We've all heard of the Great Wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, crossing over both Kenya and Tanzania, but did you know there is an even longer migration of zebras in Botswana? I only recently learned about this incredible natural phenomenon myself, which spans from Chobe in northern Botswana to Makgadigadi Pans in the Kalahari Desert. And this year, I got the chance to check it out personally with my safari groups.
Botswana was once home to great migrations of wildebeests and zebras, but after Independence in 1966 the country entered into an agreement with the European Union to provide cattle for consumption. This led to the erection of many, many fences to separate cattle from wild Cape Buffalo, which were known carriers of foot and mouth disease. The fences effectively cut off the centuries old migration paths of wildebeests and zebras and caused a mass decline in both species.
In 2014, Dr Hattie Bertlam-Brooks of the Royal Veterinary College, London, discovered that following the removal of the Nxai Pan veterinary fence in 2006, the migration of the zebras from the Okavango Delta to the Makgadigadi Pans has resumed (read more at Nat Geo). This route was cut off from 1996 to 2006, so none of the zebras now migrating were alive in the last migration, suggesting that there is something innate causing them to follow these old paths. Perhaps, in fact, these memories of how and where to migrate, could be genetically encoded.
I regularly take groups to see the spectacle of the Great Wildebeest Migration in East Africa, so I wasn't sure what to expect of this migration in Botswana. But I was not disappointed! Of course, when you see so many wildebeest in the Serengeti dotting the plains in their thousands, that is impressive, but there is something equally dazzling, and certainly more beautiful, as thousands of black and white stripes rushing down in a haze of dust to drink at the Boteti River in the Makgadigadi Pans National Park.
Most people go to the Botswana for the Okavango Delta, and rightly so. The Delta has earned its reputation as one of the best safari destinations in Africa by taking great care of its natural environment focusing on high end tourism and low numbers (low impact) and it never fails to impress. But it's worth the short trek to the Kalahari to experience a different habitat, see the zebra migration, spend some time with the Kalahari Bushmen and see the big elephant bulls of the Boteti.
My groups this year stayed at the luxurious (but not over the top) Meno a Kwena camp, which means 'teeth of the crocodlie', and we all absolutely loved it. The staff at Meno treat you like one of the family and the view overlooking the Boteti River is simply breath taking. Zebras in their hundreds come to drink there, as do elephant bulls, and there was a resident hippo bull in the river too, who you can watch from a floating hide. The night time noises were fantastic, as lions and spotted hyaenas played out their evening antics. There is nothing like listening to their primeval calls as you drift off into a peaceful slumber...
Meno a Kwena camp is very well suited to families, as we had kids ranging in age from 4 to 12 in one of my groups. The camp also ran fantastic Conservation Coaching activities for the little ones, to teach them through games about the way the migration works, the importance of water and the interactions of predators and prey. A visit to the local school and village was made possible by our guide Mpaphi, who even took us to his own home to meet his family! Cultural experiences don't get any more authentic than this!
If you are going to Botswana, I'd strongly suggest including a visit to this part of the country in your safari. Word on the street is that Meno a Kwena Camp is where Prince Harry proposed to Meghan, and it may well be true, as the staff tell stories of his visits there over the years with Prince William since they were children. All I can say, if it's good enough for Prince Harry, then it's good enough for me! And as an added bonus, Meno a Kwena is part of the Natural Selection group, which gives 1.5% of their turnover to local conservation and community projects.
Here's a few safari group shots below!
4 year old Lexi with her grandparents Ken and Heather checks out the zebra migration with binoculars.
One of the highlights of any visit to the Makgadigadi National Park is the chance to soak up the zebra migration over a long relaxing lunch in the river bed as the zebras run by and drink at the water.
Meno a Kwena Camp has a special partnership with a community of San Bushmen, who joined our group for a couple of hours to teach us a thing or two about how to make a fire without matches, traditional uses of the plants in the area, and Bushmen games. Here Sheelin meets one of the Bushmen in camp before setting off. It's a real privilege to spend time with these tradional hunter-gatherers, the first people of Africa.
For more group photos check out our facebook page @matsonridleysafaris and follow us on instagram on @matsonandridleysafaris.