The 12-seater plane lifts off above Moremi Game Reserve’s dusty airstrip and floats up into the air above the Okavango Delta. Below us we see no roads, houses or any sign of man – just patchworks of green and blue reaching out into the hazy midday horizon. There are verdant islands, small forests, pools linked by thin canals, and the odd elephant seeking shade under an acacia. Ancient animal tracks criss-cross the earth like roads on a map. Scattered clouds make shadow patterns on the land similar to the rosettes of a leopard. It’s the same scene eagles must have looked down upon for millennia. Ten minutes later we land on another dusty airstrip on an island deep in the Okavango Delta.
Botswana is the safari purist’s paradise. It’s home to one third of Africa’s elephants and the second largest mammal migration in the world consisting of over 300,000 zebras. What’s even more impressive is that almost 40% of its land is dedicated to national parks, reserves and wildlife management areas, which is one of the highest rates in the world. It’s more authentic, more wild, and more remote than any other region in Africa. Back when European powers were scrambling for minerals and strategic locations, Botswana went ignored – it was landlocked, offered few riches and was impenetrable due to the Kalahari Desert and wetlands of the Okavango Delta.
We climb off the plane, have the first few sips of a cold St. Louis beer under a shaded boma and are whisked away on a different sort of 12-seater vehicle, a boat, to our next lodge. The boat speeds through the waterways, drifting like a stunt car in a Hollywood movie weaving between the walls of reeds lining the river. We sit back, close our eyes and lift our arms above our heads to catch the breeze. As I have my last sip of beer, Xugana Island Lodge comes into view. Surrounded by lush vegetation, towering ilala palm trees and a large body of water, Xugana looks like a tropical Bali resort. The only difference is that Xugana is in the middle of landlocked Botswana, a country that is 70% desert.
We’re welcomed with virgin cocktails and recline on the deck listening to the blissful sounds of this remote part of the world, marvelling at its mere existence. There are no roads in this part of the country and everything around us has had to be flown in and comply with strict environmentally-friendly regulations. Botswana, in fact, is one of the staunchest supporters of environmental policies in the world, which is a blessing considering it’s home to some of its most impressive wildlife.
Why is Botswana so environmentally focused?
A few days later, I met James Wilson, Marketing Manager at Chobe Game Lodge, on the lodge’s deck overlooking the elephant-rich Chobe River. Chobe Game Lodge is a leader in environmentally-friendly practices and Wilson explained why: “It comes down to solid government and democracy. The thing about Botswana, if you go back in history, is that it’s an amazing country in Africa. It’s never been colonised. There’s never been conflict or war or any serious turmoil. So, when democracy was established in 1966, the government was very strict about the letter of the law. It was one of the poorest countries at the time [third in the world], and then diamonds were discovered in the late 60s, which brought in a huge amount of revenue. There was stability and good revenue and low population, as well. And, there was also this vast area of wilderness.
“All these ingredients came together and that’s when conservation and tourism started working very closely together. It’s almost like tourism development was based on conservation. Tourism was a way of protecting these vast areas. The government realised it needed to minimise the development and it had to be eco-friendly. Concessions had to be managed carefully and I think that model has been very successful. And will hopefully remain that way,” Wilson said.
“Diamonds are not forever. In less than 20 years they’re looking at a serious depletion, they’ll need to look at developing new areas, and that is where tourism is going to play a huge role.”
What steps are they taking now?
Today, immense care is taken at all lodges in Botswana to leave the smallest eco-footprint possible. All new builds – there are few because the government restricts developments – must be impermanent structures and easily broken down and taken away. The government is also very strict about the building materials that are used. Grey water is especially critical in the Delta and lodges need to be extremely careful how they dispose of it. Most properties have to have their own greywater management system. All rubbish has to be kept in a cage to stay away from the clutches of baboons and honey badgers and then removed from the ecosystem entirely, either by boat or truck. They push for full solar systems to avoid generators and use less fuel. The message is loud and clear: Botswana treasures its wild places, maybe more so than any other African country.
Chobe Game Lodge, one of Botswana’s iconic lodges, is leading the way. Wilson explains, “We are very serious about our environmental practices here. Four of our nine game vehicles are electric. Five of the skimmer boats we use for sunset cruises have solar panels on the roof and are autonomous vehicles, which are the first of their kind in Africa. We have a biogas plant where we create gas from food waste. We make our own bricks out of crushed glass and have our own carpentry team that fixes old furniture. Crushed cans and plastic bottles go back to the supplier. Only 5% of our waste ends up at the dump. Even our deck that we’re sitting on, we used about 2 million plastic bottles to build this. And we’re hoping to invest in solar shortly.”
Chobe Game Lodge is near the town of Kasane in northern Botswana so they have easier access than most Botswana lodges to the outside world. In the Delta, it is even more challenging to follow protocol, but each lodge is committed to the vision that Botswana Tourism holds dear.
To be able to continue to conserve Botswana’s wild places, higher-than-normal park fees have been imposed to ensure Botswana Wildlife can manage the parks properly. For a sustainable future, a low-impact high-end tourism model is Botswana’s focus, as it has been right from the beginning. So when you visit Botswana you’ll find a pristine wilderness with few visitors, the kind of place you might think of when wistfully dreaming of the perfect safari.
Back at Xugana Island Lodge we enjoyed a lunch of fish, assorted salads and cheeses, climbed back onto the boats and continued towards our lodge for the night. Camp Okavango was 45 minutes away with nothing but untouched wilderness and abundant wildlife in between. We saw pied kingfishers dive bomb the reeds and small crocodiles hanging onto the reeds like businessmen hanging onto their umbrellas in a gale. We cruised past them as we basked in the sun and the joyful knowledge that a pure wilderness like this still exists, and promises to exist for a long time to come.