Friends on safari in Khwai
In November last year, a group of eleven friends embarked on a mobile camping safari within the Khwai Concession that fringes the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The group was made up of John and my brother, James (who together run a safari operation out of Maun), John’s wife Kirsty, Abi and Scarly from Cape Town, a London contingency of Malaika, Bob, Buff, Alice and Tom Hawk, and myself. Whilst some of us were best friends, many had not met each other. It was an exciting dynamic.
Memories in the making
The group quickly got to know one another over a brief lunch before assisting in loading the game viewer and trailer with all of the supplies we needed. We then headed off to our new home for the week – a spectacularly remote camp in the heart of Khwai. The camp was sensational, encapsulated by a stunning channel of the Khwai River flowing only a few feet from our tents.
We shared this wildlife area with a substantial breeding herd of elephants who enjoyed rehydrating themselves in the river every morning. And every morning we woke to warm coffee and porridge, and got to observe and photograph these beautiful animals.
On many insightful and inspiring game drives in the mornings and evenings throughout the Khwai and Moremi areas we spent a lot of quality time together, often stopping to enjoy an Amarula coffee amongst other refreshments. While we collectively enjoyed the abundance of the exquisite and dramatically green scenery – generated by the start of the rains – we discovered that we shared many of the same passions, and grew closer as a group.
From left to right: 1) Scanning across the Khwai River into the dense shrubs of the neighbouring Moremi Game Reserve. Botswana is largely unfenced and wildlife moves between reserves unhindered; 2) Enjoying a relaxing lunch with the Khwai River just a few metres away. All photos © Tom Stenner
The diversity of wildlife
Along with countless sightings of elephant, hippo, crocodile, giraffe, wildebeest, buffalo and many other African beauties, we spent the majority of the week viewing some wonderfully varied antelope and birds, accurately highlighted by our exuberant guides James and John. Their knowledge of the sheer volume of species ensured that we were all hugely inspired. Fortunately we were in Khwai at the same time as when the impala were giving birth – most are born at the start of the rainy season, when food is plentiful and life is relatively easy – and we felt lucky to witness the first steps of many newborns.
Clockwise from left: 1) Hippos play a vital role in keeping waterways free of choking vegetation and by adding their nutrient-rich faeces to the otherwise barren sand; 2) Crocodiles are abundant in Khwai and predate mostly on fish. although they will also kill mammals and birds that come to drink; 3) Buffalo, a member of the Big 5, and common in Khwai. All photos © Tom Stenner
The huge numbers of elephants in the area afforded many encounters that always surprised and delighted us. From a young bull proving his brute strength and presence on a nearby tree, to a breeding herd huddling under a tree for some respite from the sun. I was determined to capture the incredible technique of the elephant using their trunks to flick water and mud onto their backs. Using a quick shutter speed to freeze this allowed me to achieve the shot.
Another highlight was parking the game viewer alongside a dazzle of youthful zebra, portraying some incredibly affectionate behaviour in a beautiful acacia forest set back from the waterways. My ambition was to capture an image of the zebra coming together in a blur of multiple zebra stripes. I was thrilled to immediately review my images and realise this had been achieved.
Fearless: All for the pride
A highlight for the group was our first sighting of a lion on day three. At this stage of the safari we had gelled as a fully-fuelled safari team, with many hilarious and rapturous conversations exploding as we went. All went quiet as we heard other guides discussing they had seen a ‘tao’ over the radio waves. The excitement in the vehicle soared, as for a few of the group it was the first time they had ever seen a lion in the wild.
It was nearing lunch time, as other vehicles retreated to their camps our group took pleasure in staying out and witnessing a large male stretch and yawn before strolling across the open plane to reconnect with a female sleeping in the shade. The male was a stunning specimen despite having terrible battle scar over his right eye. It is incredible to think what this lion has been through to keep his pride stable and his beautiful cubs alive.
On our last evening we set off to find a stunning location to enjoy a few sundowners to reflect on what had been a magical week. We had bonded after sharing many rich and vibrant experiences; we were discussing plans for another safari in future, and possible new locations. Incredibly, we happened across a large and productive lion pride. The pride of 16 lions, led by a dominant female, were feeding on a very recent zebra kill when we arrived, something that I’d waiting a long time to witness.
I was blown away and was becoming increasingly emotional witnessing this scene amongst only a handful of other vehicles. We loved seeing the cubs playing, eating and playing some more amongst their larger siblings. Clearly, play is incredibly important for the development of paw eye coordination and their muscles.
We quietly observed and listened to nature at its very best as the sun was setting on a wonderful safari. As darkness set in we left these beautiful animals alone, knowing that shortly the hyenas would most probably move in. The male lion of the pride was not present, increasing the chances of a challenge to the kill.
From left to right: 1) Lion cubs having a bit of playful fun; 2) Breathtaking portrait of a regal lion who had just fed. All photos © Tom Stenner
Where to stay in the Khwai Concession
Khwai Tented Camp is located on a beautiful site within this community-run concession. It lies on the eastern border of the Moremi Game Reserve, on the banks of a lagoon flowing into the Khwai River, which acts as a boundary between the reserve and the community area. Guests can enjoy spacious and comfortable tented accommodation with private en-suite bathrooms.
Clockwise from top left: 1) Spacious tented accommodation with double bed and en-suite bathroom; 2) Idyllic landscape and a hammock – ultimate relaxation; 3) Outdoor deck to unwind after a day on safari; 4) Keep warm around a fire at night, while marvelling at the starry sky. © Khwai Tented Camp
Machaba Camp is a luxurious camp on the banks of the Khwai River. The camp is built in the classic 1950’s style, with luxury safari tents, en-suite bathrooms and living areas, not forgetting the romantic outdoor showers.
Clockwise from left: 1) Luxury tented accommodation with an outdoor deck area, offering a wonderful view of the Khwai River; 2) Dine under the stars – an absolute spectacle; 3) A couple enjoying a sundowner on an evening game drive. All photos © Machaba Camp
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I am a 33-year-old Marketing Manager based in London, with a beautiful wife, Kate, and son, Sam. I have enjoyed four very special safaris in Botswana, spanning from 2008 to 2017. The first trip was on an overland tour, and I was amazed by the incredible wildlife. I returned in 2013 to the Makgadikgadi pans where I asked Kate to marry me. The same year my older brother James moved to Maun, Botswana; I visited him in 2015, and most recently in 2017 where we have been fortunate to fulfil a lifelong passion for safaris and African wildlife photography. Botswana is a very special place, somewhere I hope to visit for years to come.