It’s mid-morning and I’m crossing the long, raised boardwalk leading to the island, my excitement building with each plank left behind. I’ve come to Duba Explorers Camp for the first half of an eight-day Okavango Delta safari and though I’ve been to Botswana before, I couldn’t wait to return.
BK and Daps, two members of the Duba team, greet me with infectious smiles. Both are dressed in crisp white tunics and trousers looking cool as cucumbers in the sweltering 90-degree heat. Bk offers me a welcome drink, a safari tradition, in a martini glass—a delightfully cold fruity concoction I down in 3 seconds flat.
Baps hands me a damp washcloth fresh from the freezer, another beloved custom, and I gratefully wipe the sweat and dust from my face, relishing the delicious shock of the ice-cold cloth against my skin.
Duba Explorers Camp
Duba Explorers Camp (formerly known as Duba Expedition Camp) is in the northeastern corner of the Okavango Delta in the private, 77,000-acre Duba Plains concession.
Its owners, famed National Geographic Explorers at Large and wildlife documentarians Dereck and Beverly Joubert, relocated the camp in June 2018 from its original spot near its posh big sister, Duba Plains Camp, now a five-minute flight away. The latter expanded its footprint as part of a major renovation and the couple felt the environment would be better served
Today, Duba’s five rustic-luxe guest tents sit on an island bordered by a permanent waterway on one side and a marsh (a seasonal channel) on the other. Mixed with vast plains and acacia woodlands, the diversity of ecosystems in this region support a wide variety of flora and fauna including rare species like wild dogs and sable.
The Main Tent
The heart of the camp is the large, open-air main tent with a sprawling deck overlooking the bush and shaded year-round by towering jackalberry trees. This is where we dine al fresco, enjoy cocktails and conversation around the firepit, and meet before every activity.
Inside, there’s a lounge and dining area that has a decidedly early 1900s sensibility. Large, overstuffed leather couches are just the place to curl up and take a nap. A campaign-style writing desk showcases the couple’s many books. On the large, weathered wooden coffee table, a polished lion skull sits center stage, and over one of the sofas hangs one of Beverly Joubert’s stunning black and white photo of elephants.
Guest tents branch out from the main tent in a loose horseshoe configuration. A two-minute walk down the sandy pathway, second tent on the left is my home for the next four nights.
Walking up the steps to my private verandah, I hear the gentle cracks of a lone bull elephant munching on a tree opposite me on the far side of the marsh. (Being so close to wildlife is why I love unfenced camps.)
My tent is the size of a small studio. In the middle, is an elegant canopy bed dressed in cream linens with blue and gold accents and framed by Mosquito netting tied back like curtains . The headboard is a dividing wall separating the living area from the dressing area and ensuite bathroom.
The bathroom features two large wok-sized brass basins, environmentally safe toiletries, a flush toilet, and a spacious waterfall shower with a view of the camp through netted windows. A sizable wooden trunk with brass fittings rests at the foot of the bed not far from a campaign-style wooden writing desk. On it, there’s an old fashion brass lamp and a thermos of cold water, but as soon as it’s known I favor Diet Coke, an ice-bucket appears filled with chilled cans.
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Okavango Safari: Game Drive Stories
Eyes closed, inhaling deeply, I savor the scent of warm African sage as we search for wildlife. I fell in love with this fragrance during my last trip. For me, it’s the Delta version of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. I smell it and I am content.
A pod of hippos in a watering hole up ahead sees us coming and like submarines they submerge – all except one. He launches his two-ton physique out of the water, diving head first into the ripples the others left behind. For an instant, I swear I see the soles of its webbed back feet.
“Did he just dive?” I ask Thaloganyang “Carlos” Rantole, my guide, thinking I had to be mistaken.
Leslie, another guest, chimes in “Oh my god! I’m so glad you said that, I thought I was seeing things.”
Carlos unphased, smiles and nods. He’s seen a diving hippo before but Leslie and I haven’t even though we’ve both been on multiple safaris.
It’s behavioral nuances like this that keep me coming back for more. Every game drive is different, I always see something new regardless if I’ve seen a species countless times before.
The Pretty Kitty
We’re on the lookout for a cat. We heard over the radio a troop of baboons chased a female leopard into some bushes and we are on our way to find her.
Leopards love to eat baboons but baboons really hate to be eaten. Hence, if the leopard is small (they rarely chase a male) and there are enough pissed off primates, the predator becomes the prey.
In route to her hiding place, we pass a large troop strolling toward a clump of trees. Whatever transpired is apparently over.
We park in front of the bushes to wait and as if on cue, she appears. First tentatively, sniffing the air, then she boldly walks in front of our vehicle, lays down on the grass and grooms herself. At two, maybe three-years-old, she was smart to hide. So many baboons would have killed her.
Walking to the edge of a wetland beside us she scouts entry points in the high grass hoping to cross, only to turn around when she hits the water.
Fifty yards away, a lone red lechwe catches her eye. She tenses, crouching low, her stomach skimming the ground, as she slowly begins to stalk her prey.
At this point, my heart is in my throat. Am I about to see a kill? Both excitement and dread wash over me at once.
She crawls along a narrow elephant path where the grass has been smashed flat and is laser-focused on the lechwe, the tip of her tail twitching in quick, jerky spasms.
The tension is palpable but quickly shattered by what sounds like the diabolical laugh of a child’s toy. It’s the alarm call of an African ground squirrel. The lechwe freezes then runs away. Thwarted, the leopard relaxes and starts to roll in the grass like a cuddly housecat, transforming from a deadly killer into a pretty kitty before our eyes.
The Puffed Up Pachyderm
The following morning, we come upon a small breeding herd of elephants. I love breeding herds because there’s usually a young bull full of himself that has to show off.
As it so happens, our little Napoleon is about seven-years-old. He holds his ears straight out and raises his head in an effort to make his suburban-sized figure look bigger.
Every now and then he shakes his head in warning. He would be genuinely dangerous if he decided to ram our vehicle, but he won’t, and we won’t give him a reason to. He’s still a juvenile and this charade is more bluster than guts. He’s still a mamma’s boy and will be for a few years to come.
Cheetah on the Prowl
Another sighting comes over the radio. A cheetah with two, year-old cubs is in the grasslands not far from camp. When we find them it’s clear they haven’t eaten in a while, I can see the barest outline of their ribs. The mother is on the hunt, moving through the high grass on a mission, her two youngsters trotting behind her. Occasionally, the two tackle each other in play until they realize mom is too far ahead and then they quickly scamper to catch up.
The female climbs a high termite mound and scans the horizon. She sits at its peak, looking to her left, forward, right, behind her, then repeats. She does this for 10 minutes with no luck. If something is out there, she doesn’t see it. The endeavor is abandoned, at least for now. She and the cubs move to a shady area under a tree and lie down. The day is heating up and apparently, it seems it’s time for a break.
A few more images from my game drives.
We mixing it up a bit. We’re going on a walking safari but first a mokoro ride to where we’ll start our hike. Mokoros are low riding, wooden canoes that are steered by standing up in the back and using a long pole to push and navigate–similar to a gondolier.
A mokoro offers a different perspective of the delta than a vehicle. No longer above the landscape in a jeep, we’re at eye level or lower. Everything slows down. Sounds normally obscured by the roar of an engine fill the air. Birds calling to each other in the trees; the squeal of a baby baboon being disciplined by an adult, the buzz of a dragonfly. In the distance, a zebra barks a crazy donkey-like whelp The Joker would make if he were an animal. The bush is a symphony if you sit back and listen.
We glide past a delicate night blooming water lily, evidently not aware the sun has risen, and pass channels carved out of the grass by elephants and hippos, now used by other animals to cross the delta. A mokoro ride is a zen-like experience, giving me ample time to savor the beauty of my surroundings.
Silent, we walk through the bush, only our scent and the swoosh of our pant legs against the grass to give us away. We follow Carlos in single file-–we’re less threatening that way. Imagine if we were walk side by side like the Earps in Tombstone toward a herd of zebra. All we’d see are striped bums sprinting in every direction. A straight line is also safer. Carlos leads, and his trained eye can see things we may not like poisonous snakes. If we’re beside him, he’s unable to monitor everyone at once.
Like the mokoro, a walking safari offers another perspective. It’s less about wildlife viewing and more about the flora, animal tracks, small creatures, bones, and other aspects of the bush we’d miss otherwise.
Since animals are more skittish (and dangerous) when humans are on the ground, we keep a healthy distance especially from the temperamental species such as elephants, buffalo, and hippos.
The rules for this adventure are simple: remain quiet, walk single file, do whatever Carlos tells us, and keep our eyes open.
During our exploration, Carlos quizzes us on the animal tracks we find along the way. We see elephant, giraffe, and old hyena prints. I guess a few but am stumped by others.
Did you know elephant tracks are different in the front than in the back? Carlos asks us. Their front feet are round but their back feet are oval, and they overlap when they walk.
He tells us poachers in the past used to strap elephant feet to their own to disguise their footprints. Early settlers unfamiliar with elephants, didn’t recognize the ruse, but the indigenous bushmen knew better. Eventually, they let everybody in on the secret.
We learn the difference between elephant paths (remember the leopard?) and what is nicknamed a hippo highway. Elephants flatten all of the grass as they walk, leaving a three-foot-wide path in their wake. Hippos, on the other hand, walk with their front and back in perfect alignment, like the wheels on a car, leaving a pristine line of grass down the center.
Carlos shows us various plants and talks about their traditional uses. African sage, for example, makes a great insect repellent. Wild basil’s strong scent is used around cadavers to mask the smell of decay.
He tells us as a boy he used the blue bush to brush his teeth. He takes a stick from the plant and chews on one side, stripping off the bark. The frayed, naked end, he uses on his teeth. “Before Colgate and a toothbrush, I too preferred this,” he says.
I giggle to myself, when the zombie apocalypse comes, I want to be with Carlos. He’ll know how to survive.
Most luxury camps in Africa accommodate dietary restrictions and preferences, what they can’t do is promise I won’t gain weight. At Duba, the food is very good and there’s a lot of it.
In the mornings, I indulge in hot chocolate (most guests have coffee brought to their tent) with a few biscuits (a.k.a cookies) to wake me up.
Breakfast is in the bush in a safe spot with a lovely view. I keep it light, opting for yogurt with homemade granola, a hard-boiled egg, and perhaps a muffin.
For lunch, there’s a buffet on the main deck. On my first day, Lungile Mbangi, the camp’s young chef, prepared polenta with pepper jus, pickled picante peppers, grilled Brussel sprouts, oven roasted butternut squash with toasted green pepitas, a veggie stir-fry, grilled chicken thighs (sans bone), and sundried tomato brown bread. I manage to pile a little bit of all of it on my plate and retire to my tent so I can eat while editing photos.
At 4 pm, we have high tea in the main tent along with sweet and savory nibbles, a little something before the final game drive of the day. I am so full from lunch, I skip the tea preferring to meet Carlos when it’s time to depart.
At the end of our afternoon game drive, we indulge in sundowners, probably the most well-known safari tradition. Light bites out in the field, wine, mixed drinks, and if we have a glorious sunset it puts a cherry on top of our day.
For dinner, there is an appetizer, for the entrée, there is a meat, fish, or veggie option to choose from, followed by dessert. The meal is served family style under the stars on an elegantly set table with white cloth napkins and lanterns all aglow.
Afterword, some guests stay by the fire and chitchat but I prefer to turn in. A staff member escorts me back to my tent (guests are not allowed to walk alone when it’s dark) and I can hear the telltale baritone, saw-cutting-through-wood vocalization of a leopard on the far side of camp. I can’t help but smile.
At night, there are so many sounds in the bush I often stay awake just to listen. I look forward to the low, staccato roar of a lion or the symphony of birds in the trees. The eerie whooping of a hyena that starts low but then rises to a high-pitched crescendo. It’s music to my ears. There’s nothing more magical than being lulled to sleep by the sounds of the bush.
I was a guest of Duba Plains Explorers Camp but the opinions expressed in this post are my own. There are affiliate links on this post which means if you purchase something I feature I’ll make a little commission at no cost to you.
How You Can Go a Safari at Duba Explorers Camp
Duba Explorers Camp is one of eight camps and suites in Botswana under the Great Plains Conservation (GPC) umbrella. GPC also has camps in Zimbabwe and Kenya for a total of 15 camps and suites. A new camp in the Masai Mara will open at the end of the year.
You can book a holiday directly with GPC or work with a travel specialist if you want to mix camps from different owners or not worry about all the logistical details of the trip which are extensive.
Peak season is June 15-Oct 31.
Shoulder seasons are on either side of that — April 1-June 14 and November 1 – December 19
Green season is January 11 – March 31
Festive is Dec. 20 to Jan 10
Peak and festive seasons are going to be the most expensive.
How to Get There
Unfortunately, Botswana isn’t the easiest to get to. You’ll want to fly into Maun (MUB) it’s the main gateway to the Delta. There are very few direct flights to Botswana except through South Africa either to Johannesburg (JNB) or Cape Town (CPT). South African Airways has direct flights to both cities from New York (JFK), London (LHR) and Munich (MUC).
From Maun, you’ll take a bush plane to the Vumbura airstrip where your guide will meet you and drive you to the camp. It takes about an hour or longer if you want to stop for wildlife.
Tip: If you want to include Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls in your itinerary, take a direct flight from South Africa to Kasane, Zimbabwe and then Maun.
Note: No matter how you go it’s a long journey. If you suffer from Jet lag, check out my strategy for beating it. And here are tips for staying comfy on a long-haul flight. For information about vaccinations, visas and the like, I’ve put together a Resource page with helpful links.
- Game drives ((Game drives are twice a day: In the early morning and late afternoon when animals are more active.)
- Night drives (Typically an extension of the afternoon game drive.)
- Walking safari
- Bird watching
- Catch and release fishing
- Mokoro rides
How to Pack
The small bush planes that fly into the Delta have strict bag and weight regulations. Most flights restrict weight to 15Kg (approximately 33 lbs) total. That means checked bag, carry-on, purse, camera bag, all of it together cannot exceed 33lbs.
Soft-sided bags without wheels are a must for two reasons. The first, wheels add unnecessary weight. The second, tiny planes have equally tiny cargo holds and they need your bag to conform to the small cavity. Duffle bags are your best option.
What to Pack
- Think layers and pack light. The camp provides free same-day laundry. Use it. Even on the hottest days, it will be cool at night and in the early morning so bring a fleece or some kind of light jacket.
- Pack neutral tones (khaki, green, tan) for game drives. You don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb with a brightly colored top.
- Do not wear camouflage. It’s not a fashion statement in Africa, it’s pure military and best to avoid.
- If you’re a shorts person, make sure you have at least one pair of outdoor pants, something you can wear when hiking through grass.
- I wear a good sturdy hiking shoe so I’m prepared for walking safaris. If you think you’ll only stay in a vehicle, sandals are fine.
- Sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat are a must. The sun can be brutal.
For more in-depth info, here’s a link to a recommended packing list that will help.
- I never leave home without my travel power strip. That way I only need one adapter (I bring two anyway) and the rest of my gadgets plug into the strip. It’s also an easy way to charge multiple devices at one time. Duba has its own version of a universal strip in each tent but a lot of camps don’t
- Bring a portable power bank with you. Game drives are three to four hours long. If you like to use your smartphone for photos and video you’re going to need back up juice. I really like the size and versatility of My Charge HubPlus Portable Charger.
There are two distinct seasons
Dry Season – April to October
- Expect hotter temperatures, grasses have dried out, water scarce, and cooler temps in the early morning and at night are the norm.
- June/July /August are not as hot, though still in the mid to high 70s. Nights can get chilly. It’s a good idea to wear hats and gloves.
- September / October are traditionally the hottest months, early mornings and nights are pleasant.
Wet Season – November to March
- November / December have been uncharacteristically hot the last couple of year. September / October, however, the mornings and evenings are nice.
- January/February are the wettest months and strong storms are not uncommon.
- March the rains start to slow down. Everything is a brilliant green. It looks as if the region is photoshopped.
I’ve been in Botswana in early November and early March. On both trips, it was cool in the morning and evening. Between 9 am – 5 pm it was really hot but bearable.
Tipping isn’t mandatory but it is customary and should be in
Budget $15 – $20 per day, per person for the staff. There is a wooden box in the main tent where you can place it (envelopes are in your tent). The gratuity will be split amongst them.
Your guide, who spends hours of their time and works very hard to make your stay as wonderful as possible, should also receive $15-20 per person, per day. Tips for the guide are given to them directly, usually at the airport when before you hop on the plane.
If there is anyone else who makes you feel extra special, of course, feel free to reach out to them directly as well.
Advice: I prepare my tips before I fly to Africa. I use two envelopes per camp (1 for staff, one for the guide). I fill the envelopes beforehand so I don’t have to worry about pulling the money together at the last minute. I also know that the cash in the envelope is spoken for and I won’t accidentally spend it. I label the staff envelopes and add my guides’ names for the others once we’ve met.
- If sustainability is important to you, you’ll be happy to know it’s very important to the Joubert’s as well. All the electricity for the camp is generated by solar power, guests are given refillable metal water bottles, there’s no unnecessary plastic, and if tomorrow the camp were to close they could pick up shop without leaving any permanent trace.
- Speaking of plastic, bags are banned in Botswana.
- The sand, random curves, and dirt tracks in the delta will rock your Land Cruiser from side to side, forward and back like a child’s funhouse ride. After days spent being tossed about, the constant jumble may wear on you. If you have a sensitive back you should keep this in mind.
- For the same reason, if you’re prone to car sickness, you might want to have Dramamine on hand.
- There is wifi in each of the guest tents but it’s slow and unreliable.