The Best Botswana Okavango Delta Safari That Will Change Your Life
In one of the most biodiverse regions on earth, one company is transforming the way you experience nature, marvel at wildlife, and become active guardians of one of the planet's most vital ecosystems.
There's no peace quite like waking up in the bush. Not silence, with the snap of twigs from nocturnal animals returning from the evening hunt, and the sound of birds chirping as they welcome the day's sun; but peace. Two hours from the northern Botswanan city of Maun lies Camp Kwapa, the headquarters of Natucate and the African Guide Academy where experienced guides and novices alike have the opportunity to learn, witness, and become active guardians of nature---what a safari is supposed to be!
Offering guide courses, wildlife tours, sabbatical opportunities and more, ranging from a few days to several months, we joined the Natucate team and a group of journalists on the Wilderness Experience. Typically lasting two weeks, we chose to spend only seven days in the Okavango Delta, and in this post we'll break down everything from what to pack, to how to get there, where we slept, what we ate, and most importantly, how we were changed (for the better) forever.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE
The word safari is a Swahili word meaning 'journey', from the Arabic verb Safar, 'to journey'. Although using the word in the context of Natucate's Botswana Wilderness Experience feels almost like an oversimplification, it's most certainly what we did: journey toward a better understanding of ourselves, wildlife, and our planet as a whole.
DAY 1: INTO BOTSWANA + THE OKAVANGO DELTA
From the moment we arrived in Maun, a city in Botswana's northwest district that acts as a gateway to the Okavango Delta, the Moremi Game Reserve, and the Kalahari Desert, we knew that this trip would be the perfect opportunity to truly leave our comfort zones. Met at the small, one-room airport by our guide Alan, we made our way across the dusty, quiet street to The Duck Café Bar where we had a quick snack, connected to wifi for what we thought would be the last time for a week, and met up with the six other journalists, PR professionals, and photographers who'd be experiencing this trip with us.
Truly Off the Beaten Path + Arriving at Camp
Loaded up into the big land cruiser and ready to go, we set off through Maun and into the bush toward the Okavango Delta, greeting local children on their way home from school and cattle grazing along the roadsides along the way. Once we left the centre of Maun, the roads transitioned from asphalt to sandy paths leading into dense thickets with no road signs in sight. Setting off around golden hour, the dust in the air turned the sky a beautiful orange, and the faint smell of burning wood from controlled burns happening in the area permeated the two-hour ride to camp. Stopping just outside of camp as the sun set, we looked around for wildlife as our guide, Alan, introduced us to the area and managed our expectations for the trip.
With over 25 years' experience in guiding, tracking, and conservation, Alan acquainted us with the beautiful landscape we found ourselves in, and ensured us that this trip would allow us to throw away all of our preconceived notions (if we were open to it!) about wildlife (which often are perceived as 'dangerous'), our relationship with our planet, and how the complex ecosystem thrives around us, even in the tiniest, driest, or barest of places.
Upon getting to the camp just after dark, we were met by the Natucate and African Guide Academy team, and shown to our tents before having a quick, but delicious dinner cooked by resident-super-chef, DeClerk (aka Chef Sugar), and his team. As the majority of us follow vegan diets, the nightly buffet-style dinner consisted of fully plant-based dishes, cooked with incredible local produce including various types of squash and house-made breads, and one optional meat dish. After dinner, our first night concluded with a bit of sitting around a roaring campfire, as elephants walked by in the distance.
Conscious Reminder: The camp is entirely surrounded by an electrified wire, preventing large animals like elephants, zebras, and giraffes from stumbling through camp overnight, causing destruction and potentially harming visitors; however, any smaller animals like leopards, hyenas, bush cats, porcupine, and more could still wander into camp. For this reason, it was always advised to have a torch (flashlight) with you at all times at night, and keep your wits about you when walking back to your tent, as well as to never keep food in your tent. Similarly, once everyone had gone to sleep, it was advised to stay inside the secure tents made from thick, waxed canvas.
DAY 2-5: OUR SLICE OF THE GARDEN OF EDEN
Did you know that according to a 2019 study of DNA, first published by this Nature paper and The Atlantic, found that the Okavango Delta is alleged to be the fabled Garden of Eden (aka the ancestral homeland from which all of humanity descended over 200,000 years ago)?
By analysing DNA from volunteers of some of the area’s oldest villages, researchers found that our ancestors thrived in the area for about 70,000 years before changes in the climate transformed Africa’s once-largest lake into what is now the Kalahari Desert! These changes forced humanity to disperse, and helped spark the development of ethnic, cultural and genetic diversity! Pretty cool, right?
Cold Sunrises & Morning Magic
Waking up before the sun to the sounds of morning birds each day was a pleasant change from what many of us are used to living in big cities. In addition to the slow, sleepy shuffle of other attendees, we soaked up the feeling of the cold breeze seeping into the tent, layered up for the cold morning, brushed our teeth in the outdoor basin (freshly filled each morning), and headed out with blankets in-hand for a morning bush drive.
As the bright sun emerged from beyond the horizon, we drove along winding paths deeper into the Delta and bid good morning to herds of impala, neon green and bright blue birds, and small herds of elephants making their way to the watering hole. Spending anywhere between two and three hours out in the bush each morning with a quick stop for bush-breakfast (consisting of fruit, nuts, porridge, coffee or tea, and good chats), Alan showed us various native plant species, revealed easy-to-miss animal tracks from the night before, and revealed to us the powerful nature of local wildlife including hippos, hyenas, giraffes, and his favourite animal, elephants.
Live Like An Elephant
Despite disliking the nickname 'The Elephant Whisperer', Alan has spent so much time observing, studying, and living out alongside elephants that there truly was no better teacher for us to learn from about these gentle giants than him. Covering topics from their anatomy and how their bodies assist in their survival, to how they feed, nurture, and care for one another, even in death, and the boundless intelligence these creatures possess, the lessons we garnered from Alan's compassion, patience, and love for nature left us with these three key lessons on how to live more wholly, like an elephant:
1. Tread lightly.
Despite their size and power, elephants when walking are as silent as a mouse. The width of their feet allows them to tread across dry grass quieter than you or I could, even if we were tiptoeing, and the trail they leave behind them is minimal. When stripping bark from trees for food or sap, the sticks and even poo they leave behind serve a higher purpose of providing nutrients for vast termite networks that cover the landscape, or sticks that can be used by birds and small mammals for shelter. Much of this can be a lesson to us in the way we choose to live our lives: leaving a minimal negative impact behind us wherever we go, and if we must leave something, make sure to make it something that benefits others.
2. Care for one another.
Elephants hold near-unbreakable familial bonds. They migrate, feed, defend, and live together throughout their long lives. Sometimes, young males (or bull elephants) go off on their own as teenagers, or are even banished from the herd; but most often, when families of elephants are reunited after extended periods of time, they greet each other with loud excitement, celebration, and embracing, just as we humans do with those we love. In death, elephants mourn just as we do too. Whether an elephant calf is stillborn, a grown elephant is killed in a fight or dies merely of old age, herds of elephants will often stand watch over the body for days at a time, do what they can to bury their dead, and have been seen to cry tears at the passing of their loved ones. People and all of the chaos we bring to each other and the world often forget their common humanity. Like an elephant, cherish the ones you love for as long as you can.
3. Take your time.
Did you know that elephant mothers are pregnant with their young for nearly two years before giving birth? Not just in creating life do elephants take their time, but also in taking care of themselves, in nurturing each other, and in moving through life. We often feel like we need to rush through our lives to be able to achieve everything we feel we're required to, squeezing ourselves into uncomfortable boxes and spaces where we struggle to figure out who we really are. Despite what much of social media tells you, there's no rush. Take your time, and you'll get where you need to go.
Watering Hole Wisdom
After our morning drives, we would return to camp for a few hours, have lunch, shower, and rest before heading back out for an evening drive. Leaving camp every day around 15:30 or 16:00 (depending on how hot it was), we'd set off to explore a different area of the Delta.
In doing so, we discovered for ourselves different landscapes including floodplains, dense bush, forests of sausage trees (aka kigelia), and expansive grasslands where hyenas chased herds of springing impala, where kudu gnawed on low branches, and where giraffes hugged the tree line, keeping an eye on us and notifying others about our presence through the flight of the tickbirds that rest on their heads.
Most evenings, we'd stop for a 'sundowner' with perfect views of the bright red sunsets as they descended beyond the horizon. Other nights, however, we'd drive to nearby watering holes frequented by elephants (or 'ellies ' as we affectionately called them), to sit in silent admiration of these beautiful, powerful, almost-unfathomable creatures as they wound down for the day.
Did you know: From a distance, elephants view safari trucks full of humans as one 'foreign' unit. Meaning that 8-10 people inside of a truck appear simply as a large, moving, foreign-smelling object to be wary of and to keep an eye on. If elephants choose to move closer, they can then identify the number of individuals inside a vehicle.
A Life-Changing Look
On our third night of watching the ellies wash, play, and drink from a watering hole near camp, we had a life-changing encounter that touched each of our 'inner beings', as Alan often referred to our souls and their interconnectedness with nature, in a profound way.
As we sat and watched herds of elephants come and go in silence for hours, one curious bull elephant slowly approached our vehicle. Stepping cautiously closer and closer, the eight of us in the vehicle sat frozen, yet also secretly hoped the curious young elephant would come closer, while at the same time respecting the power and might he brought with him too.
Finally, stopping only about 10 feet from the vehicle, Mr. Elephant slowly surveyed each of us, and stopped to make eye contact with all of us individually to assess what we were about---were we there to cause harm to his family or were we alright? Seemingly satisfied with the fact that we were only there to watch and learn from him and his family, Mr. Elephant returned to his group and continued drinking from the watering hole.
As the sun disappeared behind the horizon and the coolness and pitch black of night in the bush arrived, we started the vehicle, and softly waved goodbye to the elephants who seemed unbothered by our presence. As we started to drive away however, our friend Mr. Elephant saw that we were leaving, and quickly approached the vehicle again, this time getting closer than the last. Again, we stopped, sat silently, and sent positive energy as he observed, assessed, and decided we were cool, so he headed back to the watering hole.
One final time, once the elephants were barely silhouettes to our eyes, we started the vehicle, waved goodbye as a definitive sign that we were leaving, and softly said "Goodnight and goodbye, Mr. Elephant!" At the sound of our car's engine starting to roll away, Mr. Elephant turned one final time, began to follow the vehicle for about 20-30 metres, and finally, stuck his trunk high up in the air, gently bobbing the tip as if he were waving goodbye too.
DAY 6: A WALK THROUGH THE WILDERNESS
On our penultimate morning, we all decided to wake well before the sun rose, and go for our final sunrise drive, but this time, Alan had something special in store for us. As we drove into the middle of a floodplain, surrounded by tall grasses, Alan offered for all of us to get out of the car, walk through the grass and sit high on a termite mound. As he imparted some of his wisdom, experience, and stories, a lone bull elephant walked past and reminded us of just how small we may be, but how large of an impact each of us can have--it's up to us, however, if we want it to be an immense positive or negative one.
After returning for lunch, a nap, and a shower, we set off a bit earlier than usual for our evening bush drive, as tonight we wouldn't be traversing the bush by car, but instead on foot. Armed each with a large bottle of water, we followed Alan along some of the elephant paths one final time toward one of our beloved sunset spots. As we crossed the floodplains in single file, every animal in the area was on high alert, taking note of these humans nearing their domain on foot. Conscious to spot tracks, listen for nearby sounds, and ensure we didn't sneak up on any animal, we walked in silence, taking in the sheer scope and beauty of this landscape that we had been privileged enough to be guests in for the last week. This walking trek was optional for the whole group, but never once making us feel unsafe, we truly embraced it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we cannot recommend taking part in enough.
Finishing the evening with a silent reflection of the week sat on the floodplain and met by other members of the Natucate team for a final sundowner, we cherished every moment with one another, had deep conversations that further reinforced our passion for protecting our planet and all who live on it.
Conscious Reminder: In some of the photos from the bush walk, Alan can be seen holding a rifle. This is purely for safety in absolute worst-case scenario situations, which have never occurred with Alan here.
DAY 7: DEPARTURE
On our final morning, we said our tearful goodbyes to everyone at camp and left around 07:30 to begin the long journey home. Starting with a two-hour drive back to Maun, we were greeted by the smiles of village children as they made their way to Sunday worship, and rounded out the trip with a final stop at The Duck Cafe & Bar, where we also picked up beautiful, locally made gifts for our family members in the cafe's indoor shop. Each item is handmade, responsibly made (often using local plants for dye, recycled materials for magnets and jewellery, hand-stamped, cotton tea towels, and more!), and fairly priced, ensuring the artisan who made the items be paid fairly for their stunning work.
We will never forget this trip, and know now more deeply than ever the significance of the fact that, to quote famed radio announcer Paul Harvey, "despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains."
IMPACT + REALITY OF CLIMATE CHANGE
With the impacts of human-caused climate change being felt more powerfully--and detrimentally--than ever, especially in the Global South, the Okavango Delta and the surrounding communities are being disproportionately impacted. The aforementioned rainy season has been considerably shortened due to increasing temperatures, with scorching hot days evaporating much of the remaining water in the Delta's floodplains.
This drought is forcing many species of wildlife, like elephants, hippos, giraffes, warthogs, and more to either make the long journey north toward the Angolan highlands where the river that brings flooding to the Delta each year begins, or stay in their typical southern Delta habitats, and be faced with the immense struggle of finding water amid dusty, dry bush.
To accommodate this, Natucate and the African Wildlife Academy have set up two solar-powered (via pump) watering holes in the area to enable wildlife that did not choose to migrate north to have enough water. This is often argued as unethical, as nature should be allowed to take its course; however, we believe that man's continued negative impact on the planet is the root cause of such severe droughts in the first place, so we think nature could use a little help like this from time to time. It is of course not nearly enough, but it's a start. Learn more about how you can help protect the Okavango Delta here!
WHAT TO PACK FOR THE BEST BOTSWANA SAFARI EVER!
Sitting far south of the equator, the seasons in the Okavango Delta include mostly hot days and cold nights, with wet and dry seasons alternating throughout the year. The wet season rolls in during Botswana's peak summertime, November or December (it is unpredictable), and ends around April, as winter approaches.
We visited the Okavango Delta in early September, just as spring begins morphing into summer, and experienced hot, dusty, dry days, and cold, windy nights. To accommodate fluctuating climates, the key is packing layers. Also, because of the nature of the trip and where you'll be, ensure that all of your clothing is neutral coloured. So think khaki, dark green, beige, tan, off-white, and brown. NO bright colours! We also don't recommend packing a hard, rolling suitcase.
We managed to fit everything into our favourite Kapten & Son backpacks, but if you have a duffle and a backpack you can pack instead of a big suitcase it may be better and easier for you to transport.
For seven days of walks, morning and evening bush drives, fireside chats, and more, here's everything each of us packed:
2x fleece sweaters / quarter-zips
3x pairs bush pants (cargo pants, tend to be water-resistant, yet lightweight)
2-3x over-shirts (lightweight, neutral button downs we wore over T-shirts to add extra sun and bug protection)
1x pair of walking boots (sturdy, practical, and comfortable is essential!)
1x pair of flip-flops (for showering + relaxing around camp)
7x pairs of crew socks (make sure they cover your ankles! The grass burrs are wayyy bigger in Africa)
7x t-shirts, tanks, or what ever you choose to wear under undershirts
7-10x pairs underwear
1-2x light, thin scarves or snoods (to protect your neck from sun + bugs)
1x warm set of pyjamas (we each had leggings or sweatpants, a long-sleeved top, and fuzzy socks)
2x hats (cap or wide-brim is vital for the afternoons, but a beanie for those COLD morning bush rides was sooo welcome!)
1x pair sunglasses!! (Do NOT forget these!)
Gear + Toiletries + Miscellaneous:
Binoculars (SO good for spotting far-off or expertly camouflaged wildlife)
Solar-powered charging bank OR portable charging bank capable of charging a phone 2-3 times!
Camera (if you plan on taking professional-quality snaps of wildlife!)
Tote bag or travel laundry bag to put those stinky clothes in at the end of the day -- STNKY bags are our favourite!
A book (for those relaxed mid-day siestas, especially since there's no wifi by the tents)
Sunscreen (trust me, you'll want at least SPF50)
Non-single-use toiletries (all waste produced by the camp has to be taken many miles away to be properly processed, leave a minimal impact)
Biodegradable face + body cleansing wipes (you shower during the day, otherwise it's too dark to do so at night, so giving yourself a wipe before going to bed allows you to wake up feeling fresh in the morning)
Conscious Reminder: Most of these things, particularly clothing items, can be purchased in near-new condition secondhand! Be sure to check out Vinted, Depop, eBay, Poshmark, or any other secondhand site/app before buying new!
HOW TO GET TO CAMP KWAPA
From wherever you are in the world, Natucate's Botswana experiences begin in Maun, which is best accessible via Johannesburg, South Africa. From London, we booked all of our flights through Skyscanner which checks flight prices from hundreds of websites to find exactly what you're looking for, at the best prices. For long-haul flights, we can't recommend using Skyscanner enough, to save you both time and money!
London Heathrow (LHR) to Johannesburg O.R. Tambo Airport (JNB)
From London's Heathrow airport, we flew on Virgin Atlantic to Johannesburg. The flight left at around 9pm, and was just over 11 hours long. Since it was an overnight flight, however, it was really nice to sleep, watch films, and relax on the plane. Once we arrived in Johannesburg, we followed all signs for international transfers, had to go through security and customs one more time, and made our way to our next flight gate.
Johannesburg O.R. Tembo Airport (JNB) to Maun Airport (MUB)
The flight with CemAir from Johannesburg to Maun was just under 2 hours on a little dual-engine propeller plane. If you were to drive from Johannesburg to Maun it would take you well over 12 hours, so this short transfer flight is well worth it! Upon arrival, we walked across the small airstrip into the single airport building, and were handed a customs form which is required to be filled out upon both arrival and departure. Make sure to have a pen or pencil on you, as we had to borrow from a nice couple whom we never had a chance to give the pencil back to: if you're reading this, sorry!
Maun (MUB) to Camp Kwapa
As soon as we walked though customs, our guide for the trip Alan, met us and took us for a quick bite to eat across the street from the airport at an excellent locally-run restaurant called The Duck. After a quick bite (we loved the lentil balls without tzatziki), we loaded ourselves and our bags into a big land cruiser, and set off into the bush toward Camp Kwapa. Two hours on the dusty, windy road during golden hour was really special. It allowed us to interact with locals (cattle included!), begin to look for wildlife, and learn more about the area from our guide.
Camp Kwapa offers 'glamping' at its finest! We weren't sure what we'd be arriving to, and were pleasantly surprised to find large tents with private, enclosed, outdoor bathrooms attached to the back, and cute 'patios' on each front. During daytime siestas, we'd sit out front on camping chairs and read, or take a nap inside. Each tent was equipped with two large twin beds with extra fluffy blankets for cold nights, a table for putting things like toiletries on, a small rack from which you could hang things, and towels for showering.
Now I know what you're thinking..."Showers??" and yes, we had showers, but not like what you may be used to. The showers were bucket showers, meaning every day after lunch, Warren, Natucate's in-house multi-talented man, would help us string up a big bucket of hot water, attached via a pulley system to a big post at the back of the tent. The bottom of the bucket had a shower head attached to it that could be opened and closed depending on when you wanted to have water running on you, or when you wanted it to pause it so you could lather up. One person typically requires one bucket, and this method really made us mindful of how much water one typically uses when showering at home.
In terms of toilets, believe it or not, each tent had a flushing toilet and provided toilet paper, which definitely quelled the fear that we were going to have to go dig a hole somewhere.
Pro Tip for Tent Life: When entering and exiting your tent, be religious about unzipping and zipping behind you as fast as you can. Especially at night, curious little bugs often want to know what's on the other side of that thick canvas. So to make sure they stay comfy in their beds like you are in yours, don't leave your tent flaps open. Also, bang out your boots and shake out your clothes before putting them on in the morning, you just never know who got cosy in there overnight. Fortunately, we never had any experiences, but a few small critters did find their way into some of the other guests' tents when they were too lax about leaving their tents unzipped, lights on, and stuff unchecked.
OUR HOSTS: NATUCATE + THE AFRICAN GUIDE ACADEMY
Founded in 2013, Natucate has since offered well-over 1000 adventures around the world, encouraging people of all ages to get directly involved in conserving, repairing, and bettering our planet. From restoring endangered habitats in Estonia to volunteering at a dog and cat animal rescue centre in Vietnam, each of Natucate's destinations offers bountiful opportunities for personal growth, exploration, fun, and learning. Thank you Natucate for having us, for deepening our relationship with the natural world, and for offering the best Okavango Delta, Botswana safari experience in the world. Check out Natucate on Instagram to follow along with all the adventures!
The African Guide Academy was born from the Okavango Guiding School, and is the first private guide training school registered in Botswana to provide training for guides on both the Field Guide Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) and the Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) platforms. Its variety of courses offer opportunities for both experts and novices alike to integrate themselves in nature, and better understand ecological interconnectedness, animal tracking, and more! Check out the African Guide Academy on Instagram to learn more!
Special additional thanks to Alan (@alanmcsmithsafaris), Warren, DeClerk (aka Chef Sugar), and the whole Camp Kwapa team for being the most incredible friends, guides, chefs, centipede-expellers, shower set-up helpers, fire-builders, elephant-whisperers, and more. We would not have the same understanding of the Okavango Delta without you!