Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TRAVEL: Chasing the cheetah in Botswana

By Kim Segal, CNN
February 23, 2010 9:50 a.m. EST

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
* Adventure begins with an online hunt for the best safari at a bargain price for two
* Author enjoys climate controlled tent with large balcony, turn down service, coffee, biscuits
* She races over bumpy roads and around trees to see a cheetah
* There are also trips to see elephants, lions, leopards, cape buffalo and rhinos

Okavango Delta, Botswana (CNN) -- The radio in the vehicle crackles. It's a fellow ranger telling our guide, O.T., that there has been a cheetah sighting. Visibly excited, O.T.'s lips form a huge smile as he turns to us, the tourists, in the back of his open-air vehicle to relate the good news.

A safari game drive is always hit or miss and this morning had been a miss. It is our first day on safari for this trip, which will last 7 days and include 12 game drives.

Since this is a morning drive, after an early wake-up, the Jeep left camp at 7 a.m. when the sun was rising but the night air remained bitter cold.

It had been an hour and the only animals we had seen were impalas -- African
antelopes, which are everywhere in this area of Botswana known as the Okavango Delta.
In contrast to impalas, cheetahs are rare and something special to see.

"There's not many of them," O.T. says. "It has been five months since our last spotting," he adds, oblivious to the pun.

Safaris also require a bit of luck, and luck has our vehicle miles away from the area where the cheetah was sighted.

O.T. tells us to hang on and off the Jeep goes, bouncing us around in the back, as he concentrates on safely navigating the dirt roads. They're filled with holes or blocked by a tree knocked down by an elephant, making the trip feel like a roller coaster and bumper car ride combined. O.T. was just as anxious to get there as his tourists, who have spent the last hour peppering him with questions about animals yet to be seen.

On the way, we whiz by a zebra, our first. Then a second and third appear. The excitement at seeing a zebra is quickly dismissed, as we are told there will be time for zebras later. I decide it's no use to verbally point out the herd of elephants I see in a clearing just off the road.

We will eventually find out that we will see not just zebras and elephants, but also encounter lions, hippos and even a leopard. However, according to O.T. there are not many animals worth stopping for when one is responding to a cheetah sighting.
Over the next few days it becomes obvious why O.T. decided to rush past some of the "Big Five" in order to see a cheetah. (The "Big Five" are the elephant, lion, leopard, cape buffalo and rhinoceros. The term refers to the five animals that hunters find the most difficult to pursue on foot. The reasons these animals were worth hunting are: the elephant's ivory tusks, a lion's trophy head, a leopard's coat and the horns of the buffalo and rhinoceros.)

The first day seems like an anomaly -- during subsequent game drives it takes only minutes and not hours before big game are spotted. The Botswana camp, the Khwai River Lodge, where we will spend our first 3 days, is adjacent to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. Moremi covers a 3,000-mile area of pristine wilderness. (While it seems endless to the traveler, it is dwarfed by Chobe National Park and the Kalahari Game Reserve, also in Botswana.)

There are dozens of safari camps to choose from in Botswana's Okavango Delta region. The Okavango Delta is one of the largest inland water systems in the world, a place that a diverse variety of animals and birds call home.

Camp prices range from a couple of hundred dollars a night to several thousand dollars a night, per person. The cost usually includes your accommodations, game drives, meals and transportation to the camp from Botswana's Maun or Kasane airport.
The camps are remote and getting there can entail a trip on a four seat plane that lands on a dirt runway.

Deciding which camp to book can be overwhelming. The main difference between the camps, besides the level of comfort of the accommodations and the quality of the food, is the type of safari experience. Some camps offer land-based game drives while other camps may offer water-based game viewing.

After weeks of Internet searching and many trips to a bookstore's travel section, my husband and I finally decided on Orient Express Safaris. It was a luxurious choice that came with a hefty price, even with the deal I found on one of my favorite travel Web sites, Luxurylink.com. This site offers high-end accommodations that you can either bid on or buy at a discounted price.

We paid just over half of the $14,430 advertised price for two people staying six nights at two Orient Express camps. Our climate controlled "tent" came with a large balcony; turn down service, which included hot water bottles in the bed, and my favorite -- a wake-up knock complete with coffee, tea and biscuits. Orient Express Safaris, like many safari companies in Botswana, has several properties throughout the Okavango Delta and guests can transfer between them.

Before we move on from our first camp, we pass the time sneaking up on lions feeding on a buffalo carcass, patiently waiting by watering holes to get a glimpse of more than the hippopotamus' eyes and stalking a leopard as it's tracking a herd of impalas. One night during dinner, an elephant decides to visit, taking a casual stroll through the camp as the food is being served.

Food was the last thing that we were thinking of as we continued our chase for a glimpse at a cheetah. The less-than-casual ride through the bush ends as the Jeep arrives at the final destination, complete with upset stomachs. The bumpy ride mixed with the anxiety of an on-time arrival leaves us feeling as if we just stepped off a carnival ride that spun a bit too fast.

It's been 45 minutes since the radio call when our Jeep parks in front of a termite mound next to two other vehicles from our camp. O.T. turns off the engine and we all sit in silence and scan the area. At first we don't see anything, not even an impala.
As everyone readies his or her camera, suddenly the cheetah walks out from behind the mound. This sight induces amazement, and most of us just sit there, cameras hanging untouched around our necks, stunned by the gorgeous animal not very far away.
I think to myself, yes, there will be time for zebras later.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/02/23/chasing.cheetah.botswana/

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