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, safarigoers 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.
This unassuming little piece of the country holds a special place in Botswana’s history: Chobe Game Lodge, 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 decision to employ exclusively women grew organically out of something 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 female guides. 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 female guides in Botswana. Today there are around 50. With 17 guides, Chobe employs roughly one-third.
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. Moremong, who goes by Connie, began working at Chobe when it was coed.
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, although 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.
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.
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.
Midday, 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.)
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.
Later in the day, on an afternoon safari, we coasted quietly along dirt roads through the national park with 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?” Moremong asked, in her usual playful manner, while we waited. A yellow-billed, hornbill bird, about 1-1/2 feet tall, popped its curved, sicklelike 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, 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 6 weeks old, and the larger one was around 3 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, Moremong deadpanned, “Teenagers are a problem.”
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 in 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.
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. 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.
Late one afternoon, on the sunset game drive, Moremong maneuvered around several cruisers parked along an embankment, 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.