I gaze upon the serenity of the Boteti River. A trio of rare, wattled crane patrol the river’s edge looking for frogs and insects amongst the aquatic vegetation, and an African jacana hops from one water lily leaf to another. It’s the tail-end of the rainy season here at Leroo la Tau so the surroundings are lush and green – not the peak time for game viewing as there is water everywhere, but the best time to visit from a birding perspective.
Located along the riverbank on the western border of the famed Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Desert & Delta Safari’s Leroo La Tau offers an unrivalled vantage point for witnessing the wonders of the Boteti River’s vibrant ecosystem.
Our chalet, which is one of 12, reflects a blend of rustic charm and modest elegance, and has an unobstructed view of the Boteti River. With its thatched roof, wooden floors, and vibrant accents, it blends seamlessly into the natural surroundings – the perfect sanctuary after an adventurous day in the bush. We stroll through the recently refurbished lodge, its central hub comprising a main lodge, a pool, and inviting outdoor spaces. From the library and lounge to the shaded patios and the wildlife viewing ‘hide,’ all offer ample opportunities to relax and take in the beauty of the captivating surroundings.
As the name Leroo La Tau, meaning ‘lion’s paw’ suggests, this haven is not only a testament to the regal presence of the lion but also a tribute to the rich diversity of wildlife that graces its surroundings.
But a visit to Leroo la Tau is so much more than ‘just’ wildlife and great birding, it’s about community involvement and conservation initiates – which is not surprising considering operating sustainably, caring for their local communities, and developing human potential is part of Desert & Delta’s core philosophy. Added to that they are one of the longest-established safari companies in Botswana and the only Eco Tourism company listed on the Botswana Stock Exchange.
Kitted out with cameras, binocs and our reusable water bottles, set out for the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park with our guide Olepeng ‘Ollie’ Maitapiso, who also happens to be the senior guide and member of staff at Leroo la Tau, as well as Mathale ‘Metal’ Mosheti, one of only three specialist guides in Botswana and the first one in the group, and Ernest ‘Erny’ Chaba, DDS Assistant General Manager.
But first we need to cross the Boteti River on the Khumago ferry. It’s a tad rudimentary and is operated manually by a gentleman from the local community. Ollie tells us that it won’t be long before the river dries up and vehicles will be able to cross unassisted. But for now I appreciate us being pulled along by manpower.
As we drive along Ollie gives us some background to the region. The Makgadikgadi Pans, he tells us, was once a colossal lake, which transformed over time into an expansive 12,000 square kilometers of mineral-coated terrain, and that it’s even visible even from space due to its distinctive white hue. The seasonal rains transform the pans into a bustling sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds, including the elegant flamingos, while iconic baobab trees of punctuate the vast landscape. We don’t have the time to venture as far as the salt pans or see the baobabs at Kubu Island and Baines’ Baobabs, so instead stick to the scrubland and riparian thickets found in proximity of the river.
The Boteti River is a significant water source for this area. Beginning as an offshoot from the Thamalakane River near Maun, it brings the flood waters of the Okavango Delta towards the Makgadikgadi pans, but in the 1980s due to reduced rainfall its flow diminished. By the mid-1990s, it had completely dried up, leaving behind only a few waterholes that sustained a small population of hippos and crocodiles. The area remained a grazing ground for zebra and wildebeest, who migrated to the remaining waterholes, fed from underground streams. In 2009 the region experienced record rainfall, resulting in the highest flood levels in 25 years and the revival of the Boteti River’s flow. We pause at a lookout point, the river is wide and flowing, and the vegetation lush and green. It’s hard to imagine the river completely dry.
A kudu doe peers at us from the safety of a Vachellia (Acacia) thicket, a Meyer’s parrot checks us out from its high perch, and we watch an African fish eagle tear into the fish it’s just caught. My hubby is delighted that we have Ollie and Metal with us – both exceptionally experienced guides, as we spot several LBJs (little brown jobs) that need identifying – a spotted flycatcher, fawn-coloured lark and tawny-flanked prinia to name just a few. Soon we add village indigobird, acacia pied barbet and crimson-breasted shrike to our list.
Between bird sightings I’m inspired by their personal stories… Ollie tells me that his father was a guide and grew up wanting to be just like him. He went from mokoro poler to professional guide working for several operators, before joining the DDS family in 2013 when they acquired Camp Xakanaxa where he was working. He stayed there until being transferred to Leroo la Tau in September 2014, and has been there ever since. His love for the vegetation and wildlife clearly apparent as he passionately invites us to explore the region with him.
Metal started with DDS in 2008, his journey at Savute Safari Lodge took him from trainee guide when he started to fully experienced guide shortly thereafter and stayed there for a decade doing it with absolute passion. During this time he continued upskilling his guiding qualifications to achieve his current position as specialist guide. He appreciated the ethos of DDS to grow their staff and their people, and reiterated my thoughts that it’s the people that make the brand.
Erny on the other hand didn’t follow the guiding path, although with his skills in the bush you would be none the wiser. His journey took him from groundsman to waiter, then barman and trainee manager, all within a year. He spent the next decade in various management positions, upskilling as he went to his current position of Assistant General Manager.
We stop for well-earned sundowners… a chilled G&T as the sun dips below the horizon, casting a golden glow on the Boteti River is made all the more special by a herd of elephants in the distance, coming down to the water to drink.
Desert & Delta’s commitment to their local community is paramount, and they love their guests to experience this firsthand. So, after a hearty breakfast the next morning, we set off to the nearby village of Khumaga where many of Leroo la Tau’s staff members reside.
Erny tells us that since 2008 when they acquired Leroo la Tau, they have developed a strong working relationship with the Khumaga Primary school and support it in several ways. Financial assistance was provided for to help with classroom stationary, graduation gowns as well as floating trophies to use at their prize giving ceremonies.
“We also buy gifts for the best performing students at the prize giving ceremony; and host a career fair at the lodge for the Standard 7 students where different professionals are invited to engage with the children,’ Erny says. ‘And students that excel are treated to a weekend getaway at the lodge to experience the reality of tourism and conservation in action.” A treat that certainly offers an incentive to do extremely well!
Much of the staff are from the local community and annually DDS select two candidates from Khumaga village to participate in the ‘Leaders for the Future’ programme that offers scholarships to study at tertiary level. They’ve also helped out with the big Independence Day celebrations and liaise with the village development committee with regards to who hosts of the community visits from the lodge. Erny tell me that they get remunerated directly.
One such host is Mr Libobo Dongo and his wife Regina. We visit their cattle post to get a glimpse at what for many is a way of life. I learn that, like in many African cultures, the Batswana have a deep-rooted connection with their cattle, one that is integral to their daily existence. And that Mr Dongo’s cattle are a vital source of sustenance and income, providing not only milk, but meat for special occasions as well as power to his ox-drawn plough. Cattle are also an investment, and ‘savings account’ for future endeavours.
We are early so the cattle are still in their enclosure – they are allowed out to graze during the day but are brought in for safety overnight to reduce the risk of them falling prey to predators. Human-Wildlife conflict, or rather, co-existence, is important to DDS, and there is ongoing community education on how to best avoid – such as keeping the enclosures well maintained.
We amble past the traditional reed and thatch dwellings, goats wander around, as do several hens. The Dongo’s primary residence is in the village, this is just where they keep their livestock – and where someone sleeps overnight, usually along with the family dog who acts as an alarm should a predator venture close.
Ernie shows me a set of traditional woven baskets that Mrs Dongo is working on, they are intricate and quite beautiful. These they sell to visiting guests; a treasured memory for the guest and much-needed income for them.
On an organised community visit guests would also have the opportunity of milking cows and going on horse and donkey cart rides. There would also be an opportunity to interact with local shopkeepers, visit the local school and sometimes the village clinic. Erny tells me that Interacting with local residents is often a highlight, fostering a sense of connection and understanding for guests.
We hear about Lucky, Mr, and Mrs Dongo’s daughter who originally started working in the scullery at Leroo la Tau. She subsequently worked as a waitress, and then progressed from bar lady to trainee manager at their Savute Safari Camp to a manager within Desert & Delta. She was back at Leroo la Tau as manager for a while but is now taking a break due to family commitments. Seeing local community members employed in the lodge is a great example to the community of the benefits of tourism.
Back in the park we continue our conversation, but this time its around conservation. Erny tells me that as a company, DDS is, in addition to their overall commitment to the environment and conservation, passionately involved in promoting awareness and getting support for the Botswana Rhino Relocation and Reintroduction program. A collaborative initiative that brings together crucial government bodies and private sector entities, uniting efforts to safeguard Botswana’s rhinoceros’ population.
I ask about white rhino in the Makgadikgadi Game Reserve… Ollie assures me that there are rhino, but with the thick vegetation in part, and the minimal road infrastructure they are difficult to find. And they know they are there as they are guarded by a security team. I don’t mind not seeing them, I’m just happy that they are there and well-guarded, at that!
We come across a herd of impala that appear to be licking or eating the sand on the road – it’s called geophagia, Ollie tells us, and is a relatively common practice in many animals, from antelope to elephants, and birds to bats. These impala seem to be supplementing their diet with the rich calcium deposits in the white sand on road. We watch with fascination.
A flock of great white pelican fly high above us, possibly heading to the vast Sua Pan. A lone elephant munches his way through the bush, shouldering down a sapling with ease and a giraffe peers at us over the trees and a pair of critically endangered white-backed vulture perch within the branches of a dead tree – a great sighting, as is the exceptionally cute pearl-spotted owlet.
We see several lilac-breasted rollers, a few blue-cheeked bee-eaters and a new one for us, Burchell’s sandgrouse, amongst others.
We spot a few zebra as we near the river for our coffee break – nothing like the thousands that will make their way to the Boteti River in the dry season. Considered the second largest zebra migration in the world, as many as 30,000 zebra migrate from the Makgadikgadi Pans to the Okavango Delta, the Chobe, or the majority, about 20-25,000, that linger along the Boteti River Valley.
I conjure up images of thousands of braying zebras, desperate for water, dust in the air and a vivid sunset as the backdrop. Another visit is definitely on the cards!
An elusive Chobe bushbuck disappears into the thick vegetation as we head along the path for dinner, the bush coming alive with night sounds as dusk slips away to darkness as the moon is yet to rise. I savour the delectable creations prepared by the talented chefs, from local delicacies to international fare – happily adapted to suit my gluten-free requirements. Each meal a delightful culinary journey to complement the day’s adventures, and the melodious singing of the staff a delightful end to a wonderful stay.
Shortly after retiring to our room on our last night a low rumbling alerts us to the presence of elephants. Heading quietly onto our deck we watch as they make their way down river, sloshing luxuriantly in the water, then gradually disappearing like grey ghosts in the moonlight.
One visit to Leroo La Tau will never be enough. Each changing season offering the beauty of nature’s resilience and adaptability and the serenity of an untamed paradise. Whether it’s the symphony of the African night, the tapestry of her wildlife or the melodious song of her people, Leroo La Tau certainly weaves unforgettable memories into the tapestry of your adventure.
Read the article in the digital mag HERE