Botswana’s wilderness is best understood from the air. Gaze out of the window and look down on endless expanses of scorched savannah and lush waterways. Fly into Maun, central Botswana, and then take a light aircraft to Khwai Concession, starting your safari of Botswana at the northern edge of zebra land. During most of the year, the herds are spread over vast distances that include the Southern Okavango, southern stretches of Chobe National Park, and shriveling areas north of Nxai Pan. Settle into your luxury camp and begin the adventure with a game drive through untouched wilderness.
Meandering through the landscape is the Khwai River, a lavish oasis that attracts migrants from miles around. Wildebeest and zebra revel in this permanent water source, crowding around the banks and tentatively taking a drink. Lions lurk in the grassland, carefully approaching from a distance and causing immediate panic as the lookout alerts the herd. First game drives are always packed with excitement. Scenes from the documentaries come thick and fast, offering an intimate experience that is far more impressive in full color reality. And it’s not just the game drives. Return to camp and keep looking up from your dinner as a herd wanders past.
This itinerary isn’t just about zebras. Drive into the mopane forest, following the swathes of uprooted trees and seeking out the huge elephant bulls that continue their unstoppable destruction. They smash at the trunks, hoping to get at the nutritious bark. A few meters higher, giraffes are feeding from the forest canopy, their graceful movements providing a serene safari moment. Khwai often seems silent and tranquil. Gaze out across a mystical land and nothing exciting is visible to the naked eye. But your guide knows where to look. Lurking between the high grasses is a handful of baby kudu. Hidden on a tree branch you spot the lucid eyes of a resting leopard. Suddenly a Sable antelope rounds a corner and enchantingly wanders past. Go on long morning and afternoon game drives, exploring all corners of this private concession, and relishing your own piece of Botswana’s famed wildlife world.
Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast
As the sun makes its inexorable rise, the Okavango waterways begin to glow orange and red. Soft paddle strokes take you along ancient channels and nature’s great mammals provide a wondrous wake-up call. Hippos boisterously charge down to the water, pushing and grunting as they compete for lounging space. Larger males push out young pretenders, relegating them to a less desirable spot away from the females. In a traditional dug-out mokoro, or canoe, you can get thrillingly close. Eyes and snouts peer out, while late comers make their thunderous plods down into the river.
In Khwai Concession you can tailor an itinerary that includes game drives, mokoro trips, and even walking safaris. Each day is different and the focus is on providing a personal experience with the abundant wild game. Spot the zebra as they hesitantly come down to the riverbank, and paddle past an assortment of antelope that graze on the shriveling grasslands. Parts of the Okavango Delta provide life-giving fluid all year round. Some herds will stay and fight over the diminishing channels and waterholes. Others will head south and join up with the 30,000 individuals that make up the zebra migration. Technically the Khwai Concession isn’t a major part of the migration, yet it offers an opportunity for stunning encounters with mammals not spotted elsewhere, and showcases how the rains dictate all life in Africa; grass becomes brittle, water is now scarce, and nomadic life becomes a necessity.
Dinner, Lunch, Breakfast
During the dry months a white mirage shimmers above the Nxai Salt Pan. But it’s been raining, hard. Now the pan becomes nature’s mirror, a layer of water neatly reflecting the sky and all the hooves that maraud across. From December onwards, thousands of zebra cross these flooded plains. Huge areas flourish and fertile grassland becomes ungulate heaven. Exact timings depend on the rains, but there is usually a two to three month window when Nxai becomes nature’s great stage. You’ll fly to an isolated airstrip and sleep in a secluded camp that backs onto the action. A private balcony offers unrivaled vistas and the wildlife often comes to you. So sit back and watch humongous herds graze beside your door. Go to the en-suite bathroom and return to the balcony to see thousands of zebra galloping across the pan.
Nxai compels and confounds with its shapes and colors. Ancient baobab trees evocatively rise to attention, providing gaping shade for lazy lion prides. Raised sandbanks offer 360 degree panoramas over the flooding. Lonely salt remnants provide a lunar-like impression, while kudu and impala have joined the zebra’s playground. You have three days to customize a safari experience that includes drives, walking safaris, and even horseback safaris – strong riding experience is required as you will be galloping alongside the zebra and slowly approaching huge bull elephants. There’s no need to rush. This safari experience isn’t about charging around hoping to glimpse a few animals. It’s about settling into nature’s rhythm and allowing an authentic ancient world to play out before your eyes.
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Wake up and open the curtains. What’s there? Perhaps a small herd of kudu? Maybe evidence of elephant prints? Probably a few zebra herds in the distance. Meet with your experienced guide and piece together the clues that surround the camp. In just a few moments you have a picture, and your walk into the bush follows the signs. Track the zebra onto the plains, daring yourself to get closer and closer. Go slow and they don’t mind your presence. But one excited shout and hundreds of them canter away. You’re not the only thing out tracking. This is big cat country. There’s an innate thrill to a walking safari, knowing that you’re traversing a landscape that teems with nature’s great predators. That’s why you don’t just start aimlessly walking. Your guide chooses a route that gets you close, but ensures that no unnecessary risks are taken. So hold your breath, walk silently, and admire the bountiful plains from a thrilling proximity.
Dinner, Lunch, Breakfast
You can’t miss the 25,000 migrating zebra. While conservationists only discovered this phenomenon recently, big cats have been following the hooves for centuries. Cheetahs keep a careful distance, using the undulating sand banks as covers for their attacks. Lions get the top table at the banquet, different prides escorting the migration as it heads south. Then a resident collection of leopards and others enjoy the bounty as it crosses their patch. While the zebra are migrating they’re not continually moving south. They’re grazing as they go, decimating huge swathes of grassland and fattening up. Remarkably, they are also mating and calving. Zebras have a 12 month gestation period, so a couple of weeks after giving birth, they begin to procreate again.
As tiny groups of black and white stripes cover the grass, the predators begin to salivate. Adult zebras are well within the range of lions and leopards. But youngsters make for easier pickings. Four lionesses are out hunting, crouching in the grass and silently moving forward. They softly scamper ten steps before ducking into hiding again. One looks and evaluates. Yes, it’s time for another few steps forward. Your heartbeat rises as the hunt unfolds, the narrowing distance causing fingers to shake as you grip the camera. But the zebras sense something isn’t right. They charge away and the lions must wait another day.
Dust swirls and then settles. Look at the herd and discover that is wasn’t the lions that caused panic amongst the herd. Two cheetahs lift their heads from a carcass, mouths splashed with fresh blood. Hunting scenes and big cat action is likely to be a daily accompaniment to your vacation. Again, don’t rush the experience and expect to see the dramatized highlights from a nature documentary. It’s much more authentic to watch everything unfold slowly and in real time.
Dinner, Lunch, Breakfast
By March and April the zebra reach the lush grounds of Makgadikgadi Pans, a vast stretch of national park that’s adjacent to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. They usually finish their journey at the Boteti River, an all year round water source that negates the need to go any further south. You can expect to see large herds all the way up to August, although the best sights require timing your trip to coincide with the actual migration. Thousands of hooves rumble past, splashing up water as they cross flooded plains. They turn the green landscape into a black and white canvas that meanders and swerves en masse.
Fly over this unique spectacle by taking a light aircraft to the Makgadikgadi Pans. As the herd gallops and spreads out you can poignantly track their journey, tracing a line from the gobbled up grass to the lush new plains. Land in Makgadikgadi and watch it all unfold from a new verandah. Like always, you’re in a secluded part of Botswana that rarely sees people and you’re surrounded by one of nature’s greatest spectacles. The time of your visit and the time of the rains will dictate when and where you see the largest herds. Nxai Pan will be best in the early months of the year, while Makgadikgadi gets more of the action come March and April. However, no migration involves one solid ball of animals moving together. Eager early runners set the pace, family herds slowly follow, and some stay behind to polish off the remaining grass.
Dinner, Lunch, Breakfast
Your attention moves away from the wildlife for a morning. A shimmering salt blanket extends over an area that dwarfs some European countries. Gaze out and the mirage plays tricks on the eyes, levitating across the ground like a magical moving carpet. Lose yourself in the lunar-like landscape by going on a morning quad bike adventure across the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan. Follow your guide's trails and slowly become bewildered at one of the planet's most surreal spectacles. Glistening white completely surrounds you and it appears there is nothing that breaks the salt's monotony. But look closely. Elephant prints meander and then disappear. Lonely ostrich wander past as you shake your head in surprise. Sandbanks hide rare birdlife. After a long morning of exploration, return to the camp for some more zebra action.
You've tracked the zebra to the end of their journey and today you enjoy the Boteti River's feast. Herds are galloping down from the horizon, seemingly racing each other as the water comes into sight. As dust swirls and hooves splash in the shallows, you have one final day of poetic photo opportunities and indelible black and white striped scenes. Take a picnic and watch everything unfold, keeping your eyes peeled for the big cats that also made a migratory journey. Predators have also journeyed from the south, timing their arrival at the river to coincide with the zebra. After nine days of safari you should have ticked off all the sights on your list. So there's no need for long game drives. Relax, gaze down on the river, and enjoy Botswana's best kept secret one final time.
A short hopper flight takes you back to Maun, where a scheduled morning departure flies to Johannesburg and connects to your return flight. Most people can't wait to tell the world about their African safari experience. But anyone who has followed the zebra migration is a little hesitant to broadcast it to the world. Safari operators in Botswana have only just discovered it, and right now, the sublime lack of crowds makes this one of Africa's greatest experiences. Long may it stay this way!
Most people have heard of the great wildebeest migration. But few know about Africa’s second migration. As the Kalahari plains start to flood they’re transformed into a mystical blanket of lush grasslands and marauding hooves. Zebra, numbering 25,000, thunder across this evocative landscape, splashing up water and kicking up dust as they cross the Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pans. Of course they’re not alone. Blue wildebeest keep them company, hoping for safety in numbers. But a prowling assortment of big cats provides a dramatic escort, picking off the young and old. Scavengers are also in attendance, ensuring nature’s seasonal floods benefit all. This unique phenomenon is one of Southern Africa’s top safari highlights and can be enjoyed between January and May each year.
This unique itinerary combines three hypnotic landscapes, taking you on a journey from the southern Okavango plains to the flooded Nxai, and to the shimmering salt pans of Makgadikgadi. Where will the zebra be? That depends when the thunderous clouds unload and when the fresh grazing lands begin to shimmer. Each destination provides a plethora of safari experiences, revealing the migration from increasingly thrilling angles. Game drives allow you to follow the herds as they traverse the fertile grounds. Walking safaris bring you to an almost fearful proximity, while aerial journeys supply surreal panoramas of the action.
Luxury camps offer endless views of the action, allowing you to open the curtains and gaze out on one of nature’s most unbelievable phenomena. You have three nights in each destination and can tailor a personal itinerary that combines a blend of experiences. There’s no need to rush anything. The multi-day, multi-park itinerary offers a real submersion in the action. So relax, respond to the migration’s movements, and soak up the serenity and the drama.
One thing you won’t see is thousands of tourists. Botswana’s zebra migration is a well kept secret and attracts nothing like the crowds of the Serengeti. Animals cross rivers without having to contend with dozens of budding photographers, and hunting lions aren’t interrupted by safari trucks. In fact, the migration went unnoticed until GPS tracking alerted conservationists to the 360 mile return journey.
Supplementing the migration is the all year round wonders of the Kalahari and Okavango. Lavish vistas extend in every direction, majestic scenes unfold from your private verandah, and an inimitable soundtrack accompanies alfresco dining. Explore flooded channels that teem with hippo pods. Be amused by elephant antics at permanent waterholes. Eat breakfast beside grazing herds. It’s unlikely that you’ll be publicizing what you’ve experienced. Most people that witness this extravagant spectacle will want to maintain its blissful anonymity.
$5995 per person (excluding international flights)
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