As guests arrive at Kasane International Airport in the northeastern corner of Botswana, a woman driver begins to load luggage onto an open-air jeep. Wearing a khaki uniform with a red and white scarf tied neatly around her neck, she helps the fresh arrivals into her vehicle and cruises through the city’s asphalt roads until she arrives at the entrance of Chobe National Park. As she navigates the park’s bumpy dirt path, she points out blossoming fever berry trees, starlings winging away overhead, and a savanna elephant plodding along as her passengers ooh and ahh. She pauses for a moment to breathe in the air of the plains, before continuing on to join her 19 other fellow safari guides at Chobe Game Lodge—all of them women.
Established in 1973, Chobe Game Lodge is one of the premier safari destinations in the country and the only permanent hospitality lodging available within Chobe National Park. The reserve sits in an interesting geographic location that straddles four distinct ecosystems: the lush floodplains of the Chobe River and the dense forests that surround it, the wetlands of the Savuti Marsh, the remote Linyanti swamps, and the dry savannah lands scattered in between. The chance to catch a glimpse of Africa’s Big Five, as well as other animals like hippopotamuses, tsessebe, and painted dogs, draws visitors to Chobe from all around the world—and to the only luxury lodgings in the area, naturally.
With a five-star hotel rating, the lodge prides itself on stylishly blending the line between wilderness and luxury. Moorish-style architecture and Zanzibar-inspired interiors are filled with African artwork and offer guests a relaxing place to unwind after a day out exploring the park. But perhaps what Chobe Game Lodge is best known for is its women—specifically the safari guides, who are affectionately known as “Chobe’s Angels.” In 2004, the lodge employed its first woman safari guide and has been steadily increasing their numbers ever since.
Going with the Flo
Florence Kagiso, the head guide at Chobe Lodge, has kind eyes, a wide smile, and often wears her hair slicked back in a ponytail. She prefers to go by just “Flo.” Kagiso hails from a remote region of Botswana’s swampy Okavango Delta and didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a safari guide. In fact, she initially wanted to work in fashion. After studying fashion design for three years at Boiteko Academy in Francistown, the second largest city in Botswana, she felt herself longing for the open spaces of the bush. A place where she wouldn’t be woken by the honks of cars in the street and where the spaces around her were peppered with wild, free-roaming animals. “I wasn’t meant to be there,” Kasgiso says. “I missed the surroundings I had grown up in.”
As she spent more time in Francistown, Kagiso found herself frequently thinking about her blind grandmother, who introduced her to the beauty of Botswana and its wildlife when she was just a young girl. “My grandmother couldn’t see, but she knew how to live with wildlife in harmony,” Kagiso says. “We did not have vehicles, so we just walked in the bush, tracking the animals, listening to the birds, and detecting paw prints.”
Feeling inspired to pursue a career that would nurture her love for animals, Kagiso quit fashion and signed up for a six-month training course at the Botswana Wildlife Training Institute in Maun. After completing an internship at another lodge, she landed a job at Chobe Game Lodge in 2004 and immediately noticed something odd—she only had male colleagues. As the sole woman on the team, Kagiso dealt with many snide comments from the men. Some told her that she should take on a more “feminine role,” such as in housekeeping—she refused. “I studied harder to become a better guide than them,” Kagiso says. “I tried to drive my vehicle and boat better, and make my guests happier.”
Today, Kagiso is one of the most popular guides at Chobe Game Lodge and the guide who has been employed there the longest—she’s outlasted all of the male coworkers who discouraged her. Her trailblazing work was even recognized internationally in 2021 when National Geographic Traveler named her Innovator of the Year. Kagiso now oversees hiring and training other female guides, all while managing her own duties, which include escorting guests on safaris, identifying the area’s flora and fauna, and even changing heavy tires when needed. “I am often teased [and called] ‘the matriarch’ because I have been here for 18 years,” Kagiso says. “I show young guides the ways, always with patience and gentleness.”
Naturally, Kagiso’s success has had an inspirational effect on the women around her. Monica Modimowaitse, a 25-year-old guide from a small village called Pandamatenga in northern Botswana, has worked at Chobe since 2018. A naturally shy person, she wanted to pursue guiding to help support her parents and two sisters back in her home village but felt intimidated at the thought of having to interact with strangers all day. Working with Flo gave her the confidence she needed to take guiding seriously and also helped her develop a deep love for nature. “As a guide under Flo’s mentorship, I have learned to be positive in every situation, not just at my workplace, but in life in general,” says Madimoswaitse. “Flo’s confidence, passion, and professionalism has inspired me and other women, and I have matured to be a better person.”
However, the Lodge didn’t begin hiring more woman guides purely for altruistic reasons—it was a practical choice, too. Once Kagiso and other women joined, management noticed an increase in positive reviews and a decrease in overhead expenses. “Cost of maintenance and fuel consumption went down significantly, in some cases by up to 25 percent, in comparison to vehicles and boats driven by male guides,” says Andrew Flatt, marketing manager at Chobe Game Lodge. The women were simply driving more conservatively, management soon realized.
Having female safari guides on staff also made women guests feel more comfortable out in the bush in situations where the only place to use the restroom might be, well, behind a bush. With fresh feedback and the numbers under their belt, the lodge made a conscious effort to offer more opportunities to women students graduating from training programs across Botswana—it now only hires female guides. “As more women finished their training and joined the working guiding force, it became more apparent that this all-female team would operate at the same, if not higher levels than male guiding teams in the region,” Flatt says.
For the women at Chobe Game Lodge, working as a safari guide comes with a welcome amount of prestige (guides are a highly respected profession in Botswana) and financial security. Plus, they’re able to join a community of hardworking, like-minded women who are also mothers and wives. The women safari guides are on an intense rotating schedule that requires 26 days at work and four days off a month, but to them, their labors are not a waste. Many of the women support their families in their home villages and send money back when they can. “I am not only working for myself, I am supporting my immediate and extended families, including my nephews and nieces,” Kagiso says. “I am improving my life and theirs.”
Women and wildlife
In addition to educating guests about local animals and the natural rhythms of Chobe National Park, the Lodge is also making moves to protect the hotel’s greatest asset—the environment. It has strict sustainability practices in place, which include things like ecofriendly clear water treatment, glass recycling, composting, and stocking biodegradable toiletries in rooms. The Lodge is also in the process of adding more electric-powered vehicles to its fleet. Former head guide and lodge environmentalist trainee, Vivian Diphupu, leads the Back of House Eco Tours for interested guests who want to see the recycling and composting facilities on the property’s premises.
The company also has a vested interest in supporting the people who call the lands in and around Chobe National Park home. In 2014, it launched Chobe Farms, a project that aims to help alleviate overfishing of the Chobe River by sustainably farming fish. It sells the fish to the blossoming population of Kasane, a nearby town, at a lower price than locals would usually get at the market. And when the wildlife tourism industry took a nosedive during the onset of the COVID pandemic, Chobe Game Lodge and its parent company Desert & Delta Safaris started the CARES Movement, a fundraiser that secured $20,000 to be invested into local communities located in wildlife areas. In 2020, they also donated 10 percent of their revenue to Elephants Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve wildlife corridors and reduce farmer- and elephant-related conflicts in the Chobe region.
As the Chobe Game Lodge approaches its 50th anniversary in 2023, the hotel is reflecting on what it has achieved since its founding. Adopting sustainable hospitality practices has been a major win, considering how unique and ecologically fragile the Chobe region is. But, for James Wilson, the marketing director of Desert & Delta Safaris, Chobe Game Lodge’s major accomplishment is employing an all-women safari guide team—it’s a move he hopes gains recognition and will be imitated around the world. “These women have to work harder to achieve the same as their male counterparts,” Wilson says. “Creating equality in the professional safari guiding industry in Botswana, let alone in Africa, is a mammoth task, and one that we cannot achieve alone, but we can certainly lead the fight.”