Ben Ross travels to Botswana and Zambia with Rainbow Tours and finds himself ticking off much more than just “charismatic megafauna” on his guided safaris.

I’ve always liked the idea of “charismatic megafauna”. That we fall for big, odd, or dangerous beasts more easily than we do for the planet’s tinier, more scurrying creatures. There is, when all is said and done, a fairly obvious reason why pandas are the poster boys of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, rather than, say, the critically endangered Colombian red-crested tree rat.
But charisma has its drawbacks. The notion of the “Big Five” game animals in Africa was all about danger and glamour. The elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo and lion were considered the riskiest beasts to hunt on foot, and their hides, horns and tusks offered up some fetching possibilities when it came to stocking one’s trophy cabinet. All very jolly for the hunter, less so for his charismatic prey.
These days, thankfully, a safari holiday in Africa is a chance to pack a camera, rather than a gun, and even the residual notion of the Big Five comes hedged with all kinds of caveats. Why should it be more exciting to see a leopard than a honey badger? Why swoon at a buffalo, rather than a giraffe, or even a lilac-breasted roller (truly one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen, despite its ubiquity in sub-Saharan Africa). Any such list is seen as being just a tiny bit “trainspotter” these days. Live in the moment, we are told; relish anything you see. Box-ticking is for losers. 
But, you see, I just can’t help myself.

Almost everything about Wilderness Safaris’ Vumbura Plains Camp, deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, is designed to relax, to pamper, to soothe. The 14 “tented rooms” are arranged in a single line linked by a long boardwalk, and divided into two zones: “north” and “south”. Each cluster has a central hub where guests congregate around the firepit, or are fed sublime meals (the camp is so isolated that ingredients have to be flown in weekly). There’s an airy sense of space, of Botswana breathing out there. The “walls” of the rooms are made of netting rather than glass, the sumptuous furnishings and glorious wooden decking buffeted by a gentle breeze. My indoor shower took up a third of the vast space I had at my disposal, separated from the main area by billowing fabric; the outdoor version boasted an extraordinary view of slow-moving water, a tower of giraffes occasionally lolloping in the distance. 
So why was I immediately drawn to the Species Checklist placed carefully by my (supremely well-upholstered) bed? Why, instead of kicking back and enjoying a sundowner, was I mentally dividing my day up into game drives, pencil at the ready, poised to tick off birds, reptiles and mammals? That checklist was no pamphlet, after all: it was a 40-page book, dense with common and scientific names. There was no way I’d be able to see everything during my two-night stay – and Emang, my guide, would probably respect me more if I just let the wildlife do its thing, without demanding to know what each and every animal was called.
And yet…I knew that the Vumbura Concession, which comprises about 60,000 hectares in the northern part of the Delta, was stuffed full of wildlife, from herds of elephant and buffalo to more varieties of bird and antelope than seems entirely sensible. Something within me demanded that I be allowed to catalogue it all in some way.
It really is terribly, terribly easy to tick off animals in Vumbura. My first sighting? A herd of sable (hippotragus niger, according to my little book), after which I was noting down antelopes by the truckload: blue wildebeest, red lechwe, greater kudu. And birds? Don’t even get me started. Oxpeckers, starlings, a pearl-spotted owlet, the grey go-away bird, a lappet-faced vulture or two. And, yes, on that first day I managed to note down sightings of four of the Big Five: elephant (hard to miss), Cape buffalo, a leopard playing with two cubs, and three lion pursuing a herd of wildebeest. 
Amid all this bounty, Emang was quick to manage my expectations regarding number five: there are no rhino in this part of the Delta (although for a guaranteed sighting, visit Wilderness Safaris’ recently refurbished Mombo camp on Chief’s Island, home to black and white rhino that have been relocated from South Africa). 
I told myself I didn’t mind, and my list certainly lengthened: more birds, more antelope, a pair of honey badgers, plenty of mongoose. I probably managed about 70 ticks in all, and was secretly quite proud, despite only scratching the surface of the menagerie I could potentially have observed. But I can’t lie, the absent rhino nagged a little.

Two days at Wilderness Safaris’ Toka Leya lodge on the Zambian side of the Zambezi followed my stint in Botswana. I was there to ogle at Victoria Falls rather than look for animals, but I seized the moment to take an evening cruise down the river, spotting elephants while sipping gin. And I carried on quietly with my list: marabou stork, African openbill, the great white pelican. At night the chirp of insects accompanied me as I drifted off to sleep in my luxurious colonial-style tent (more of a cabin, to be honest) and breakfast was taken on the decking of the gracious main camp building, overlooking the river, with hippos offering a groaning soundtrack. 
Perhaps my guide, Godfrey, sensed some disquiet. “There are rhino here, you know,” he said. “I’ll arrange with the national park scouts to see if we can track them.” 
Really? I perked up, sharpening my pencil. And that afternoon, we drove into nearby Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, where 10 white rhino are guarded 24 hours a day by rangers with rifles. The “tracking” took all of about two minutes, and then, suddenly, I was standing in front of a pair of rhino: brown, hefty, infinitely impressive. 
We watched them for a quarter of an hour as they snuffled through the undergrowth, seemingly oblivious to our presence. It’s a close encounter that will stay with me forever, a “life list” experience for which I’ll always be grateful. Just me, some charismatic megafauna and the people devoted to keeping these astonishing animals alive. Tick.

Ben Ross is Deputy Head of Travel Editorial at Telegraph Media Group. He began travel writing in 2001, becoming Travel Editor of The Independent newspaper in 2007 and Head of Travel for the Independent and Independent on Sunday in 2011. He joined The Telegraph in 2014, and is responsible for content across the Telegraph’s weekend travel sections
This feature is one of the many inspiring travel articles in Other Shores; the ITC Travel Group magazine. Order your free copy today on our brochure request page. 



Find more inspiration on our social media #ResponsibleRainbow

Stay in Touch

Subscribe for our newsletter and to hear about exciting offers and experiences

By clicking ‘accept’, you consent to our use of cookies to improve our website experience. See our privacy policy for full information.