Khwai, Botswana

In the southern portion of Africa, Botswana is a must-visit destination for those looking to truly connect with nature. With the Kalahari desert sands and the Okavango Delta, you’ll feel like you’ve dropped into a NatGeo special on exotic animals. From the safety of a safari jeep, we continued our journey through the wonders of the African bush in Khwai.

Fast Facts

After delaying our African safari due to the global pandemic, we decided to take a chance and go in 2021 since we had the luxury of getting our vaccines. This is one of the few trips where we let someone else do the planning (Mary Beth, Stephen’s mother). And we also wouldn’t qualify this as a “quick trip.” But it’s still a worthy addition to the blog, and one of our favorite trips to date.

We wanted a few key things out of our trip: lots of opportunities to see animals in their natural habitat, a variety of terrain in one country (to avoid extra throat and nose swabs required to go between countries), and camps that had limited housing to cut down on our contact with other people. With a little help from our travel agent and many hours of research from Mary Beth, we landed on touring three areas in Botswana: Linyanti, Khwai, and Mopiri.

Typically, we start our blog posts with a variety of Fast Facts to set the stage for our quick trip. Our trip to Africa was different than any trip we have ever taken. Not only was it a trip of a lifetime, but it also took over three days of traveling to get from the CLT airport to our first camp (not very quick). Because of that, we are going to jump right into recapping what was an amazing trip! As with our other longer trips, including Italy, we’ll split Botswana up into a series of posts dedicated to each area we explored. That way, we can dive into the details of each without leaving you with a dissertation to read. Second in line is Khwai.

If you want to view our top animal pictures from the entire trip, we've created a Google Folder.

Lay of the Land


Coming on the heels of Linyanti, we were worried that Khwai wouldn’t be able to compete. We were enthralled with everything about Linyanti, so what could another game drive dedicated to seeing many of the animals we’d already seen bring to the table? The short answer: big cats—and lots of them. 

Khwai Bush Camp Logistics

After hopping southwest on another prop plane, we arrived at the Khwai airstrip, which is the busiest airstrip in the Botswana bush. Unlike remote Linyanti, Khwai is one of the most popular tourist areas in Botswana. Located in the Moremi Game Reserve, Khwai is as bustling as it gets once you trek outside the capital of Maun. There are many camps and even a small village, so we frequently crossed paths with other jeeps here, though it’s nowhere near as densely populated with other jeeps as safaris in places such as Kenya (or so we’ve been told). We would soon find out that there are benefits to the higher crowds (though, to be honest, the word “crowds” feels like an exaggeration). In addition to other tourism-run camps, the Moremi Game Reserve allowed self-drive camping along the Khwai River, where you could brave the wilderness in tents or RVs (not sure we were brave enough for that!).

Although we’re adventurous, we decided to continue our trip with African Bush Camps and stay in a permanent structure called Khwai Bush Camp. Where Professor Ken was a talkative guide trying to turn everything into a teachable moment, our new guide Aubrey had a different style. He lived and breathed the bush as if it was the only nourishment his soul needed. When asked about his affection for the bush, he replied, “The bush is the language we speak. The bush is about connection and affection. Once you have that, you can speak the same language.”

Aubrey asked on the first day what we wanted to see, and we said big cats and zebras since our Linyanti cats and zebras were rather skittish. We also threw in that we’d love to see wild African dogs and hyenas if possible. Ever the realist, Aubrey reminded us that every trip was different, but he’d aim to fulfill those requests, peppering in a few reasons we may not get to see the latter two on our list. He especially highlighted how rare wild dogs had become in Africa and how it had been a few months since he had seen hyenas in the area. Little did we know, Aubrey had a way of downplaying his rare animal-finding skills!

We arrived at our next camp to another ensemble of singers welcoming us. This time, our rooms were laid out in a typical manner, using the kalahari sand as a mud that hardens into siding. We still had a back patio that overlooked the river, but we also had tile floors and a fully indoor shower (without the open siding Linyanti had). The grounds were closer together here, and they included a luxurious pool area, where we would sometimes take our dinner. After we dropped our things off, we took a quick siesta. (Remember, we started this day with a walking tour in Linyanti, followed by a three-hour drive to the airstrip and a one-hour flight to Khwai.) Refreshed and ready to explore, we had a late high tea and set out for our first Khwai game drive.

Since Khwai Bush Camp was on such a smaller private concession that backed up to the Moremi Game Reserve (a protected area), we had a shorter travel time to get to the main action with animals, so we got an extra 30 glorious minutes to sleep in each morning. The flip side was that the reserve closed at 7:00 p.m., so we were less likely to drive in the dark, eliminating our chances of seeing most nocturnal animals. In hindsight, this was one of our favorite aspects of being out in the middle of nowhere in Linyanti! We’ll never forget the night we saw the baby leopard for the first time. 

Khwai Timetable 

  • 5:30 a.m. wake up 
  • 6:00 a.m. breakfast 
  • 6:30 a.m. game drive 
  • 11:00 a.m. brunch 
  • Till 3:00 p.m. siesta 
  • 3:00 p.m. high tea
  • 3:30 p.m. game drive 
  • 7:30 p.m. dinner

Day 1: First Taste of Khwai

Our first day was really a partial day, with a late afternoon game drive following our siesta. After arriving, getting the lay of the new camp, and then having some time to unpack and take a quick rest, we met back up with Aubrey for a quick bite to eat before heading out to explore!

The first big difference we noticed was that we could smell smoke everywhere. Given this was the dry season, it was also wildfire season. Wildfires are a part of the circle of life in the African bush, an important part of how plants and animals survive. Although there were remnants of fires in Linyanti, there were dozens of active fires visible on the flight to Khwai. As we started our afternoon game drive, the smell of smoke was heavy in the air. Although it did create some pretty cool scenery the next morning, the almost constant smell was overbearing.

We started our game drive heading through a nearby town to get to the Moremi Game Reserve, which is also considered a national park. The park closed at sundown, so Aubrey suggested we start over there to see if we could find some big cats before heading back across to the second location, the private concession with African Bush Camp. To get to the entrance of the game reserve, we had to drive through a village and then over a bridge. The bridge was constructed out of thin logs tied together, with additional layers of logs laid vertically where the tires of a jeep should be. The first couple times we crossed the bridge, it was hard to keep our minds from wandering to how something as small as a sneeze from Aubrey could lead us to having a very unpleasant swim with some local hippos and crocodiles!

The first game drive of Khwai quickly alleviated our concerns of this area not living up to our experience at Linyanti. As we explored the Moremi Game Reserve, we noticed that we could get much closer to the animals than in Linyanti because they were used to interactions with humans. This led to some of the best pictures of the trip, especially as we entered the golden hour. We even captured a decent picture of Ashley’s favorite bird (the Lilac Breasted Roller) after numerous attempts!

We also quickly found a mother lion and her two-year-old male cub just 10 yards from the road. Aubrey identified them as lions he was familiar with. It never ceased to amaze us how in tune the guides were with the specific animals in their area. This mother had a litter of four male cubs. Only two brothers had survived to this summer season, but a few weeks ago, the guides had lost sight of one of the brothers. Aubrey said they all hoped that he had just been chased off by another adult male lion, but it was just as likely that he was killed by a male in the area. This is common as male lions work to maintain control over their territory.

As the evening drew to an end, we began to exit the park, which closes at sunset. On our way out, we pulled over to watch a hippo highlighted in the fading rays of the sunlight. He opened his mouth and gave us a pink, fleshy yawn. While we were all looking at the hippo, Stephen’s dad (David) somehow insulted a water buffalo (or at least that's what we decided) who was standing on the opposite side of the jeep. The water buffalo charged at the vehicle, and David clamored at Aubrey, "It's charging us! It's charging us!" and that we needed to get moving. Once the buffalo sensed our fear, he pulled up and abandoned the charge. Whew, there’s a reason “buffaloed” means “to impress or intimidate by a display of power.” We were certainly intimidated by the buffalo’s hulking mass charging us. Although there’s beauty all around us, this event was a reminder that these are wild animals and we’re in their domain.

We rounded out the drive with some fantastic pictures of other wildlife and enjoyed a breathtaking (and heart-pumping) smoke-filled sunset to end another amazing day in the African bush.

Day 2: Cat Sense

Morning Game Drive

Our first morning in Khwai greeted us with a heavy fog throughout the camp. Maybe the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, but none of us realized that it would be awfully hard to have fog during the dry season in Africa. As the sun began to rise, we realized the fog was actually smoke from the surrounding fires. Overnight, the wind had changed direction and the world around us looked completely different. It was eerie as the sun came up but visibility remained murky.

The plan for the morning was to explore the private concession and then finish in the National Game Reserve. Not far into our exploration, Aubrey received a call from a guide at a sister lodge on the other side of the concession that they had found a female leopard. And just like that, the morning of big cats had begun! When we got to the area, there were two other jeeps with the leopard. One was nice enough to move positions to give us a great view and some of the best pictures of the trip.

After Aubrey spoke with the other guides, he set the scene: She had been hunting impala but had decided to lay low because they had noticed her. She had settled down, curled up like a house cat in the tall grass, to wait them out. Suddenly, we heard a troop of baboons in the distance. The leopard sat upright, monitoring the raucous movement with concern. Aubrey explained that baboons are one of the few animals leopards fear. Although leopards will hunt a solitary baboon, baboons have been known to gang up and kill leopards. Like so many of the big cats, we sat only feet away from her, but it was as if we were not part of her world at all. She was solely focused on monitoring the baboons as they moved in the distance. Eventually, she repositioned herself to the top of an old termite mound to get a better view—another good example of the many uses of termites and their mounds in the African bush ecosystem. Absolutely stunning! After some final pictures, we moved on. Aubrey suggested we shift over to the National Game Reserve to see if we could find some lions, which we readily agreed to!

Shortly after entering the park, we found the same pair of lions from the previous evening. The mother was laying on her back, white belly exposed to the morning sun. It was remarkable how little care she seemed to have lying a few feet from the dirt road and us in the jeep. Although we would have been happy sitting there and watching them for hours, Aubrey encouraged us to continue moving. He was very different from Professor Ken in Linyanti—in Linyanti, it was our game drive and Ken was just facilitating it. With Aubrey, we had asked to be impressed by lots of big cats, so he wanted us to sit back and let him deliver! As we explored further into the National Game Reserve, it was stunning how many different types of birds we saw near the water, including several species we never saw in our time in Linyanti, just a short plane ride away.

As the morning game drive wound down, Aubrey delivered another memorable big cat experience. Around a bend in the dirt road, he quickly stopped and began backing up. His tone shifted into what we would eventually call “cat mode,” and he quietly pointed to the grass beside the road where we spotted a female lion and three young lions all fast asleep—one several years old and two who looked between one and two years old. Aubrey explained how it was common for cubs from different litters to stay with the mother at the same time depending on whether they were male or female. In all of the commotion from our excitement, the female only opened one eye to briefly check on us. We watched them for a while, and then Aubrey decided to reposition the jeep to allow for better pictures. As the jeep shifted, Stephen positioned the camera to take a picture. Somehow, the combination startled one of the cubs, and in a flash, all four lions were up and the female was ready for action! It was absolutely breathtaking how quickly these animals went from fast asleep to fight mode. Once they realized it was just the jeep, they quickly settled back down (much quicker than our hearts) and allowed a few more pictures. We were all glad that the rest of the drive had a little less excitement with some stately giraffes and elegant cranes by the river.

Day 2: Cat Sense

Afternoon Game Drive

In the afternoon, our mission remained the same: Locate more big cats! We headed to the National Game Reserve first. We were greeted by a tremendous dazzle of zebras, which made Stephen’s mother, Mary Beth, happy. We saw several dozen in different groups, and they were energetic to say the least. Running, jumping, even kicking each other. There were also several young zebra whose manes were not fully grown, which made them look like little punk rockers with mohawks. There was also an acutely pregnant female that Aubrey said could probably give birth any day now.

Using the bathroom in the African Bush can be an exciting experience. Typically, you let the guide know and they find the perfect pee spot with just enough bush coverage for a little privacy, but not enough to have a leopard hiding in wait. It’s a fine line for the perfect spot. This afternoon, the ladies requested a lady’s room soon after we found the zebra, and Aubrey found a suitable tree on a hill. Little did we know, there were zebra on the other side, so as the girls did their business, the zebra decided that they’d had enough and charged by. It was quite the bathroom experience!

Another African bush experience is the elephant traffic jam. Typically, these jams are pretty easy to avoid as elephants are large, loud, and travel in groups. Your guide will typically hang back and let the parade pass. If necessary, guides will slowly edge forward with the engine to encourage a little more movement (all from a safe distance). This evening, we unexpectedly found ourselves in a more challenging situation than your typical elephant cross. As they were coming back up from the river in the late afternoon, a female elephant crossed the dirt road, but her baby refused. He was busy eating the grasses and trees on the river side of the road! Aubrey explained that the first rule of any animal in the African bush is to never get between a mother and her child. So he had to slowly try to encourage the baby elephant to give up his afternoon snack and cross to his mother. After at least five minutes of encouragement, the baby crossed and Aubrey gunned it to get safely by. When we passed, the baby let out the mightiest trumpet he could muster—surely a complaint for us rushing his meal! It is truly amazing how relatable the wild world can seem when you are in it.

Our excitement for the day wasn’t over yet. As the afternoon game drive came to a close, Aubrey once again went into cat mode. Like a professional athlete or performer in the zone, he went into another world and suddenly tuned us out. At this point, we had learned to sit still, shut up, and start looking for cats when he did this! Finally, he pointed to a tree maybe 50 yards away and said “There’s a leopard in that tree.” We crept up to the tree in the jeep, and we were able to glimpse a leopard jumping down from the tree. All of us were amazed at how he could spot a leopard from so far away (and in a moving jeep, no less)! Little did we know, the day’s excitement was not over, because we were about to see the only time when Aubrey got a little nervous during our game drives. When they are annoyed with human intrusions, most animals will either run or hide deep in the brush. Instead, this male leopard stalked toward us. Aubrey’s tone quickly changed; he calmly told all of us not to move and slowly moved the jeep away from the tree. Once we were a safe distance away from the leopard, Aubrey explained that the leopard was displaying signs of anxiety, so we needed to give him his space. We definitely did not want to become the leopard’s dinner! As we went back to camp, we were rewarded with another beautiful sunset, but this time, we watched the sun set behind an elephant drinking from a water hole. What could be more African than that?

Day 3: Cats…

Morning Game Drive

There is always a point in a long trip where the doldrums hit. The excitement wears off a bit, you begin to notice the impact of not having your routine and not sleeping as well, and you just feel it. Day three in Khwai brought on the doldrums for Stephen! All of that combined with the heavy smoke the day before made getting up for day three a challenge. In Linyanti, we noticed another couple defer their morning game drives to sleep in and rest up, and that started sounding appealing. But we pushed through because we wouldn’t want to miss anything!

The first 45 minutes or so of the drive was very uneventful, and Stephen was beginning to daydream about how a few more hours in bed would have felt this morning. He was roused from his fantasy by the onset of Aubrey’s cat mode. Aubrey noticed marks in the sand by the road that looked like a kill being dragged that were not there the day before. We were all amazed by his ability to recognize subtle variances in the track each day. He followed the markings a short distance to a small clearing with a tree in the middle of it. Sure enough, there was a half-eaten carcass of an impala up in the tree. Leopards take their kills into trees to keep them from being taken by other animals like hyenas. It was unlikely the leopard would be far from the kill given how much meat was still on the carcass, so we began to circle the area. After 1.5 loops around the tree, Aubrey spotted the female leopard in the brush. She wasn’t the same leopard as the previous day, but she was also content to let us watch her for some time.

Planning to return later to see if we could spot her up in the tree (we decided the male the day before only partially counted as “seeing a leopard in a tree”), we went off to see what else the morning had in store. As we left, we passed another jeep. Here, we witnessed another tradition in the African bush: Aubrey shared the information on where to find the female leopard and the other guide shared that they had just come from a spot with several lions and young cubs who were with a kill. Still in cat mode, we struck out in that direction as quickly as possible. This was our first experience with Aubrey heading to a distant location with known big cats! We held on tight as he sped through the African bush.

Sure enough, we came upon a large clearing with several other jeeps and two female lions and five young cubs. Although there was no active kill, it was a lot of fun watching the young cubs nap, get up and play, and then fall back over to nap once again. They really ran around like they did not have a care in the world!

While we were watching the lions, Aubrey and one of the other guides were talking excitedly. Then, Aubrey explained that the guide had seen a mating pair of wild dogs some distance away. We were intrigued, but we questioned how far and how confident he was that we could find the location. He explained the directions, which sounded like something out of a bad movie, “Head that away for about 10 minutes, turn by the third large tree, turn left at the tree with the V, drive another 15 minutes, and then turn left and they are below the largest tree.” We looked at each other like “yeah right,” but it was Aubrey the Cat Whisperer. Would that translate to dogs too? We decided to give it a try. 

After what felt like hours and a few U-turns, we approached what Aubrey explained was the area. He pointed to a large tree and said confidently, “They will be under that tree.” Again, we suppressed our eye rolls of disbelief because at this point, it was hard not to believe his confidence! At first, nothing stood out, and even if we were in the same location, hours had passed so they could have moved on. Suddenly, Aubrey pointed and there they were: two wild dogs, the first of the trip! Aubrey explained how endangered these animals are and shared that he knew this pair. Although they are a mating pair, with just the two adults it is almost impossible for them to raise their young. He explained that wild dogs rely on packs not only socially, but also for hunting and pup rearing. Their style of hunting requires multiple adults, which means with only two of them, they must leave their young hidden and alone. Eventually, the pups either wander off or are discovered by predators. It was a little sombering, especially when you consider that they are one of the few species that is still struggling in the relatively new system of protections and tourism that Botswana has created. After watching the dogs sleep for a while, we headed back for lunch. What a wild morning game drive! Stephen was definitely glad he didn’t miss it.

Day 3: ...and Dogs?

Afternoon Game Drive

In the afternoon, we planned to head to the concession first, even though the National Game Reserve had restricted hours. Aubrey wanted to see if the leopard would return to the tree to eat. As we started that way, he got the call over the radio: The leopard had returned and she was in the tree eating. Aubrey calmly turned to us and explained that if we wanted to go we had to go now. No more pictures, no stopping for bathroom breaks, and hold on tight. We all wanted to get a picture of a leopard in a tree, so we agreed. Cat mode was engaged and off we went! We made it just in time to see her in the tree with her now picked-over carcass. A few pictures later, she clambored down the tree somewhat awkwardly and quickly disappeared into the African bush, very clearly done with all the excitement. Aubrey explained that with how little meat was left on the carcass she was probably done and would not return again.

Then, Aubrey got another call over the radio. After a few minutes of conversation, he shared that there was a report of a full pack of wild dogs roaming, but it was a great distance away outside of the concession and not in the National Game Reserve. If we wanted to go try to find them, this would be all we would see the remainder of the day, but it was such a rare opportunity that we should probably go. We all agreed and prepared to hold on tight. If we thought cat mode was something, Aubrey on his way to a pack of wild dogs was something else! We spent the next hour racing through dirt roads and eventually ended up on a main “road” going nearly 45 mph. Just when we were starting to give up hope, we noticed a group of vehicles pulled over ahead. Sure enough, wild dogs! There was a huge pack of at least 12 adults over 10 puppies—absolutely incredible.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching them as Aubrey explained their behavior. When we arrived, they were napping, avoiding moving much in the heat of the sun. As the sun began to set, the pack woke up. The alpha was first to rise and spent time individually greeting and waking up the rest of the adults. Aubrey explained that the alpha of the pack had a specific routine for each individual. Once the adults were awake, they began to “yip” and dance around to wake up. Aubrey again described how this was almost like a social routine to maintain the relationships throughout the pack that are used during the hunt. Then, preparations laid, the adults began to disappear off to start their hunt. All except one, clearly the unlucky individual who got tapped as babysitter. One poor adult stayed behind, trying to watch over a group of 10 puppies beginning to wake and play in the road!

You could clearly see his or her annoyance as they started trying to get the puppies to follow them into the bush to safety. Slowly, literally one by one, the puppies began to head away from the road into the brush, until there was one puppy left by the road, and we quickly recognized him! Earlier as we watched, he had woken up, walked to the middle of the road, thrown up, and then re-eaten his dinner. He later sat by the road and tried to eat a small tree (maybe a coordination to his upset stomach). We deemed him “Mr. Gross” and decided he must be a little slower than the rest of the puppies. Finally, he too got up and followed the others away from the road. At this point, there was quite a traffic jam of cars pulled over to watch (a Botswana Traffic Jam), and as we got ready to depart, we noticed the larger pack, alpha in the lead, pop their heads out to survey the traffic and ensure the puppies had made it safely back into the bush. Then, in a blink, they were off again to find dinner! As we drove (much more slowly this time) back toward Khwai, Aubrey let himself do a happy dance in the driver's seat. This reinforced that what we had just seen was pretty special, even for someone who does this for a living every day!

Day 4: But what about Simba?

Similar to Linyanti, our last day was a half day as we had a flight to our third and final camp, Mopiri, a little after lunch. Since we were much closer to the airfield this time, we could enjoy a full morning game drive before heading out. As we geared up, we joked with Aubrey that we should have set a higher bar for him because of all of the great wildlife he had found. He was only missing hyenas and maybe a really impressive male lion! We could tell Aubrey had his mind made up on trying to deliver once again. As we entered the National Reserve one last time, he got a radio call that the female and two-year-old male lions were spotted in the East. We decided instead to head West, deeper into the park, as Aubrey had heard of hyenas that direction a few nights ago. After driving a while, we pulled over to have breakfast and tea by the river and take some pictures. Even without much wildlife, the beauty of this country was just magnificent. As we continued on the loop around the river, Aubrey suddenly stopped and pulled out his binoculars. He suddenly started muttering to himself and we knew—we were on to another big cat! He explained that he thought he saw a large lion sitting on top of an ant hill on the other side of the river. Even with him pointing, none of us could make anything out, but we shrugged and said “It is Aubrey after all” as he started storming across the river delta.

In the park, there are rules and formalities that must be followed, such as the sunset curfew. You are also expected to stay on the “road” compared to in Linyanti where Ken would constantly make “new roads” whenever he felt like it. This last rule apparently did not apply when big cats were concerned; we had noticed that that was the only time when Aubrey would drive off the path over the last couple of days. In this case, he absolutely floored it off the road across the marshy terrain. As we approached what looked like termite mounds to us, a different shape came into focus. Sure enough, a massive male lion was sitting on a small rise sunning himself.

Aubrey had spotted him at least a couple football fields away. Absolutely amazing! We soon found another older male who Aubrey explained was probably a relative to the younger male. Aubrey did not recognize the pair, but thought that the young male was probably moving into this area to claim it as his. He was the picture perfect specimen for what you could consider the “King of the Jungle.” Again, Aubrey delivered and capped off stay in Khwai with some of the best pictures of our trip.

If you haven't already, read about our first stop: Linyanti. Or, continue the African safari with us in Mopiri.

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