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OUR OPEN-AIR GAME vehicle bounces through ruts and puddles deepened by heavier-than-usual rains on Botswana’s Kalahari Plains. Days after fleeing Boston winter, it’s summer in southern Africa, and we’re surrounded by greenery and serenaded by an astonishing range of birds that look as if they were dipped in crayons. We’re a bit weary after a 5 a.m. wake-up call until soundlessly and suddenly, a journey of giraffes emerges just to our left in the post-dawn light. After a brief interspecies gaze, the giraffes break into a trot, a surprisingly graceful blur of patches, necks, and legs disappearing into the savannah. How can these animals, many over 15 feet tall, just appear and vanish like that?
Over eight days, in four camps spread across nearly 500 miles of diverse ecosystems, from the Kalahari Desert that makes up most of this landlocked nation to the astonishing Okavango Delta, Botswana delivers the mix of wonder, wilderness, and wildlife I’d sought when it was time to check “safari” off the bucket list.
I knew little about this country roughly the size of Texas except as the setting for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels. Politically stable since independence in 1966, Botswana is one of Africa’s most prosperous republics. Its 2 million-plus people live in relative racial harmony, symbolized by the black and white bands at the center of the national flag, which also represent the zebra, the national animal. The rest of the flag is blue, reflecting the centrality of water in this mostly desert nation.
Not everything is perfect, of course.
Botswana faces serious income inequality, strains on its water and energy resources, and other challenges. With diamond mining, which drove economic growth for decades, past its peak, the government is banking on tourism, now Botswana’s second-largest industry, for jobs and continued growth.
But the country has taken a very different approach to tourism than other safari hot spots, such as Tanzania and Kenya in east Africa, which seek to draw large numbers of visitors through extensive tourism infrastructure and relatively modest prices. By contrast, Botswana has adopted a low-volume, high-revenue business model, targeting travelers, many of them representing a wealthier clientele, seeking to experience pristine wilderness as much as abundant wildlife. It’s possible to experience Botswana at lower costs than we paid (see sidebar), though you can also spend a lot, lot more.
About 30 percent of the country is protected from development. Botswana, which has banned big-game hunting and instituted strong anti-poaching policies, has become a sprawling sanctuary of free-roaming wildlife, including elephant herds that represent about a third of all elephants left in southern Africa.
My goal was to see lions, elephants, wild dogs, cheetahs, and leopards, surrounded by space and wilderness, not bumper-to-bumper tour groups.
“Botswana is definitely more of an immersion into the natural world,” says South Africa native and safari expert Julian Harrison, president of Philadelphia-based Premier Tours. “But its exclusivity also makes Botswana more expensive,” especially for stays in the private “concessions” that pay hefty local community fees and face steep operating costs in this landlocked nation. Harrison suggests I could save money and maybe have an even better experience by traveling during what marketers dub southern Africa’s “Green Season” of roughly November through March, which, conveniently, is a great time to escape from New England.
Prices during this low-travel period can be up to 30 percent lower than during the peak season of May to September. That’s because African summer brings occasional though rarely steady rain, hotter temperatures, mosquitoes, and grass and other fresh vegetation that can obscure wildlife. But Green Season offers real positives besides lower costs. “Just look around you,” says Michael Fitt, who works on environmental and conservation projects for Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris. “In the winter, the Kalahari looks like the desert it is, brown and brown,” he says as we sit in the company’s Kalahari Plains camp. “But Green Season transforms it into a lush landscape.” November and December in particular feature brief afternoon downpours, and “you have clear skies with no dust and brilliant sunsets like no other time of the year.”
Yes, Green Season means donning rain ponchos from time to time, and it is harder to spot animals through the vegetation. “But that’s actually a good thing,” says Sako “Dukes” Motakatshipi, a guide at our second camp, Chitabe Lediba in the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas, with seasonal floodplains and countless islands brimming with wildlife. “It makes it more like really being on a hunting safari, except with cameras rather than guns.”
“Camp” is a bit of a misnomer for the four places we stay. All are extremely clean and comfortable, with well-furnished dining areas and individual rooms offering open views, often including passing giraffes, elephants, oryx, and other locals. Our “tents” have plush beds with excellent mosquito netting, solar power, and full baths, sometimes including delightful outdoor showers. Lions roar at night, and we once wake to grunting hippos feeding just yards away.
The staff at all of our camps, sometimes outnumbering low-season guests by a 3 to 1 ratio, is helpful and friendly. We are treated to excellent and frequent feedings (most tours are all-inclusive of lodging, food, drinks, flights between camps, game drives, and even laundry service).
You expect hospitality staff to put on sunny faces for guests, but all the Botswanans I meet seem genuinely proud of their country and its conservation policies. Just outside Tubu Tree camp one morning, veteran guide Kgaga Kgaga becomes visibly upset when he spots a Cape buffalo with a recent wound from, he guesses, a poacher’s rifle. “Why would someone do that?” he asks. “Without wildlife, we have no tourists, and tourism has delivered jobs, health clinics, and other benefits for villagers.” The good news, he adds, is that most Botswanans recognize that water buffalo are now more valuable as tourism bait than bush meat.
GREEN SEASON IS BIRTHING TIME for many animals, making for photo-perfect scenes of lion cubs, tiny (all things are relative) elephants, and wildebeest calves as “cute” as a wildebeest can be. All of these vulnerable young also draw predator activity. Lions and other wildlife have become accustomed to the sight and sound of game vehicles and go about their activity despite our presence, though the guides tell us not to stand up and create silhouettes that potentially aggressive animals can interpret as prey, threat, or both.
During one morning drive on the Kalahari Plains, a healthy pride of lions — two big black-maned males, three lionesses, and seven cubs — tolerate our presence for over an hour. The males lie a distance away in the grass (lions sleep a lot to build up the energy they need for hunting) while the cubs torment their mothers with constant demands to play. When the rest of the pride moves on, the males slowly follow, walking straight at us. Few experiences can match the primal pulse of direct eye contact with a lion on its own turf and within easy striking distance.
Two days later, in the Okavango Delta, we witness the grim reality of the predator-prey relationship. A lioness has just killed a baby giraffe and dragged the carcass under the bush for a later feast for her and her cubs. As the calf’s mother wanders the scene of the kill, it elicits sighs of sorrow from the tourists and a “that’s life in the wild’’ shrug from our guide, who, the next morning, points to a herd of impalas and says, “They are happy because they survived another night.”
As we travel from camp to camp in small planes on flights ranging from 20 minutes to an hour, we spot elephants, giraffes, and other animals. The experienced pilots radio ahead to guides waiting on the small dirt landing strips to please shoo away any warthogs, ostriches, or Cape buffalos drawn to the clear space, which provides relative safety from predators. Upon landing, we’re met and driven to our camps, which can be as close as 15 minutes or as far away as an hour.
A typical safari day starts with breakfast at dawn, with offerings ranging from bacon and eggs and fruit and yogurt to bogobe, a maize or sorghum porridge. Then we head out in open game vehicles with tiered seating for about 10 people, though we rode with no more than four. After several hours of watching and learning about local flora and fauna from our guides, who are walking PhDs in Botswana’s wildlife and ecosystems, it’s back to camp to eat (again) and to nap away the hotter midday hours, when wildlife is less active. Then we’re out again at around 4 p.m., returning for tea — light snacks and drinks — and dinner a few hours later.
Buffet meals were generous and well prepared, always with salad and homemade bread. Entrees, proudly described by the cook, would be lasagna and chicken one evening and goat, kudu, or other local game another. Night drives and game walks are also available, depending on the camp and season.
While these trips are mainly about sighting the big critters, long rides through various ecosystems create a rhythm of their own, backed by a soundtrack of Cape turtledoves and other birds. We stop to watch baboons grooming each other and large herds of springbok, oryx, zebras, and other grazers. Then there are the exceptional moments — ostriches doing their crazy dance, dozens of hippos chin deep in water ogling us as we ogle them from our game vehicle, a rare sighting of a caracal (a medium-sized wildcat), two male cheetahs heading off to parts unknown, a pack of endangered wild dogs, and a solitary leopard lying on a tree branch, profiled against another amazing African sunset.
Then comes the final evening, the cherry on an eight-day sundae of fantastic images and memories. We are at Wilderness Safaris’ DumaTau Camp in the Linyanti concessions, a rich mix of swamp, grasslands, and bush in northern Botswana. Guide Evans Keowetse takes four of us out on a small motorboat, heading toward the source of the Savute Channel. We’re happy just to be taking in the mosaic of sunset color and evening calm when Evans spots elephants on the horizon. To us, the herd is a distant silhouette, but our guide knows better.
He motors a ways down the lagoon and cuts the engine, and we wait. The herd moves closer and soon reaches the water’s edge. After a few minutes of hesitation — they are checking for crocodiles, Evans explains — the matriarch leads the entire herd of adults, teenagers, and months-old calves into the water. We watch in awe as some 15 of these extraordinary animals begin to swim, trunks pointing up for air, a steady line of elephants across a quarter-mile of open water. Even the biggest shutterbug among us puts down his camera to take in the scene.
We barely catch our breath when Evans points to an even larger herd coming toward us. They swim across even deeper water as the sun begins to set. All of the elephants reach the other bank to resume their stately trek, healthy and safe in Botswana.
MORE PHOTOS:Phil Primack is a Medford-based writer. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.