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Virtual safari by Botswana's premier guides

THALEFANG CHARLES
Riding on: The Trans Okavango Charity Cycle members next to an elephant skull PICS: TRANS OKAVANGO
In case you have been offline lately trying to stay away from the depressing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic reports, you might have missed an epic expedition by Botswana’s premier safari guides. The guides just completed a 500km highly educational cycling expedition from Seronga to Maun for a good cause. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES sat with them to talk about their charity adventure

Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive in Botswana during the winter season for safari. But this year, the tourism peak season had no foreign tourists because the pandemic stopped the annual pilgrimages to this safari capital of the world.

Hundreds of workers in the tourism industry were suddenly left in the cold as tourism businesses closed shop due to loss of revenue as a result of the absence of the high paying foreign tourists. Amongst these workers were some of Botswana’s famous private guides who are usually booked by billionaires from around the world for their safari experience throughout Africa.

Three of these highly sought-after guides, Thuto Moutloatse, Lemme Dintwa and Tebogo Mokgosi, together with their friend Seeletso Rakonche, all based in the Okavango Delta, decided initially to “pass time and get travel fix” by going on short fishing expeditions along the Panhandle villages in the Okavango River.

It was there that they experienced the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic at the settlements that used to rely on the tourism proceeds.

“COVID-19 had affected us, but we had to think about the staff in the camps that earn much less than we do,” Moutloatse explained.

It was from this selfless thought, of the adversely affected that the idea of cycling for charity was born. They then came up with an initiative that would raise funds for the affected communities as well as bring some positivity amongst their followers stuck in concrete jungles across the world.

They dubbed it the Trans Okavango Charity Cycle. It was basically cycling from Seronga in the eastern Okavango panhandle all the way to Maun – about 500km – in a week’s time.

These guides understood their privilege as world famous safari guides who are personally known and held in high regard by very rich people, their former clients from around the world who frequent the Okavango Delta. Their fishing expeditions exposed them to their colleagues’ struggles battling to cope with the tourism shutdown.

“We used to see the guys that we know, that we used to work with, begging us for some loose change because they do not have anything to feed his family,” Dintwa recalled.

They said the poverty of the eastern panhandle exacerbated by closure of the tourism industry forced them to stand up and do something.

“We knew it would not be enough, but we decided to raise funds through our networks, to buy some food hampers as well as shoes for school children who were going to school barefooted in the biting cold at villages like Mogotho,” Moutloatse said.

The boys put together a team of 12 expedition members who included six riders and support team of six. The support team included a dedicated medic, photographer and cooks, who were all crucial for the success of the expedition.

The road, which was about 100km gravel and 400km tarred, needed bicycles that are designed for the terrain. So they brought 16 bicycles, some with thick tyres for sand, others being road bikes, designed for tarred road, to tackle

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the tricky terrain.

“The first day was all smooth, as we did 40km from Seronga to Mogotho in a blink, but the next proved the most challenging. We cycled a stretch of 92km from Mogotho to Shakawe River Lodge on Day Two and it was extremely challenging,” Mokgosi said.

The most interesting thing that the cycling expedition brought was the virtual safari that the boys quickly capitalised on with their very interesting educational videos shared on social media.

In the videos, Moutloatse, Dintwa and Mokgosi got into character and work mode and started educating their followers about the wilderness. From bird nests, to termite mounts, elephants to crocodiles and to the whole formation and set up of the Okavango River system, the boys demonstrated why they are the best.

As evident from the social media comments, they made their distant regular clients across the world, if not miss being in the bush, at the bare minimum, at least, be closer to it, via their constant posts on Facebook that had a signature war-cry of “Buyaaah!”

They presented the fun of travelling with regular pranks and popular social challenges. Even though their attempt of the Jerusalema Dance challenge was disastrous since none of them could dance, it was an entertaining effort.

“We wanted to show everyone that we were not in a race, so we made time to stop and guide when we found interesting sights,” Mokgosi said.

Moutloatse said Botswana is behind in virtual safaris even though it has the world’s best product.

“We are three steps behind providing virtual safaris, but COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise as it demonstrated that we should invest in virtual safari,” Moutloatse opined. He said COVID-19 highlighted an opportunity for expert guides like them to do more of the virtual safaris.

Rakonche, who has been in tourism marketing for a while, also believes virtual safari could help change mindsets of the local market, in an endeavour to lure them into wildlife tourism.

The guides said Batswana are not really fascinated by the wildlife tourism mainly because they think they know it all. They therefore believe that the local market needs to be reeducated about the novelty of wildlife.

The virtual safaris done by professional Batswana guides could improve the fascination for wildlife and pull many locals to tour Botswana’s famous game reserves for animals and not just to sleep at some of the luxury camps.

The guides believe that through virtual safaris, many Batswana would have keen interest in wildlife and start appreciating camping as compared to pricey resorts that accommodate mainly wealthier clients.

“If we could help change the mindset that camping and wildlife is [equals] poverty and rural life, then we would have many Batswana appreciating local travel, especially wildlife,” Moutloatse argued.

The guides said they have plans to return the cycling expedition next year and hopefully have more participants who could ride through the Okavango Delta for a good cause.



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