Thursday 17 August 2017

Beauty in Botswana: Magical moments on the safari of a lifetime

From big sightings to magical small moments, Botswana offers the ultimate safari adventure...

Star treatment: The star bed at Abu Camp, Botswana
Star treatment: The star bed at Abu Camp, Botswana
Food at Abu Camp, Botswana
A leopard, photographed by Rachel in Botswana
Rachel's transport in Botswana...
Lions on the move during Rachel's safari in Botswana
Chitabe Lediba Camp: 'The close encounters are magical'

Rachel Dugan

Since boarding our flight to Johannesburg, the planes have been getting smaller, the number of seats dwindling as we hop from camp to camp.

Now, halfway through our 10-day trip, we're in a bijou five-seater flying over the Okavango Delta, a sprawling 15,000sq km plain of wetlands in northern Botswana. This vast floodplain starts life as a tiny trickle in the highlands of Angola, travelling 1,000km to become the mighty Okavango River. Viewed from the air, the deep verdant greens and glassy blues - inky in some spots, electric in others - form a vibrant patchwork I can't take my eyes off.

The type of plane we're travelling on, our pilot tells us, is fondly known as 'The Delta Donkey' - a loyal beast that ferries wildlife enthusiasts from Maun, the delta's gateway town. Compared to many of its neighbours, Botswana's economy is thriving and its government stable, and like the rich diamond deposits found here in the 1960s, its safari experience is luxurious and expensive - the top choice for those wanting multiple sightings in a low-density, high-end environment.

Camps usually have a handful of high-spec rooms, vehicles accommodate a maximum of six and there is a consistent focus on animal welfare. No more than three vehicles are allowed at a 'sighting', although the concessions are so vast and the lodges so far apart that only once during our 10-day trip do we encounter a third vehicle.

Chitabe Lediba Camp: 'The close encounters are magical'
Chitabe Lediba Camp: 'The close encounters are magical'

But no matter how luxurious the safari, the basic timetable for these trips remains tied to the animals' movements. Rising just before dawn, there is time for coffee and homemade muffins before you set off on your first drive of the day. You return to camp at around 10.30am for a hot brunch/lunch, and then, just like the animals, you seek out some shade, perhaps near a cool watering hole - in all but one of our camps, our room had a private plunge pool - and have a siesta.

As the predators start to wake from their slumber in the early evening, you head out again, and when the sun sinks low in the sky, it's time for the much-loved sun-downer, a welcome pit stop and gentle nod to Africa's colonial past. The experience varies from day to day, and camp to camp, but each involves breathtaking vistas and a cool, refreshing tipple of choice.

One evening, as a female leopard drapes herself over a nearby tree stump, our guide backs the 4X4 off a few feet and begins assembling our drinks. Under the feline's watchful gaze, we sip G&Ts as the light fades. On another day, we rendezvous with other guests on a river bank with stunning views over to neighbouring Namibia. The staff, who seem to live by the mantra that nothing is too much trouble, have set up a plush 'bush bar'. They serve us expertly mixed cocktails as hippos further upstream let out deep, throaty rumbles to remind us we are on their patch.

Once darkness has fallen, it's time to return to camp - with a bit of nocturnal wildlife-spotting on the way - to trade tales of sightings and close calls over a three-course dinner and glass or two of rich South African Pinot Noir.

Rachel's transport in Botswana...
Rachel's transport in Botswana...

Before coming on the trip, I wondered if safari would really be for me. I expected an experience akin to visiting a giant wildlife park, and the sightings are so frequent in the first few days, I start to worry I might have been right. No sooner have we said goodbye to a towering group of giraffes than a herd of elephants lumbers into view, swiftly followed by a monochrome flash as some 50 zebras sprint across our path. In the end, we tick off most of our must-see animals on the first day.

But it soon becomes clear that this is nothing like a wildlife park. In fact, the experience is more like being dropped into the middle of one of David Attenborough's lush BBC documentaries.

The close encounters are magical, breathtaking, surreal, unbelievably special. One morning, we spot a lioness and two cubs by a low wooden bridge over a flooded road. Like defiant toddlers, the cubs sit at the edge of the bridge, refusing their mum's calls to follow her across. A few cheeky meows and then they disappear into nearby grass for an impromptu wrestling match. We stay with the family for well over two hours, following for a number of kilometres, and every small gesture and communication feels like witnessing a mini-miracle.

At another camp, we return two days in a row to a den belonging to a pack of wild dogs - elusive creatures spoken of in hushed tones by seasoned safari-goers. On the second day, we find the 14-strong pack at the tail end of their afternoon siesta. They slowly wake, perform various greetings and rituals, and head off to find dinner. Careering through thick bush in pursuit as they begin to pick up speed is exhilarating in the extreme. Returning to camp on a high, we wear our sightings like a badge of honour, and relive the chase over a nightcap on the stargazing deck.

A leopard, photographed by Rachel in Botswana
A leopard, photographed by Rachel in Botswana

A few days later, we return to Maun in one of the tiny bush planes and I greedily drink in my final views of the watery delta. As we make our way across the tarmac to the terminal, I catch a glimpse of our ride back to Johannesburg. It's a large commercial jet. My heart sinks a little. My Botswana adventure is over.

What to pack

You'll be spending up to eight hours a day on drives, so clothing should be loose, comfy and lightweight with long sleeves and legs to protect from sun and insects. A good pair of boots or walking shoes is vital, as is a wide-brimmed hat and multi-purpose neck scarf.

3 top tips...

Get some rest

Conserve your energy where you can. Get an early night (or several) and make sure your downtime during the day is just that. Read, lounge in the shade by your plunge pool or have a power nap, and don’t be tempted to have a boozy lunch or you’ll  sweat it out in the full midday glare of the African sun.

Lions on the move during Rachel's safari in Botswana
Lions on the move during Rachel's safari in Botswana

Be snap happy!

On a trip like this, expect lots of fancy cameras with telescopic lenses to rival the paparazzi’s. Don’t be intimidated. Our decent digital camera (around €400) gave us some glorious and eminently framable shots. But my top tip is to put the camera away now and then and just enjoy the spectacle.

Gratuities

No matter how expensive the trip, staff tips are still customary. All camps had a tip box in the communal area, with around $10–$20 per day advised. For your guide, give them the money directly — probably in the region of $20 per day. So for a 10-day trip, you can expect to add on an extra €500 for tips.

Get there

Mahlatini (01 906 1883; mahlatini.com) offers an eight-night luxury holiday at Wilderness Safaris Chitabe Lediba Camp, Vumbura Plains Camp, Abu Camp and Kings Pool Camp (two nights at each) from €12,100pp sharing on an all-inclusive basis, including all flights and safari activities; see wilderness-safaris.com.

Where to stay

We stayed at four Wilderness camps: Chitabe Lediba; Vumbura Plains South, a contemporary camp on a private concession leased from the local community; the über-luxe Abu Camp (above and opposite page), with its own private herd of elephants and a star bed overlooking the elephant boma for the ultimate immersion experience; and Kings Pool Camp, which sits on the Linyanti river.

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