Fabulous safari area
Lying just 60km north of the fabulous Okavango
, this Linyanti area is often not given the credit that it deserves ... it really is one of the finest safari areas in Africa
The Linyanti river, like the Okavango, rises in the highlands of Angola to the northwest and delivers its flood into Botswana a couple of months later, at the start of the dry season. So the area acts as a magnet for game, especially June to October, as the seasonal waterholes in the vast mopane woodlands of Chobe dry out and the game is forced to move into towards more reliable sources of water.
Unlike Okavango however, the Linyanti river does not terminate here, this is not an evapouration pan, but a riverine area with modest floodplains. From here the river turns northeast for 200km along the Chobe Waterfront, joins the Zambezi at Kazungula, drops over the Victoria Falls and continues on for another 1500km to the Indian Ocean. So whilst some floodplain areas can be encountered during June and July, on the whole this should be considered a dry safari area
, with an exceptional reputation for hard-hitting, all-action gameviewing
At most times of year, certainly May to November, most good quality safaris to Okavango also include at least one camp here in Linyanti. Guests returning to Botswana tend to deploy an increasing proportion of their time here ... certainly most of us who work here at ATR do, Linyanti tends to rank very high in on our personal lists of top safari locations.
A quick glance at a map shows how the river system does a rather unusual ninety degree turn in the heart of this area. The reason for this is quite interesting, or at least about as interesting as hydrology gets to the casual observer!
Flowing in from the northwest the river is usually referred to as the Kwando, but after it makes its turn to the northeast it becomes known as the Linyanti and takes on a slightly different character. The reason for the turn is a fault line which follows the same diagonal SW to NE course across the landscape. In this very flat part of the world a fault line like this, as little as a metre in height, has an enormous effect on drainage patterns. This fault line is relatively young in geological terms, in fact it may even have moved significantly over the last few decades, since the patterns of water flow do still seem to be shifting. In times gone by the Kwando used to continue straight on to the southwest, down the Savute Channel to the Savute Marshes of central Chobe. At some time in the past, the raising of the fault stopped that flow and turned the river northeast to join enter Zambezi drainage system. These days only in very high flood years does water spill over into the old Savute Channel.
Similarly, from the same intersection a large and usually dry channel known as the Selinda Spillway leads southwards to connect the Linyanti and Okavango drainage areas and during very high flood seasons on either river, this channel can flow in one direction or the other.
During 2009 and 2010 the floods were so high that both of these usually dry channels not only flooded, but flowed like the major rivers that they used to be, bringing life to parts of the country which had been virtually written off as having become desert.
Very low visitor numbers
This Linyanti area contains the first 50km of a 250km stretch of waterfront which continues northeast from here to the frontier town of Kasane. Most of the other 200km is known as the Chobe river and backs onto Chobe National Park, an absolutely vast area largely comprised of flat mopane woodland, which spills game out onto the waterfront in huge volumes during the June to October dry winter season.
The most productive and accessible part of this waterfront is the last 100km before Kasane, a very famous safari area known as the Chobe Waterfront. In our lifetimes, Chobe Waterfront used to be a wild area with an almost mythical appeal. Stories were told far and wide about the volumes of elephant which would gather here in the dry season. During the 1980's, when elephants were being heavily poached in other areas, the allure of this area became even greater.
These days things are very different. Although the elephant do still mass here in the same vast quantities and although the sight of the herds snorkelling their way across the river is still amazing, the Chobe Waterfront area has become overrun with tourists. Large hotels in Kasane now spill huge volumes of vehicles and people out into the park each morning and packed booze-cruise boats onto the river each evening. It really has become somewhere that we feel that anyone with a real empathy for the wild is probably best advised to avoid, it is simply too depressing.
This is where this Linyanti area comes into its own ...
Like most of the Okavango Delta, Linyanti is divided into vast private concessions
, three to be precise. Details of the tender process are explained in more detail in the Okavango guidebook
. The main consequence is that the number of people permitted to visit this vast area of around 6400 square kilometres is limited to around 120 guests, giving an average guest density when full of only around 1 guest per 55 square kilometres
, around fifty times less than in the Masai Mara for example.
The net result is that this really does feel like an absolute wilderness, where on a gamedrive you should only bump into just one or two other vehicles at most, and those from the same or related camps, whilst when out on foot or by boat you are virtually guaranteed to have the place completely to yourself. This is such a far cry from the experience so often now encountered on the Chobe Waterfront that it is difficult to overstate.
In other words, Linyanti is the smart way to visit Chobe
Very high quality camps
There are around eight permanent camps and lodges in this Linyanti area, four on the East Linyanti
concession and two on each of the Kwando
concessions, some of which rank amongst the finest in Southern Africa.
Generally continuing the theme outlined in the Okavango Delta, these camps are, on the whole, quite light in construction, with a good deal of canvas and wood, much less brick and concrete. All sit directly in the natural landscape rather than in more manicured surroundings and none of which are fenced, although Selinda Camp has been known to deploy an electric wire to deter the local elephant.
Two of the camps ... King's Pool Lodge
and Zarafa Camp
... are aimed at the very upper end of the market. The remainder ... Savuti Camp
, Duma Tau Camp
, Lebala Camp
, Lagoon Camp
and Selinda Camp
are a little more earthy, although in absolute terms they remain very comfortable. The quality of build and service in all the camps should be very high. One may have to do without home comforts such as air-conditioning and televisions, but that should only serve to enhance the experience.
The game-guiding in all three concessions should be to a very high standard. As a dry safari area, Linyanti tends to attract the more serious and game-focussed guides ... water-based safari not being considered to be much of a job by most senior safari guides, dry areas tend offer much more to get their teeth into.
The two camps on the Kwando concession ... Lebala Camp
and Lagoon Camp
... have a particular reputation for serious game-guiding. As you may already have read elsewhere in these pages, our main criticism of Botswana camps is that the safari itself can sometimes be a little lightweight and leave you wanting. This is most definitely not the case in these camps, more likely they will have you out day and night until you are begging for a rest! We have experienced times here when the early evening gamedrive has been so productive that the guide has radioed in to scrap dinner and send for sandwiches. We have been out late, very late into the night in order to catch some serious game action (lions hunting hippo is one that sticks in the memory). We have even experienced one day during which the gameviewing was so disappointing by local standards that when the guides eventually dropped us heavy hearted and exhausted back at the lodge, they actually went out again to search something out for us ... and true to form after dinner they returned with broad smiles to lead us out to a kill.
Guiding on the neighbouring Selinda and East Linyanti concessions may not be quite so intense ... after all, that level of safari is not for everyone ... but it should still be to a very high quality. The one thing that we would say is that, in our experience, the more luxurious the lodge, the less intense the safari, so you can perhaps anticipate a more easy-going safari at King's Pool Lodge
Hardcore predator action
The whole of Linyanti has an enormous reputation for prodigious and intense predator action. An unfortunate consequence of this reputation is that guests tend to turn up expecting the earth, when in reality even here there is still some luck needed to see hunts, kills and other remarkable sightings.
Probably the single most remarkable event is the denning of the wild dog
in May and June. Where previously they were considered vermin, these wonderful animals have achieved iconic status in recent times. They are considered to be a weathervane species for conservation, since they have the largest home range of any predator and are more threatened by human encroachment than most since they are able to contract canine distemper from domestic dogs. Finding these guys for most of the year can be an absolute mission, they travel so far and so fast that they are here one minute gone the next. Mainly gone in fact. But this picture changes when the dogs go to den, usually during the middle of May, staying in position often for for several weeks in order to give the pups a good start in life. Most years since 2000 Lagoon Camp
has reported dogs denning close by and this has now become so 'reliable' that safari nuts come in from around the world at this time to spend time with them. Savuti Camp
has also reported dogs denning in proximity to the camp most years since 2005. It certainly seems that for now Linyanti in May and June is the place to be in Africa for wild dogs.
Another major gameviewing highlight which seems to occur more often here than anywhere else ... or at least is witnessed and reported more often than anywhere else ... is predator on predator action. We have heard reports and seen pictures of wild dogs attacking leopards
, hyenas attacking lions
, wild dogs attacking hyenas with lions looking on
... clearly there is a lot of pressure on the predators in this area, which also explains why there are so few of the more mild mannered cheetahs around despite the nice open plains around Selinda in particular.
Intense elephant action
Although one is likely to encounter elephant at just about any camp in Northern Botswana ... often finding them wandering right into camp ... it is here in the East Linyanti concession where we have enjoyed some of our very best pachyderm moments.
As described above, when the dry season starts, the animals start to migrate in towards the Linyanti waterfront, led by herd after herd of elephant. A quick glance at the condition of the woodland strip that backs the waterfront here is enough to tell all ... there are so many elephant around that the trees are ravaged, in parts it looks like a scene out of Apocalypse Now
Some of the best elephant interaction we have ever experience has been in the hides of the East Linyanti concession, more on which below. We have also had enjoyable, if hairy, moments in and around the camps, approaching some of the better known ellies on foot and getting remarkably close. But perhaps the ultimate and most rewarding memories are those of afternoons spent sitting on logs in the shade watching the herds come down across the grassy beaches and into the cool waters of the Linyanti, to drink, swim and play ... very special moments indeed.
Night vehicle safaris
Some of us here at ATR ... Tony, Lenny and Greg ... spent parts of their formative years working in a camp in Kafue National Park in Zambia which specialised in night safari. There, under the tutelage of legendary safari guide Map Patel, they spent endless nights searching out and watching lions and leopards on the hunt. The usual form was to have dinner in camp and then head out around 10pm, returning three or four hours later.
These days the vast majority of camps which claim to offer night safari actually just spends an hour or so scooting around the bush on the way back from a sundowner spot, picking out the odd bushbaby or, if they are lucky, a porcupine. Even if the do hit lion, then chances are the cats are just waking up, since in most areas they tend not to start hunting until nearly midnight.
So the art of night safari is not in good health on the whole.
Fortunately there is one camp in particular where this is not (usually) the case ... Lebala Camp
in the Kwando concession. As mentioned previously, safari at this camp is rather more hardcore than most, possibly too hardcore for many, but we love it. This is the only camp where we have experienced a decent night vehicle safari for the best part of twenty years. If you know of others then please do let us know, because this is something very close to our hearts. Thank heavens the Lebala guides are continuing to 'carry the torch'
Gameviewing hides are remarkably few and far between in the safari world these days, which is a shame. In our opinion a good hide can deliver an experience which is at least as intense and involving as any other safari activity. A great joy is the length of time that can be spent in a hide, providing an experience which can be far less fleeting than most, plus the fact that it is sometimes possible to sit in a hide on your own or with your travel companions, without being accompanied by a guide or other guests, although this is naturally only possible in safe environment hides!
There are two hides in the East Linyanti concession which are worthy of particular note ...
The first is the Bunker Hide
close to Duma Tau Camp
, where a huge metal container has been sunken into the bank of a waterhole in the forest. When the elephant come in to water, the foot level view from the hide is fabulous. The fact that the bunker is so secure allows the viewer to really relax and appreciate the spectacle.
In stark contrast is the famous Logpile Hide
at Savuti Camp
. This was the creation of a legendary Zimbabwean guide called Benson, who managed this camp for many years. Whilst the general concept of sticking guests in amongst a pile of logs by a waterhole may have initially been borrowed from Hwange, it was here that Benson worked on paring it down to the bare essentials. We were lucky enough to catch Benson in camp back in 2005 and experience the full glory of his 'version five hide'. By then the pile of logs had been reduced to such an extent that there was virtually nothing between you and the elephants, some of which would front right up to you, almost in touching distance! Hiders stood face to face with animals that could kill them at a stroke, look deep into their eyes and even 'talk' to them by shaking heads and mimicking trunk movements. The adrenaline rush that this hide delivered was second to none. You will notice that we have been talking in the past tense here. During the high floods of 2009 and 2010 the Logpile Hide was washed away. Now that Benson is no longer managing the camp, we are very worried that owners Wilderness Safaris will feel that the obvious advantages of reinstating the hide may be outweighed by the risks. We will continue to lobby for its reinstatement, but ultimately the decision has to lie with them ... guests do get trampled by elephants from time to time and the pressure is always on to reduce this type of risk ... we just have to be careful not to squeeze out the passion and adventure at the same time.