The Safari Experience in South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana:

"The Safari Experience in South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana: The Leopard Quest Fulfilled," with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Sept. 23, 2012, 14-15.

The Leopard Quest Fulfilled

Leopard Leopard, South Africa

Finally, we saw a leopard, and that is why we came to Sabi Sand located near Kruger Park in the Republic of South Africa and among the world’s great leopard sighting areas. In three prior safari experiences we had never seen the elusive leopard, but the first day of this safari we encountered one young female and one larger adult male—both stunningly gorgeous with spotted coats, muscular, sleek, and agile.  On the third day we saw a fifteen-month-old male, no less stunning, and saw it again on the fourth day.


vervet monkeys Vervet monkeys, South Africa

Why Safaris? The word safari evokes hunting for large animals Hemingway style, but what I am speaking about are safaris where seeing the animals and taking pictures of them are the goal. We are not hunting but learning, photographing, and thinking about how we human animals are related to other animals with which we share the planet. Our safaris are visual experiences, and our pictures sustain our memory. These safaris are educational experiences about nature and the countries we visit.

After reading about previous African travels in which I discussed safari experiences, Post-Standard readers and friends have asked: “Why go to so much trouble?” Why does such an urban person as I usually am love safaris which are not only more expensive than most travel but also require tiring flights and more Spartan living conditions than most of the trips I have taken and written about?

The pleasure of seeing animals and birds in their natural habitat is immeasurable, and it leaves my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and me with priceless memories of our best sightings: In Kenya, three male cheetahs playing together for forty minutes, a white rhino and a black rhino watching one another, and the wildebeest migration seen from the height of an early morning balloon ride; in Tanzania, a pride of 23 lions in the Serengeti and 18 other lion sightings; in Kruger on a prior trip, herds of elephants, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeests.

The beauty of a sunrise or sunset in the bush, the sound of birds as you awake in your tented cottage, the sight and sound of a lion roaring in the wilderness, the majesty of a bull elephant, the promise of perpetuation implied by a baby giraffe or rhino--all these are experiences that live in memory when we return.

A safari means leaving urban life behind and journeying back to when animals freely roamed the forests, deserts, and bush and the waterholes were theirs. For many a safari is a dream experience fuelled for years by films and TV travel shows and National Geographic. Yes, there is a fantasy element to safaris, but they are also ways of learning about the environment and non-western ways of living in which humans and animals co-exist with their habitats.

While not without a colonialist tinge in which African workers at safari camps serve tourists, the safari industry brings money and jobs to Africa and at its best is part of conservation and sustainability.

Itinerary: Our trip had two components: an upscale lodge in Sabi Sand where we would search for the elusive leopard, followed by a one night interval in a river resort Zambia to see Victoria Falls and catch our breath, and a somewhat rougher stay in Botswana where visited three camps in three different areas. After a long journey—28 hours from door to door on Emirate airlines with a two hour stop to change plane in Dubai--we stayed overnight in Johannesburg at the African Rock Hotel, a small, modest guest house with nine rooms. We then took a small plane to Sabi Sand.

Sabi Sand in South Africa: Adjacent to the famous Kruger Park from which animals wander back and forth, the private reserve area Sabi Sand is considered a prime area for viewing leopards, in part because of the aggressive way that animals are tracked. The guides communicate from their vehicles by radio and, especially when tracking lions and leopards, they go off road to follow tracks. The terrain is much denser and more of a forest than a plain or savannah, and at times our Land Rover went through large bushes and small trees to follow the animals. To partially balance this aggressiveness, animal sightings are limited to three vehicles at a time, two for leopards.

We stayed in Kirkman’s Kamp, which has 18 cottages; we overlooked the Sand River and had a good river view in cottage #13 where we stayed. Vervet monkeys and warthogs frolicked near our cabin. Kirkman’s Kamp offers what I call boutique safari experience that features quality and often up close sightings but not volume sighting of large herds. Although we did see as many as 20 elephants one time, usually we did not see large the herds of giraffes, elephants, wildebeests and zebras that we saw in the Masai Mara in Kenya or Serengeti in Tanzania or in Kruger.

The camp is the largest privately owned game reserve in South Africa and overlooks the Sand River. While Kirkman’s has a mutual agreement with the neighboring Lion Sand Reserve, their drivers cover a limited reserve area. They cannot follow animals into other reserves and they are limited by which animals enter into their area.

Leopard in tree Leopard in tree, South Africa

On our very first drive we fulfilled our quest and saw not one but two leopards, a male stalking a younger and smaller female. According to our ranger-guide, the male was stalking the young female not for mating but for establishing his priority when the female was ready.  Escaping the male and running rapidly from its pursuer, the lithe and agile female climbed a tree, but when the male, after waiting at the bottom of the tree for the female to come down, seemed to leave and abandon the chase, she came down. Catching the scent of the female, the male returned and the stalked female went up another tree. Before we saw the male, we watched the female hunting a bushbuck but the hunt was permanently interrupted by a hyena hunting the female or perhaps hanging around in case the latter was successful in her hunt.

Lion w kill Lion with kill, South Africa

On three separate occasions we saw two majestic male lions guarding a Cape Buffalo they had recently killed and mostly devoured. After feasting on the carcass, both lions, with visibly bulging stomachs, slept on their backs. Vultures waited for what would remain after the lions departed. One day our driver followed a mother lion and her three one-year-old cubs through small

Lion digesting Lion digesting kill, South Africa

trees and bushes.  On a subsequent drive we had an even better sighting of the foursome.

Within the first few days we saw the Big Five: lions, elephants, Cape Buffaloes, and a white rhino family of four, as well as a few other white rhinos and the leopards along with many other animal and bird wonders such as the Grey Heron, the Fish Eagle and the Brown Snake Eagle, and such endangered species as the Cape Vulture and Saddle-billed Stork.

Rhino Rhino, South Africa

Among other memorable sightings were a hippo uncharacteristically on land at 3:30 pm, a large herd of Cape Buffalo, a nyala--a good-sized member of the antelope family (and our very first sighting of this animal)-- and Greater Kudos. With massive horns, the adult male of this large antelope species is particularly statuesque and beautiful.  


Leopard Leopard, South Africa

Not only is every safari different, but so is every game drive and every sighting. One day we did what is called a “day drive” for eight hours rather than the usual morning and evening drives, and enjoyed a “bush lunch” which was brought from the camp. That day we took a 40-minute safari walk after lunch, a good idea since there are few opportunities for exercise on safari.



Another morning, we enjoyed a “bush breakfast” on a morning when we were out by 6:30.

leopard Leopard, South Africa












Our first visit to Zambia:

mokoro canoe Mokoro (dugout canoe) on the Zambesi River, Zambia

After Sabi Sand, we flew into Livingstone, the capital until 1935 of Northern Rhodesia which is now Zambia, and saw a little of that city, including the old Jewish cemetery.  We spend a transition day in Tongabezi, an upscale quaint and perhaps a tad musty resort property. We had a nice cottage overlooking the Zambezi River and heard hippos a night. Tongabezi’s rate includes such activities as lunch on a small boat on the Zimbezi River, a safari in a nearby national park, and a trip to Victoria Falls (guests pay the $20 park fee).  Our highlights were seeing the Falls from the Zambia side and a 2-hour sunrise cruise with hippos, baboons, and colorful birds. One has a better view of the Falls from the Zimbabwe side, which we had visited seven years ago.

In both Zambia and Botswana we one heard the ironic comment that the corrupt and dictatorial Zimbabwe President Mugabe is the best President of Zimbabwe that Zambia and Botswana could possibly have because with Zimbabwe falling apart, investment and tourism flow to those neighboring countries.

Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland with a population of about 2 million, landlocked Botswana is one of the least densely populated countries in the world and one that has had the world’s worst HIV and AIDS problem. (To its credit, the government is providing medication and education).  When Botswana became independent in 1966 Britain did not leave behind much of the administrative, educational, and judicial structures it left in place in its colonies, but the Botswana economy has since flourished. Because of is diamond industry, Botswana is much more prosperous than Zambia and by some measures is the fourth most prosperous country in Africa and has one of Africa’s most sophisticated banking systems. More than fifty per cent of all households own some cattle, and cows wander around the roads even as one gets close to a middle size city like Maun.

Botswana: Safaring in Deep Bush:

Yellow Hornbill Yellow Hornbill, Botswana

We flew into the Okavanga Delta area on five seater plus pilot. Our first Botswana camp, Mapula, is a very rustic camp at the edge of the Delta (the world’s largest inland Delta) and quite different in terms of amenities from Kirkman’s cottages. Because of recent flooding this camp was surrounded by water, and we had to take a thirty-minute boat ride to get to the safari vehicles, and they got stuck in mud twice.

At Malpula we had a nice deck and a simple bathroom with outdoor shower and tin tub. The camp has nine cabins but only a very few were occupied while we were there for two nights. Electricity was on for five hours; otherwise a camp generator provided minimum electricity. Thus we lived on a strict day schedule at this camp, as we did at the other Botswana camps, with wakeup at 5:30 or 6 and activities beginning by 6:30 or 7, and bedtime between 9 and 10.  With no intercoms, guests tell the camp personnel when they want to be picked up since animals prowl the camps. At small camps everyone eats at the same time, whereas at Kirkman’s we had some choice.

Our game drives here were a bit disappointing. Not only did we see no leopards or lions but also, because the animals very shy and not used to vehicles, most of our viewing was at a distance. At one point we were charged by a bull elephant, but our observant guide moved our vehicle away. We did have some good birding, and we saw some antelope--lechwe and reedbuck--that we had not seen before and which live in wetlands,

We had decent dinners with not too many grace notes but fresh vegetables cooked well and delicious tomatoes good enough to please someone like me who grows his own tomatoes.

Mapula highlight:  fishing in a small boat with the camp general manager and one of his staff in the Okavanga Delta and catching six fish, one that resembled what I would call a small-mouth bass and he called a bream, and five of which were not keepers since the camp manager disdained the four cat fish, two of which weight three pounds so. Another highlight: a morning ride in a mokoro, which is a dugout canoe operated by a pole man and used for generations in the Delta area by local tribes.

Savute Camp on South Side of Chobe: Our next stop was Savute Camp, another three star camp—which seems to be the lowest rating for sleeping on a bed—and one that has only five tents; it is located on South Side of Chobe Park in the area known as Savute Channel. We arrived to see a male and female fish eagle pairing off.  Here we saw African wild dogs for the first time in our experience.


Lion Lion, Botswana

On our first game drive we saw two lions as well as more giraffes and elephants than we had seen before on this trip; on another we saw three male lions and a female in heat jealously guarded by one of the males. We came back from one drive at dusk to find a large bull elephant alongside our tented cottage. Our guide, who had walked us back to our cottage, counseled us to watch quietly as the breathtakingly enormous elephant walked within a few feet of us on its way across a stream in front of our tent.

We had our best Botswana game viewing at this sight. Here the driver-guides cannot go off the road because they are within Chobe National Park. Perhaps because Savute is a new camp, our driver was not part of the radio community—and this is something of a minus in terms of knowing who has spotted what and where--although the drivers exchange information when they see each other within the park during game drives. Here, in addition to lions, we saw plenty of zebras, wildebeests, impalas, and other animals as well as spectacular birds, such as eagles, storks, and owls.


bushpeople Bush people, Botswana

The small staff was extremely helpful to those, like me, who were a little intimidated by the essential bush experience, including limited electricity for most of the day and wintry temperatures at night. The simple food was often nicely cooked and better than the elaborate cuisine at some of the more elegant camps at which we have stayed.


Our Final Camp: Meno a Kwena, a six-hour drive from the area known as the Makgadikgadi Pan that is one of world’s largest salt flats, was rougher than we had bargained for and also was not quite as presented in our itinerary.

We had hoped to see the salt flats but they were a six hour drive from our camp. Here we had an outdoor bathroom unattached to the main tent, a bucket shower, and a safari vehicle that not only lacked shock absorbers but also had a broken front door on the passenger side that by the end of the drive wouldn’t close

The section of the Boteti River that the camp overlooked had flooded a few years ago. The camp had not bought a boat because, we were told, it hadn’t been allowed to get a permit to make the 100 meter crossing. This meant we had to drive quite a ways to Makgadikgadi Park and then to cross the river by ferry, a journey that took more than 2 hours round trip and thus cut into our game viewing time.

The camp highlight is the late afternoon view of the river from the tents: animals, particularly hoards of zebras, come down to drink on the other side of the river. A second highlight for some is a walk with a small number of Bushman--a term used in the camp although I am told they prefer usually to be called the San people and in Botswana, the Basarwa--in native dress who live in the camp. These hunter-gatherers still, using tongue sounds, speak “click-click,” and many don’t speak English even though more now take part in the modern world.

Conclusion: Safaris are for those who value experiences more than things. They can also be special occasion destinations. We have met families celebrating college graduation, thinking that this might be the last family event before children begin to leave the nest, and grandparents sharing safaris with grandchildren.

If You Go: Readers of these pages and friends have wondered whether the cost for safaris is prohibitive, especially with expensive airfares, but tour safaris can be quite moderate in price, sometimes with air included. Many reputable purveyors can put in place relatively moderately priced private safaris. If you work directly with African companies, but you may well feel more comfortable with an American company. Keep in mind that there is little regulation in the safari industry and many purveyors; as we learned this time, you cannot be sure you will get exactly what is promised. The camps we visited in Botswana were described in terms that did not conform to what they were.

I recommend going with a reputable tour company like Roads Scholar, Overseas Adventure Travel (a subsidiary of Grand Circle) or Vantage. Smartours is a mid-priced company that gives good value; we used them for our first safari experience as part of South African tour that also offered some add-ons. They have prices in the $4000 range per person for 6 safari days in Kenya with four more days in Tanzania about $1350.

For a private safari, which we have done the past three years, Mark Nolting’s Africa Adventures is a good choice and will fulfill your expectations.  Safari 360 gives good value and is located in South Africa, a plus which eliminates the US middleman.

You can purchase mobile safaris that move tents or fixed safaris where you stay at a handful of camps and lodges. You can have private or shared vehicles, but you may have to pay more for the former. Sometimes going out with a group, particularly if you don’t have a tracker along with the guide, gives you more eyes.

Go with the idea that you may not have all the creature comforts to which you are accustomed. We lacked light in all the Botswana camps and heat in two of them, and remember it is winter in the Southern hemisphere when it is summer here.  Be prepared for some disappointments but keep in mind that you are in a different world in Africa. Laughing helps when you don’t see what you want or when you sight a “NOMO”  {non-moving object) or an “ALT” (“animal- like thing) or “BLT” (bird-like thing).

Food and Lodging:

Kirkman’s Kamp: This camp provides excellent hospitality and is well organized with a fine staff. Every other night dinner is an outdoor buffet where your game guide sits with you. Here we had better food than at most of our past safari lodgings but it was hardly gourmet quality. Sometimes the more upscale camps would do better trying for less pretentious food. The culinary highlight at Kirkman’s is the breakfast croissants that are worthy of a five star hotel.

Botswana Camps: The relationship between staff and guests is more personal in the smaller and rougher camps, in part because we were sometimes among the only guests or the only guests.  In our safari experiences, soups are often the best dinner course. Homemade breads and rolls sometimes are surprisingly good.  We had excellent roast chicken at Savute and the food was respectable at Meno a Kwena.

Complimentary laundry at all the places we visited is a great feature and enables you to travel light, an essential for the small planes.  

Tipping expectations, as outlined in the pre-trip information, are exorbitant.  Americans on safari tip more than most if not all of their fellow travelers. I think $5 a day per person is enough for the guide and, if there is a tracker, $10 per couple for three or four days is fine. There is a tipping box in the camp to take care of other employees and a few dollars a day should suffice. I would prefer paying the staff what they deserve and including it in charges. Nobody would miss a few percent more in charges, but having to worry about tipping takes something away from the trip.