Jan Cochran’s love of travel was evident from a young age. As a child, she was especially fascinated by Africa, and she went on her first trip to Kenya through a student exchange program at only 17.

“That just reinforced how much I loved Africa, and I’d always wanted to go back,” Jan says. She and her husband, Dennis Matthews, got that chance a few years ago, when they went on safari in East Africa.

Jan and Dennis continued their travels, including a Lindblad Expeditions cruise to the Galapagos Islands in 2018, but they still felt the pull of Africa. For their next trip, however, they wanted to try something different.

Botswana Jan Cochran and Dennis Matthews

A Safari With a Mission: African Wild Dogs

“We had friends who visited Botswana, and they raved about it,” Dennis says. Most importantly, the country had an abundance of something the couple hadn’t seen in East Africa: African wild dogs, an animal at the top of his wildlife bucket list.

The couple discovered Natural Habitat Adventures online and booked two spots on one of the conservation travel company’s Botswana safaris in August 2021. Jan says Nat Hab’s small group sizes were what attracted them to the company.

“We really like traveling with small groups rather than the big tour bus trips,” she explains. The couple’s Botswana travel group included just eight people, including their Expedition Leader, Richard Avilino, and a Nat Hab videographer.

As they set out, they crossed their fingers. They knew Botswana would be beautiful, but would they get a glimpse of the animals they’d traveled halfway around the world to see?

“The very first thing we really saw was the wild dogs,” Jan says in a short film produced during the trip. “All these pups, different ages, running around and playing. In my heart I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it! The first day out: wild dogs!’”

Botswana Wild Dog

Botswana Wild Dog Puppies

The rest of the trip would bring more even more wildlife experiences. Their first night at camp, they watched a group of lion cubs—and even some adults—wrestling on the shore. Over the next few days, they’d have up-close encounters with leopards lounging in gnarled trees and elephants and giraffes ambling across the savanna.

“We’ve never been as close to the animals as we were in Botswana,” Jan says. “And because they’ve been protected for so long, they didn’t pay any attention to us whatsoever!”

Botswana Lion Wrestle

Botswana Leopard

Botswana Baby Elephant

Botswana Giraffe and Zebras

Another highlight was a ride though the reedy marshes in a mokoro—a traditional poled dugout canoe—where they were able to spot hippos rising out of the waters of the Okavango Delta.

“That was so different from anything else we’ve ever done,” Jan says.

Botswana Mokoro Boat

Botswana Hippos

Making Dream (Trips) Come True

Jan and Dennis would love to return to Africa, but in the meantime, they have plenty of adventures planned closer to home. Dennis went Yellowstone National Park this winter on Nat Hab’s Ultimate Wolf & Wildlife Safari (Jan opted for a beach trip with girlfriends, though it unfortunately fell through due to COVID-19), and the couple is already booked on an upcoming Lindblad trip to Costa Rica and another Nat Hab trip to Alaska.

But no matter where the couple ventures next, Botswana will always hold a special place in their hearts.

Botswana Bird

Botswana Ungulate

Botswana Crocodile

Botswana Bird

“I felt a connection to Botswana that I really can’t explain—there’s just something about it,” Jan says. “There’s a certain kind of happiness when you’re in a place that touches you so deeply that you cry. It’s powerful.”

“Every day was new and every day was great,” Dennis adds. “It was our dream trip.”

Watch our video featuring Jan and Dennis: Exploring the Okavango | A Botswana Traveler Story: 

All photos (except feature) © Dennis Matthews