hotel near Johannesburg.  After 'roughing it' in the Mashatu Game Reserve, a panoply of excess is offered; there are four different types of accommodations, ranging from family plan to super elegance.  Nothing is ignored.  Golf, tennis, an Olympic-sized pool, plus kiddie and family pools, man-made beaches, a large man-made lake, an imitation waterfall, miniature manicured zoos, kiddie parks and a shopping mall.

The Tusk Bar is a fun place to meet and the Crystal Room, one of four opulent restaurants within the hotel complex, truly deserves its reputation.

The entire elegant experience was extraordinary, thanks to DavidTours [DavidTravel] for their scrupulous and thoughtful planning.  They also offer Morocco, India, New Orleans and more.  Try it.  You'll like it.