Careful attention to detail makes the most of a customized Botswana safari

—Diane Powell Ferguson, Scottsdale, AZ

Inspired by a positive review in International Travel News by Charles R. Cusack (Nov. ’02, pg. 82), we chose Fish Eagle Safaris (phone 800/513-5222 or visit www.fisheagle for our ninth African safari — the second to Botswana.

Planning ahead

We contacted company owner Bert du Plessis to customize wildlife viewing in the Okavango Delta. In fact, we stayed at two camps the Cusacks had visited, although our final choices were based on different requests.

Since taking our first tented safari in 1995, our criteria have become increasingly particular: prolific game, experienced guides, species interaction and rare sightings, specifically wild dogs. All but one of our prior safaris had been with U.S. adventure travel companies offering group departures with fixed itineraries. Designing our own excursion meant a considerable change in our African experience.

Instead of following a predetermined schedule, staying in camps that may only take groups, enjoying familiar traveling companions throughout the tour’s duration and relying on a single guide, we would select lodging and timing plus join different international guests and guides at each camp.

Despite initiating research in September 2003, it took several months and multiple itinerary revisions to create our custom trip, which would not take place until August 2004. Several Southern African countries have scattered wild dog populations, and many reserves offer spectacular game viewing. However, we eliminated Zimbabwe for political and security reasons, deferred combining Botswana and Zambia after discovering travel between them necessitated too many air connections, then rejected camps near hunting concessions. Experience has taught us that wildlife behaviors differ significantly in hunting or poaching areas; animals are more skittish, maintaining greater distance from vehicles.

As if our specific requests were not challenge enough for Bert, we faced three greater issues: visiting the Okavango Delta during a season in which its annual floodwaters were predicted to be the greatest in 20 years; reserving small select properties accommodating just 12 to 18 guests, and securing space in one particularly well-known camp.

When several places responded that they were booked full or could not schedule four consecutive nights (two is the most common), we wondered if a custom safari meant more elaborate planning than we preferred. By comparison, joining an outfitter’s set departure involved a few phone calls. I asked Bert why our logistics seemed so protracted. His one-word reply: “Mombo.”

Mombo Camp

Even before it became the haunt of filmmakers Beverly and Derek Joubert and visited by “The Today Show’s” Matt Lauer, Botswana’s Mombo Camp was fully booked a year in advance. To avoid disappointment with other Delta lodgings, Bert also advised positioning it last, which truly limited the reservation time frame. The bad news was our entire itinerary became dependent on Mombo’s schedule.

The good news was Bert is a “Top 10” U.S. producer for Wilderness Safaris, the award-winning eco-travel operator managing many of Southern Africa’s finest safari camps. This meant direct access to its reservations system, so he could more precisely integrate our needs with availability.

Ultimately, he secured four nights each in three Wilderness Safaris first-class land activity camps — Duba Plains, Chitabe Camp and Mombo — during prime viewing season, bridging late August and early September. Land cost was $7,290 per person, with another $1,820 and $370 each for international and domestic air, respectively. Bert coordinated flights, our overnight at Johannesburg’s Intercontinental Airport Sun, connection to Maun, Botswana, and all charters from Maun and between camps.

We compared Fish Eagle’s quoted prices against published rates for the same properties and services, readily concluding that our private safari cost less than if reserving on our own and also surprisingly less than several group excursions.

Okavango Delta

In spite of the Okavango’s expected record flood, we would be visiting when the majority of water had receded, enabling game tracking by vehicle. Alternate delta travel is via mokoros, 2-person wood canoes poled among the channels and myriad lagoons. However, we knew we could cover more ground, maximize the amount and variety of animals plus photograph more easily from a Land Rover, all while enjoying our guide’s extensive bush expertise.

A short flight to a remote dirt airstrip took us to our first camp, Duba Plains, which can only accommodate 12 guests in its six tents. Duba’s setting is comfortably rustic and appears “safe,” but our first night produced an elephant foraging vigorously against the tent and a (harmless) snake cruising the deck railing. While safari veterans, we still do not take wildlife for granted.

Tents were roomy, featuring front and back decks, indoor and outdoor showers and expansive views over the marshes. Meals and snacks were served four times daily.

Our guide, Dux (pronounced Dukes), was extremely affable and, more importantly, very experienced. Like other guides with keen bush skills, he possessed an uncanny ability to locate game and predict its movement.

Duba, renowned for frequent lion-buffalo interactions, afforded the most probability for us to video a complete kill sequence. We had encountered stalks, chases and predators feeding but had neither witnessed the entire process nor captured it on film, particularly during daylight. We were there specifically to observe such predator/prey activities.

Shortly after leaving camp, Dux located eight lionesses, assessing by their pace and focus that they were hunting. We followed the pride members as they moved slowly in the direction of the buffalo but had to stop when they waded a large water channel. We circled back, driving 40 minutes to reach the far side of Duba.

Dux’ expertise paid off: he predicted exactly where lion and buffalo would meet. We drove to their crossing as if by appointment, front-row spectators to the lionesses’ kill shortly thereafter — a classic African moment.


Chitabe, our next stop, offers eight raised tents connected by a network of wooden walkways. Though smaller and less appointed than Duba’s, they were shaded by a lovely grove of trees.

Chitabe is a San word meaning “place of zebras,” but we were intent on locating the rare wild dog in one of the few locations with regular sightings. Bert had confirmed with Wilderness Safaris that Botswana’s dog populations are not territorial but roam all year, except when denning. During prior sojourns to parks in South Africa and Tanzania known for dog, this creature had remained hidden from our cameras.

Wilderness Safaris lists monthly camp reports and wildlife logs on its website ( Chitabe had recorded pack movements all season. On arrival, we learned that there had been sightings averaging once per week, so we gambled that over eight game drives we would indeed find the Lycaon pictus, or “painted dog.”

So it was both surprising and exhilarating to finally see dogs within hours of our arrival at Chitabe! We also were lucky witnesses to an extraordinary event: lion hunting dog.

Pursuing preservation

After our guide, known as O.T., found lionesses stalking and heard dogs nearby, everything became a blur. Our vehicle raced through darkness over woodland scrub to prevent the three lionesses from killing what few dogs remain at Chitabe. O.T. wanted the dogs to escape, explaining that lions kill other predators just to eliminate competition. The dogs ran, but then unbelievably two returned.

In a scene stolen from a Western, they stood their ground barking at the lionesses, “challenging” them to a duel. Finally, the dogs ran off, their tracks seen miles from that showdown spot the next day.

Superior guides shun cowboy antics and refuse to pursue animals aggressively. Instead, they follow wildlife discreetly for guests to take photos. In stark contrast to our prior experience and stated mission at Duba, this was the first time we had actively prevented a kill, protecting one predator from another.

We noticed O.T. did not have a weapon with him and quizzed him about safety and dangerous encounters. He calmly replied, “The only rifle you need is respect,” earning greater respect from us.

A perfect ending

Our final camp, Mombo, boasted “tents” rivaling luxury apartments, served multicourse meals constantly, and thoughtfully celebrated my birthday with chocolate cake at our first afternoon tea.

Mombo’s main attraction, if you can bear leaving its comforts, is plentiful game, which surrounds the camp. Antelopes and warthogs browse by the deck, buffalos sleep under the tent and hyenas stroll past the lounge. We were fortunate to see cheetahs, leopards and lions daily, and we sat peacefully amid a pride just absorbing their playful interactions.

Africa has become very special to us. For ardent wildlife watchers, Mombo was an exceptional choice. We also satisfied our travel objectives at Duba and Chitabe and would not have known to choose those locations without extensive research.

We were pleased with our Botswana adventure and in particular with Fish Eagle’s recommendations and support. Customizing a safari allowed us greater independence and choice, although it required more advance planning.

Fish Eagle celebrates 15 years in business during 2005. Bert joked it is more demanding itineraries like ours that remind him what he does is actually a job!