Botswana's safari lodges offer opulence in the wild

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 June, 2015, 6:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 June, 2015, 6:15am

Stretched in green and gold glory as far as the eye can see, the African bush has a primal allure that takes your breath away. The Okavango Delta in Botswana adds blue to the canvas, with tranquil waterways reflecting the sky. Herds of elephants splash their way towards grassy islands, and sunsets can be paddled into, rippling like satin.

An oasis in an otherwise arid country, the Okavango is an inland delta recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site. Every year from March to August about 11 cubic kilometres of water spreads over a 15,000 sq km area, drawing one of Africa's greatest concentrations of wildlife. All this additional water ultimately evaporates. The Okavango Delta is a mirage that lives up to its promise.

American writer Edward Abbey claimed that: "Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit."

At the Okavango's private safari camps the wilderness is pristine, and luxury is as intrinsic to the experience as spotting Africa's Big Five. Once the prized trophies of Ernest Hemingway, Denys Finch Hatton and other great white hunters, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and lions are again masters of their own destiny.

Shooting on safari may be a thing of the past, but the sumptuous style of the colonial hunting days remains. Back then, grand entourages wound their way through inhospitable terrain carrying ball and claw baths and the finest crystal. When night fell, hunters enjoyed every creature comfort, far from civilisation. Reliving this experience today involves a two-hour flight west from Johannesburg to Maun, then short hops in light aircraft into the delta itself. Here private safari camps belie their humble monikers to provide visitors with incomparable luxury in pristine natural surroundings.

Escaping the confines of a plane into this natural kingdom you find yourself drinking in the fragrant air.

I'm reclining on a sofa, glass of champagne in hand, watching riveting documentary footage of a baby African elephant. She's frantically following a Land Rover, hyenas snapping at her heels. This impromptu cinematic experience is taking place not at home, but in the middle of the African bush - popcorn in a wrought iron pot over the coals and the Milky Way splashed across the star-strewn sky above. The little elephant survives, and this morning at daybreak I walk through the wilderness beside her and her herd.

Yesterday I was carried on the broad back of the herd's matriarch on a one-of-a-kind sunset safari - eye to eye with giraffes; impala, zebra and wildebeest seemingly unaware of my presence. Tonight I will sleep on Abu Camp's open-air Star Bed, although giving up my impossibly elegant tent - one of just six - for a night was a tough decision. Redefining experiential luxury is clearly something that Botswana's safari lodges take in their stride, and Abu Camp is one of the best.

Now owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, Abu Camp was founded by Randall Moore in 1989. Moore wanted to return three African elephants - previously thought to be untrainable - from North America to their natural habitat. The trained Abu herd grew over time with the addition of orphans from culling operations, the birth of babies from interaction with wild bulls and little Paseko, who found her way to the camp after eluding the hyenas. The rangers had reluctantly driven away, leaving nature to take its course. But Paseko had other ideas, perhaps associating the vehicle's sound with the security promised by her mother's lost rumble and tracking it to the camp. Today the six female elephants of the herd (the males and a few females chose to leave over time) spend an hour in the morning and evening with guests. The rest of the day they wander at will, but choose to return to their boma alongside Abu Camp at night.

Redefining experiential luxury is clearly something that Botswana's safari lodges take in their stride

As the elephants settle in, guests sit down to a gourmet dinner on the camp's candlelit deck, chat around a glowing campfire, relax in the stylishly appointed lounge area or enjoy an outdoor bubble bath back at their tents. Or perhaps it's a bush tapas night, when an evening game drive ends in a surprise location - chairs drawn up around a roaring fire, a full bar set off to the side and small dishes served until you can eat no more. The element of surprise is deftly employed by managers of Abu Camp to ensure that the reality of your stay surpasses all expectations.

Expectations are something the delta blows out of the water. "There is always something new out of Africa," says Pliny. And in Botswana, this something new is concentrated into an experience as singular as a fingerprint. No one else will experience what you do, because they won't see what you see. Wild dogs on a kill, a leopard chasing a hyena from its dinner, adolescent giraffes necking, lions taking down a buffalo … the possibilities, settings and variations are endless, making every game drive unique.

Game drives at Vumbura Plains and Duma Tau camps typically take place twice a day, early in the morning and in the late afternoon - prime times for spotting wildlife. Wending your way in an open-topped Land Rover, the anticipation of bearing witness to something even the Discovery Channel may not yet have seen is intoxicating.

Just driving from the airstrip to Vumbura Plains Camp, where my lagoon-side suite and private plunge pool await, we encounter a pride of 11 lions. Lounging in the shade of a giant jackal berry tree, they turn their golden eyes upon us, supremely unconcerned. Minutes later we come across 16 wild dogs - Africa's endangered canines. They're teasing a troop of baboons, then they take off after a male impala. We follow, and later watch as these ferocious hunters polish off their kill. A lone cheetah, surveying his domain from a termite mound, rounds off the drive. These are just the "big" sightings. Birdlife is prolific, from lilac-breasted rollers to malachite kingfishers.

Getting out on the water - either gliding along in a traditional mokoro canoe, cruising through the channels on a speedboat or fishing (catch and release) from Duma Tau's comfortable barge - gives a different perspective of the delta. Witnessing a herd of elephants swimming across the Linyanti River - trunks, backs and tails forming an African Loch Ness monster- was unforgettable.

Between game drives, the order of the day is to relax. Stretch out by the pool (Duma Tau's riverside pool area is exquisite), enjoy a spa treatment or take a quiet moment in the lounge or library. Wherever you are, you'll have expansive views of the bush or waterways, and peaceful vistas slowly unfurl in a kaleidoscope of stripes, spots, horns and eyes.

There are many camps to choose from, all with their own attractions. Having an expert such as Robert Mark Safaris tailor a bespoke itinerary ensures a gold standard experience. But no matter where you stay, your day will end around a fire, drink in hand, with the sounds of the bush settling in for the night. As darkness falls and the stars come out, the thought of being in the middle of a vast wilderness yet basking in the lap of luxury makes your normal world pale in comparison.