The romance of the classic African safari has a long pedigree: When Ernest Hemingway went on safari, he liked to do things in style, and who hasn’t imagined themselves playing the part of Robert Redford or Meryl Street in Out of Africa? It’s in Botswana that such things become possible.
This is a country whose government long ago chose utter exclusivity over mass tourism and in the process sought to protect one of Africa’s least spoiled and therefore most fragile wild corners. Botswana is the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari, names that roll around in the mouth in a rhythmical African way, and places where the focus is on high-end wilderness experiences where luxury is the bottom line. It is the daily drama of lions, leopards and cheetahs stalking the massed ranks of delicate antelope species and bull-headed buffalos. And it is a place where wilderness still means something.
To reach most of the tented camps and intimate lodges of the Okavango, it is necessary to fly from the gateway town of Maun out over the waters of one of the world’s largest inland deltas and into remote airstrips that serve the lodges and camps. Many inhabit islands, while others are barely visible from the air, so perfectly are they integrated into their surrounds. And all are designed to make you feel just like Robert or Meryl or Ernest.
Your day on safari, begins with a pre-dawn wake-up call, a soft African voice calling out of the night to wake you with warming tea or coffee in readiness for a quick breakfast. Then it’s out on safari to find the animals we all dreamed of as children. Unless, of course, you prefer a lie in...
Whatever time you emerge, very often, there will be elephants and antelopes wandering through camp as lions roar out beyond the trees. By mid- to late-morning, with the African sun already draining colour from the day, wildlife heads for the shade as you do likewise for an exquisite early lunch and an afternoon spent on your shaded terrace overlooking the water, or in the swimming pool, or in the bar...invariably the choice is yours.
At the precise moment when heat dissipates from the day, most lodges offer high tea, that glorious safari tradition of afternoon tea, less to keep hunger at bay than to connect you to an African past that stretches back as long as travellers have been going on safari. Tempted as you may be to spend the rest of your day under canvas, the sunset safari awaits and it’s not one to miss – watching as wildlife emerges from the shadows to graze and to hunt as the sun turns the savannah to gold: this is when Africa truly weaves its magic.
And after darkness falls, you’ll dine under the stars and immerse yourself in the thrilling yet utterly safe wild beauty of the African night.
Here is everything you need to plan your Botswana safari:
LODGES & TENTED CAMPS: THE BASICS
All lodges and tented camps offer all-inclusive rates that include three meals a day, all drinks and all activities (unless you go for a helicopter excursion...).
Although most companies will arrange your flight in, these cost extra.
The peak season for visiting the Okavango Delta is the dry season that runs from June or July until the end of October.
All of the companies listed below dedicate a significant proportion of their revenues to innovative conservation programmes that range from endangered species protection to projects that benefit local communities.
One classic Okavango experience is the mokoro, a wooden dugout canoe in which you’ll be punted along the waterways of the delta while elephants drink in the shallows.
One of my favourite safari companies, & Beyond does the safari standards with something approaching perfection – terrific locations, expert guides and brilliant food are just the beginning.
But on top of this they add some real architectural showpieces – their Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge is simply breathtaking, its main building resembling a pangolin sheltering in the forest, while the stunning rooms mimic the iconic nests of weaver birds. Within lie supreme levels of comfort.
The service I have received at all of the & Beyond lodges in which I’ve stayed has also been the best of any I’ve experienced in Africa.
In addition to Sandibe, my favourite &Beyond camps are the recently overhauled Nxabega, Xaranna and Xudum.
& Beyond also have a couple of mobile tented camps where the experience is of a mobile safari.
- One of the longest-standing, largest and most respected of the safari operators working in Botswana, Wilderness do high levels of luxury, fantastically remote camps and brilliantly chosen wildlife-rich areas.
- They also have their own fleet of aircraft which helps in making arrangements as seamless as possible.
- It’s worth spending time looking at their website in search of the experience that suits you. Their premier camps are the last word in luxury – Mombo, Vumbura Plains and Jao rank among the finest safari camps I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
Other excellent choices include Kwetsani, Chitabe and Xigera, while Kalahari Plains is a terrific desert camp and best visited from November to March.
- Outstanding conservation programs, über-luxurious rooms where you’ll feel like you have the African wilderness all to yourself, and some of Africa’s best wildlife – what more could you want?
- Some of Great Plains’ camps inhabit the places where National Geographic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert filmed their extraordinary footage.
- I have stayed at their properties beyond Botswana but not here. Even so, I’ve heard that their Zarafa, Selinda and Duba Plains camps have few peers when it comes to luxury.
- Perched on grassy islands surrounded by the largest network of salt pans on the planet, the camps of the Makgadikgadi Pans run Uncharted Africa are some of Botswana’s most original.
- Jack’s Camp is steeped in history and safari lore – I’ve never stayed anywhere quite like this with its antique-strewn tents and splendid evocation of the glory days of the African safari. SanCamp is more about light and space.
- This is the place to come if you’d like that most unusual of safari photos – you with a wild meerkat perched upon your head or shoulder.
The ‘Big Five’ is the stuff of safari mythmaking and it refers not to the most elusive creatures you’ll see on safari but rather to the five most dangerous animals as ranked by hunters way back in Hemingway’s time – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.
- The gateway to Southern Africa is Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo International Airport. South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) has the most flights but other airlines also fly here.
- The two main gateway airports for the Okavango and Kalahari are Maun and Kasane, two regional towns in northern Botswana. Maun in particular has good connections with Johannesburg and the flights from here into the Delta are generally cheaper than those from Kasane.
- Book your flights into the delta through your safari company or lodge.
Anthony Ham is a travel writer, based in Melbourne he knows where to go + what to do.