Is there such a thing? Last year, our good friends and traveling companions agree that we did reach that dream – a month long trip thru Namibia and Botswana, all in Wilderness Safaris camps, seven in all. By way of background, the four of us met on a Lindblad Expeditions trip to Baja California nine years ago. As sometimes happens, we “hit it off” and have traveled every year since, to destinations as different as Antarctica, Malawi, Chile from Patagonia to the Atacama, Tanzania off the beaten track, and Rajasthan and Bhutan.
A happy coincidence among the four of us is that three are not especially interested in planning trips while I revel in the opportunity. Thanks to the skills, know-how, and attention to detail of Sue Rovegno at Travel Beyond, we’ve worked through, modified and finalized some fabulous trips – including our Ultimate Safari. Africa “grabs you”, no question about it.
This trip was special in many ways – Namibia is a fascinating country, the second least densely populated country on earth (after Mongolia). The open spaces, the unique ecosystem and wildlife and the fact that you can be off in incredibly remote areas and have a first-class operation, as are all the Wilderness Safaris camps we encountered, is a real plus. The fact that our entire trip was built around their camps made coordination and transportation virtually seamless. We can’t say enough about all of the Wilderness Safaris operations, their staff and their whole approach to stewardship of the land, the inhabitants and all of the natural resources. First class in every way!
We are conscious of how lucky we were to be able to make as extensive a trip as we did, spending nearly a month visiting seven different camps. For anyone considering a shorter safari, any one of the camps or any combination would be well worthwhile. All are unique and more than comfortable.
Our journey began with flights from the States to Frankfurt, with an overnight there – a buffer we like to include in case of weather issues. From Frankfurt, a non-stop overnight flight to Windhoek, Namibia made for a very clean and simple start to our trip. A day in Windhoek prepared us for our flight to our first safari camp, Little Kulala, close to the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei. The desert environment was a fascinating introduction to Namibia, and climbing among the sand dunes observing the flora and fauna with our knowledgeable guide Moses was a treat. To reach our next destination, in the far northwestern part of the country, we first flew to Swakopmund. The flight was directly over the Sossusvlei dune area and is a must-see to really appreciate the size, scope and beauty of this very unique area.
Skeleton Coast Camp, our next destination, is one of the most remote camps in all of Namibia, close to the coast and the border with Angola. Skeleton Coast Park is a very special reserve, a huge area set aside for low impact tourism. It is roughly the size of our home state of Vermont plus adjacent New Hampshire. Believe it or not, we along with the camp staff were virtually the only ones there for the four days we spent at Skeleton Coast. Daily drives, in a specially equipped (for sand) Land Rover were simply unreal, and the feeling of open spaces and emptiness were overwhelming. We drove on endless sand dunes, had the thrill of floating down a 50 degree slope in our Land Rover and drove along the ocean beach for more than 20 miles with only bleached whale bones, birds and scurrying crabs to be seen. Jonathan, our guide was as skillful as he was knowledgeable.
A visit outside the reserve to a native Himba village was a unique experience. These people, one of the last truly nomadic tribes on earth, have a simple and unique life. We felt as though we had stepped into the pages of a National Geographic magazine, privileged to have had a glimpse of their way of life. Animal life in the area is sparse, but adapted to that harsh environment. Desert-adapted elephants, oryx, giraffe and lions were seen. Also, we were able to deliver supplies we had brought to a small local school. The nearest other school was some 150 miles away.
Little Ongava camp was next – a beautiful, elegant setting on top of a hill within a private reserve adjacent to the famous Etosha National Park. This area was much less arid, and game was plentiful, including sightings of both white and black rhinos. Birds were plentiful and varied. We had the very unique experience of getting stuck, really stuck in a muddy area made worse by recent rain. It takes a lot to stop a Land Rover, and we spent a couple of hours before being extracted by two rescue Rovers, a lot of helpful and not-so-helpful suggestions from staff who came to the “rescue”. Lots of laughs as well! Guide Gabriel made our time at Little Ongava really special.
Next, it was on to Botswana by way of Maun, which is the pivotal town for the entire area. Another smooth transfer and we were off to Duba Plains, which is perhaps the most remote camp in all of the Okavango Delta, accessible only by air. This camp was the setting for the National Geographic film “Relentless Enemies” which documents the relationship between lion predators and buffalo prey. The lions of Duba, some of the largest and strongest in all of Africa did not disappoint – we saw eating, sleeping, mating, stalking and socializing lions. A leopard family was spotted, an exciting event as they seem to be re-colonizing the area after a long absence. Of course, many plains animals, elephants, giraffes and again, birds galore. At Duba, we saw what snorkel-equipped Land Rovers can do in a watery environment as we had to cross a marshy area on each drive. Our guide James “007” is a thirteen year veteran of Duba Plains, an unusually long tenure. He explained to us that he had many opportunities to move to other camps as many do. He clearly knows Duba like the palm of his hand and remains because he loves it deeply.
Next, we headed to Little Vumbura Camp, a unique camp located on a small island reached by a short boat ride. The camp is elegant, beautifully situated with waterways (“Hippo Highways”) all around so we were able to have some special experiences on the water. On land one day, we drove through a grassy area where there were many carmine bee-eaters. They found that is was profitable to follow us closely as the wheels scared insects into flight as we drove. They followed us on all sides alongside the vehicle like precision jet fighters, sometimes at arm’s length. What an exhibition! Our guide “K” was a bird caller supreme and one evening imitated a black cuckoo to the point where they had an extended running dialog. Again, at Little Vumbura Camp, there was no shortage of animals, and we never tired of seeing them all in different settings. Sable antelopes, an uncommon sighting, were spotted on several occasions.
Our next-to-last camp was Little Mombo Camp. It has to rank at or near the top of the list of outstanding safari locations anywhere. The camp itself is unique in that the lodges and the walkways between them are all built on stilts so that animals can circulate freely “in, under, around and through” the camp. On several mornings we had a bull elephant eating leaves just feet away from where we ate breakfast. There was an abundance of wildlife of all kinds everywhere. Our guide “Tsili”, a big man with a most hearty laugh was yet another knowledgeable and friendly credit to the Wilderness Safaris organization.
The very special highlight of our Mombo visit was the surprise appearance of Sue Rovegno and her husband Marco, who were on a familiarization tour of a number of camps. I had worked with Sue over the phone for something like seven years, in my role as trip planner. Sue and I shaped the itinerary and she very capably handled the details. Our friends Ursula and Walter had met Sue at an airport stopover in Minneapolis several years before. My wife and I never had although I had gotten to know her “smiling voice” pretty well over the years. We were in on the surprise, our friends were not. We knew that some new guests were going to appear, and we played up the idea of checking the new folks out to see if we would allow them to join us at Mombo. When Sue and Marco showed up, just seeing Ursula’s face as it slowly dawned on her that she recognized Sue, but there she was, completely out of context.
We had more fun, and more laughs over the following days…..as the kids would say, “a blast”.
We “met” the leopard that was featured in the “Eye of the Leopard” National Geographic film – with an impala kill up in a tree and two youngsters nearby. This was a close-up encounter with them and with a number of hyenas eager to snatch scraps and clean up leftovers.
The finale at Mombo was seeing a buffalo kill by a pride of nine lions; a little gory, but an amazing thing to watch. We witnessed the scene over two days, with the buffalo providing meals for all the lions, many hyenas, jackals, vultures, and smaller birds. We learned later that by the end of the third day, there was nothing left of this huge animal but the skull and horns.
Outdoor evening meals and a surprise lunch set up by a hippo pool are among many special memories of Mombo.
Our final camp was King’s Pool, named after a visit some years ago by the king of Sweden. It is located on the river which forms the border between Botswana and Namibia. Another beautiful camp in a very special setting.
We had a very good leopard sighting with a chance for some close-up pictures. The grandest of grand finales of our unforgettable trip occurred on the very last evening. We were riding along on a trail at river edge just at sunset when our guide looked off in the distance and pointed out some elephants headed from the Namibian side to swim the river into Botswana. He found a spot at river edge, and we watched well over 100 elephants, young and old, cross over close in front of us in a procession that lasted the better part of an hour……all as the light faded in a spectacular sunset. Truly an unforgettable ending to our Ultimate Safari!!!
Tags: Botswana, Duba Plains, Etosha National Park, Himba, Himba village, Kings Pool Camp, Little Kulala, Little Ongava, Little Vumbura, Namibia, Okavango Delta, Sefofane, Skeleton Coast, Skeleton Coast Camp, Skeleton Coast Park, Sossusvlei, Sue Rovegno, Swakopmund, Travel Beyond, ultimate safari, Wilderness Safaris