Safari – Wonder Women of Botswana

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At one of Africa’s most progressive safari destinations, all-female guides are a success with guests from around the world.

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.

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Yazema Moremong, known as Connie, is a member of Chobe Game Lodge’s all-female safari guiding team.

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.

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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Impalas lock horns in the Chobe National Park.

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.