The Wonder Women of Botswana Safari

By midmorning, the dirt tracks of Chobe National Park rumbled with vehicles. Uniformed guides cruised by slowly, the names of their safari companies emblazoned on their open-air, four-wheel drives. A friendly man in a Land Cruiser stopped to chat with our guide. He asked which route we had taken and which animals we had seen so far. His passengers, excited to be on safari, surveyed the tawny delta landscape punctuated by deep green trees and bushes through their binoculars, and talked excitedly among themselves. When their eyes fell on my guide, who accessorized with an elephant-print scarf and a green bucket hat, their faces registered surprise. My guide, unlike the other guides we passed, was a woman.

Throughout this day in May, early in the dry season a year ago, safari goers within the enormous park would notice other women behind the wheels of a fleet of tan vehicles bearing the Chobe Game Lodge logo in red and gold lettering.

At first sight, these female safari guides, ranging from their early 20s to mid 40s, always get a double take. It is rare to see women in this male-dominated profession anywhere in Africa. Even in forward-thinking Botswana, a stable southern African country known for its ecotourism initiatives, only a small percentage have chosen this difficult career. It’s a full-time commitment — guides live on-site and work long hours to meet high expectations. Plus, the wild animals can be dangerous.

This unassuming little piece of the country holds a special place in Botswana’s history: Chobe Game Lodge, located in Botswana’s first national park, has the first and only all-female guiding team in Africa. The lodge is one of the most progressive safari destinations in Africa, thanks in part to the success of its female guide team with guests.

The guides at Chobe Game Lodge are breaking gender norms, according to Botswana experts. “As safari guides, they are pushing several boundaries that circumscribed women in the past,” said Deborah Durham, an anthropologist at Sweet Briar College who has conducted research on the country since 1986. “From soon after its independence from Great Britain, Botswana has recognized the talent and potential of women.”

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Yazema Moremong, known as Connie, is a member of Chobe Game Lodge’s all-female safari guiding team.CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times

The decision to employ exclusively women grew organically out of something very practical: the bottom line. Back when the guide team was coed, the managers quickly noticed a pattern: Vehicles driven by women used less gas, required fewer repairs and lasted longer over time. Simply put, the women were better drivers. They were saving the company money.

It all started around 2004, when the Botswana Wildlife Training Institute, the government-regulated college that provides safari guide certification, asked Chobe Game Lodge whether it had room for two young women guides. Guiding in Botswana is a prestigious career. Applicants must complete a standardized course that includes a placement at a safari camp, plus tests to evaluate English skills and scholastic aptitude. When both women performed extremely well at Chobe, the managers asked the institute to send over future female graduates. At that time, there were fewer than 10 women guides in Botswana. Today, there are around 50. With 17 guides, Chobe employs roughly one-third. The others are spread across the country at various safari camps.

Yazema Moremong, 37, whose eyes brighten with her warm yet often mischievous grin, became a guide in 2007, two years after she first spotted an elephant while visiting her uncle, a biologist. Ms. Moremong, who goes by Connie, began working at Chobe when it was coed. She credits her male colleagues for embracing all new recruits — male and female — equally.

Canah Moatshe, 32, known as Neo, started her career at a different camp in rural Botswana nine years ago. “I was the first and only lady among male guides. They never discriminated. That was the first time I drove a four by four, a Land Cruiser, the first time I changed a tire. Those guys helped me to work,” she recalled with a laugh.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. The women faced some pushback. Male guides at other safari companies challenged their validity, though mostly in a teasing, joking way, the women said. Guests generally worried about safety and competence, questioning the women’s ability to do things like change heavy four-by-four tires if there was a flat; handle aggressive animals and escort guests to the best wildlife sightings. The guides brushed off these concerns, saying they were to be expected because of the novelty of the situation. The women quickly became recognized in their field.

“In many respects, they had to work harder to prove themselves, so you’re actually getting more out of them as guides,” said James Wilson, Chobe’s marketing manager.

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The Chobe National Park, situated in northern Botswana, became the country’s first national park in 1968.CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times

According to John Aves, a Briton who manages the female guide team, “The ladies have developed quite a tough skin as far as that’s concerned. They stand up for themselves. They give as good as they get out there.”

There are more similarities than differences between the male and female guides in Botswana. They complete the same rigorous schooling. They are paid equally. Their days begin and end in darkness, starting about 4:30 a.m. until well after the sun sets. They cite the same reasons for choosing their career path (a love for wildlife and a desire to work in nature).

The Chobe guides require flexibility, however. Since all 17 are mothers, they receive maternity leave and go on longer family visits. Women tend to have children young in Botswana’s traditional culture, where generations of family typically live together in the same village. The guides have deviated from the norm in many ways by not staying at home. These trailblazers say their families are supportive of their career path, but admit that many of their parents and older relatives don’t realize the full effect of what they are doing.

“Have you noticed that many of the chefs are men? So things are flipped,” Ms. Moremong said about gender roles, adjusting her magenta scarf dotted with white elephants.

Midday, Ms. Moremong switched from driving a cruiser to steering a 20-foot boat. She maneuvered one of the lodge’s electric boats down the Chobe River, where both crocodiles and hippopotamuses can be deadly, toward an area favored by savanna elephants.

Earlier in the day, a group of elephants tried to teach two calves to swim in the shallows. One jumped in with a cry, skinny legs flailing. The other refused to budge, eventually sliding down the bank on his stomach only after his mother coaxed him for several minutes with her trunk. On this afternoon, the herd was gone, replaced by a lone male elephant bathing. (Elephant herds are matriarchal.)

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From left: Oriah Nthobatsang, Canah Moatshe and Yazema Moremong. CreditHillary Richard

Ms. Moremong expertly steered the boat through other vessels’ wakes, so it wouldn’t rock or splash. We passed by the Caprivi Strip, a panhandle in Namibia, crossing back and forth into Namibian waters as we cruised by troops of baboons and seemingly endless water lilies.

Botswana’s tourism industry is heavily focused on conservation, a concept echoed in environmental initiatives at the lodge, like its recycling plant that handles 95 percent of the lodge’s waste, a closed circuit water treatment plant and an on-site biogas plant (the building itself is made from recycled glass bottles). In addition to the electric boats (similar to wide, flat pontoon boats), the property has one electric Land Cruiser and three electric Land Rovers, with plans to convert the remaining seven Land Cruisers later on.

Later in the day, on an afternoon safari, we coasted quietly along dirt roads through the national park with Ms. Moremong behind the wheel of the electric Land Rover. Dozens of grazing impala blocked the road. With their slender, elegant bodies forming an indistinguishable sea of tan and white, hopefully keeping them safe from predators, they didn’t register the vehicle without its engine sounds.

“Over there, by the bush. What is it?” Ms. Moremong asked, in her usual playful manner, while we waited. A yellow-billed, hornbill bird, about 1.5 feet tall, popped its curved, sickle-like beak out.

She drove on sand tracks into forests of mostly teak, the temperature dropping beneath the thick tree canopy. The loose ground surface bled from yellow to red to orange and back beneath the Land Rover, tough even for a four-wheel drive. When the vehicle got stuck, Ms. Moremong reversed and tried a slightly different angle instead of doubling down. She remained calm and confident, clearly having maneuvered this many times. In the meantime, she pointed out skulls along the route: a hyena (died in a fight), an elephant (died of old age). Cat tracks, most likely a leopard or lion, crossed the tire marks, but they were old.

Trees bore the telltale signs of elephant damage: leaves stripped by their trunks, bark scraped off while sharpening tusks or scratching itchy hides, entire trees uprooted by tons of force. Soon we spotted the culprits near a watering hole. Six elephants trekked through the forest in a line, two babies safe in the middle, frantically trying to grasp their mothers’ tails with their trunks for security. The littlest one looked to be about six weeks old and the larger one was around three months old. A straggler, who stayed too long at the watering hole, was in her teens. As panic set in and she ran to catch up, Ms. Moremong deadpanned, “Teenagers are a problem.”

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Impalas lock horns in the Chobe National Park. CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times

Later, we stopped at a designated area for sundowners, a happy hour safari tradition stemming from the British colonial era. (Last year was Botswana’s 50th year of independence.) The guides transformed their vehicles into tables with the help of a picnic blanket, some snacks — nuts, game jerky, pretzels, all separated into decorative tins for a nice flourish — and a cooler full of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks requested by guests.

The women entertained their guests with adventurous stories of rogue leopards watching them from trees or entering the park’s public bathrooms. Off in the distance, the baboons called to each other, laying claim to any food people left behind. Suddenly, their barks and grunts turned to alarm calls.

“I hear a wa-hoo so let’s get going,” Ms. Moremong said calmly, while she moved at lightning speed. It was dusk, when the larger animals come out to hunt. 

In 1968, this diverse ecosystem became Botswana’s first national park. Today, it has one of the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa. Thanks to its abundance of wildlife and proximity to Kasane Airport, Chobe is a popular destination for international travelers. Its roughly 4,500 square miles are strictly regulated and protected.

Outside of a national park, guides have more flexibility when it comes to tracking wild animals. Guides with this amazing skill can look at animal prints on the ground and determine what created them, how long ago the animal stepped there and what direction it was headed. Within park limits, they must stay on mostly unpaved roads to do the tracking. The park is full of giraffes, zebras, antelopes, elephants, buffalo, hippos, crocodiles and birds, so visitors are guaranteed to encounter wildlife. However, when animals don’t care to be seen, they won’t be — and a guide has to find a way to entertain her passengers.

The female guides, many guests insist, shine in these instances, effortlessly taking the temperature of the group and anticipating their moods. They regale the guests with facts about the park while they scan the landscape. Over time, they each developed an appreciation for the park’s colorful birds, which are always around and often overlooked.

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Yazema Moremong, known as Connie, is a female safari guide at Chobe Game Lodge, which is one of the most progressive safari destinations in Africa. CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times

According to the Chobe guides themselves as well as non-guide staff members, the male guides in Botswana excel in the thrill of the wildlife chase, while the female guides are more adept at focusing on the details and the comfort of the group. The women are both criticized and complimented for their lower level of aggression in their approach to chasing wildlife. Even though they know what wildlife is nearby (and how to get to it), the hunt is often relaxed and meandering, resulting in pleasant surprises instead of a full-throttle chase.

In the pre-dawn darkness of the morning game drive, Gomotsang Modibu, 41, stopped outside the gates of Chobe Game Lodge as another guide headed in. Spotted guinea fowl raced off the road in clunky, diagonal spurts as we drove through the tall grasslands. In her raspy, quiet voice, she sang out, “Chobe chickens,” whenever we passed them, laughing heartily each time at their hectic scampering. It was the same tune she used to sing out “elephants” whenever we approached a herd.

It is customary to wave whenever you pass someone in Chobe, but drivers wave a little more enthusiastically at Ms. Modibu, who estimates that she knows around 80 percent of the other guides in the park. Known as Mod, she said her male colleagues were very encouraging when she became a guide nine years ago, “outside of a few rude comments.”

She drove into the quieter areas of the park, strategically heading to places before other cars arrived or long after they had left. While we stopped to admire the giraffes, hippos, buffalo, antelope, elephants and baboons, she pointed out all of the exotic birds that would go unnoticed otherwise: cape turtle doves, hornbills, little bee eaters.

It was a serene, sunny day in the northern part of the park. African Monarch butterflies fluttered about as giraffes drank from watering holes in the distance, bending awkwardly like tripods on the verge of collapse. The blue sky reflected off the water, creating mirror images everywhere.

Ms. Modibu considers herself to be on speaking terms with the animals she sees every day. She sees them as her colleagues.

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A game drive in Chobe National Park. CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times

“Hello, crocodile,” she called out casually, waving to the 10-feet-long predator as our Land Cruiser drove parallel to the river bank.

Chobe Game Lodge has a wild kind of glamour. This became apparent as soon as I passed a grazing warthog family on the way to my hotel room. During breakfast, I watched the chef chase a rogue male baboon out of the tented buffet after the creature treated himself to the fruit platter.

It’s an oasis nearly hidden in the national park, with large double doors that open into a lounge with elaborate archways, plush couches and plenty of private nooks. The colorful tiles that decorate the walls complement the earthy tones of the Chobe River vistas. There are surprises around every corner like the “deck of fame,” an elevated wooden path that winds along the river to a spot favored by elephants, and an impeccable staff that recalls names and personal preferences after only one conversation.

Albert Ndereki, the beloved garden supervisor and ecology guide at Chobe, was part of the construction team that built the lodge in 1971.

There have been many changes during his 65 years in the country, the park and the lodge – all of which he sees as a positive. Nothing fazes Mr. Ndereki, who can recall Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Richard Burton and their subsequent five-week honeymoon, most of which was spent at the lodge. He demonstrates an enthusiasm for ecology and technology uncommon in people half his age. Mr. Ndereki enjoys progress most of all and is proud of Chobe’s women guides.

“We got gender equality in Botswana,” he said. “We want women and men to do the same jobs. The women are very good in guiding and very good in talking. It’s a very good system.”Late one afternoon, on the sunset game drive, Ms. Moremong picked up her radio and spoke softly, almost inaudibly, into it. An equally quiet voice responded in Setswana, Botswana’s most common language after English. A third answered. Ms. Moremong gave nothing away as she carefully and slowly maneuvered the Land Cruiser into a three-point turn before speeding out of the forest, swerving to miss low-lying branches. Her facial expression in the rearview mirror flickered between amusement and concern.

She remained composed as she drove out of the forest, crossing over the main road and following a path of sandy tire treads toward a different stretch of the river. There were several cruisers parked along an embankment. Ms. Moremong maneuvered around them, whispering to the guides as she passed. Everyone was silent, but there was a strange sense of glee in the air. Suddenly, a sandy colored head popped up and yawned. It was a lioness, waking up in time for her evening hunt. She sat next to another lioness like a sphinx, with giant paws crossed in front of her, basking in the last warm rays of the sun as she squinted at us through one eye.

There are male lions in the park — big showstoppers with impressive manes – which several other guides had been tracking for days with no luck. Here, perched on a steep sand dune nearly hidden by the shade of a tree, only a few feet away, were the male lions’ counterparts. The females were quiet, confident and powerful.

If You Go

Game viewing is best from April through October, the dry season, when the rivers in Chobe National Park attract an estimated 50,000 elephants.

Kasane Airport has commercial flight routes from Johannesburg in South Africa, and Maun and Gaborone in Botswana. Small charter planes fly from Kasane to camps across Botswana. The airport borders Chobe National Park.

Like most safari camps and lodges across Botswana, Chobe Game Lodge is all-inclusive. Guests are given a suggested itinerary and assigned a guide upon arrival. The 42 standard rooms and four luxury suites at the lodge were recently renovated. Rates vary depending on the season, but start at $535 per person.

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