One day on Safari for beginners

Alex Neaves

I work in an office full of safari experts, so you would have thought that I knew everything I needed to know before setting off for my first safari. I consider myself very well-travelled, but this was going to be a very new experience as I was heading on a research trip to Botswana and visiting the Okavango Delta. My only other taste of Africa was 10 years ago. I was in the British Army and based in a remote outpost in Kenya. I was there for 3 months with just a toothbrush, a role mat and meagre rations. I was confident that this trip was going to be much better.

The Okavando Delta Landscape varies from season to season. I would be visiting in March and at the end of the green season. This would mean that although there would be more rain, there would be less on the ground as the Delta would not start to rise until the following months.

Choosing the correct camps are important, some offer different experiences, some are better for certain wildlife, others are better in different seasons and like anywhere else in the world, they can range in quality. I would be visiting a wide range of camps to get a better understanding of what was on offer, and if they compared to my tin hut in the Kenyan bush back in 2008.

A typical day on safari in Botswana begins at 5:30am. That’s an early start I thought? But this is an ideal time for game viewing and avoids the hot temperatures that come later in the day. There is no need to set any alarm as your guide will come and call for you. Besides, there is no need to take your mobile phone, there is no wifi or phone signal in this part of the world. I was fully off the grid and loving it!

Elephants on a game drive

Photograph by Alex Neaves

Breakfast is served at 6am. I’m not sure what my expectations of the food quality would be (I was hoping for better than left over WW2 ration packs from my last trip) but I was pleasantly surprised. Breakfast is typically a buffet of fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, muffins, pancakes, savoury wraps and an assortment of fruit juices. I was amazed at the variety on offer considering we were in the middle of nowhere!

Our first game drive began at 6:30am. Its best to take a small rucksack with you and I would recommend packing a camera, water, sun cream, sunglasses and rain jacket (depending on season) The safaris are done in 4x4 jeeps and are typically Toyota Land cruisers or similar. They are very comfortable, clean (considering our environment) and seat up to 9 people.

“I consider myself very well-travelled, but this was going to be a very new experience”

We were introduced to our guide and set off for the morning drive. Again, I’m not sure what I expected from the quality of guides in Botswana, but they were incredible! Not only their knowledge of the landscape and wildlife but also tracking the animals and reading their behavioural habits. I guess I had preconceptions of just driving around and hoping to see something, which we did quite often, but I realised there was a huge amount of skill, knowledge and experience that was involved. The Okavango Delta has a huge concentration of wildlife so elephants, giraffes, zebra, hippo and impala were very easy to spot. However, when it came to Leopards and Lions, these needed to be tracked and this was all part of the fun. Think of a big game of hide and seek.

Our guide had spotted leopard tracks and identified them as fresh. I looked at the same bit of dirt and identified a leaf, a twig and some elephant dung but I took his word for it and we were off. We were soon hot on its trails and within 20 minutes we had our first big cat sighting. I have seen these animals in a zoo before, but this came nowhere near to seeing them in the wild. There is a different look in their eye, they look meaner. It was wonderful to see them.

Leopard on safari

Photograph by Tracy Edwards

We arrived back at camp at about 10:30am and we had time for a quick freshen up in our rooms before Brunch was served in the dining area. Again, no ration packs in sight. We had cold meats, cheeses, bread rolls, salads, couscous, cake and more muffins. I tried all the muffins for research purposes and can confirm that they were amazing. I will be repeating the same exercise later.

You now have about 4 hours to relax. Most camps had swimming pools, bars, lounges, viewing hides and sundecks. Some guests chose to go for a siesta or relax by the pool, others went to the bar for a cold beer or soft drink. The rooms are also very comfortable, most are canvas tents build on a raised platform and with a hard-wooden structure around them for support and shelter. These contain all the mod cons that you would expect for a hotel, including hot showers, flushable toilets and king size beds.

At 3:30pm High Tea was served in the dining area (I know, more food!) and again this looked great. Sandwiches, quiche, new potatoes and more freshly made cake. At 4pm we began our second game drive of the day.

The camp I was staying in was in a private concession. Unlike National Game Reserves these private concessions were vast areas of land that were owned by the lodges themselves. This meant that we had more freedom to go of road and track the animals, but it also meant that we could drive at night. National Parks are owned by the government and therefore have stricter rules that govern them.

For this game drive we were taken to a different area of the concession than we had visited this morning. I still couldn’t quite believe the concentration of wildlife here. Hippos, Elephants, Giraffes, wildebeest, hyena, zebra, impala, eagles, crocodiles and many more. All within a short distance of each other. Every time we thought we had seen everything there was a shout from our guide at the front with a new sighting. It was a very exciting afternoon.

At about 7pm, we stopped by the water’s edge and our guide pulled out a cool box containing drinks. This was sundowners and something that all camps offered. A drink of your choice, sat at a table in the bush while watching the sun go down, surrounded by wildlife. it was beautiful. I can also confirm that the local beer “St Louis” is a perfect accompaniment for the surroundings.

We arrived back into Camp at 7:30pm and were told dinner would be served at 8pm. This gave us all a chance for a quick freshen up in our rooms before making our way to the dining area. All the meals on safari are communal and a typical set up is one large table. This was one of my favourite parts of the trip as you got to meet so many people from all over the world and share your stories and sightings from the day. The food for Dinner was the best yet. A 3-course meal that could have come straight from an expensive restaurant back home. My 60-year-old tinned corn beef hash rationed pack was officially a thing of the past.

After dinner we were invited to gather round the fire pit which all camps have. Again, we sat round sharing stories while staring up at the beautiful night sky. I didn’t go to bed late, we would be up at 5:30am in the morning to do it all over again. I couldn’t wait to get to sleep!

I think there are several ways you can do a safari in Africa. I’m not sure you can do it better than the Okavango Delta in Botswana.