Botswana: The pride of Africa
It doesn’t take a body language expert to recognise that we’ve crossed paths with one cranky granny. Her displeasure is obvious – the flapping ears, raised trunk and the mock charge that warns, “back off or else”. Wheeling our horses around, we retreat to a safe distance from the breeding herd of African elephants; but when we look back, the matriarch has assembled the troops, a conga line of grey, wrinkly flesh advancing through the stunted marula forest.
Respect, ladies – we know when it’s time to leave! And as we canter away, I finally remember to breathe, adrenaline coursing through my veins after this exhilarating close encounter.
This ‘game ride’ with Okavango Horse Safaris typifies the wilderness experiences on offer in Botswana – intimate, remote, luxurious and more than a tad adventurous. Landlocked between South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, this flat, sparsely populated country has an abundance of game – including the largest number of elephants in Africa – as well as large tracts of protected land and a successful model of low impact, eco-friendly tourism. Add to that a stable economy and a stamp of approval as a peaceful, safe nation, and it’s little wonder that Botswana is considered one of the premier safari destinations in Africa.
The undisputed jewel in Botswana’s crown is the Okavango Delta, which rises in Angola before trickling south like a leaky hose, swelling into a maze of lagoons, islands and channels covering 15,000 square kilometres during its annual flood between April and July, before evaporating in the sands of the Kalahari Desert.
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and protected by the Moremi Game Reserve on its eastern edge, this mesmerising inland oasis is a veritable Garden of Eden, with incredible diversity and concentration of wildlife including elephants, buffalo, hippos, giraffe, lechwe and the rare African wild dog.
South of the Delta lies the Kalahari Desert – home to the legendary Bushmen – and the salt pans of Makgadikgadi, a curious moonscape where meerkats rule the roost; while to the north-east is Chobe National Park, home to one of the largest elephant populations in Africa.
With such large, unfenced and untamed tracts of land, lodges in Botswana offer a sense of wilderness unlike any other African destination: here, you can be at one with nature, a part of the landscape and not just a casual observer.
Here’s a guide to some of the amazing safari camps to choose from in Botswana:
OKAVANGO HORSE SAFARIS
A ‘game ride’ with Okavango Horse Safaris offers unparalleled wildlife viewing; from the saddle, not only do you have the benefits of elevation and speed, but to the wild animals, the horse is just another creature of the savannah. A slow approach, allowing your mount to graze as an indication that all is right with the world, results in close-up views of bull elephants, buffalo and African wild dogs; while encounters with zebra and giraffe result in joyous gallops through the grasslands, horses and riders at one with the herds.
Time your visit to coincide with the annual flood, and you’ll also be rewarded with canters alongside graceful lechwe, leaping exultantly through the shallow waters; while a bareback swim across a hippo infested waterway adds drama to already thrilling days.
Located on a private concession bordering the Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Horse Safaris’ main camp, Kujwana, overlooks the seasonal Xudum River, a watery playground for hippos and herds of elephants during the flood season. There’s a choice of accommodation, including en-suite permanent safari tents and two new luxurious riverside suites; while a treehouse and swimming pool provide the perfect setting for relaxation and game-viewing in comfort.
While Okavango Horse Safaris’ itineraries are designed for experienced equestrians, non-riders are also welcome to join in activities such as game walks and traditional dugout mokoro canoe trips through tranquil waterholes.
BELMOND EAGLE ISLAND LODGE
Located on a private island in the heart of the Okavango Delta, this newly renovated lodge consists of 12 tented rooms, each with its own private plunge pool with views across the river. There’s absolutely nothing rustic about this camp – the rooms are plush and modern, with air conditioning, a fully-stocked mini bar, glamorous furnishings and a large indoor bathtub, while the sophisticated al fresco dining facilities bely its remote location.
Game drives are conducted early morning when animal life is most active, while romantic mokoro trips take you through shallow waters to areas inaccessible by regular boats. Helicopter safaris are also available, touching down in secluded locations for a cheeky beverage; while a combined sunrise chopper and horse riding safari provides both aerial and close-up encounters with roaming game.
Located on the northern tip of Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve, Mombo Camp boasts an enormous concentration of game, including herds of elephant, white and black rhino (both recently reintroduced to Chief’s Island), buffalo and zebra. Several prides of lion also prowl the area (they have even been seen chasing prey through the camp), while there are frequent sightings of leopard and cheetah.
This traditional, architect-designed camp consists of a colonial-style thatched dining, bar and living area, two plunge pools and a gym overlooking the river; while nine elegant en-suite rooms are raised two metres from the ground to make the most of game watching from the open verandas. Connecting walkways between facilities mean that the wildlife can wander uninhibited through camp without compromising the safety of guests.
Located on the game-rich Khwai River on the eastern fringes of the delta, Machaba Camp offers an affordable, classic safari experience suitable for families. There are 10 luxury tents in total (two dedicated to families with children); and while they are well-appointed, the tents retain a rustic, welcoming feel, with outdoor showers, Persian rugs, oversized armchairs and loads of cushions to create an iconic Out of Africa experience.
Meals are served under the trees and stars; while a swimming pool, library and massage sala cater for ultimate relaxation. Game drives are conducted each morning and evening, with guided walks or mokoro trips as options; and spotlighting tours at night introduce guests to nocturnal wildlife.
As a complete contrast to the Okavango Delta, head south to the Makgadigadi Salt Pans, where Jack’s Camp provides a palm-lined oasis in a harsh, yet strangely romantic setting. This arid landscape – home to the legendary Bushmen of the Kalahari – boasts a surprising variety of wildlife, including zebras, wildebeest and migratory birds such as flamingo, which flock to the area in the wet season. The area is also home to meerkats, who are so habituated to human visitors they will pose next to you for a photo opportunity.
Jack’s Camp may not be as luxurious as some Botswana lodges, but what it lacks in facilities, it makes up for in atmosphere. The camp consists of 10 tents with indoor/outdoor bathrooms, a mess tent with a library and antique pool table, and a swimming pool shaded by a pavilion tent. Activities include quad biking, horse riding, visits to the meerkat colony and archaeological sites, and interaction
with the local Bushman community.
NGOMA LODGE, CHOBE
With Africa’s largest herd of elephants, an abundance of buffalo, lion, hippos and over 460 species of birds, Chobe National Park, in the north of Botswana, is one of the country’s premier safari locations. Bordering the park in the Chobe Forest Reserve is Ngoma Safari Lodge, an eco-friendly camp with panoramic views across the Chobe River and floodplain.
The lodge consists of eight spacious luxury chalets, each with a private plunge pool, an open lounge with floor to ceiling glass windows, and indoor and outdoor shower options. Activities include walking safaris and night drives in the forest reserve, game drives in the National Park, cruises on the Chobe River, visits to a local village, relaxing by the pool and evenings around the campfire. •
• Okavango Horse Safaris: okavangohorse.com
• Belmond Eagle Island Lodge: belmondsafaris.com
• Mombo Camp: africanwildlifesafaris.com.au
• Machaba Camp: classicsafaricompany.com.au
• Jack’s Camp: abercrombiekent.com
• Ngoma Safari Lodge: abercrombiekent.com
• Wildlife Safari: wildlifesafari.com.au