LOOKING DOWN FROM the co-pilot’s seat, I can see an elephant making a beeline for the tiny landing strip we’re aiming at. I wonder briefly if the pilot has spotted the animal but, given the profusion of dials and the myriad knobs that he’s constantly adjusting, I decide not to bother him. After all, I’m only in the co-pilot’s seat by default – I’m the sole passenger in this six-seater Cessna jittering through a big blue Botswana sky, and I’ve been told to sit here for “balance”. I’m double the weight of the pilot, who has the frame of Mo Farah.
Below us, the Okavango Delta reveals itself as a cobweb of lines radiating from endless archipelagos out through glistening wetlands; these lines, I learn, are animal tracks and, yes, I can make out the odd beast wading through the water. Okavango is a vast inland delta that receives 11 trillion litres of water annually from the Angola highlands, and none of it reaches the sea. The delta supports a fabulous profusion of wildlife, and I’m hoping to see some of it during my stay at Duba Plains Camp and, later, at Zarafa Camp, both run by Great Plains Conservation. After a wobbly – and pachyderm-free – landing I’m driven a short distance to the camp, which occupies a small island shaded by mangosteen, ebony and fig trees, where I’m sung a welcome by female staff and taken straight to tea to meet the other guests – all six of them. The camp can accommodate 12 people in six tents overlooking the water; a further tent is available to those who bring their own pilot.
Tea is taken in the central area, comprising dining room and lounge beside a circular wood podium with a braai in the middle built over the water, after which I’m walked to my tent. I’m told that hippo, elephant and baboon (to use the safari vernacular of referring to animals by the singular) are frequent visitors and can be dangerous. It dawns on me with a kind of fear-tinged elation that there are no fences here, nothing to keep the wildlife out. I’m in a remote area of northern Botswana accessible most of the year only by air, and it’s animal immersion time.
But before I can get to the wildlife, I’m given time to settle into my tent, done out in the characteristic Great Plains “expedition” style. It’s a charming, rustic and homely quarter, all canvas, wood flooring, brass and leather, and if it seems a bit frayed at the edges, that’s because its time is almost up. Duba Plains was the first property established by wildlife conservationists, filmmakers and National Geographic Explorersin-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert to promote their concept of conservation tourism:“quality-led tourism experiences that are environmentally sound, with the benefits going specifically into making the conservation of an area viable and sustainable”. As such, guest numbers are strictly limited, and the camp has only three Land Cruisers for safari activities.An exquisite new camp is under construction nearby, and when it’s completed in early 2016 the current camp will be totally expunged, in line with Great Plains’ low-impact ethos.
I hardly need to unpack. Everything I require fits in a small clutch. This principally comprises layers of clothing (several merinowool T-shirts both long- and shortsleeved) to cope with the winter range of temperature; the average low is seven degrees, while the highs hit the upper 20s.
Soon I’m in my open-sided roofless Land Cruiser heading out across the island, dodging great clumps of elephant dung and a file of baboon, crossing a wooden bridge barely wider than the vehicle, and onto the Duba Plains tracks. Many of these are inundated with clean, clear Okavango water, and despite the Land Cruiser having been raised so that its floor is a metre off the ground, the water often surges in through the open sides. My guide, Cos, explains that there’s a technique to this surreal form of locomotion: you mustn’t overtake your bow wave or the engine floods.
We pass an absolutely enchanting couple of hours. Everything you’ve heard about Okavango is true. There’s a stunning profusion of animal and bird life. Barely a vista goes by without a riveting focus of interest. Elephant graze on trees, an infant gambolling crazily in their midst; warthog strut and puff their chests; fish eagles perch high on bare branches; a pangolin makes a dash for shelter while a scops owl eyes me up; birds are everywhere. But the plains are owned by antelope, with herds of different species dotting the panorama in all directions: lechwe, tsessebe, bushbuck, kudu, reedbuck, all grazing or, startled, springing over the grasslands and through the water, raising pristine spray.
Back at camp, dinner is taken in one sitting, with guests, guides and management seated communally around the big table as we refresh ourselves with wine and swap the day’s game-drive stories. The “bush food”, prepared by a South African chef who had taken orders at tea, would put many a fancy restaurant to shame.
Next morning I’m up before dawn after the eerie calls of approaching baboon (“RA-hu!”) end with some sort of romp on my roof. It’s almost freezing – there’s frost around – so my entire wardrobe comes into play for the game drive. Once again Cos and I head out across the bridge, and today we’re looking for lion. It takes a couple of hours before we track down a small pride of two lions and two lionesses, replete and lethargic after feasting on a freshly killed kudu. The Land Cruiser gets to within five metres of the big cats, but they’re unconcerned. “They don’t see humans in the vehicle,” says Cos. “They consider us to be a large harmless animal. I’ve seen mothers bring their frightened cubs out of."
Nothing, that is, until you step out of the vehicle and the lion perceives prey. And as jackals approach the kill, and the two lionesses and one of the lions chase them away, and we follow them across the grassland, the land cruiser suffers a puncture. It’s five minutes of heightened experience as Cos hastily changes the wheel while I keep lookout to make sure the lions aren’t coming our way. Almost 40 percent of Botswana’s territory – that’s an area the size of England, Scotland and Wales combined – is given over to national parks and wildlife reserves. It’s the most successful country in Africa at protecting wildlife, partly due to its zero-tolerance and shoot-onsite anti-poaching policies, so much so that Great Plains Conservation and its partners have started an ambitious plan to airlift 100 rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being poached to extinction, to Botswana, where they can be kept safe. Cos recalls the days before poaching was stamped out in his country: “We would lie awake at night in the village, listening to them. Boom! Boom! Boom! It was terrible.”
After two more days at Duba Plains, during which I tick off from my species checklist a leopard, a herd of buffalo, hippo both in and out of the water (don’t get too close), crocodile, and myriad bird species, I hop a Cessna to another Great Plains property, Zarafa Camp on the shore of Zibadianja Lagoon in north-eastern Botswana, an ecologically important area. It’s in Zarafa that the Joubert camp vision reaches its zenith. The tent I’m billeted in, one of four that sleep two persons each, is magnificent, a marquee-sized structure surrounded by a wooden deck. A wooden frame supports heavy windows that run floor-to-ceiling (although, being winter, there are no mozzies), while a fan hangs from the apex of the canvas ceiling. Canvas room dividers and window shutters are ingeniously controlled by ties and heavy zips, sectioning the tent into living, sleeping and bathroom areas. The floors are Indonesian hardwood recycled from the debris of the 2004 tsunami.
I enter through a door carved by Tanzanian artisans into a lounge furnished with wooden chests trimmed with brass and leather. These conceal a variety of treasures – including port and sherry decanters and a well-stocked drinks trunk – while collapsible wood and leather recliner chairs are redolent of the sort of amenity deemed indispensable by 19th-century explorers. A leather chesterfield takes centre stage, and there’s a collection of reference books close at hand if you get bored with the view out over the lagoon. The sleeping area, which occupies the middle third of the tent, is dominated by a huge bed swathed in mosquito netting, while the bathroom area takes its inspiration from carved teak Zimbabwean railway sleepers; these giant slabs are used as uprights for the shower and as a platform for the his-andhers vanity stations. There’s a copper bathtub placed next to the picture window, and a domed gas fireplace for when the weather gets brisk. All the electricity is provided by the camp’s array of solar panels.
Outside, a wooden deck runs around the tent, providing access to both a screened outdoor shower and a private pool with sunloungers, inviting midday indolence.
Like Duba Plains, the main area at Zarafa centres around a deck with a braai where meals are taken, and a beautifully furnished lounge area. But all this is merely icing on the safari cake, and I’m keen to get back in a Land Cruiser and head into the bush.
This time it’s all dry land, and a productive bush drive reveals a 30-strong elephant herd, a pack of highly endangered African wild dog, zebra, impala, wildebeest, a hyena and several sightings of the beautifully iridescent lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana. But where are the giraffe?
That night, I’m driven out into the bush with two other guests for a wine-tasting session with a difference. The wines, all South African, are ranged along a fallen tree that acts as a table, labels hidden, and the host explains that each grape will be described in terms of African wildlife. We have to guess the grape. “If this grape were an African animal or bird,” he intones, “it would be an impala: thin-skinned, bright and bouncy.” Sauvignon Blanc. By the end of the game, my lack of viticultural expertise is ruthlessly exposed. I score zero out of seven. The superb meal that follows under the stars, however, and the cultural show put on by camp staff and in which we join, fully compensates for my oenological inadequacy.
But where are the giraffe? As we drive out the next morning, my guide says, “It is a good day for giraffe.” And he isn’t wrong, as we come across several groups of the towering, graceful ungulates, often in association with zebra and wildebeest. I learn that the name Zarafa comes from the Arabic expression for “the loved one”, which is how Nubian handlers described a giraffe they brought to Charles X of France in 1826. The French pronounced the word “giraffe”.
As I leave Botswana, a multitude of unforgettable images throngs my mind, from the stalking leopard at Duba Plains to the bull elephants fighting in the water at Zarafa. But it’s the ineffable, pristine and savage delicacy of the Okavango Delta and its sense of burgeoning life that leaves the most lasting impression of this gloriously endowed country.
Steve Reels flew to Botswana and Zambia courtesy of South African Airways, and stayed at Duba Plains Camp, Zarafa Camp and Royal Chundu as a guest of safari specialist A2A Safaris
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