Day 1: Meet and Greet

Sept 4—I spent my "chill" day baking at Montsentsela Tree Lodge in Maun, Botswana, where the rest of the group will arrive today. Temperatures here are a bit outlandish for the end of winter, with yesterday's high hitting well over 90°F. Amazingly, it's hotter here than it was when I left home in the midst of a heat wave.

Flying from Joberg to Maun reminds you of just how empty Africa can be at times. Looking at images shot through the window of the plane on the camera's LCD looked like nothing more than a bunch of dust spots. Of course, a lot of what I could see was dust. A huge boost in contrast doesn't help much:

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Driving out of Maun to the lodge was filled with surprises. Maun now is up around 75,000 residents (temporary and permanent), has many more small lodgings, a few of them heading upscale. The old airport is still operative, but not for long, as the country is building a new airstrip immediately adjacent that will handle everything up through the biggest 747. In heat. Which means that the new runway they're working on is ginormous and dwarfs the old one. Maun won't be a sleepy little town much longer, if it hasn't already started the Big Change.

Meanwhile, water is still surging down the Okavango into Maun. There's spontaneous water all over the place, as areas that have never flooded are now filled with water. Adam Hedges, our local organizer and guide, says the water is finally starting to pull back a bit, but it has created lots of havoc for mobile safaris like ours. Today one of our drivers is out scouting to make sure that one of the camp sites we were planning to use later in the trip hasn't succumbed to the wet. [Post workshop comment: it had. At least the access road to it, so a new access had to be created.]

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Note all the trees in water here and the lack of a bridge in the road. This is water where it hasn't been in a long, long time. 

Botswana is a unique country. About 37% of the land here is either National Park or Wildlife Refuge: owned by the government and controlled by lots of fees and regulations. Obviously, that means a lot of bureaucracy, but on the plus side you get large tracts of land where the animals are free to roam and be wild. That's one of the reasons why we're here. But the paperwork to get an overland expedition through these protected areas mounted apparently isn't simple. Adam tells me that he has 22 different permits for our trip. As he likes to describe it (and he's not the only one in Botswana to do so): "this is a third world country with a first world bureaucracy." This from the head of the safari tour operators association! The clipboard of permit paper and triplicate forms on Adam's dashboard as he meets me is almost a half-inch thick. Thankfully I didn't have to fill out any of it.

Surprisingly, the bureaucracy doesn't seem to apply much to tourists. No visas. Just get off the plane, fill out a short form, get in line, have your passport stamped. Mine was stamped by one of the cheeriest and friendliest customs agents I've ever encountered. It always amazes me that in most countries the first local you meet is a grumpy or surly customs agent. Shows you how tourist friendly the world is. But my Botswana agent proved you can be friendly and still do your job. 

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Off to greet the first arrivals. Mostly lecture and some test shooting on schedule for later today, along with the requisite drinks and welcome dinner. Things won't really get rolling until Day 3, but when they do, watch out, as we're going head first into some prime territory where we're not likely to see another safari group, but plenty of animals.

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