Travel

Field Notes from a Safari Veteran: What You’ll See and What to Expect

Written by: Aura Davies

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Published on: February 1, 2024

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All photos courtesy of the author, except where noted

Sitting in an open-sided 4×4 on the banks of the Chobe River a little before 6 in the morning is breathtaking even if the only animals in sight are a handful of little waterbirds pecking for insects in the sand. But when you’re nearly surrounded by a herd of Cape buffalo snuffling and snorting as they graze leisurely on the wetland grasses and, occasionally, turn a (wary? curious? menacing?) eye in your direction, it’s spellbinding.

There must have been a couple hundred (though I’m notoriously bad at math, even if it’s just counting) of them—larger males patrolling the fringes while the majority of the herd clustered closer together in the center. Young calves toddled alongside their mamas, their horns just sprouting and their ears too big for their heads. Snow-white cattle egrets winged low over the herd, perching on one bony back or another. In the thin golden light, against the long yellow grasses, the scene almost looked like a painting. I could have sat and watched them for hours.

But here’s the thing about safari: No matter how incredible your current view, there’s always the promise of something even more incredible around the corner—and you never know what that will be. It’s hard to have a bad safari. But the key to a really great one is your guide.

Photos courtesy of De Beers

Chobe Game Lodge

At Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana, where I was lucky enough to spend a few days this past spring as a guest of the jewelers Ben Bridge and De Beers, the guiding team is outstanding. It’s also entirely female—and has been since 2010, when it became the first all-female guiding team on the continent.

Botswana’s first luxury safari lodge, Chobe gained fame a couple of years after it was built when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, early and frequent guests, got married (for the second time) there in 1975. It’s also the only safari lodge inside Chobe National Park—an advantage, as it means that when other safari tour operators are rushing to exit the park by closing time, the Chobe vehicles can make their way home at a more relaxed pace, giving you a chance to see various animals making their preparations for the night along the way. One evening we followed a trio of female lions as they slowly but deliberately took up tactical positions around a herd of impalas, ready to hunt their dinner.

Photo courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris

The Safari Guide

A safari guide is half a dozen different jobs wrapped up in one. They’re there to drive you, to track the animals, to keep you safe (and to keep the animals safe from you), to teach you and answer your questions, to direct your attention to what you otherwise might miss, and, often, to keep you comfortable (and maybe pour you a cup of tea or a sundowner). Having a guide whom you trust, implicitly, to do all these things can make or break the experience.

I’m far—very far—from a safari expert. But I’ve been lucky enough to do it a few times, in a few different places, in a few different ways. I’ve been to ultraluxe camps, to budget-friendly camps, and to a couple of places in between, in South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia. And, honestly, each and every one has been—if you’ll excuse the cliché and possible illogic—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve truly never had a safari guide who wasn’t excellent (I’m not sure it’s the kind of job you’d want to do if you were anything less than deeply passionate about it). But here’s the other thing about safari: Standout guide or not, what’s really going to determine how good your safari is is you.

And that would be my top piece of advice for anyone going on safari, before I told you what countries or lodges or experiences I liked best: Don’t decide what you want to see, or need to see, or expect to see before you go. And don’t treat it as a checklist, as if each sighting were some sort of acquisition. Just go. Be open. Ask questions. And see what you see.

On one safari I was on, in South Africa, there was a man on some of my game drives who wanted to see leopards and adult male lions. And only leopards and adult male lions. He was deeply (and vocally) disappointed when we saw and stopped to watch: The sunrise. Zebra. Giraffe. Elephants. Warthogs. Impalas. Kudu. Cheetahs. Vervet monkeys. Baboons. Female lions. Bats. The sunset. And even a rhino calf nursing from its mother. (Whatever you think it sounds like when a rhino calf demands milk from its mother, you’re wrong: It’s a teeny-tiny high-pitched squeak that seems like it should belong to my 10-pound dog—it’s also adorable.)

We did not see a leopard or a male lion while this man was with us. The day after he left, however, we saw a male lion and, shortly afterward, watched a female leopard who was looking for a mate scent-mark a log—incredible. But you know what else was incredible? The sunrise. Zebra. Giraffe. Elephants. Warthogs. Impalas. Kudu. Cheetahs. Vervet monkeys. Baboons. Female lions. Bats. The sunset. That rhino calf nursing from its mother. And every second (and animal I’ve forgotten to name-check) in between.

The Safari Schedule

Your schedule on safari, wherever and however you do it, is dictated by the animals and the environment. You’ll be up before the sun, out in the open-sided (and possibly open-topped) 4×4 in the (cold!) dark morning just as the dawn chorus starts. You will likely have the option of a quick coffee or tea before you head out; weigh your desire for warmth and caffeine against the fact that it might be three hours—and a bumpy ride—before you see a proper bathroom. And know that once you get out there and you’re cruising past herds of impalas and kudu and warthogs and seeking out elephants and zebra and giraffe and lions and leopards and more, well, caffeine will seem redundant anyway.

 
After your morning game drive, you—much like the animals you’re looking for—will retreat to your lodge to get out of the sun during the heat of midday. At Chobe, aside from the meals (excellent), there is much to fill your time during these idle hours: a pool to lounge around and dip in, a gym, a cute shop, spa treatments, and a boardwalk along the river that offers excellent waterbird, crocodile, and hippo viewing.

To get (safely) even closer to those hippos and crocodiles and waterbirds, along with baboons and antelope and giraffe and elephants, Chobe also offers a midmorning river cruise after the morning game drive: You glide slowly down the Chobe River, Botswana on one side and Namibia on the other, nosing in toward the shore when the captain spots animals to spy on. I wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did—or to see as much wildlife as we saw, given that it was high noon.

Midafternoon, you’ll reconvene with your guides for an afternoon game drive. Like the morning drive, this calls for layers—it’ll be steamy as you head out but cool when you return after the sun has set.

More on What You’ll See

On almost any game drive, you’ll see impalas. They’re everywhere—so much so that guides will tell you the “M” marking on their backsides stands for McDonald’s: They are fast food for lions. But common as they are, they’re also really beautiful, with delicate white-and-black markings around their ankles and on their ears, and interesting social structures if you pause a while to watch and let your guide explain what you’re seeing. When we were at Chobe, they were in their rutting season, so we got to see (and hear!) the young males’ displays as they tussled and postured and tried to establish themselves and get it on.

What else you’ll see depends on where you are and what time of year it is. At Chobe, we saw jackals, lions, hippos, elephants, giraffe, baboons, monkeys, waterbirds, raptors, crocodiles, snakes, vultures, mongooses, kori bustards (Botswana’s national bird), and (so much) more. One of the coolest sightings, in my book, was when we pulled up underneath a juvenile martial eagle, who was perched atop a dead tree scanning his surroundings for a meal. He was striking, and not a little intimidating when he looked down directly at us. And our guide was so excited—which made it impossible not to be excited right along with her.

My Favorite Safari Adventures—and Layover Stop

So what have been my top safari experiences? (Aside from every animal I saw on every game drive on every trip, and every sunrise and sunset, and…you get it.) The river cruise at Chobe is up there—both the midmorning version and the sunset version. If you go, do both: same river, same boat, very different cruises. In 2007, I stayed at Jack’s Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, and one night they set us up in beds in the middle of the Kalahari and watched over us (to protect us from predators) while we slept in the open desert air. It’s something I still think about—often—and hope I’ll never forget. And the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is just jaw-dropping.

If you have an extra day or two before or after your safari: Go to Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls). You don’t need a lot of time there, just two nights (or one, depending on what time you arrive and have to leave). You can stay on the Zambian side or the Zimbabwean side—I’ve done both, and I loved both, though if you are going to do one, I’d recommend Tongabezi Lodge on the Zambian side. Awesome in the original sense of the word, the falls are the kind of natural wonder that transcends all the kitschy tourism that’s built up around it. And a sunset cocktail cruise on the Zambezi is a pretty lovely way to cap off an extraordinary trip.

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