Saturday, September 19, 2020

Safari experience of a ‘native tourist’

Writing a travel story, one can not help, but become poetic; maybe that is explained by the high level service that one gets from deeper in the country’s wilderness that forces one to create a poem.

It is difficult to punch a whole in the service that one gets from camps, which one newspaper headline describes as ‘Little towns in the wildernesses’.

There is a story in the delta that a visiting couple were lost for complaints that they wrote a letter to the camp management complaining about the amount of food on offer. In the bush, the daily routine is eating and game driving.

This is maybe what explains the reason there is a popular saying in the country that tourism is out of reach of Batswana hence an industry reserved to makgoa (white people) despite regular assurance from Kitso Mokaila, the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism that the truth is the opposite.

Maybe the high class service in the bush is for makgoa and the rest of us subjected to mediocre service in the cities, where there is high volumes of people unlike in the eco sensitive areas of the country. That is high-value, low-volume strategy for you.

Therefore, for a journalist aspiring to be a travel writer, it is difficult to turn down an invitation to visit the wilderness as it gives one the opportunity to see for himself; while checking out what the locals are missing out there in the bush.

It is also tempting to accept the offer, especially when it is sweetened with the tantalising famous address—Okavango Delta on it.

David Smith writing in The Observer sees the delta as a watery wilderness of channels, lagoons and islands that empty into the Kalahari Desert in one of his articles.

It is estimated that about 120, 000 tourists visit the delta annually with most of them coming from the US although the numbers may be affected this year because of the global recession.

Botswana Tourism Board (BTB) headed by Myra Sekgororoane this year decides to invite local media houses including Sunday Standard on a familiarisation tour of the wilderness starting from the delta down to Mashatu Game Reserve on the Limpopo valley.

In the past, the parastatal responsible to selling the country’s product, have hosted international travel writers to sell Botswana’s hotspots.

The six-day expedition begins when Air Botswana pilot safely lands the ATR in Maun airport, one of the busiest in SADC, on a hot Wednesday morning and we proceed to a short briefing at the Wilderness Safaris offices situated a stone’s through to the airport where we meet Any and Grant, representatives of the conservation organisation.

After a short presentation, we (a group of 11) are on charter caravan, (Cessna light aircraft) to Mombo, a premier campsite operated by Wilderness in Moremi Game Reserve.

At least, I know the drill as I had visited the game reserve before: no mobile phone coverage, no internet, and no television, the only one being the bush TV with one channel, which is a chat around camp fire.

The only medium of communication is the satellite phone in emergency situations or communicating with base stations for more supplies.

The camp, which is one of the five star establishments in the country, is situated on the Mombo concession on the Chiefs Island in the Okavango Delta.

Its five star traits begins from the airstrip where you are met by welcoming tour guides that include Moss, the former school teacher who is now in love with nature, Piet, the naughty Maun boy who can communicate with a hippo amongst others.

Mombo is popular with U.S tourists and it is where the famous leopard Legadima (meaning lightening) was documented.

Mombo became a shocker for the journalists; a ‘five star service in the bush’ as one remarks.

We are reminded that were a lucky group to get accommodation at the camp because this premier accommodation is always fully booked two years in advance.

Service is a keyword at Mombo unlike in Gaborone, where despite productivity being preached every day, service at restaurants can easily scare away a sensitive traveller.

Every member of the group is impressed by the service, which is later replicated at Chitabe, a classic tented four star camp co-owned by Wilderness and another company. Dawson Ramsden and his crew provide a magnificent service to tourists visiting the delta.

Chitabe is different also because the staff was closer to the guests and the explanation was that they craved Batswana as their guest is normally of a foreign language.

After a night at Chitabe, we flew to Nxai Pan National Park, where tourism was given a different meaning.

We were guests at Kwando lodge and credit should go to Nature boy, Shoes, the tracker, TK, BK, and the rest of the team that runs the lodge.

Unlike, other camps that we went to, this is where we got closer to the elephants drinking on a nearby artificial drinking spot with an electric fence, which was the only thing keeping the elephant away.

The other striking thing was that the jumbos were from a different conventional colour of an African elephant and we were reminded that the salty environment makes the elephants change colour, but when it rains the salt is washed-off and they return to the normal colour.

The last destination we visited was Mashatu Game Reserve, which is equally exciting to visit, despite the two hour bumpy flight in a Cessna from the Nxai pan with Tony, the Australian pilot.

From the airstrip to the camp, elephants could be seen everywhere. What is even interesting about the camp is that it is frequented by important people in the country and the girls (Tumi and Lebo) were happy to have slept in one of the prestigious rooms.

Despite, seeing all sorts of game, some members of the team were disappointed that they did not see any kill from predators like lion although we saw them in attacking mode.

Experts say December and January are best for predator hunting.

The tour comes at a time when two things are happening that journalists exposure to the wilderness will help address. The world is currently undergoing recession with long haul tourists from rich countries like the US and UK dwindling.

This creates an opportunity for BTB and other promoters to look for plan B, which in this regard becomes domestic travellers.

Secondly, it has been found out that Batswana are reluctant to visit the wilderness and rather prefer destinations like Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and far countries like Mauritius for a holiday when they spend it locally cheaply and save some for the future.

Therefore, it becomes critical to find out from Batswana why they are opting to spend money outside the country.

The answers have been many; with some school of thought being that Botswana’s destinations are expensive to visit especially those in the sensitive areas like the delta, with prices quoted in the US Dollar.

On the other hand, Batswana as agrarian society, especially those from Okavango areas grew up around the wild animals and therefore it will be monotonous for them to spend holidays in the bush.

But of the two theories, pricing has been cited as an impediment despite camps having domestic rates with prices that are said to be suitable for native travellers, which on calculations could be 40% less than what is charged to international tourists.

Few days after arriving back to the city one journalist buttressed the point when asked why he can not visit the wilderness.

“Why should I visit the bush when I normally see animals”, exclaims one Gaborone media personality.

The debate rages with some arguing that asking Batswana to visit local destinations should not be seen as a form of entitlement as people do make choices while there are also calls for the country to diversify its tourism product so as to accommodate other needs.

For instance, others argue that some places should be turned into tourist attractions, for example in the city places like the Gaborone Dam and creating entertainment centres as it is happening in Durban.

The experience of the journalists is one of the impressed bunch looking at their comments at a de-briefing meeting at BTB offices done by Sekgororoane.

The experiences are summed up by Michael Morapedi who says we ‘shall ever be indebted to Botswana Tourism Board’.

Another journalist Baboki Kayawe of Mmegi says she was excited by the delta and Moremi Game Reserve aerial scenes from the caravan.

“This has been a very educational and adventurous trip. I learnt a lot of things about tourism industry in Botswana, which I believe many Batswana would get to know and see they can appreciate the beauty of their own instead of embracing and ÔÇôpromoting foreign culture”, she says.

“Botswana is such a diverse country: From the delta, to the scourging heat of the Nxai pans and beautiful vegetation of Mashatu”.

Malebogo Marumoagae of the Botswana’s own Top Billing, Prime Time says she was excited because what he saw is what she used to see on television.

“It is like being alone with nature; it changes your life for the better”, says the television star.

A journalist with hospitality publication, Hotel, Prudence says what struck him most was the people involved in tourism out there.

“The safari operators are awesome in terms of maintaining the standards”, he says.

“The people are in the bush, but are so happy to be working there”.

Two days after arriving in the city, it was back to square one because of questionable service. Together with a colleague we had to abandon our meal at a top restaurant because it took long for the order to be delivered.
The idea to introduce the tourism product to journalists was initiated by BTB, which has previously hosted international media as shift now is to promote domestic tourism that is still at developmental stage.

Sekgororoane says the media is an important partner in the promotion of domestic tourism saying it has become clear that there are risks with long haul markets especially during the global recession.

At the end, the group could only agree that ‘re bonye’,.


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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.