How This Travel Pioneer Plans To Create The Ultimate Botswana Safari – Forbes

A solar-powered safari boat at Chobe Game Lodge
Safari presents a challenge for travel writers. It’s a trip of a lifetime, something we dream of. It’s captivating to do, immersive in the extreme—the unfamiliar scents, the strange bird trillips, the unrelenting vastness of it all.
But frankly, it’s boring to read about. We woke up before dawn with the sound of a friendly voice beside our tent. We drank fresh coffee and nibbled croissants in the cool darkness. We piled into Land Cruisers, tucked plaid woolen blankets around our legs, and set out in search of lions as the sky pinkened up. We breakfasted and napped. And now you might too. Yawn.
Safari in Botswana gets a bit more interesting. The southern African country is more wild and untouched; the experience, more exclusive and elevated. (Hopefully unnecessary clarification: I’m talking about photographic safari here.)
Mindy Harris, the managing director of the US communications agency for the locally owned operator Desert & Delta Safaris, emphasizes that “Botswana is the land of the water safari.” Its main tourism regions—the Chobe River that forms its northern border, the flood plain of the Okavango Delta and the salt pans within the Kalahari Desert—allow for travel by boat as well as overland.
A public area at Chobe Game Lodge
The country’s safari circuit is very diverse, with different wildlife experiences space of just 100 miles. Since its founding in 1982, Desert & Delta has amassed one of the largest lodging collections in the region with nine camps and lodges in all the major safari destinations in Botswana and eastern Namibia, some of which are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Not only does this make for one-stop travel planning—and it helps that its parent company also has an airline, but best practices tend to jump from one camp to another.
The wildlife regions have a few things in common: They’re buoyed by Botswana’s relative stability and prosperity, its emphasis on low-impact tourism and its strict environmental protections.
The country is about the size of Texas but with a population of only about 2.5 million people. According to World Bank data, nearly 30% of its land is national parks and reserves, and even more is protected in private hands. And while the country’s shoot-to-kill policy toward poachers has been controversial, it has also been effective. “Poaching is not a big problem for us,” says a safari guide at one of Desert & Delta’s lodges, while noting that they maintain a strong anti-poaching unit.
As anyone who has found herself in a Land Cruiser parking lot to watch wildebeest migrate, Botswana’s high-value, low-impact approach is key. Just a handful of guests are allowed in national parks and game reserves at one time, and the camps can generally have a tightly managed number of tents, which must be constructed in a way that they could be taken down and leave no trace.
Spotting elephants on a game drive
A good example is Desert & Delta’s Camp Moremi in the Okavango Delta. Its 12 tented rooms are built on stilts and connected by boardwalks. It’s a design that puts the “high” in “high season”: during the wet months, the floodwaters create wetlands within the camp.
Of course, the tented suites remain as dry and luxurious as ever. After a full refurb in 2018, they have spacious living and sleeping areas, wildlife-viewing terraces and enormous bathrooms with showers built for two. The common areas include a sunken bar built around a termite mound (more attractive than that seems), a reasonably sized swimming pool, a big lounge with plush furniture and an elevated dining area where meals are served in a relaxed buffet format.
A notable exception to Botswana’s tiny footprint rule is one of its tourism pioneers. Chobe Game Lodge, which opened in 1973, is built solidly on land with resort-style blocks that contain rooms 44 rooms in total (accommodating up to 96 guests) and large, elegantly designed public areas. It’s also the only permanent resort on the riverbank in Chobe National Park, and despite its relatively large size, the lodge holds the highest eco-grading from the tourism board.
The place is full of history, having hosted the British royal family and the second marriage (and honeymoon) of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There’s not a canvas wall in sight, but everything has an earthiness and elemental simplicity. It’s refreshingly free of colonial-style nonsense.
The dinner setup Chobe Game Lodge
The eco bona fides are plain to see, from the waste-processing facilities to the cardboard cartons for drinking water. Their biggest environmental initiative was to outfit its big boat for river cruises with solar panels to be self-powering and to convert many of its Land Cruisers and Land Rovers into electric vehicles. These are powered partly by the solar panels that cover the parking area and partly from the national grid. The latter uses hydroelectric power from Victoria Falls, meaning the electricity is 100% sustainable. The EVs are also much quieter than the typical safari vehicle, which has obvious advantages.
A few diesel vehicles are still on hand as backup, but it’s one of the most aggressive sustainability efforts the safari world has seen so far. Camp managers were proud to tell me that the president of Botswana had recently visited to check out the EV setup.
Deputy general manager Lesego “Lesh” Moiteela has a good way of explaining the camp’s (laudibly immodest) sustainability goals. “I look forward to infinity with Chobe.”
A guest room at Chobe Game Lodge
Desert & Delta has some equally lofty goals for improving guests’ connection with nature and empowering its workforce. The company is developing a partnership with Swarovski Optik—one of the world’s leading makers of binoculars—to enhance the wildlife experience for safari-goers and for the naturalist guides. Ben Lizdas, Swarovski Optik’s North American business development manager, describes his products as an “analog way to enjoy nature,” and he’s right that high-quality viewing tools make a big difference. (I say this as someone who usually thinks of low-quality binoculars as more trouble than they’re worth.)
Marketing director Andrew Flatt says, “We are working on integrating Swarovski Optik products into our travel portfolio not only because they have stellar outdoor adventure products, but also because they share our commitment to conservation and sustainability.”
Giving guides such good tools is a small piece of a much bigger picture. Desert & Delta’s parent company, Chobe Holdings Limited, is a Batswana-owned company that’s listed on the stock exchange. (Batswana is the term for a group of citizens of Botswana.) It has a largely black African leadership and a strong philosophy of promotions from within. Many of the senior managers at Chobe Game Lodge and other camps started as restaurant servers.
MC Odumetse, the company’s managing director, comes from the Basarwa “water-bushmen” tribe from the island in the Okavango Delta. His uncle John Kata was one of the very first Desert & Delta employees and helped build Camp Okavango in 1982. Odumetse started as a waiter at Camp Moremi, then worked as a guide and camp manager as he made his way up the ladder. Today, he is “one of few people of color in a managing partner role on the continent,” says Chobe Game Lodge general manager Johan Bruwer.
Bruwer, a native South African who has been in Botswana with Desert & Delta for almost 25 years himself, points out that 99.5% of the lodge staff is Batswana (and so are all the pilots for the parent company’s aviation arm—another rarity in Africa) and long-serving. He says people stay with the outfit for decades, thanks to systems and practices that create “lasting and fulfilling careers,” such as continuing education programs, management courses, externships in Mauritius, and initiatives that send cooks to culinary school. “That says a lot about how empowering this company is.”
The Chobe Angels at Chobe Game Lodge
And about one of its most empowering facets, much has been written. Afar said Chobe Game Lodge’s all-women guiding team—called the Chobe Angels—is “revolutionizing the safari industry.” Condé Nast Traveler said that its impact shows up in multiple ways. You get the idea.
The first such initiative in Africa still worth celebrating. Bruwer recalls that when he started, there were very few female guides. Tourism schools were training them, but lodges didn’t want to accept them for internships—the guest expectation of a strapping male guide commanding the bulk of a Land Cruiser was just too strong.
Almost 20 years ago, Chobe Game Lodge’s management saw the stupidity in that and offered to take all the female graduates. The transition took several years, especially managing guests’ expectations, but they remained committed and “changed people’s perception,” says Bruwer. Guiding is “not just about strength. Now it’s about intelligence, technique, finesse.” He adds that the women tend to get fewer flat tires than their male counterparts and work together to fix them.
According to statistics from Desert & Delta, there are 98 female safari guides in Botswana today, and 57 of them came through Chobe Game Lodge. Of the 60 fully licensed professional guides currently working across Desert & Delta’s safari circuit, 21 are women. And while they aren’t going to push anyone out of his job just to meet a quota, they are eventually hoping to reach a 50-50 split.
In the meantime, the main goal of the program has undoubtedly been successful. “We get a lot of exposure out of it locally,” says Bruwer. “Now young girls see an opportunity in guiding and careers in tourism.”