Walking with Lions in Zimbabwe – Why I Did It Then, but Wouldn’t Do It Now

Travel offers an infinite number of opportunities to see, do, and try new things. And if you have an adventurous side, the possibilities are even more incredible. But sometimes, the experiences or attractions while on vacation can be a bit controversial or questionable. I had one of those experiences while on holiday in Zimbabwe, which I wanted to share.

My husband and I went to Zimbabwe as part of a group tour. One of the days was earmarked as an excursion day. There were several options to choose from, but most of them were in the realm of adventure experiences – skydiving, white water rafting, 4×4-ing, and so on. There were only a few options that were more my speed – a wine-laden lake cruise or walking with lions.

I’m an animal lover like nobody’s business. Before this trip, my health nurse told me to make sure that I didn’t touch any wild animals while in Africa. Yes, yes, of course, I said. Well, fast-forward a few weeks to our trip – I had held an injured bird, played with a tame baby meerkat, narrowly avoided getting head-butted by someone’s pet springbok, and had a black-tailed tree rat run across my shoulder in our tent in the middle of the night. Avoiding touching wildlife in Africa (or having it touch you) is darn-near impossible.

But the opportunity to actually walk with lions, to be that close to these magnificent creatures, was too much for my animal-loving heart to refuse. When would I ever get the chance to do something like this again? Probably never.

I read the description of the encounter, which said that we would get the chance to meet and walk with young lions – I was picturing little cubs, small enough to sit on your lap. My husband decided that the experience sounded “too girly,” so he opted for the white water rafting experience instead. Luckily, there was one other person in our tour group who wanted to do the lion encounter with me. Everyone else opted for the more adventurous excursions.

So, the next day we got into the truck and headed off to the Lion Encounter.

Lion Encounter sign Zimbabwe

Once we got there, we sat through a brief orientation. We learned about the conservation facility, which aimed to re-integrate offspring from captive lions back into the wild. They explained that they follow a four-step process for re-integration, which can be found here. The program actually sounded pretty complex and well-developed.

lion encounter zimbzbwe

Then, our host gave us our safety orientation. He told us to speak to the lions in a calm voice, approach slowly, and to pet them on their backs only. Then, our host handed out skinny sticks to each of us. He explained that if a lion approached us in a threatening manner, we were to swish the stick back and forth in the grass to distract them. Ok then. Yeah, that should work.

It was at this point that I determined that perhaps this was not going to be the cuddly cub encounter that I had envisioned. The lions that are used in the walking encounters are 3 months old to 18 months old. I was really expecting them to be on the younger end of that scale.

They weren’t.

We then got up to meet the lions that we would be walking with.

This is not a cub.

lion encounter zimbabwe

When I realized the size of these animals, I think I peed a little. As it turns out, these lions were about 19 months old. Yes, they get even bigger. And yes, I realize that this was marketed as “walking with lions” and not “snuggling with baby lion cubs”, but wow. Look at the size of those paws!

And just like that, we began our walk with the lions.

Walking with lions in zimbabwe

Oh, did I mention that there were two of them? There were two of them. Notice the stick in my hand for…protection? A distraction? A toothpick for afterward when they ate me, and had to pick the remains of poly-cotton blend pants out of their teeth?

Walking with lions in zimbabwe

I was kind of surprised by how laid back the lions seemed. And yes, it did cross my mind whether they were drugged. Obviously I’m not the first person to wonder this. The Lion Encounter website even addresses this question in their FAQ’s by saying no, they do not drug the lions, they are just naturally lazy.

They did this a lot:

Walking with lions in zimbabwe

I haven’t spent that much time around lions, but I can confirm that anytime we have seen them in the wild, they were usually laying about, unconcerned about anything. Even when they hunt, they can stay very still, sometimes waiting for their unsuspecting prey to come to them before they strike. They just seem to want to conserve their energy until they need to run down an antelope. So their perceived lethargy in the middle of a hot afternoon seemed perfectly valid.

At one point in the encounter, the female lion did take notice of some birds in a bush. She perked up significantly before charging up to the bush and scattering the birds. But there was a lot of stopping to let the lions have a little lie down:

lion Zimbabwe

Before the walk ended, we got the chance to sit with the lions for a photo op:

walking with lions Zimbabwe

While this photo looks ferocious, he was actually in the middle of a big, bored yawn:

walking with lions Zimbabwe

When the group all met up later that evening back at the hotel, we compared photos and stories. When Mark saw my photos, the size of the lions shocked him. He quickly determined that the experience wasn’t so “girly” after all.

But even so, the experience, while incredible, left me a bit torn. Was it a legitimate conservation facility? Is it right to exploit and exhibit wildlife in order to save it? Zoos do it all the time, so was this really any different? Was it all just a scam? I really don’t know. And from what I found out after the fact, Lion Encounter seems to fall into a grey area.

Lion Encounter seems to have partnerships with several other conservation facilities, but most of these other agencies have similar logos under different names, indicating that they are all under the same umbrella organization. This organization is called ALERT (African Lion & Environmental Research Trust), a registered UK charity. Lion Encounter is one of their commercial endeavours, and they are very transparent about this fact. After all, an elaborate program such as this one isn’t cheap, and it has to make money somehow. ALERT doesn’t receive government funds and isn’t subsidized in any way. Fair enough.

But, even though ALERT opened in 2005, it has yet to release any lions into the wild, even with its four-stage program in place to successfully do so. As an aside, none of the lions that have had human contact are fit to be released into the wild; they will always be captive in one sense or another. And while the four-stage program seems to take the element of human contact out of the equation at some point, the organization doesn’t actually seem to follow through to the end stages.

So, if these “conservation” groups are breeding lions in captivity, but not releasing them into the wild, where are the lions all going? There’s some question whether they may be feeding into the canned lion hunting market, but it all seems to be vague speculation.

I had a lot of reasons (justifications?) as to why I wanted to experience the lion encounter at the time.

  1. My love of animals
  2. I wanted the experience of being that close to wildlife
  3. The limited options for the excursions that day
  4. The tour company itinerary was vague in terms of what our options would be that day, so I couldn’t do any research in advance
  5. I wanted to support what I thought was a legitimate conservation effort

But this isn’t a critique only of Lion Encounter, but of all wildlife experiences, especially those involving endangered wildlife. Even when you think a company has a good reputation and is making a legitimate effort to conserve endangered wildlife, it can be extremely difficult to get the full picture.

It’s not necessarily wrong or immoral to want a close-up encounter with wild animals, but you need to be willing to ask questions. If it’s part of an excursion through a tour group, ask them about the facility in advance so you can do a bit of research before you make up your mind. If anything about the company or their reputation seems off, voice your concerns. Ask your tour leader for other options if there aren’t any other excursions that appeal to you. Chances are, they’ll be able to give you some alternatives that aren’t listed on the itinerary. You may need to pay a few bucks more, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind and an enjoyable holiday.

And if you do have a wildlife encounter experience that you ended up uncomfortable with, give your feedback to the tour company. That’s the only way they’ll know that they need to consider some changes.

Exploring the Lesser-Known Necropolis of Saqqara, Egypt

Everyone has heard of the Great Pyramids of Giza and the mysterious Sphinx that guards them. But the pyramids of Saqqara aren’t nearly as famous. This actually makes them a great place to visit, since they aren’t nearly as touristy as the Great Pyramids. It’s also the place where pyramid building got its start. So if you’re a history or archaeology buff, this site will be right up your alley.

Saqqara is roughly 30 kilometres north of Cairo, so it’s a little bit further from Cairo than the Great Pyramids. But the extra distance is worth it.

Imhotep Museum

Before you get started with the pyramids themselves, be sure to pay a visit to the Imhotep Museum, located at the foot of the Saqqara necropolis complex. The museum, built in 2006, is named after Imhotep, an Eqyptian chancellor to the pharaoh, Djoser. He’s also believed to have been the architect for the step pyramid and other surrounding buildings.

This small museum offers six halls full of archaeological discoveries, including Egyptian art, pottery, statues, burial objects, and yes, mummies.

Imhotep Museum, Saqqara Egypt

The Enclosure Wall

The funerary complex of Djoser was originally surrounded by an impressive enclosure wall. Imhotep designed it using stone, rather than the more common mud bricks. This opening on the eastern wall is the only entrance into the complex, although several false doors were built into the 30-foot wall. It’s thought that the wall was symbolic in nature, rather than for protection. Once completed, it measured 544 x 277 metres. Many of the buildings inside the enclosure were “dummy buildings” – just façades and four walls with nothing inside. These buildings were used for rituals of kingship on the spiritual plane, so these model buildings were stand-ins for the real thing.

Funerary Complex of Djoser, Saqqara Egypt

Entrance Colonnade from the South Court

This is the entrance colonnade. The corridor is lined with 20 pairs of columns, carved to resemble bundles of reeds or palm ribs. Between the columns on both sides of the hall were small chambers. Some Egyptologists suggest they may have represented each of the provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Entry Hall Saqqara Egypt

The Heb-Sed Court

The Heb-Sed Court is quite a remarkable complex. This courtyard runs parallel to the south courtyard. This was a place for the king to perform a ritual called the Heb-Sed in the afterlife. The Heb-Sed Festival, also called the Feast of the Tail, was a ceremony that celebrated the continued rule of a

The court is flanked by chapels to the west and east. However, these were a few of those “dummy buildings” mentioned earlier. They had no internal structure, and were filled with rubble.

Heb-sed Court, Saqqara EgyptThese are three unfinished statues in the east court:

Unfinished statues at Saqqara

Pyramid of Unas

The Pyramid of Unas lies southwest of the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Unas was the ninth and final king of the 5th Dynasty. His pyramid is now in ruins, but originally it stood approximately 43 meters tall.

When French Egyptologist, Sir Gaston Maspero excavated the tomb in 1881, he discovered texts written on the walls of the tomb. Unas seems to have been the first pharaoh to inscribe magic spells on the walls of his tomb, which were intended to help his spirit navigate its way into the afterlife. These “Pyramid Texts” are the oldest known Egyptian religious texts. Eventually, these texts, along with subsequent tomb texts, became the Book of the Dead.

Pyramid of Unas, Saqqara Eqypt

The shaft tombs date to around 500 BCE. Unfortunately most were pillaged in antiquity. However, archaeologists recently uncovered an embalming workshop, several intact mummies in a communal burial shaft, and funerary ornaments.

Pyramid of Unas, Saqqara Egypt

Step Pyramid of Djoser

It’s believed that Imhotep, an architect and engineer, built the step pyramid as the burial chamber for the pharaoh Djoser in the 27th Century BC. Evidence suggests that this pyramid is the oldest cut stone building of this size in Eqypt. It stands about 60 meters high – only slightly smaller now than its original height of 62 meters.

step pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara Egypt

The pyramid consists of six steps, or mastabas of decreasing size. Mastaba is an Arabic word meaning “stone bench”. Mastabas were ancient Egyptian tombs designed in a rectangular shape, with a flat roof and inward-slopping sides.

Originally, the pyramid was encased in smooth, white limestone. But the exterior limestone is long gone, no doubt used for other building projects.

Step Pyramid of Djoser Saqqara Eqypt

Interestingly, the pyramid exhibits several phases of building, indicating that this final shape was not in the original concept. At first, Imhotep built the pyramid as a simple square mastaba style tomb, instead of the more common rectangular shape. He changed it to the standard rectangular shape later. This was the first time a mastaba was ever built in a square shape, suggesting that it was not initially intended to be built as a mastaba. The first phase of the project was a four-stepped structure, while the second phase added the final two steps to the top of the pyramid.

Step Pyramid of Djoser Saqqara Egypt close up

The chambers beneath the pyramid were used as burial tombs, but they were also used to store grave goods for the dead.

The Pyramid of Userkaf

The Pyramid of Userkaf was built c. 2490 BC. Userkaf was the founding pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty of ancient Egypt. The pyramid is part of a larger funerary complex, including a mortuary temple, offering chapel, and a separate pyramid for his wife, queen Neferhetepes.

Pyramid of Userkaf Saqqara Egypt

The pyramid is in ruins today, but originally stood around 49 meters. Blocks of roughly-cut limestone were used to fill the core of the pyramid, and the outside was covered in smoother cut Tura limestone. But the outer stones were removed over time for other projects, exposing the rough stones underneath.

There are many other buildings and tombs to see at Saqqara beyond this list. But these, I thought, were some of the most interesting or unusual.

Getting There

If you’re visiting Egypt as part of an organized tour, chances are quite high that Saqqara will be on our itinerary. But if you’re travelling independently, you’ll have to find your own way there. You have a few options, the easiest being to try and book a tour through your hotel concierge. Or:

By taxi:

You can hire a taxis from central Cairo or from your hotel to visit Saqqara. Rates may vary, so determine the rate with your driver before you go. This is the easiest option.

By bus:

There are buses to Saqqara, but they aren’t direct, and require a few transfers and a bit of a walk. Microbuses leave from the Giza metro station. Let the driver know that you want to go to “Marishay and then Saqqara” and he should tell you where to transfer. Once you’re in Saqqara village, you can either walk the remaining 1.5 km, or hire a tuk-tuk to get you the rest of the way.

Experience Dijon, France On Foot

Arguably, the best way to explore any new city or town is by walking. It may be slower than public transportation, but you definitely get to see more, and you never know what might be waiting for you around the next corner.

Dijon, France is a great city to explore on foot. As with most European cities, the most interesting parts of Dijon are packed within an easily walkable radius. But Dijon also offers a few unique walking tours that we haven’t experienced anywhere else.

We started our exploration of Dijon with the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, (Palais des ducs de Bourgogne). The duchy of Burgundy was originally established around 880 AD, after the kingdom of Burgundy was reorganized into duchies and counties.

At its earliest incarnation, this building was merely a fortress. Philip the Bold, first Duke Valois rebuilt the fortress and turned it into a palace between 1364-1404.

The oldest parts of the palace date back to the 14th-15th century, but most of what you see today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the governors of Burgundy expanded the old palace. The west wing of the palace now houses city hall offices, while the east wing is home to the Musée des Beaux Arts.

Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, Dijon France

Address: 1 Place de la Libération, 21000 Dijon, France

Note that the Tourist Information Office is also located in the palace. Here you can arrange for a guided walking tour, or get a map to follow a self-guided walk through the streets of Dijon. We did both.

I’ll start with the guided walking tour. There are numerous themed tours to choose from, but we chose the Saveurs et Piquant, or Flavours and Spices tour.

The Flavours and Spices Walking Tour

Our guided tour started at the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. From there, we walked down rue des Forges, one of the oldest streets in Dijon. It’s lined with quaint shops, bakeries and restaurants. Some of the buildings date back to the 14th-15th centuries.

I mean, look at these old buildings and how they twist, lean and bend:

Dijon street

This is the Hotel Chambellan, located at 34, 36 rue des Forges. Henri Chambellan was a clothier and Vicount mayor of Dijon from 1490 to 1493. He gained the title of Counsellor to the Chamber of Accounts in 1500.

Chambellan Hotel Dijon

The mansion was decorated in Flamboyant Gothic style, with an emphasis on ornate decorative detailing.

The Chambellan Hotel Dijon

Check out the impressive spiral staircase:

The Chambellan Hotel Dijon

The detailing around the window is also beautiful:

Chambellan Hotel window Dijon

No tour called “Flavours and Spices” can be complete without a few stops along the way to sample some local specialties. Mustard, of course, was the first thing to sample:

La Maison Maille Boutique Dijon The Maille mustard company was founded in 1747, and this shop has been here since 1845! The number of flavour combinations they make is really mind-boggling. We had a lot of tasters inside. (Like, a lot). And we bought enough mustard here that a customs officer questioned why we were bringing so much mustard back to Canada.

Incidentally, there used to be a mustard museum in Dijon, but it closed down some years ago. And, we learned on this tour, that the mustard seeds used in France are actually grown in Canada! In 2009, Unilever, which owned and operated many mustard factories in Europe, closed the manufacturing plant in Dijon. It’s now made and packed in the nearby town of Chevigny-Saint-Sauveur.

The walking tour also brought us to the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon. Construction on this Roman Catholic church started in 1230! Note all of the gargoyles on the facade. But these are actually dummy gargoyles – they don’t transport water.

Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon

A better shot of some of the gargoyles. There are 51 gargoyles on the western side alone. While these are dummy gargoyles, there are others on the building that do act as drain spouts.

close-up of gargoyles on Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon

These are not the original gargoyles, however. The originals were removed in 1240, after one of the figures apparently fell off the facade, killing a man who was about to get married. These gargoyles were made in 1880-1882, during restoration of the church.

Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon

This is known as a jacquemart, or automated bell-striker. They indicate the time by striking a bell on the hour. This automaton came from Belgium, after Duke Philippe II of Burgundy looted the town of Kortrijk in 1382.

jacquemart on Church of Notre Dame in Dijon France

We will visit Notre Dame again in a little while.

The tour also included a visit to a shop called Mulot & Petitjean, which sells pain d’epice, a special kind of gingerbread. Barnabé Boittier opened his gingerbread shop in 1805. He moved the shop to 6 boulevard de l’Ouest in Dijon in 1912, where the gingerbread is still made today.

This walking tour took about 2 hours, including the stops at the mustard shop and gingerbread shop.

The Owl’s Trail

The Owl’s Trail is a self-guided walking tour with an accompanying guide booklet you can purchase at the tourist information office. The walking trail has 22 numbered stages, which you can cover in the space of about an hour. But how do you know what path to follow?

The sidewalks are marked with these handy bronze plaques! But why an owl, you may ask? The owl is one of the city’s symbols, and unofficial talisman. You’ll see why in a bit!

the Owl's Trail bronze markers Dijon France

I won’t go through all 22 stops on the walking tour, but I will give a few of the highlights along the route.

Our first stop was at the Jardin Darcy. This was Dijon’s first public garden, dating from 1880.

Jardin Darcy, Dijon France The garden is named after Henri Darcy, the engineer who built a reservoir here to bring water to Dijon from Val Suzon.

Jardin Darcy flowers, Dijon France

Stop number 5 was the covered market. Market days are every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The building is on the site of an old convent cloister of the Jacobines.

covered market, Dijon France

The market usually extends to the outside as well. You can buy everything from purses, shoes and toiletries, to delicious locally made foodstuffs and market fresh goods:

outdoor market, Dijon France

The Place Francois Rude is the main square, and is stop number 6. It gets its name from a famous local sculptor. The square is relatively young, as it was only built in 1904 after several houses were destroyed in order to create it.

This is what the square looks like on a market day. (Note the bronze owl plaque at the bottom of the photo!)

Place Francois Rude market, Dijon, France

And this is what it looks like on a non-market day. The statue in the center of the fountain represents a winemaker stomping grapes in a tank. Here you’ll find many great shops, cafes and restaurants to discover:

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

This takes us to numbers 8 and 9 on the walk, which is back to the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon.

Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon

Number 8 marks the church itself. But number 9 takes you to the symbol of Dijon, and the reason for the owl image on the bronze plaques. Meet the Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon, also known as the Magic Owl:

Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon

Although the church dates to the 13th Century, the owl wasn’t carved until sometime in the 16th Century. No one seems to know why it was carved here, on the unassuming north wall. The owl is located on Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street). He doesn’t look like much now. That’s partly because vandals damaged the owl in 2001.

The other reason for it’s appearance today is that people rub the owl for luck. Rumour has it, if you touch the owl with your left hand while making a wish, your wish will come true.

Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon

Stop number 10 takes you to the Maison Milliere. Guillaume Milliere, a local merchant, built the home in 1483, with his shop on the ground floor and living quarters on the second floor. The cat and owl decorations on the roof date from the 20th century.

Maison Milliere Dijon France

Next up is Number 12 on the Owl’s Trail. This marker actually covers several buildings at once – the Place du Theatre, the Eglise St. Etienne, and, finally, the Eglise St. Michel. This is the immense and impressive Eglise St. Michel:

Eglise St. Michel, Dijon France

The earliest mention of the Saint-Michel church goes back as far as 889. The original church was most likely a modest wooden building. Construction on this church began in 1497, with consecration in 1529.

The church exhibits architectural elements of both gothic and Italian Renaissance styles. The interior is just as impressive as the exterior:

Eglise St. Michel interior, Dijon France

This brings us to number 14 on the Owl’s Trail, and the last building I’ll mention, so as not to spoil all the highlights of your own walking tour. This is Tour de Bar, or the Town Hall.

Philip the Bold built this in a medieval dungeon style, starting in 1365. It got it’s name from Rene d’Anjou, Duke of Bar and Lorraine. He was also the king of Hungary, Jerusalem and Aragon, which included Sicily, Corsica and Majorca. He was a prisoner in the tower from 1431 to 1436, due to a dispute over his succession to the title of the duchy of Lorraine.

Tour de Bar Town Hall Dijon France

Over all, a walking tour is a great way to really get a good feel for Dijon. There’s a lot to explore here in a condensed, walkable radius. But you can also miss a lot of interesting details without a little helpful guidance along the way!

5 Amazing Adventures to Experience in Botswana

Botswana may not be a country that’s high on your list of places to visit – but perhaps it should be. There’s an astounding number of things to see and do in this fascinating country, especially if you like a little bit of adventure when you travel. Here are just 5 of the most memorable experiences you can explore in Botswana.

Botswana spelled out in tiles

1. Wildlife Safaris

What’s so special about Botswana, you ask? This was one of our favourite places to visit for several reasons. Not the least of which, is the fact that Botswana has the highest concentration of African elephants (around 120,000). So in terms of wildlife viewing, you’ll have the best chance of seeing large groups of elephants here, especially in Chobe National Park.

elephants in Chobe National Park

Chobe is Botswana’s first national park, and also the second largest, covering 4,500 square miles. The biodiversity here is fantastic – the terrains include floodplains, mopane woodland, baobab and acacia woodlands, and grasslands. This range of settings make great habitats for other animals too, including giraffes:

giraffe in Chobe National Park bptswana

You’ll also see a lot of buffaloes, one of Africa’s “Big Five”. These bad boys can reach 700 kilos on average, and can weigh as much as 1000 kilos.

The little bird sitting on his nose is an oxpecker. Buffaloes are prone to ticks, and the oxpeckers eat ticks, which creates a symbiotic relationship.

wildebeest in Chobe National Park

You will also see several species of antelope, such as this kudu…

Kudu, Chobe National Park, Botswana

You’re also quite likely to spot zebras, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, wildebeests, etc. Chobe is also home to over 450 species of birds, so it’s a great place for bird watching.

But Chobe National Park isn’t your only option for safaris. Most camps, game reserves and national parks offer guided safari tours, many with night safari options as well.

2. Game Walks

But you know what’s even better than seeing wildlife from the relative safety of a safari truck? Seeing wildlife at ground level by doing a game walk.

game walk in Botswana

Game walks are usually not too strenuous, since there is a lot of starting and stopping. But it can be a little heart-pounding, especially if you are lucky enough to view some local wildlife in its natural habitat.

We managed to spot giraffes and a few bull elephants on our walk. Our guide was well versed in giving us instructions for safety, especially when he spotted the bull elephants. It was mating season, and the males can be extremely aggressive during this time. So we gave them a ton of space, but it still felt a bit stressful to be in viewing distance of such massive creatures.

wild elephants in Botswana

A good game walk guide will also educate you on native plant species, understanding animal behaviour and movements, and how to identify wildlife by their footprints and droppings.

What sort of animal do you think left this behind? (My foot is in the photo for scale, since I didn’t have a banana handy).

wildlife droppings in Botswana

On our walk, we stumbled upon a buffalo skull. Even in this state, the size of those horns are formidable. For large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre. African buffaloes are often referred to as “the Black Death” or “the Widowmaker” – they kill around 200 people a year. Sometimes, they will toss their hapless victim back and forth amongst themselves with their horns, goring them to death.

wildebeest skull in Botswana

These tall structures are termite mounds! They can take 4-5 years to build, and can reach a height of 17 feet or more. Millions of termites work together to move the earth into these terrible towers of termite terror:

termite hill in Botswana

termite hill in Botswana

A side note about game walks – in the interest of safety, often your guide will be armed in case of an unanticipated animal attack. This shouldn’t make you nervous, as it’s just a precaution. But you just never know what might await you out on the savanna!

3. Camping

If you love nature, wildlife, and getting away from the city crowds, camping in Botswana is a must. Even if the thought of sleeping on the ground gives you the willies, or if you prefer luxury “glamping” over roughing it, this is something you have to try at least once!

tenting in Botswana

We tend to travel “on the cheap” as it were, so we don’t mind tenting it every once in a while. Camping in Africa is a lot different than camping in Canada though. Many campgrounds have swimming pools and dining facilities, even spas! Several campgrounds also have bars to hang out in at night.

bar menu in Botswana

The other difference you’ll experience by camping in Africa, of course, is the wildlife. More than once I awoke to the sounds of wild elephants trumpeting in the distance. It’s actually a little unnerving, especially when the only protection you have are thin canvas walls!

You also have to be mindful when you do your laundry outside. Our tour guide told us to always shake out our clothes and inspect them thoroughly before putting our laundry away. One day, we discovered exactly why. One of the ladies, who had draped her wet clothes on a tree trunk to dry, discovered a small scorpion had crawled onto her underwear!

tents in Botswana

Another night while camping, I awoke to the sensation of something scurrying across my shoulder. I screamed like a little girl and turtled myself right down to the bottom of the sleeping bag. Mark grabbed a flashlight to see what had crawled into the tent with us. Staring back at us were the little black, beady eyes of a black-tailed tree rat. It was actually quite adorable, but we quickly ushered it back out of the tent.

It was only in the morning we discovered that the little critter had chewed a hole through my day pack, where I kept my toothpaste. Of course, it could have been worse – it could have been a giant millipede or something equally squicky. But if the thought of creepy crawlies and fuzzy varmints freaks you out, maybe rough camping isn’t the way to go.

tent in Botswana camp

Luckily, often when you get to a campsite, you have the option of paying a little more to upgrade to an actual room, or even a tree house, depending on the amenities. So if you get tired of sleeping on a rubber mat or air mattress, you can upgrade and have a real bed.

4. Explore Botswana by Mokoro

Another way to see this beautiful country is to view it from the water, via a mokoro, or traditional flat-bottomed canoe.

Mokoro in Maun, Botswana

A mokoro is typically made by digging out a large tree trunk,  although fiberglass is becoming more common. Mokoro drivers use long poles to push the canoes through the shallow waters. They learn their skills at a very early age – sometimes as young as seven years old! So you can trust that you are in good hands with a skilled professional.

Mokoro in Maun, Botswana

This is a very relaxing way to spend an afternoon and get in some wildlife viewing from a new perspective. It’s also nice because the mokoros glide quietly through the water, so they’re less prone to spooking any wildlife along the way.

Mokoro in Maun, Botswana

What’s so adventurous about this, you might ask? Well, there’s always the possibility of having a run-in with a hippo. And they are very territorial in the water. We did spot a few hippos in the water, but they were at a safe enough distance that our presence didn’t disturb them. And, I imagine they get used to people being on the water – as long as you don’t get too close!

mokoro in Botswana

5. View the Okavango Delta from the Sky

One of the most unique ways to track and view wildlife is from a small plane. In our case, our flight was in a Cessna. Our scenic flight was through Mack Air, but there are several charter companies that offer safari tours from the sky. You can find a list here.

Cessna 210 Centurion maun

Viewing wildlife from above isn’t ideal for close-up photography, but it does give you a new appreciation for the local geography.

Botswana scenic flight

And it’s pretty cool to watch herds of elephants and giraffes just going on about their business across the plains.

Okavango Delta elephants from a cessnaYou can read a more detailed account of our scenic flight here.

The Temple of Kom Ombo, Egypt

While in Egypt, we visited probably a half dozen temples. After a while, they can sort of blur together. The Temple of Kom Ombo, however is one that is particularly interesting in design.

The Temple of Kom Ombo is located in Upper Egypt in the Aswan Governorate. The temple was built in the 2nd century BC, during the Ptolemaic dynasty – the last dynasty before Egypt fell into Roman rule after Cleopatra VII lost the Battle of Actium.

The Kom Ombo temple was designed in an unusual double temple style. It was actually built for two sets of gods, so the halls, sanctuaries and courts are all duplicated. The double entrance to the temple is below:

Kom Ombo temple, Egypt

The southern (right) side was dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god, along with Hathor and Khonsu. The northern (left) side of the temple was dedicated to the falcon god Horus, as well as the lesser-known gods, Tasenetnofret and Panebtawy. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s sort out these gods and their importance to the ancient Egyptians.

The Ancient Gods and Goddesses of Kom Ombo Temple

Gods of the Southern Side of the Temple

Sobek, the crocodile god, took on many roles. He was the god of fertility, military strength, and pharaonic power in general. He also protected against the hazards of the Nile. Sobek was a pretty big deal back in the day – the entire region of Faiyum (then known as Shedet), encircling one of the oldest cities in Egypt, centered around the cult of Sobek. Outside of the Faiyum, Kom Ombo was the largest cult center dedicated to Sobek.

Hathor was the goddess of music, dance, happiness, fertility, motherhood, and foreign lands. She was often depicted as a cow deity, holding a sun disk between the horns on her head. (Predynastic cults often used imagery of the cow to depict nature and fertility). Needless to say, she was an important and popular deity in ancient Egypt.

The photo below depicts Hathor, on the far left, and Sobek, to her immediate right:

Sobek hieroglyph Kom Ombo

A hieroglyph depicting Hathor and Sobek at Kom Ombo temple

Khonsu may not be a name you think of when you think of the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. Khonsu was the god of the moon. Interestingly, in Thebes, he was worshipped as the son of Mut and Amun. But at Kom Ombo, he was worshipped as the son of Sobek and Hathor. He was often depicted as a man with the head of a hawk or falcon. In his human form, he’s in the form of a mummy with a sidelock of hair, to signify childhood. His name means “traveller,” as the moon travelled through the sky at night. He was thought to protect those who travelled at night.

Gods of the Northern Side of the Temple

Horus was the falcon god, and one of the oldest gods in ancient Egypt. He was also known as Horus the Elder, and Egyptians worshipped him as a sky god and one of the great creators. In early Egypt, he was the brother of Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. But in later representations, he became the son of Osiris and Isis. As a sky god, he held the sun in his right eye, and the moon in his left, which he carried across the sky in his falcon form. The Eye of Horus was a symbol of protection, royalty, and good health.

In the hieroglyph below, Horus is shown just to the right of center, and to the right of Hathor. Also note Sobek to the far left.

Kom Ombo temple hieroglyph Horus

Tasenetnofret was the consort of Horus, and mother to Panebtawy. Her name means “good or beautiful sister”. She appears to have been a local deity of Kom Ombo and a manifestation of the goddess Hathor. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find much information on her. (If you have more info, let me know!)

Panebtawy was the son of Horus and Tasenetnofret. He was often depicted as a young boy with a finger to his lips. His name meant “Lord of the Two Lands”.

Kom Ombo Temple

Ptolemy VI Philometor (180–145 BC) started work on Kom Ombo temple at the beginning of his reign. Other Ptolemies continued construction and expansion.  Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator (51–47 BCE), Cleopatra VII’s brother and co-ruler, built the inner and outer hypostyles.

Kom Ombo hypostyle columns

Kom Ombo temple columns

Roman emperor Trajan (53-117 AD) added the forecourt and outer enclosure walls. Unfortunately, much of this section, including the great pylon, which most Egyptian temples had, no longer exist. Only low walls and stumps of pillars remain.

Kom Ombo forecourt pillars

row of columns at the Temple of Kom Ombo

The temple itself has two identical entrances, hypostyle halls and sanctuaries for the two sets of gods. Kom Ombo was built on the ruins of an older temple, also dedicated to Sobek.

Kom Ombo temple

The temple resides at a bend in the Nile River, where crocodiles used to gather in ancient times. The Crocodile museum houses several mummified crocodiles, highlighting just how important Sobek was to their ancient belief system.

Note the relief above the doorway, where Sobek and Hathor appear to accept an offering:

Kom Ombo temple entrance

The temple consists of a front courtyard, a hypostyle hall, three inner halls, and two sanctuaries; one dedicated to Sobek and the other to Horus. The temples are divided into seven main chambers and smaller rooms, used for different rituals.

Kom Ombo temple

This is a cartouche in Kom Ombo temple. A cartouche is an oval or oblong circle encasing a set of hieroglyphs. This usually represents the name of a monarch. Does anyone know whose name this particular cartouche represents?

Kom Ombo cartouche

Another cartouche surrounded by additional hieroglyphs. This cartouche represents the Ptolemy family name.

Kom Ombo temple cartouche

This was one of my favourite hieroglyphs. I found it unusual since most hieroglyphs depict faces from a profile view, and this one was head-on. Who is it supposed to be, I wonder?

Kom Ombo hieroglyph face

Parts of the temple sustained damage from floods, earthquakes, and other builders who dismantled portions of the temple for other construction projects. When the Coptic church took over the building for its own house of worship, they defaced and destroyed many of the hieroglyphs inside the temple.

However, in 1893, an archaeologist named Jacques de Morgan cleared the debris from the southern section of the temple and restored the buildings to their former grandeur.

Kom Ombo templeKom Ombo temple exterior

Getting There

Kom Ombo is located approximately 47km north of Aswan (about an hour away). If you’re travelling on a group tour, you’re very likely to visit the Kom Ombo Temple, as it’s a very popular tourist destination. It’s usually in combination with a visit to the Temple of Edfu.

GPS Coordinates: 24° 27′ 59.99″ N 32° 56′ 59.99″ E

Opening Hours: 9am-5pm

Admission: LE 80