Women Who Travel

Out in the Bush With Botswana's All-Woman Safari Guiding Crew

The group, known as the Chobe Angels, is raising conscious safari standards—and inspiring a new generation of women—in the northern reaches of Botswana.
Out in the Bush With Botswana's AllWoman Safari Guiding Crew
Yulia Denisyuk

In the chilly predawn hour of late July, the peak time for a winter safari in Botswana, I sink deeper into the seat of our electric Land Cruiser, bundled in layers of scarves, blankets, and jackets. We’re on the move. A predator, the elusive African leopard, was spotted near our lodge the night before. While tracking this large nocturnal cat will ultimately prove difficult, I have already witnessed a different rare sight on this trip: a crew of all-woman guides known as the Chobe Angels, the first in Africa and the only such team in Botswana, where women still represent less than 5% of all safari guides.

“In the past, guiding was meant for men—women were back home, doing the house chores,” says Oriah Nthobatsang, one of 20 guides at the Chobe Game Lodge, which sits inside the namesake reserve known for having the highest density of elephants in Africa. “The Chobe Angels have broken that norm.”

Botswana accelerated reforms aimed at improving the lives of women in the 2000s, during what the World Bank cites as a “golden decade” for the progress of women’s rights worldwide, led by sub-Saharan Africa. In more recent years, the country has passed laws like giving married women the right to own land, and implemented initiatives to boost women’s participation in the economy. Still, Botswana’s gender equality indicators are lagging behind neighboring South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, highlighting the critical need for groups like Chobe Angels.

It hasn't been a smooth journey for the lodge, either. When long-time general manager Johan Bruwer joined in 2006, Chobe Game Lodge had just one woman working as a guide. Safari operators were hesitant to hire women, so Bruwer created an agreement with the Botswana Wildlife Training Institute in the nearby town of Maune to send all their women students to Chobe. “It took us the better part of a decade to get the all-woman crew together,” says Bruwer. During that time, the lodge implemented initiatives like equal wages, flexible schedules to support a healthy work-life balance, and job security post-maternity leave.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Nthobatsang, who became a guide in 2013. She maneuvers our quiet vehicle through the fragile park ecosystem as we pass a couple of kudu deer and a boisterous family of baboons gathered in the shade of the nearby mopane trees, indigenous to southern Africa. “I didn’t know how to drive, but I told myself, ‘One of these days, I will see myself in that Land Cruiser, driving in the mud or the sand.’ ”

Elephants gathering along Botswana's Chobe River

Yulia Denisyuk

Chobe Angels safari guide, Oriah Nthobatsang, out on a game drive

Yulia Denisyuk

“Guiding is not just about driving into the bush to see big game,” says Tshepiso “Vivian” Diphupu, the lodge’s environmental educator. We meet by the Chobe River, a mighty waterway at the northern edge of the park that attracts Angolan giraffes, puku antelopes, and hippos throughout the dry season. “The moment we go behind the wheel, we’re here to narrate a story,” Diphupu adds as a herd of African bush elephants, including a floppy-eared toddler, slowly descend to the river for their daily bath.

On our second day together, Nthobatsang spots a female lion resting near a dead elephant. As we approach the predator, she explains that this lion was recently separated from her pride. “She isn’t sure what to do next: whether to leave the dead animal and continue looking for her family or to stay with the carcass,” she says while inspecting the tracks on the sandy savannah floor. What looks like a bunch of paw traffic to me, to Nthobatsang is a story unfolding in front of us, hers to decipher and share.

The impact of having an all-woman guide crew shows up in multiple ways. The Chobe Angels see themselves as the custodians of the park, caring about the wellbeing of animals as much as they care about the guest experience. They strictly follow the rules of the national park, which forbid offroading, for example. “It’s not all about the big animals,” says head guide Lebo Mangwegape. “What about the invertebrates or insects? Offroading damages the entire ecosystem and can affect it for several seasons to come,” she explains. Men guides from other companies often follow their example, particularly when Chobe Angels are nearby. “We also noticed that the wear and tear on our vehicles has reduced and the maintenance costs dropped dramatically,” adds Bruwer.

The Chobe Angels are actively working to create viable career paths and opportunities for women throughout Botswana and beyond. “We come to schools to participate in conservation initiatives, career days where we showcase that you are not limited to what you can do just because of your gender, or even small projects like litter pick-ups to encourage young girls to look after their surroundings,” says Diphupu.

That sense of community is clear on our next drive, when Nthobatsang parks us by a stalled Land Cruiser. One of the Chobe Angels is hunched over her truck, and Nthobatsang and others rush to help. I feel an unexpected jolt of joy witnessing these women working together. “We see this in the way guests interact with our guides,” says Mangwegape. “Particularly women travelers.” I, too, have experienced an instant level of comfort and ease upon getting paired up with Nthobatsang. I let go of worries women travelers often contend with while flying solo, like having to be on alert at all times or navigating unwelcome attention or flirting. With that freed up space, I have the chance to fully savor wildlife encounters at Chobe instead.

Oriah Nthobatsang at work with the Chobe Angels, the first all-woman safari crew in Africa and the only such team in Botswana.

Yulia Denisyuk

The guiding community in Botswana and beyond has started to take notice. Over two-thirds of the 80 or so female guides currently working across the country came from Chobe Game Lodge. The Chobe Angels have a WhatsApp group with Ila Stars, a woman guiding crew in nearby Zambia. They are in talks with a lodge in Kenya that is interested in doing something similar. Other operators like African Bush Camps have visited the lodge to learn about their work.

“Across Africa, women working in wildlife management and the safari industry are paving the way to stand alongside men at the forefront of conservation,” says Holly Budge, founder of World Female Ranger Week. “The ripple effect of employing women is far-reaching: they invest their earned income into their families and, as breadwinners, are beacons of hope to other women and girls.”

Inside Botswana, that ripple effect is already taking place. “My social media inbox is full with messages from women asking how they, too, can become a guide,” says Diphuhu.

On my final morning with Chobe Angels, Nthobatsang drives us to the lush riverfront, where the scent of sweet grass and African sage fills the air and the gentle winter sun illuminates the floodplains. We slowly glide across the landscape when excitement sweeps through our jeep. Nthobatsang spots the lost female lion from the day before and turns the vehicle around to get closer. I see two female lions rushing towards our acquaintance. A second later, and the three animals are embracing each other. A sense of joy is palpable in their lean, strong bodies; a band of sisters united in the bush.