In the southern portion of Africa, Botswana is a must-visit destination for those looking to truly connect with nature. With the Kalahari desert sands and the Okavango Delta, you'll feel like you've dropped into a NatGeo special on exotic animals. From the safety of a safari jeep, we got our first taste of the wonders of the African Bush in Linyanti.
After delaying our African safari due to the global pandemic, we decided to take a chance and go in 2021 since we had the luxury of getting our vaccines. This is one of the few trips where we let someone else do the planning (Mary Beth, Stephen’s mother). And we also wouldn’t qualify this as a “quick trip.” But it’s still a worthy addition to the blog, and one of our favorite trips to date.
We wanted a few key things out of our trip: lots of opportunities to see animals in their natural habitat, a variety of terrain in one country (to avoid extra throat and nose swabs required to go between countries), and camps that had limited housing to cut down on our contact with other people. With a little help from our travel agent and many hours of research from Mary Beth, we landed on touring three areas in Botswana: Linyanti, Khwai, and Mopiri.
Typically, we start our blog posts with a variety of Fast Facts to set the stage for our quick trip. Our trip to Africa was different than any trip we have ever taken. Not only was it a trip of a lifetime, but it also took over three days of traveling to get from the CLT airport to our first camp (not very quick). Because of that, we are going to jump right into recapping what was an amazing trip! As with our other longer trips, including Italy, we’ll split Botswana up into a series of posts dedicated to each area we explored. That way, we can dive into the details of each without leaving you with a dissertation to read. First up is Linyanti.
If you want to view our top animal pictures from the entire trip, we've created a Google Folder.
Lay of the Land
After three days of connecting flights and too much time spent in airports wearing masks, our prop plane dropped us off at the closest airstrip to our first destination, which was still a three-hour jeep ride to the camp (Linyanti Bush Camp). But Botswana started off with a bang. As we landed, our first tour guide effusively waved with a big grin on his face. We would learn that Professor Ken always wore a smile because he loved his country, its animals, and his job. And he was the master of finding animals on our game drives. Since this was just a ride into the camp, we had zero expectations. But boy were we wrong. Between adjusting to the washing-machine-like wiggle of the jeep in the sand and taking in the terrain, we were surprised to find ourselves within feet of the animals we had come to see. Instead of an elusive chase to see an animal a day, which Ashley felt sure was going to be the experience, there were animals everywhere. And although we’d get an elusive chase in Linyanti for Stephen’s favorite animal, most of the time, we could spot animals around every corner of our game drive.
Our trip from the airstrip afforded us the opportunity to see the Chobe National Park, Botswana’s first national park. Because Linyanti Expeditions is situated on a private concession, this would be the only time we spent in the Chobe National Park. To make the most of our visit, animals came out in droves.
At first, we were just admiring the beauty and the smell of the African Bush, but then all of a sudden, animals started appearing around every bend in the road! The scenery itself was beautiful, but it was so different from the United States that it almost felt fake, as if we were in a movie set or a ride at Animal Kingdom. September is the end of Botswana’s winter, so most of the trees did not have leaves on them. We would catch whiffs of wild sage, and there were animal paths, elephant bones, and trees damaged by elephants everywhere. At points, the “road” turned into more of an off-trail path, and Ken would chime in with an extremely pleasant, “Mind the branches!” We were all quickly trained to duck down inside the jeep as soon as we heard the phrase. Soon, we started seeing our first animals—a small group of impalas with some kudu (a large antelope), warthogs, and then some larger animals including giraffes and elephants. We were lucky enough to see a juvenile giraffe that was weeks old (our guide said we were probably the first jeep that giraffe had ever seen) and a plethora of elephants, though now we know the elephants in this region have the largest herds of known elephant populations, so this comes as no surprise. On the drive in, we stopped for our daily sun-downers. This is a tradition where you pause your afternoon activity for a cold drink and a snack to take in the sunset. The whole experience—seeing baby animals feet from our jeep, the smells of the African bush, and our sun-downers—was the perfect welcome to our safari after days of stressful traveling during a global pandemic. It finally felt like we had made it to our dream trip.
When we pulled into the camp, we were greeted by the staff with a traditional song welcoming us. Our safari had officially started, and after that first taste on the drive in, we were hooked. Since every camp was different, we’ll include a few specifics of the logistics below.
Linyanti Bush Camp Logistics
The Linyanti Bush Camp is located outside the northwest corner of the Chobe National Park. It is extremely remote (hours from the closest village). The camps in this area are run by African Bush Camps and operate on a private concession that is around 320,000 acres. There are only two camps: Linyanti Expeditions Camp and the Linyanti Bush Camp. This means that even in the busiest season, you will be one of only four jeeps exploring thousands of acres of the African Bush, which is truly a unique experience. While every camp we went to was remote and part of nature in their own way, Linyanti was special because it is one of the last camps that is truly in the middle of the wild African Bush.
Though the camp is in the middle of nowhere, it is still luxurious. There are only six tents for a maximum of 12 guests. We were originally booked at the Linyanti Expeditions Camp, which is a tad more primitive (think bucket showers), but it was closed due to low demand in the pandemic, so we got upgraded to the Linyanti Bush Camp (real showers!). This also meant that there was only one other jeep in the whole concession.
The camp was set up similar to other bush camps: a main living area with lots of lounging options, some outdoor seating, and dining spaces. There was also a bar with nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages that were self-serve if there were no staff around. Linyanti Bush Camp has a pool, although the water was not very clear. Because it is so dry, there is a lot of evaporation, which keeps the pool water very cold. Finally, the camp had a small shop that opened during siesta time, which also had spotty Wi-Fi access. This ended up being our camp that had a shop. The tents we slept in were permanent structures with wooden floors, a small loveseat, a writing desk, and a king bed. The attached bathroom had regular plumbing and a shower with hot water! Stephen says that a shave with hot water in the middle of the African Bush is quite the experience.
Because the Linyanti Bush Camp was on such a large concession, game drives took longer than other camps to get deep enough to start seeing a lot of animals, making the wake-up call extra early!
- 5:00 a.m. wake-up call
- 5:30 a.m. breakfast
- 6:00 a.m. game drive
- 11:00 a.m. brunch
- Till 4:00 p.m. siesta
- 4:00 p.m. high tea
- 4:30 p.m. game drive
- 8:00 p.m. dinner
We arrived at the Linyanti Bush Camp late Saturday afternoon and quickly got settled into camp. We stayed four nights in Linyanti.
Day 1 – Our First Official Game Drives!
Sunday was our first full day of our safari trip. We were so excited that we almost did not mind the 5:00 a.m. wake-up call from our guide, Ken. Almost.
After a quick breakfast, we asked what the day would entail. At this point, there was one other couple at the camp who would be going out on a game drive with a second guide, Max. Max told us that overnight a female leopard and her cub had walked in and around the camp and the guides had picked up portions of the trail. This was our first indication of how, on a safari, you are not just there to see animals. Instead, you get to become part of their story. The guides are knowledgeable and in tune with the African Bush around them. They cherish the natural world, so they even know individual animals in the area. This was one of Stephen’s favorite aspects of the safari experience: You aren’t just seeing animals; you step into their story for a few days.
The goal of our first day was to see if we could pick up the trail of the female leopard and her cub outside of camp and find them before they hunker down during the heat of the day. Although Ken and Max had been tracking the female and her cub for a few months, no one had been able to spot the cub yet. Challenge accepted!
Shortly after heading out, our guides found leopard tracks in the sand of the roads. At first we thought they were putting on a show—there were tracks everywhere! How could anyone decipher one type of track from another? Soon enough, we found out that Botswana guides really are that good! Ken and Max split up, with our jeep taking one direction and Max heading in the other. Animals often use the roads that the jeeps drive on for convenience, but then they take shortcuts between roads through the African Bush. Depending on the types of trees and brush in the area, Ken was not afraid to make a “new road,” but there were areas where this was not possible, because if a jeep drove over certain species of plants, they would die.
After two hours of searching, the other jeep found the mother and her cub. They were lucky enough to get a glimpse for a second or two before the cub disappeared. The jeeps circled the area where the cub was spotted, with the guides searching the ground and brush as if their lives depended on finding them. They both really got into it, even getting out of their jeeps to search on foot (as we waited safely). Guides really use all of their senses as resources when tracking hard-to-find animals, looking for prints, listening to other animals send out distress sounds, and even using their sense of smell. It is really incredible to watch. After a while, we gave up and headed back to the main road, only to find the cub’s tracks 20 yards behind where we had been searching! It was absolutely incredible that we had been that close and had been unable to find him in the dense brush.
The rest of the morning drive included a ton of other animals—baboons, elephants, giraffes, a giant herd of Cape buffalo, a family of mongoose (ferret-like mammals), and a few hippos in the distance. We learned a lot about Cape buffalo as we watched the large herd. First, they are actually one of the most dangerous animals in the African Bush, because they do not have a “tell.” In other words, even the most experienced guide finds it difficult to identify whether a specific animal is agitated or completely fine with the jeep in their presence. (Later, we would get to experience this firsthand in Khwai!) They also have a very interesting group dynamic—there is no specific leader of the herd, unlike other species of animals. Instead, there is a small group of “pace setters” that determine when it is time to continue moving toward water or food. They just start walking and gradually the hundreds of animals in the herd know it’s time to go and start moving as well. Because there is safety in numbers, the herd stays together without any real coordination.
The other highlight of the first day was finding three male giraffes near the road, standing together in a picture perfect pose. We stopped for a few pictures, and then right as we were about to move on, the two adolescent males started necking. This is where two giraffes swing their heads as hard as they can into each other’s necks. Typically, this is how males fight for territory or females for breeding, but in this case, Ken shared that these two were just practicing since they were pretty young. Even in “practice mode,” it looked pretty painful.
Day 1 – Our First Official Game Drives!
The afternoon game drive was a little more low-key, so we got to focus on the changing perspective of the African Bush as the sun began to set. We saw some really large groups of animals down near the water, including zebras, Cape buffalos, different kinds of antelopes, and giraffes. We spooked the zebras, which started a small stampede of the other animals. There is nothing quite like seeing a giraffe run at full speed. They do not look like they could move that fast! We also found a lone female Cape buffalo, which was extremely odd. She did not have any visible signs of a wound or anything, but Ken said she was probably sick and left behind by the herd. This was a bit of a sobering moment that reminded us how we really were in the middle of that age-old circle of life.
We enjoyed our sun-downers with a magnificent view of the sun setting over the river as elephants drank their fill. The real highlight of the game drive started after the sun was down. In Linyanti, the afternoon game drive lasts longer than other camps because you are truly out in the wilderness. Ken used a giant spotlight to flash around the African Bush as we made our way back to camp. Not only was this an amazing display of his multitasking guide skills, but it showed us some incredible animals.
The eyes of animals light up when the spotlight shines over their face. Because most animals want to understand a potential threat, they will stare into the spotlight, allowing Ken to get closer to determine what it is. For animals that are more active at night, such as Ashley’s favorite, the honey badger, this is the best chance to find them. Ken warned us that honey badgers were extremely rare, but he promised to do his best. Unsurprisingly, he delivered on our first night drive, spotting a honey badger about 20 yards to the left of the road. All of us are still wondering how he saw it while driving full speed! A little after 8:00 p.m., we pulled into camp, exhausted from our first full day in the bush. As Ken liked to remind us, although on paper we were a little late, in his opinion we “may be lost, but we are on time.” This quickly became one of our favorite sayings in the African Bush. We got a quick dinner, and then we headed straight to bed, excited to see what day number two would bring us.
Day 2 – Leopards!
The goal for day two was to take a quick pass by the location of the leopard from the day before to look for fresh tracks, and then drive deeper east into the concession where we would have a better chance to find another big cat: lions. Morning game drives were really special in Linyanti. Since the concession was large and spread out, game drives started earlier than other camps. Although this meant that dreaded “GOOD MORNING!” came a little too early and the morning was still very chilly, we got to see the world wake up as we went out. When the sun makes its way above the horizon and into the treeline, you begin to see more animals as they wake up and start their day.
As we moved east, the land transitioned sharply from woods running along the bank of the river to grasslands, much like one would imagine when thinking of an African safari. The grass was several feet high, which made warthogs, termite hills, small trees, and antelope all look like lions at a first glance. Whenever we called out a false alarm, Ken would chime in with his eternal optimism saying, “That’s okay; let’s keep looking!” If we were able to spot a challenging specimen, such as the elusive but stunning Lilac Breasted Roller, we were rewarded with a “Well spotted!” Although Ken did find lion and ostrich tracks, both proved to be too elusive on this game drive, and we headed back to camp for our lunch, siesta, and high tea. On the way back, we stumbled upon an interesting sight: The lone female Cape buffalo had died overnight from her illness and laid about 20 feet from the road. Although sad, Ken mentioned that it may be a good opportunity to find a predator or scavenger later on in our visit.
The plan for our second afternoon and night game drive was to go east again to the buffalo carcass before the sun went down. The highlight of the afternoon drive was definitely elephants! As we entered the part of the road that dips down into the river basin, we noticed a huge dust storm. Ken stopped and pulled out his binoculars and shouted in amazement—there was a herd of elephants that was easily a couple hundred strong in the distance kicking up an enormous amount of dust as they headed to the river in the hot afternoon sun. We were able to quickly close the distance and sit in wonder as they made their way into the cool water. The drive east to the buffalo carcass also added another question to our family lore. As we entered the grassland section, Stephen’s mother, Mary Beth, was curious about why there were a few small pockets of trees growing in the middle of the grassland, to which Ken replied, “Because that’s where they grew!” Very helpful.
We made a quick stop by the carcass before our sun-downer, but no predator had arrived. There were dozens of vultures in the trees around it, but Ken was quick to explain another example of how different species rely on each other. None of these vultures was strong enough to break through the tough hide of the Cape buffalo, so they were waiting for a lappet-faced vulture, which uses its sharp beak to tear through the hide.
After sun-downers we started the slow(er) drive back to camp while Ken flashed his spotlight. We did not know it at the time, but this would turn out to be one of the most memorable drives of the entire trip. First, we saw another honey badger for Ashley, which Ken shared was extremely rare. This one was a small female and shier, poking her head out of a den and looking at us with caution. Then, we saw four different owls, one of which was right on the road, probably 5 feet from the jeep, with a recently caught mouse of some kind in its beak! Amazing.
But then, as we got closer to camp, Ken squealed with excitement and turned off the road. As we would later come to understand, there is a huge difference between a guide excited about showing you an animal and a guide who feels like they are about to show you a big cat. Ken had caught the reflection of a medium-sized animal very low to the ground. When we turned off the road, he said he thought it was a large version of one of the small cats in the area, maybe a serval. Instead, Ken turned out to be very wrong for once. It was the mother leopard AND her cub! As we sat and tried to contain our excitement, Ken followed them with his spotlight. The young cub even stopped to play with insects flying in the beam of light. Ashley was quick thinking enough to get her phone out and take what is almost assuredly the first video or picture of this leopard cub. After following them for a few minutes, they disappeared into the African Bush, never to be seen by us again. But that was alright by us, because we got a memory of a lifetime! (And Stephen still hasn’t stopped talking about it.)
Leopard Cub Spotting
If you're having trouble viewing the video, we've uploaded two versions to a folder as a backup. See them both here.
Day Three – Poor Uncle Scar
Our third full day in Linyanti was a good reminder that the best-laid plans can very quickly go out the window in the African Bush! The plan for the day was to make it out to the buffalo carcass again, and then do a walking safari some distance away from it. Walking safaris are an opportunity to get down out of the jeep and explore on foot. Although you are not as likely to see as many animals, you get a chance to see the little things. In Linyanti, a second staff member comes with you and your guide brings a rifle for safety.
Not far from camp, Ken found tracks of two lions heading east, so we followed them for about 30 minutes. As we came up from the river basin, there they were! They were out in the open napping in the morning sun. Unlike the female leopard, the male and female lions seemed completely unfazed when we pulled up in our jeeps. (Ken quickly radioed Max in the other jeep with the details of our location, as is customary when one jeep finds something exciting.) Ken shared that the female was one of two sisters who had been in this area for some time. The male was new though and was underfed (reminiscent of Scar from The Lion King). Ken said he was likely an impostor male, coming into another male’s territory to look for food and mates.
The lions were hovering around a burrow in the ground and looked like they had been digging. Ken guessed that there was a warthog in it that they were trying to dig out. Fun fact: Warthogs and hyenas share the same burrows in the ground because they are about the same size and use them at different times of the day—warthogs at night and hyenas during the day! Ken guessed that if we were patient, we might get an opportunity to see a kill, which is pretty rare on a safari.
Eventually, the two lions separated. The female was clearly unimpressed by the male’s attempts at digging, so she went to lay in the shade. We went to get a closer look at her, and then all of a sudden, the male lion lunged headfirst into the burrow. The warthog had poked his head out to see if it was safe to leave while the male was taking a break from digging. Ken floored it in the jeep as we raced over to get a closer look. The male came up with a large tuft of hair in his mouth, but no meal for his efforts! He also got punctured from the tusk of the warthog and was bleeding heavily from the mouth.
The male spent the next hour or so alternating between additional half-hearted attempts to dig, finding some shade to rest in, and following the female lion around. At one point, she seemed to get annoyed at his pathetic attempts for attention, and after he briefly dozed off next to her, she quietly got up and moved 50 yards away under a tree. When he woke up, we got to witness what has to be the world’s most pitiful example of hide-and-seek. He eventually started making soft calls to her in desperation as she sat there watching him. It was like she was testing him, and he was not passing. Eventually, he got the bright idea to start walking perpendicular to the direction of the wind, and he caught her scent.
All of this took close to 20 minutes and was really entertaining. We followed the pair for some time. She would move a handful of yards away from him, only to get up again when he moved near her again. It was like a slow-motion game of cat and mouse. Finally, it was time to head back for lunch. On our afternoon game drive, Max was able to find them down by the water napping, and we spent most of that game drive watching the same cat-and-mouse game play out again.
During our siesta, we were able to do a helicopter tour of the delta. As part of staying at least three nights at the Linyanti Bush Camp, you get a free helicopter tour, which is an extremely cool experience! Seeing the river and delta from above gives you a perspective that you never could get from the jeep. So much of the life of the area is connected to the river, which is not accessible by a 4x4. From up above, you can see how vast the waterways are and hundreds of animals. The highlights included seeing dozens of hippos, including many babies, spotting some absolutely gigantic crocodiles sunbathing, and getting to see a giraffe drink water. (Google it; it is pretty hilarious to watch!)
Day Four – Finally Walking & Goodbye Linyanti
Our last morning at Linyanti, we were excited to do a short game drive and a walking tour. We were lucky that our flight to our next camp was not until late afternoon, so even with the three hours we needed to buffer to drive to the airstrip, we would have time to get our walking safari in. Although you do not see as many animals on the walking safari, it gives you an opportunity to get closer to the little but mighty species of the African Bush, such as ants and termites!
Termites in particular are fascinating. All the food for the colony is grown from a single transplant of moldy vegetation from another termite hill. Also, only about a third of the termite colony is aboveground; the vast majority is below the surface of the earth. Much of the ground in the delta itself is from old termite mounds, which is one of the reasons the earth is so sandy.
Because of this important role, termites are considered one of the three keystone species that hold the ecosystem of Botswana together. Unlike termites, the other two creatures are extremely large: elephants and hippos! Both of these mammals are keystone species for several reasons. Elephants are important to vegetation control, keeping most of the trees short enough so that other animals can also eat them and distributing seeds with the feces, as they only digest a portion of their meals before they defecate. Hippos play a key role in the water by making paths as they walk, which shapes the rivers of the delta.
After an informative and leg-stretching walking safari, it was time to return to camp, eat a quick lunch, finish packing, and head off to the next stop in our adventure: Khwai.
Linyanti will always hold a special place in our hearts. Being absolutely in the middle of nowhere in the African Bush with literally hundreds of thousands of acres to explore all to ourselves was magical. We felt as if we were thrust into an epic story of the circle of life—the struggle against the African heat, the daily patterns of the animals, and the need to find enough food while staying safe from the next predator on the food chain. If your African safari brings you to Botswana, we cannot say enough positive things about African Bush Camps and our experience at the Linyanti Bush Camp.