Southern Africa with OAT

This item appears on page 29 of the April 2012 issue.

I took the “Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe Safari,” April 28-May 17, 2011, with Overseas Adventure Travel, or OAT (Cambridge, MA; 800/493-6824), visiting Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta in Botswana; Kafue National Park in Zambia, and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. It was 18 days from start to finish, 16 in Africa.

The southern region of Africa felt very relaxed, with none of the turmoil of the north. I found no anti-American slogans and, in fact, was most warmly welcomed everywhere.

Botswana is rapidly growing in popularity as a tourist destination, but Zambia, due to its past political turmoil and poaching problems, is a relatively new destination. Zimbabwe is still suffering from terrible inflation and political unrest in the cities. The national park areas and their associated private game reserves are far from the problem areas, however, and felt completely safe.

Travel throughout Africa has been down due to the world economy, so prices were reasonable and local crafts quite inexpensive.

OAT listed our camp accommodations as “tented lodges,” and that’s a good description. You’re definitely not camping! These cabins happen to have canvas walls, but they are on permanent floors, some on concrete slabs and others on raised platforms.

Each had normal beds and furniture and its own bath with shower and flush toilet. There was a nice assortment of amenities, including shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, bath gel and even insect repellent. A very nice extra was free laundry service at all four camps.

You might have small visitors like reed frogs in the shower and the occasional lizard in or around your cabin, but just remember they’re harmless and they eat those nasty mosquitoes and other bugs.

Tap water is generally safe to drink at the camps. Nevertheless, I was provided a refillable water bottle at the first camp for use throughout the trip, with filtered water available at all times.

A typical day included two game drives with a nice midday break, though we had all-day drives as well. We had a light breakfast before the morning game drive, stopped after a couple of hours for tea and coffee with snacks, continued the game drive until about 11 a.m. and returned to camp for a lavish buffet brunch.

We were on our own until about 3:30 p.m., when tea was served and one of the camp guides or staff provided a short talk on the country, tribal customs or something similar. Then it was off for a second game drive, which lasted until about 7 p.m., with a mid-drive break for “sundowners” (tea, coffee, soft drinks, beer or cocktails with snacks).

Dinner, again, was quite extensive and always tasty. Most camps provided a braai (barbecue) one evening during our stay. Food was generally good to excellent; it’s hard to imagine how they manage it out in the bush. Each camp had at least one evening of local entertainment.

The only “roughing it” on our safari with OAT involved the very rough roads. We rode in open-sided Land Rovers sized for eight or nine passengers, providing excellent game viewing for everyone.

Southern Africa was a very different experience from East Africa. (I’ve been to East Africa twice, visiting Kenya on a private-group tour in 1979-80 and taking OAT’s “Safari Serengeti: Tanzania” in November ’09.) I saw a lot more vegetation in the South but a lot fewer wide-open savannahs. May, which is late autumn there, is the start of the dry season, so we had no rain or clouds, and temperatures ranged from the low 60s to the 80s — perfect weather.

Game viewing at the three parks as a whole was truly astonishing. We even saw four leopards across three of the parks. However, since the vegetation was still high after a good rainy season, the large herds of 100 or more elephants in Chobe National Park were still dispersed; we saw only smaller family groups of up to 20.

While Southern Africa doesn’t have the massive migrations of the Masai Mara/Serengeti, it does have its own somewhat smaller ones. We were fortunate to arrive in Hwange the same day that their Cape buffalo and zebra herds moved in — over a thousand buffaloes and several hundred zebras.

OAT has a long-established reputation in the area and, in my opinion, offers excellent value. With an early-payment discount, I paid about $5,000 for the trip, including airfare (from El Paso, Texas) and all meals. The safari was all inclusive except for mixed drinks and some soft drinks.

I paid an extra $700 to upgrade to premium-economy class (World Traveler Plus on British Air) and thought it well worth it. It was a lot like the old business class (before reclining-flat seats), with more legroom, slightly wider seats in a 2-4-2 configuration and first service for meals and drinks (meaning we were served before the coach passengers, thus assuring we had complete choices of meals and beverages).

My thanks to the OAT air travel group rep for suggesting World Traveler Plus when I called to ask about upgrading to business class (which would have cost an extra $4,000).

All in all, this was an amazing trip, which ended up being relaxing as well. I didn’t expect to like the midday break but found it to be a good time to sit on my cabin’s porch and read, watch the birds or just think. OAT did its usual great job on planning the trip and hiring the very best of guides.

El Paso, TX