Day 7, Savuti and Mombo
Moving day, again. We slept (except for the times we were awakened by hippos) until 7:00 again so we could pack up and relax a bit. We had a leisurely breakfast with our Canadian friends and Carlton and took photos. We wanted a photo of ourselves from our tent, with elephants in the Channel in the background, so we took everyone there and we worked to get just the right shot. Exposure was a little difficult with us in the shadows and the elephants in the sun. Carlton did a quick look around and made a suggestion. He thought it would be safe to climb over the railing and get directly on the bank. Really?? OK, you first, we said. So he led the way and we got the shots we wanted. All the while I was whispering to Sue that there was an elephant in the woods just to our left and I hoped he didn’t mind our intrusion.
Time to leave. A hurried drive to the airstrip where the plane was already landing. After a 40 minute flight to Vumbra airstrip and a very short “layover” we took a 5 minute flight to Mombo. This large complex was readily visible from the air, as they’ve built a solar panel farm to supply much of their power needs.
After a warm greeting by the wonderful staff we took a quick tour. I’ve already described the camp, but the level of luxury is not to be believed. Our tent was easily twice the size of the other tents we had slept in, and those were amazing. Double shower (plus one outside), double sink, etc. etc. All overlooking the Okavango Delta. Unfortunate that none of the outdoor spaces at the tent can be used after dark, and we were generally very busy during the day.
For our stay at Mombo we rode with our guide, Tshepo, and two couples from Boston. They were related, a young couple and in-laws I believe, and kept to themselves. Nice enough folks, I guess, but because of the dining arrangements (small tables rather than one for the entire group) we never really got to know them. That group was a little later in arriving so we departed for our first drive without them. Tshepo took us to a location not far from camp where an elephant skull lay just off the road. He explained that the worn teeth demonstrated the likely cause of the animals demise: as elephants age and their teeth wear out, they can’t eat effectively and gradually weaken and eventually succumb. The four other guests joined us at that point.
Suddenly, a radio message got us back into the Rover and, just around the corner, we discovered a large group of lions, about 10, within sight of camp. We parked for quite a while and watched them sleep and occasionally groom each other. Their play reminded me so much of the behavior of our two cats at home, except that when lions “purr” the effect is a bit more scary! We were very close to them, and if they had seen us as food, or felt the least bit threatened by us, we would have been terrified. As it was, they did not seem hungry, and I don’t think lions are afraid of anything!
Further along in the drive, Tshepo heard a group of guinea fowl making a racket that he said was a warning call. We entered a group of trees thinking a predator might be lurking. Alas, not a leopard or lion, but an eagle owl.
How the guides find these things, I can’t understand. Years of experience, obviously. We had binoculars and cameras with huge lenses, but we only used them to see the stuff the guides had already spotted with the naked eye. The rest of the afternoon drive featured a stop at a watering hole being used by a large group of hyena. We found one of their dens, a repurposed termite mound, and soon saw two cubs and their mother. The cubs were cute until we remembered what they grew up to be; not so cute.
The Mombo area does not allow drives after dark so we returned by 6:15.
Dinner was exceptional: duck with risotto, lamb shank, creme brulee, several wines, etc. Service at the other camps had been great but at Mombo they take it to another level: one person to present the evening’s menu, another to describe the wines, one to serve the wine and water, another to serve the food, at least one to circulate and make sure everyone has everything they need. Amazingly, by the next day those folks knew us by name. Mombo
Sometime in the middle of the night our sleep was disturbed by loud splashing noises. We got out of our warm bed and pulled aside the tent wall to see a (literal) parade of elephants walking along the edge of the water, not 25 feet from our tent! They plodded along slowly and loudly, adults and young, pretty much single file left-to-right, probably 15 or 20 of them. The moonlight was bright but not bright enough for my camera to catch a photo. After they passed us they turned around and went back the way they’d come. A show just for us, we wondered?
Breakfast was at 6:00, at a long railing looking out on to the Delta.
Each of us had a chair facing out, and someone brought us heavy blankets to drape over our shoulders to keep out the cold. We skipped most of the morning drive for a special treat. I may have mentioned that flying in a small plane is not exactly Sue’s idea of fun, but that being the only way to get into the African bush, she was a trooper and did what was necessary. Knowing her, I pretty much ignored the orientation comments about the optional helicopter sightseeing trip. Imagine my shock when she told me, “We’ve got to do that!” Seriously? OK, let’s sign up! After almost 40 years together she still amazes me.
We caught a short ride to the airstrip and met Dale, our pilot. The helicopter itself was a tiny little thing, with room for the three of us and not much more.
I sat in front next to Dale and Sue was in back, directly behind me. Weight must be a particularly important issue, as they didn’t bother with doors on our side. Wait, what? No doors, just seat belts? OK.
We took a one hour tour over huge parts of the Delta that can’t be accessed by any vehicle. We zoomed over elephants, giraffes, hippo, large herds of lechwe (if the animals seemed bothered by us, Dale pulled up so as not to disturb them).
For a time he flew very low over the water, seeming to skim the surface. He seemed particularly excited when we saw several sitatunga, a type of antelope; they are apparently rarely seen in the area. The air 100-200 feet up was a little warmer than at ground level but it was still very chilly. My camera shutter was clicking non-stop. The tour was thrilling, something I would not want to miss.
After landing we rejoined our group on the morning drive, just in time to stop near a hippo pool for tea. The view of the water, with so many birds and animals in the foreground and further away, was spectacular. We stopped again to see our lion friends near camp, sleeping in the morning sun. When well fed they are some of the laziest creatures we saw, and so much more social than I expected, sleeping one on top of another like a child’s pile of stuffed animals.
Our final drive was fairly short and not particularly memorable. Of course, given all the things we had seen by then it would have taken something pretty amazing to get us excited. Dinner, on the other hand, was special. As this was on a Monday, the camp did the traditional outdoor meal in the boma.
The full staff (the locals, at least) told us something about the history of their country and then sang and danced traditional songs. They seemed to truly enjoy themselves and we definitely did. Day 9, Mombo, Maun and Johannesburg
As had become our routine, we slept in and skipped the morning drive. We showered, dressed and packed. At the dining area, we sipped coffee, believing breakfast to be over by then (8:00). Little did we know that all we had to do was ask. Another couple from Australia, Mombo veterans apparently, just walked up to the area, found someone and placed an order. Ah, well, too late for us and we would not have wanted that, anyway. Many kitchen workers and servers, as well as management staffers, stopped by to chat, and most seemed to know our names.
We sat around the remains of a fire in the firepit, looking out at the Delta, elephants in the distance.
It is such a place of beauty and peace. We hated to think about the four flights ahead of us over the next day and a half. Suddenly the driver was ready to go and we had to rush a bit, since the plane to Maun was a little ahead of schedule. In a blink of an eye, it seemed, we were back in the real world. Costs
This was by far the most expensive trip we’ve ever taken. The breakdown:
Airfare, Delta CLT-ATL-JNB, $1,570 per person plus upgrades to Economy Comfort seats, $159 each, twice, for each of the long flights
Airfare, JMB to Maun and back, $515 each (purchased on our behalf by Fish Eagle Safaris)
Hotel in Johannesburg, $245 per night (2 nights)
Travel insurance, $1,053 (because the safari is prepaid, some insurance is required)
Safari, $13,600 (includes all lodging, flights to and between camps, all meals and all activities)
Extras, about $2,000 (most of this is the helicopter tour; also lens rental, souvenirs, meals in Johannesburg, etc.)
Total is a little over $20k.
Could we have saved money somewhere? Sure. Skip the nights in Johannesburg? If anything next time I might want to stay a little longer and look around. The adjustment time was worth it.
Skip the helicopter tour? If money was tight, yes, but by that point we’d spent so much it didn’t seem like the time to pinch pennies. We could save by taking a shorter trip. An hour was too long, really.
Save on airfare? I kept a close eye on fares but we knew what we wanted our itinerary to be so short of changing that our options were limited.
What about the biggest single expense, the safari? It’s hard to tell what each thing cost as it was sold as a package. You can’t just book these places on Expedia. We specifically asked for a couple of nights at Mombo and that undoubtedly ran up the bill. According to their website the “rack rate” for high season at Mombo is $1,700 per night per person
. It certainly didn’t cost us that much but, if we do it again we will opt for less luxury and save a bit, not really for that reason, but because it isn’t our style. The safari itself averaged $850 per night per person. That’s a lot but it included so many unforgettable experiences. It’s really “all-inclusive” to the extreme. There are safari companies less expensive than Wilderness (some more expensive, too, I am sure) but the overall experience was so good I would consider them again. Similarly, safaris in other countries might be cheaper (and probably more crowded and less personalized) but after Botswana I am afraid we’d be disappointed. Final thoughts
We told our family and friends that this was a once-in-a-lifetime, “bucket list” trip. Maybe it will be, but I suspect we will return. Spending day after day just driving around, watching animals in the wild, learning about them was just amazing. Also, we got just a taste of the culture of Botswana and I would like to know more.
This was a life-changer. If it’s the sort of thing you want to do, you should go for it.