A mobile camping safari is a great way to experience your surroundings at their most visceral. Director of Letaka Safaris, Grant Reed, talks about the advantages of this unique type of safari.
When/where did your love of wildlife and conservation begin?
My earliest memories of my love for wildlife is a mosaic of different occasions between three and five years old when I would accompany my father and older brother into the field to catch snakes for our family snake collection. As we grew older and our snake collection grew larger we would spend more and more time in the field looking for frogs, lizards, shrew and birds eggs and so gradually we developed a keen interest in what was previously just “snake food”.
My father was a senior honorary ranger for the Wildlife Society of Southern Africa and would lead weekend trails in the wilderness with frustrated urbanites who longed for the bush. After my fifth birthday he would humour me and allow me to be his “back-up” guide on trail and carry some bits and pieces in my rucksack and strap a knife to my belt. From that day onwards I always wanted to study conservation and be a guide.
How did your family come to live in Botswana?
My dream was to be a trails guide in Kruger National Park for a few years and then to be promoted to section ranger where I could practice the skills I learned as an undergraduate Nature Conservation student. Unfortunately several weeks before my induction into Trails in the Kruger, the South African Government implemented the policy of affirmative action which effectively froze both Trails as well as Game Ranger positions to white South Africans for a minimum of 10 years.
Botswana had always been the impossible dream growing up. I had always begged my father to take me to the Okavango but it was a very difficult destination to access and very expensive for South African’s. In the same week that Affirmative Action was implemented one of the students I was training in Kruger mentioned to me there was a vacancy with a mobile safari in Botswana. Within the week I drove out of Kruger, crossed the Limpopo and never looked south again.
A year later my bush-loving brother who had been working in IT for Mark’s and Spencer’s joined me on a safari through the Okavango and Chobe. At the end of the safari his words to me were: “I am not going back, find me a job as a mobile guide” A year later my sister came out from Santiago in Chile where she had been teaching English and fell in love with Brent’s new boss on safari. She too never went back. Sooner rather than later the inexorable magnetic pull of the grand children persuaded my parents to sell up in South Africa and settle in Botswana where my father Mike became a pivotal part of Letaka Safaris and our sister company Okavango Guiding School.
What made you decide to set up your safari operation here?
The wilderness and the people. I have had the privilege of travelling to many parts of Africa and no place I have ever been has an amazing combination of unspoilt wilderness and phenomenal wildlife. As Africa becomes more and more popular it becomes more difficult to avoid the crowds and Botswana is one of the last bastions of true wilderness with phenomenal wildlife. Botswana is a stable democratic country with a population of barely two million peace-loving people and there are few places in Africa where I feel as at home in the towns and villages as I do in the wilderness. It is a culture based on mutual respect where tribalism does not rear its ugly head — as it does in most of Africa.
What do you think makes Letaka different to other safari operations in Botswana?
Wow! I am going to have to give you the short version! First and foremost the guides. Your guide on an African safari is everything. The continuity of having the same guide for your 10-day wilderness adventure is one of the unique selling points of mobile safaris as the guide can gradually unveil nature’s secrets and build a wonderful story, relating behaviour you are seeing on your final day to a point made on the first day. Having a phenomenal guide enhances this advantage a hundredfold. Letaka Safaris owns and operates Okavango Guiding School, Botswana’s premiere guide training institution and this gives our guides unrivalled exposure to top-level training. There are many companies out there that claim to have the best guides but we are proud to say ours have the skills and the papers to prove it!
The company is a family run business with a heritage in wildlife and conservation that spans more than a century. The company is large enough to cater for the needs of our agents and provide first world service and support and yet still small enough to care about the experience of each individual guests. The directors are of the most qualified guides in Africa and are still involved with the safaris in the wilderness guiding, training and inspiring staff and innovating better ways to do what we do.
When you come to Botswana you want to spend most of your time in the wilderness and you may spend between 60-70 hours on a game drive. For this reason the vehicle is critical. Our vehicles have the minimum of upright roof supports, a fold down windscreen and a roof that can taken off or fitted in two minutes. This gives you a 360 degree panoramic view of Africa and a sense of complete immersion in the wilderness.
Starting your safari with a scenic flight into the Okavango is a must! It is an awesome experience that gives you a totally different perspective of this unique landscape. In 2008 they completed the calcrete road that subsequently has never been maintained and in the dry season this calcrete turns to powder. When you arrive off a trans-Atlantic flight and have changed aircraft in Johannesburg to arrive in Maun, the last thing you need is a 4-5 hour drive on Africa’s dustiest road. Furthermore in the winter months when the days are shorter with Air Botswana’s unique interpretation of punctuality, any late arrival will have you arriving in camp in the dark. The state of mind you arrive in has a great impact on your enjoyment of the safari.
The diversity of experiences is another huge advantage of booking with Letaka Safaris. Game-drives are fantastic but to really experience Africa you need to go beyond this. Our 10-day Northern Highlights safari includes a scenic flight, game drives, night drives where you have the opportunity to see nocturnal animals, a mokoro excursion in the traditional dug-out canoes, a boat trip on the Chobe and my personal favourite — a walking safari. No other operator provides such a diversity of product on a similar safari. Walking guides are the cream of the guiding crop and we are very proud to be able to say we are the only mobile operator able to offer walking on all our departures due to the phenomenal stable of guides in the Letaka family. Having additional vehicles and full time mechanics on standby 24/7 gives a priceless peace-of-mind that in the unlikely event of a mechanical fault we can almost seamlessly switch out and your safaris can continue unhindered.
Finally, I truly believe we have achieved the perfect combination of comfort and affordability with an unrivalled wilderness experience.
What’s so special about mobile camping as opposed to staying in a permanent lodge?
Further to the guiding point I made above I think it is the intimacy with nature that is so special. When our staff arrive to erect our camp it is nothing more than a grove of shady trees in a vast unfenced wilderness. There are no large structures, generators, nearby airstrips or other disturbances that repel animals. We are not standing on a deck presiding over the wilderness which in my opinion mirrors our daily attitude to wildlife and our planet, we are one with nature and we truly feel part of it.
Having a small group of staff and other guests allows people to get to know each other and to be themselves. Often when I have done private guiding through the lodges and camps I have noticed how everyone is on their guard all the time. This is a result of having a new guide, new managers sitting dinner, new guests in camp and other factors that change the dynamic. A mobile safari allows you to truly unwind.
In my opinion mobiles also attract the right kind of people. The experience is a magnet for those who are passionate about Africa, about the wilderness and who want more from the experience than to tick the big-five for bragging rights at dinner parties back home. While many people sell mobile safaris for their affordability only a few educated travel agents and tour operators sell mobiles for the key reason and that is the experience.
If you had to choose between the different areas in Botswana, which would you pick, and why?
If I was choosing for my guests I would choose Khwai because of the remarkable wildlife and the combination of Okavango Delta landscape and typical African Savannah. If I was to choose for myself I guess it would have to be Chikumba Pans in eastern Chobe. Few people go there and as a result the wildlife is very skittish but my first love is the wilderness and the tranquillity of being away from everyone else. There is nothing like sitting in absolute silence at a waterhole for five hours letting Africa come to you.
What is the most unusual sighting that you’ve had whilst on safari?
If we exclude the family of Mozambican refugees that I found seeking refuge from a pride of lion in a tree, I would have to say it was a leopard stalking and killing a crocodile. As a young man in my twenties I was convinced I would be retired by the time I'd seen anything like this, and without warning there was a blur of spots, a huge splash and a stone dead crocodile being dragged from the water.
How did you come to set up the Okavango Guiding School?
In Kruger National Park I was immensely privileged to do my weapons training with the late and legendary Bruce Bryden. We trained until our hands were blistered by working the bolt action and the bruises on our shoulders had bruises of their own from the recurring recoil from the heavy calibre weapons. Many years later I was standing between a group of researchers who were busy collaring a large male lion and three cow elephant in full charge. To further complicate things there were nine wealthy Americans who had funded the research who were milling around watching their dollars at work. I had been watching the breeding herd for a while and they were unsettled by the smell of lion and humans from all directions. The lead cow came with murderous rage, followed by a couple of cows far less sure of themselves. Everything became silent and motion slowed considerably, in a split second all my training came back to me and with the calm of someone shooting a tin can off a wall, I dropped the lead cow with a concussion shot. The other two cows immediately split off on a tangent and I waited for the lead cow to stand up hoping that the non-fatal but brutal impact would change her mind. It did and within a couple of days the cow would show no ill effects from the encounter. Through the entire experience I felt the presence of Bruce over my left shoulder and I decided there and then that one day I wanted to do that for other guides. A week later I registered Okavango Guiding School.
What do you enjoy the most about guiding people on safari?
The awe people express at the beauty and the brutality of the wilderness and watching the “light go on” when begin to understand the ecological interactions of the various species with each other and their environment.
Botswana has a very different tourism model to other countries, which seems to work well. What do you think the future holds for tourism here?
The future of tourism in Botswana is great as long as the Botswana government maintain a policy of low volume, high revenue. The truth is tourism is changing everywhere and in all the countries more lodges and hotels are springing up everywhere. The concept of true wilderness must be a concrete one and not a relative term.
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