On the Trail of Precious Remotse

The rotund Precious Remotse has a brilliant smile that glints with her perfect white teeth. At least that is the way I imagine her and perhaps it will be how she is portrayed in the upcoming Hollywood film of the book. Mma Ramotse is the fictional heroine and founder of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, which is also the title of the first in the best selling series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith. Her gentle and friendly but inquisitive nature is a positive stereotype of the Batswana people and so much of it is true. The Batswana are genuinely warm and although you may visit Botswana just to see wildlife, you can’t also but be impressed by her people.

Botswana is a wonderfully wild, empty and untamed country. About the size of France, most of the 1.8 million people live in the capital of Gaborone and its suburbs and a handful of other towns in the eastern part of the country. Landlocked in Southern Africa it is a treasure trove of diverse landscapes and magnificent wildlife that makes you feel the insignificance of your own personal humanity.

The ancient San people were the first inhabitants of Botswana and have been here since prehistory. Before the first millennium the Bantu speaking tribes (including the Tswana) moved in from the north. Then in the mid 19th century the Europeans arrived in Southern Africa. In 1885, it became a British protectorate to counter and prevent the Boers, with their expansionist philosophy, from annexing Botswana. Three Botswana chiefs convinced Queen Victoria to take it under the protection of the Crown. Botswana remained a British protectorate until it attained independence in 1966 under the leadership of Sir Seretse Khama, a magnanimous and honest leader. One year later its extensive diamond resources were discovered. Botswana developed into a rare African economic success story with healthy foreign reserves. It also has considerable beef and tourism industries. Botswana went from being the third poorest country in the world to one of the richest in Africa. Like the rest of Africa, it does, however, have its problems and the HIV infection rate is unfortunately one of the highest in the continent.

For the tourist, viewing wildlife on safari is usually the major attraction of their visit to Botswana. Gaborone the capital is a modern African capital but there really is not too much to see. We spent an hour driving around looking for Zebra Drive where the fictitious Precious lived but to no avail.

From Chobe National Park to the wetlands of the Okavanga Delta in the north to the edges of the Kalahari in the south, the experience is an unorchestrated wildlife experience in comparative comfort. The Botswana Tourism Industry targets exclusivity and makes no bones about it. The safari lodges are nearly all extremely luxurious and it is an expensive holiday destination. Distances between lodges are often very large and so it is often necessary to take internal flights between them so that adds to the expense. The aim is to protect the fragile ecosystems by maintaining a low volume high cost tourism policy. Nearly 40% of the land mass is set aside for conservation. Most of the game lodges are on private concession areas that are leased out by tourism companies with strict rules on how they can be developed in order to conserve and minimize the impact on wildlife.

Geographically it is the desert that is the most important feature of Botswana, but it is the fan-shaped Okavango Delta that is probably the most unusual and the one that sustains life. The Okavango River is the source of water and it is unique in that it goes nowhere and never finds the sea. From Angola it flows into this hole in the Kalahari sand basin and then it evaporates and shrinks when the weather gets hot. Nature’s balance is fragile here and so dependent on a consistent rainy season. The Okavango swell after the rains covers huge distances and it is the world’s largest inland delta. Hippos help disperse the floodplains by creating water channels that radiate out into reed and papyrus beds.

The best way to experience the Okavango is by mokoro ride on the water. The mokoro is a local canoe traditionally made from the hollowed out trunk of a sausage tree. Now they are usually made from fibreglass. As you pass through the narrow water channels, while being punted by your guide, you relax and watch a peaceful reflective world around you simply glide by. The most likely wildlife you will spot will be birds, such as the exquisite azure and orange malachite kingfisher, majestic sea eagles, and the endangered slaty egrets and wattled cranes. You might spot a crocodile languishing in the sun. On the fringes of the delta, there is some of the best wildlife viewing areas in the country, including the Moremi Game Reserve.

The Chobe River floodplains in Northern Botswana have one of the largest populations of African elephants. They migrate to the area as water levels diminish in the dry season. Chobe National Park is on the Botswana border and therefore one of the most difficult environments to conserve. Different rules and attitudes to conservation over the border with Namibia and troubled Zimbabwe make cooperation in management of natural resources difficult. The wild animals know no frontier boundaries and this can be to their detriment.

The Kalahari is a huge expansive desert area and pristine wilderness. It covers nearly two thirds of Botswana’s landmass. There is very little of the desert that is pure sand dunes. Most deserts are arid landscapes filled with grasslands, low-lying bushes and scrub. This is good, as dunes don’t really sustain much life. As with the Delta, the Kalahari landscape varies widely throughout the year and transforms from a land of lush grasses and frequent waterholes in the wet to a dusty shrivelled up place in the dry. In the transition, there are great migrations of animals from the central Kalahari into areas with more plentiful water.

Botswana wildlife is awesome and accessible. It is a place where you feel so close again with nature and get a feel for how humans were before they became misplaced predators.

If you are lucky you will see the big five here as they are all present, but it is more likely you will only see four of them. Rhinos were extinct, but have been reintroduced in small numbers to Chief’s Island in the Moremi Reserve. The other four (elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo) are all present, but you will need to be lucky to spot a leopard. There is much more wildlife to see from the impossibly elegant impala to the spiral horned kudu to a giraffe troop to a dazzle of zebras.

Safaris are sometimes built up to be exciting National Geographic style sightings of the big five and predator kills every few minutes. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. You will rarely get close enough to a kill and it doesn’t really happen in slow motion. It all happens in an instant.

Your chance of seeing a kill depend on how good your guide is. The one who relies on his radio will give you an up close and personal view of a feeding or sleeping lion, but there will be about fifty others beside you clicking on their digital cameras held outstretched from their bodies. If you have a proper tracker guide who reads the signs of the bush radio and TV you will get a slightly different and less voyeuristic experience. The true tracker listens to the warning barks of impala and birdcalls to tell him if lions or leopards are in the vicinity. He can determine from the tracks in the sand, the animal, when they passed, and the age and sex. More often than not these are the kind of guide you get on a Botswana game drive.

For game viewing, the best time to visit is in the dry season from May to October. In the winter (our summer) the temperatures can plummet at night and even be cold during the day so bring some warm clothing. You may need to take prophylactic antimalarials if you go there in the wet season. Lemon balm based insect repellants are particularly effective. Perfumes can attract insects and the colour blue attracts the tsetse flies, which spreads sleeping sickness, although it is not as prevalent as it used to be.

Safaris are not just all about ticking off the big five. You can also exercise your powers of observation on the other fives. The little five are much more difficult to see than the larger mammals. They are leopard tortoise, ant lion, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew and rhino beetle. The next five are the ugly five. These are the nasty hermaphrodite hyenas, vultures, ground hornbill, the wildebeest and the warthog.

The last five are the stupid five and this warrants some explanation. The wildebeest will get startled and run very fast away from danger and then get startled and run very fast back again to the exact same spot. This is great news for hungry and waiting predators. The warthog (apologies to Pumbaa from the Lion King) raises its tale and shuts its eyes when running away from danger, which is really pretty silly. The nightjar, dubbed the suicide bird, will fly straight into passing vehicles. The fruit bat will do its business in mid air and then quickly flip around and get hit in the face.

Of course the fifth stupid animal in the African bush is the human animal.Some, as tourists, show this stupidity by wearing a bright red tea cosy hat and bright pink tee shirt and are as loud and rude as what they are wearing. It must make the hungry lion lick his lips. Don’t you just love them!


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