Botswana, The Hidden Gem of Africa

I dreamed of going to Africa most of my life, but the first time I went, I was very scared. Afraid of the violence I had read about; the movies I had seen had shown me the worst. The extreme poverty, racism, language barrier, getting lost, everything. My great desire to see animals in their own environment overrode all of that, and I went with three friends to see the total eclipse of the sun and to spend a couple weeks in Botswana.

There are 58 countries on the African continent, each unique and can never be generalized as “Africa”. Many people are not even aware that Botswana is the huge, landlocked country immediately north of the country of South Africa, although it is the size of France (twice the size of the state of New Mexico), with only 2.4M people, and the model for democracy in Africa. In fact, Seretse Khama (from a long lineage of royal chiefs in Botswana), the country’s first President, promoted democracy and went to law school in Oxford – and married an English woman during apartheid in South Africa; very controversial!

The best-selling book “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith, was first published in 1998, and there were sequels following it, and later a BBC series, bringing Botswana to public attention. Although fiction, it is an epic story about Botswana, and an authentic portrayal of the culture, which is intrinsically good. It gave me courage to overcome my fear of Africa, step out of my comfort zone, and literally change my life forever.

When I first arrived, one of my friends became very ill with a sinus infection, and I found a doctor (an English cardiologist) to help her. Over the weeks we were there, I fell in love with him, and stayed in the little town of Maun, on the edge of the Okavango Delta to live with him and to work in the local hospital. I discovered a place that is wild, pristine, and expansive. It has become, for me, a place and a people that I cannot get out of my blood.

We lived in a little white house on the banks of the Thamalakane River, and often saw hippos and crocodiles as we drank our tea after work on the back patio. This is where I first began my great love affair with birds, as each morning the haunting cry of the African Fish Eagle woke me, and later thousands of red-billed quelea would fly down the river in search of food for the day. In the evening, the chestnut-colored Senegal coucal would hop around our yard searching for berries, and the lilac-breasted roller (the national bird), and the yellow-billed Hornbills would act almost tame, wanting to be part of our family.

Maun is a strange little town, one that most visitors never really see, as they immediately get into a bush plane and leave for the expensive safari lodges to the north. Yet, it is fascinating, if you look below the surface. For instance, the traditional Herero people who fled genocide in Namibia in the early 1900’s still live in mud huts around town. You can identify them by the women’s long Victorian gowns (with eight petticoats underneath) and hats with horizontal “horns” on them, commemorating their heritage as cattle herders. And, you may find San Bushmen in the most unlikely places, as I did, living in a neighbor’s back yard. They were once painters, and we can still see some of their work in Savuti, the western edge of Chobe. They depict eland, elephant, sable, giraffe, a puffadder, and a hippo, and thought to be 4,000 years old.

The Batswana people themselves, are very proud, conservative, and respectful. Formal greetings always come before a conversation, no matter how short it may be. There is never any hurry; things are done at a leisurely pace. And, we would be thought rude to try to rush or speed things up. I love the colorful clothes the women wear and to see them often striding down the street with a huge load of something balanced on the top of their heads.

Every weekend and all vacations, we spent in the Bush – an area comprising 40% of the country of Botswana and which is completely dedicated to animals in their own environment. I loved exploring the Kalahari Desert to the south of Maun, but the vast expanses of Moremi and the huge reserves north of there – Chobe (4500 square miles), Savuti (the western edge of Chobe), and into Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, still remains my one of my favorite places on earth.

I learned that Botswana is the place to go in the world to see lion, leopards, elephants, cheetahs, wild dogs (also called painted dogs – the most efficient killers on earth), over 400 species of birds, and so much more. Tourism is limited. I grew to love camping in spectacularly beautiful places, with no one else around, and listen to the sound of lions roaring in the deep silence at night.

In 2014, the Okavango Delta was recognized as the 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage Site on Earth! The Moremi Game Reserve in the northeastern portion of the Okavango, is an exquisite wetland of permanent marshlands, and seasonally flooded plains. It is the largest inland delta in the world and does not flow into the sea or an ocean. The river I lived next to in Maun, was a perfect example, and an extension of the Delta – it flows south from Angola every year, and for three or four of those months, Maun is completely dry. The hippos and crocodiles follow the water.

Something magical happens when I drive into this spectacular area. It has a way of ensuring that you are in the present moment, because you never really know what you are going to see or experience, and you want to be alert and notice things. Camping, to me, is the ideal way to do it. Then, you are in the animals’ own environment, and actually a part of it. The sounds, smells, little details, the earth, different signs you learn to notice….I often wish I could stop time, as nothing could be more beautiful than that moment. Here is a short story I wrote about a New Year’s eve camping trip we did in the Okavango Delta, to give you an idea of what I mean: link to the story 

I have to admit, there was something very special about the Hemingway-style of safari: the old Colonial way of taking creature comforts into a camping experience in the middle of nowhere really was an art. That is something that needs to be done with a guides. And, I love that – the way we are in sleeping bags in a tent, but get up to a beautifully cooked meal, hot water, and English tea – it lends a sense of formality that extends to how we treat each other with manners, respect, and acceptance. We extend that to the environment and the animals – remembering that we are in their home, now – and how fortunate we are to be able to be there!

There is really nothing like it, it will change your life forever.



Deborah Stephens


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