We are “active” seniors (retired language and science teachers) and asked Sikeleli African Safaris to help us evaluate then arrange visits to 5 culturally and ecologically distinct sites in Southern Africa during February 2019.
We chose this time of the year because the safari camps are less crowded. In some cases, there were only a handful of guests present, and often the two of us were alone on safari with the guide. This allowed us to set our own pace, enjoy nature’s sounds without chatter, and to engage readily with the very knowledgeable guides who work at these camps. Using Windhoek as our hub (due to direct flights from Frankfurt), we first visited Swakopmund/Walvis Bay, then spent 3-nights each at Serra Cafema Lodge and Ongava Tented Camp in Namibia, and then Mapula Lodge and Jack’s Camp in Botswana.
The staff – especially Belinda – at Sikeleli were immensely helpful, and the on-site subcontractors they selected were 100% reliable, on-schedule, and friendly. In-country arrangements booked by Sikeleli included transfers to/from airports by private van and seven flights on small aircraft to reach the four lodges, plus detailed advice about protocols and border crossings.
Except for Serra Cafema, there are many lodges close to the locations we visited, and our initial choices were based on online reviews. We had only positive experiences at each of the four lodges/camps. The staff were consistently friendly and supportive, the meals well planned and prepared (which is remarkable given the isolated locations of these places) and presented artistically, and all of the guides were amazing in their knowledge of animals and plants and ease of conversing (in English) on any topic. Given the sparse crowds, we were able to have extended conversations with them and often with managers and other lodge employees during meals and unscheduled times. It sounds naive, but having conversations about indigenous people, changing cultures, wildlife, and challenges due to changing climate and “modernization” while being on site brought richer, more meaningful understandings than our prior reading guide and history books.
Serra Cafema is remarkable and puts a capital R in Remote. There are lots of birds (and crocodiles) along the river, and oryx and small antelopes abound, but one does not go there hoping to see the “big five” of African wildlife. Rather, it is the peacefulness, expansiveness, and serenity of this environment that are most impressive. The lush green and wildlife of the Kunene River basin contrast dramatically with the adjacent barren desert containing amazing metamorphic rocks and multicoloured sands, and visits to two Himba villages that provided insights into a unique traditional culture.
Ongava is on a private reserve adjacent to Etosha National Park. The water hole beside the camp draws a wide variety of antelopes, zebras, and elephants. While out on safari we were close-up with lions, cheetahs and white rhinos plus lots of bird species. It was worth visiting Etosha with its larger herds, but it is crowded and the commotion distracting.
We overnighted in Kasane en route to Mapula Lodge in the Okanaga Delta region. Here we were serenaded by families of hippos behind our cabin, watched herds of cape buffalo and extended elephant families, and learned how short periods of rainfall quickly change the area from open scrub to “islands” of trees and wildlife surrounded by water. At our request a visit was arranged to the nearby village Eretsha, where we spent the morning at their primary school and visited the health clinic, learning much about the daily lives of these people.
Jack’s Camp is unique, not just for being in the edge of the Kalahari Pan, but its spread-out tents, campy lodge, proximity to herds of wildebeest, zebras, and buffaloes in addition to meerkats, lions, cheetahs and many wetland avian species, and engagement with extended families of San (Bushmen) that camp nearby and introduce westerners to their amazing skills at surviving in such harsh environments. The manager (Charles) and our guide (Bones) were exceptionally gracious and accommodating.
Every day offered memorable experiences. With no diminished appreciation for those not mentioned below, here is my list (with an admitted biological sciences bias):
Walvis Bay – 1000’s of mother fur seals and noisy pups
Serra Cafema Lodge – a geologist’s dream, the group clapping by ochre-salved Himba adults and children whenever we bought jewelry or a basket, the “lookout” baboon perched atop a rock in Angola overlooking the Kunene River, and 5-star meals.
Ongava Tented Camp – walking among rhinos (actually, them among us), 100’s of predators and prey all warily sharing a waterhole, the many “house-design” styles by several very colorful weaver bird species.
Mapula Lodge – hippos “singing” (and singing, and singing), the beauty of antelopes (springbok, impala, sable, kudu, reedbuck, waterbuck, Steenbok, oryx) and visual intrigue of zebras all lined-up head-to-tail, the enthusiasm of children in a small village primary school. Wow: a pangolin and night-time sightings of a serval, wild cat, and genet!
Jack’s Camp – herds of zebras and gnus and a meerkat colony, lion and cheetah moms with playful cubs, learning from Bushmen (and women) what “living off the land” means in the Kalahari.
We would certainly contact Sikeleli if we were planning to visit this part of the world again, but this was our 3rd and probably the last trip to Africa. We would like to have experienced the Okavango Delta and Kalahari Pan after heavy rains, but travel in much of Africa is unpredictable.