Published: March 2009
By Gillian Cullinan
Visiting Botswana's alluvial Okavango plains can become an addiction. pure wilderness coupled with understated luxury make these five safari lodges irresistible
Before I first came to Botswana's Okavango Delta, I wasn't prepared for how it would affect me. I hadn't expected its juxtaposition of water and desert, grassland and palm forest, tiny islands and open skies, to creep into that part of my mind reserved for fantasies of flight. Back home in Cape Town, I kept thinking of my return.
Three years later, on the plane from Johannesburg to Maun, it's clear I haven't been alone in my Okavango fixation. The woman next to me has put her Wall Street job on hold to come for the fifth time, by herself. Another American is on her 13th trip. Passengers are shouting the names of their favorite camps above the din of the tiny puddle-jumper. "Mombo!" "Nxabega!" "Khwai!" Each camp, it seems, appeals to a specific personality, ranging from traditionalist (the classic tent) to fashionista (the high-style thatched lodge). And the delta's vastness—almost 7,000 square miles—grants each camp superb isolation. With so many options in a region so intoxicating, one sweet visit makes vacationing anywhere else seem like a betrayal.
Khwai River Lodge: Guides Extraordinaire
The first sound my husband and I hear from the lodge's airstrip is hippos chortling in the river like old men sharing a joke. The main lodge and its 15 tents overlook a grassy green floodplain, just before the point where the Khwai River narrows to a trickle and disappears into the desert sands. A majestic fish eagle sits at the top of a tree on the far bank; impalas drink in the shallows. The resident herd of 28 hippos remains partially submerged for much of the day, coming out at night to graze around the lodge's pool. Elephants regularly stroll past rooms 1 and 15 to snack on the acacia trees out front.
The lodge is on a private concession, a five-minute drive outside the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. Rain means that we're not likely to see big cats on our safari, but I put my faith in my guide, Buxton Masasa, and his 27 years as a ranger. "If a lion charges you, whatever you do, don't run," he says before taking us out into the steady drizzle. "If you stand your ground, he'll stop. If you run, he'll take you." When he was a child, Buxton felt the breath of a charging lion on his own face; he knows what he's talking about.
Dressed in waterproof gear, we drive through thickets of head-high blue cornflowers and clusters of wild basil and lavender. We can't see any wildlife, but when the rain stops, Buxton leans over the side of the Land Rover and points to some leopard tracks. "He's long gone," he says, shrugging. A few yards on he finds paw prints. "Fresh," he assures us. "Lions came along here after the rain." Sure enough, there they are, 100 yards ahead. Two massive males lead the way. "They like the soft sand on the road"—which makes it easy for us to find them in this limitless flatland. Once they lie down in the grass they disappear.
That night, my husband and I sleep in colonial-style comfort: in an oversized, air-conditioned tent, protected by a thatched roof and raised on a wooden platform. Its furnishings are calming: vanilla-colored cushion covers, leather butler's-tray side tables, wicker chairs, and grass matting on the wooden floor. Black-and-white prints of a lion and her cubs on the wall make me dream of the pride I hope to see tomorrow.
Nxabega: High Style
The appeal of Nxabega (pronounced "neh-sha-bay-ga") is its intimacy. Commanding a 17,000-acre wildlife conservancy beside the Moremi Reserve, nine tents face the sunrise across a sweeping bank studded with palm trees. A huge jackalberry tree shades the camp's public areas. Inside the straw-roofed main lodge are comfortable sofas of textured ostrich leather, patchwork hide carpets on the floors, and Bushman art on the walls. My large suite feels like a tent within a tent; if I unzip its back, I can step into the bathroom. Morning coffee, I'm told, will arrive on my viewing deck at sunup in a basket.
Communal mealtimes can take many forms, from brunch in the bush to a picnic at a swimming hole to dinner presented on a West African funeral bed reinvented as a table. At all the Okavango camps, food must be flown in from Maun, the nearest town, which means that bush dining isn't always an affair to remember. But here, the menu is innovative. The flavorful dinners might be ostrich fillet with an African chutney of apricots, cinnamon, and raisins, or grilled balsamic chicken with wild-date rice, all served on big white platters. Breakfast is muesli or a steaming bowl of porridge with lashings of whiskey, cream, and vanilla brown sugar.
As I follow our guide, Fraser Gear, through the forest, he explains that Botswana's flooded Okavango Delta is one of the few places in Africa where you can see the animals from the waterways. Traditionally, each mokoro, or canoe, was carved from a single sausage tree, but environmentalists now insist that they be built of fiberglass. The boat sits very low in the water and can accommodate only two passengers and a poler, who propels it like a Venetian gondolier. We pass a tiny painted reed frog clutching a bleached shaft, barely protruding from the water and practically at my eye level. An elephant has crossed the channel in front of us, leaving a trail of flattened grass.
Halfway into our trip, we disembark, and our poler fills mugs with coffee and tea and sets out freshly baked oat cookies on a blanket. Fraser explains how the branches of the magic guarri tree can be used to clean one's teeth or to make a dye for clothes or baskets. But mostly we learn how to keep quiet and listen to the sounds of the bush. As we drive back to camp in the dark, our newfound skills come into play. A pride of lions prepares for an evening hunt in the distance, and we listen in silence to their gentle stir.
Stanley's Camp: Animal Interaction
Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of seeing a wild elephant just feet from your safari vehicle. But I'm looking forward to my night at Stanley's Camp because of the three tame pachyderms that live on the property, relocated from Kruger National Park (where their parents were culled in an effort to control the park's elephant population). We arrive in the heat of midday to a processional: the staff singing a welcome song and carrying trays of chilled lemonade. From the stilted lounge deck, I can look out across the camp's 260,000 acres. The horizon stretches beyond my peripheral vision.
Because it's located at the southern tip of Chief's Island, Stanley's Camp still has plenty of water even when the floodplains are drying up farther north. Winter—the dry season, which runs from June through August—is prime viewing time at Stanley's, when the antelope give birth and large animals congregate around scarce watering holes. It's also a bird-lover's paradise, with hundreds of species of migrants: wattled cranes, saddle-billed storks, lesser jacana.
On an evening game drive guided by Custard Samoya, we spot most of the big mammals in succession: lion, elephant, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, sassaby (a large antelope), and wildebeest. Before darkness blankets the plains, Custard veers off the road to an ebony tree hung with lanterns. There some of the staff dance and sing around a table set with white linen. Stuart Hill, a camp manager, prepares the fire for a surprise bush barbecue of ribs and maize meal. We watch the blue sky dissolve into magenta, sienna, and, finally, black.
Our tent is one of eight, all with hand-crafted beds, fine linens, and antique furniture. At 8 a.m., Custard wakes us up to meet the elephants. Their caretakers introduce us to Jabu, a 15-year-old male, who at nine feet towers over us, and two females, Tembi and Morula. The three animals graciously allow us to touch their wrinkled hides and peer at their long eyelashes. Tembi thrives on the attention, but Jabu and Morula eventually grow bored and wander off to feed. This signals us to begin our walk, led by Jabu, deeper into the bush.
Little Mombo: Unrivaled Intimacy
Surrounded by grassy plains and woodland acacias, this remote six-bed tented reserve on Mombo Island is the height of exclusivity. The entire camp, raised high on a platform, overlooks floodplains that teem with game year-round. Impalas, red lechwe (another kind of antelope), wildebeests, zebras, and sassabies share watering holes harmoniously; predators, such as lions, leopards, and cheetahs, are at every bend. You'll find the same animals elsewhere in the delta, but here they're in such abundance, you're guaranteed to see them all in one stay.
Two enormous linked canvas tents make up our suite, along with a veranda wrapped around an ebony tree, an outdoor shower, and a sala (an enclosed deck) that lords over the plain. The tent wall that faces the flooded desert is sheer netting, which amplifies the late-night sounds of buffalo wading through the stream just below. The first tent is anchored with a blond-wood bed, made up in crisp white linen, shrouded in muslin; a white mohair blanket is folded for chilly nights. Round bedside tables, a leather ottoman, a writing desk, and chairs padded with chocolate-brown cushions refine the rusticity. The second tent houses the bathroom: I have a commanding view of the plains as I brush my teeth.
In the main lounge, a book placed on a leather ottoman explains the origin of the African artifacts used in the lodge: a Cameroonian pygmy stool, a Zimbabwean Batonka door, a Saharan Tuareg bowl. One of the guides, Greg Hughes, offers to take my husband and me—the only couple at the camp—out alone in an open jeep, past a 2,500-year-old baobab tree and across the southern floodplains. Greg points out camouflaged zebras, a brilliant blue woodland kingfisher, a troop of baboons in a tree, and an impala. He snaps off a twig of wild sage, a natural insect repellent, to whisk away flies, and uses his knowledge of the bush to find what will be the highlight of our trip: a leopard leading her two cubs up a tree. According to Greg she is a Paradise Plains female, one of 10 in the area that the rangers know well. A short drive on, we watch a newborn giraffe find its feet, and a rare African wildcat soaking up the sun.
Savute Elephant Camp: Lunar Escape
This is better than a martini at five!" exclaims a fellow guest in praise of a bottle of chilled water. We've just stepped out of a six-seater Cessna onto an unpaved airstrip, and we're hot under the midday sun. It's April, and the grass is green and high, but come the dry season (July through October) Savute will be bleached as white as a bone.
In front of the camp—12 air-conditioned tents strung along a permanently dry riverbed—baboons and antelope find a drink at the waterhole. The lodge's thatched-roof deck has an easy view of the elephants that come, sometimes two at a time, sometimes 30, to take their turn for a sip. On the deck's sofa, cooled by an overhead fan, I nap and listen to their rumblings as they truck by.
Savute is known for its elephants, as well as its lions, and the camp managers make full use of their presence. On a game drive, we stop for sundowners beside a watering spot that's encircled by elephants. Our ranger unpacks a cooler of drinks and snacks (nuts, the dried meat called biltong) and we stand around the jeep sipping gin and tonics while the sun sets into the flatness. After dining under an ostrich-egg chandelier on the camp's deck, we retire to our tent, with its four-poster bed draped in mosquito netting, armchairs, and spacious dressing room with a separate toilet and shower.
At daybreak we drive along the dry Savute Channel, where silvery spiderwebs hang between bushes of aromatic sage. A lilac-breasted roller sings atop an acacia tree; a family of warthogs races past our jeep, tails high. And then one of the rangers radios us: a pair of male lions is heading down the track in our direction. We reverse off the sandy road and wait in anticipation. Five long minutes later, two enormous brothers strut from behind a bend, looking for a haven to sleep out the day. I hold my breath as they walk just yards from our jeep. The leader turns his steely yellow eyes my way, but his pace is unfaltering. Keeping at a comfortable distance, we follow them for 30 minutes before they slip away into the long grass.
More Delta Retreats
You can stay at only so many camps in a single trip. Here are four other lodges where the setting and the game-viewing are just as dramatic—and the service equally attentive—as the ones I visited.
Jao: Safari in the Sky
Guests often schedule Jao at the end of their stay because it's the perfect place to do nothing. But the camp does have both water- and land-based game-viewing, as well as catch-and-release fly-fishing trips and midday searches for a rare aquatic antelope, the sitatunga. Leopards have been known to stretch out on branches hanging over the walkway to the suites, and elephants and lions regularly cross the channel that snakes through the camp.
Jao is largely owned by fourth-generation Botswanan David Kays and his wife, Cathy, who commissioned Italian architect Silvio Rech to create a treehouse with 360-degree views. What they got was a multileveled hideaway, with stairs leading to viewing platforms, a bar, a dining room, a library. In addition to the sculptural main lounge, nine vast canvas-walled suites teeter in the trees, each with a sala that's open to the sky. If that isn't enough to make you feel at one with nature, the outdoor shower—with its unobstructed views of the floodplain—should do the trick.
Chief's Camp: Classic Comfort
Twelve luxury tents overlook the floodplain to the north, home to antelope, elephants, buffalo, and the predators: lions, leopards, cheetahs. The split-level, thatched lodge is shaded by a canopy of sausage, jackalberry, and monkeypod trees, and both levels have views to the horizon. The lounge is spacious and open-sided; the canvas tents are uncluttered. At night, a private candlelit dinner can be served on the pool deck, storm lanterns keeping the dark at bay.
Out in the bush in an open Land Cruiser, it's easy to spot the rhino that have just been introduced to the area. Guests often witness leopards climbing trees to carefully drape their kill on the branches, or pairs of cheetahs scouting for their evening meal.
At Chief's, unlike at camps with permanent rivers, mokoro trips are available only after the floodwaters have arrived, from June through September. To be sure of seeing the animals from a canoe, check the water levels before you book.
Sandibe: Forest Hideaway
Set among wild palms and fig trees, east of Chief's Island and next to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, Sandibe occupies an embankment of year-round water channels. Eight thatched suites are appointed with a sensual mix of leather and silk. Encircled by towering trees, the central lounge and dining area have decks with hammocks for total relaxation. Elephants and other large animals regularly wander through the camp.
It's worth visiting for the buffalo alone; herds 5,000 strong have been recorded on the Gomoti Channel. Days are filled with game drives, mokoro trips, picnics, walks, birding, and fishing. A bonus: getting close to the game while cruising the channel on Lily, a silent, electric-powered boat.
Jack's Camp: Vintage Adventure
In April, when the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana's Kalahari Desert are full of water, thousands of animals migrate through the region. When the pans are empty, Jack's guides take advantage of the dry mud and load guests onto quad bikes to ride across the salty expanse. Or they group them with San Bushmen to trek over the thick crust and learn how to survive on desert melons and avoid scorpions.
The camp is spacious and understated, with 1920's-style canvas tents and bucket showers. The eight tents are decorated in rich tones, with kilims underfoot and chests on the floor beside canopied beds made up in crisp cotton sheets. Each morning, staff members fill copper basins with jugs of warm water for a wake-up wash. Meals are served in the open-sided mess tent, lit with storm lanterns at night. Between courses, guests can step outside to watch clouds of pink flamingos settle into the pans.
Five thousand years ago, the pans were lush and flooded, just like the delta. When you stop for sundowners and snacks in the arid expanse of the Makgadikgadi landscape, you can imagine what those westerly floodplains might look like millennia from now.
The Facts: Botswana Lodges
A government policy of high-quality/low-volume tourism means that the Okavango Delta remains unspoiled and game-viewing is unparalleled. Visitors pay (a lot) to have this wilderness to themselves—and it's worth every cent. High season, reflected in the prices below (which include accommodation, meals, and game-viewing), runs from July through October; rates can drop 30 percent from November through June. Multi-camp packages always include air transfers, which are impossible to figure out on your own and can be booked through operators. Abercrombie & Kent (800/323-7308; www.abercrombiekent.com) and Maupintour (800/255-4266; www.maupintour.com) specialize in independent and group travel to this region and can help you decide where to go.
I zipped through a handful of camps on my trip, but the Okavango is best appreciated at a slower pace. Spending two or three nights at a couple of lodges lets you relax into the rhythm of camp life, which is dictated for the most part by heat and animal activity. Daily schedules vary, but generally guests are awakened at about 5:30 a.m. for coffee followed by a game drive. The guides are familiar with every detail of the region and, unlike those in South Africa, don't carry rifles. The rest of the daylight hours can include many activities—hearty brunches, midday free time, classes, afternoon tea, more game drives—or none at all. Guests are encouraged to create their own itineraries until dinner is served.
KHWAI RIVER LODGE Gametrackers 27-11/481-6052; www.gametrackers.orient-express.com; doubles from $1,090.
NXABEGA CCAfrica 888/882-3742 or 27-11/809-4447; www.ccafrica.com; doubles from $900.
STANLEY'S CAMP Sanctuary Lodges 27-11/781-1497; www.sanctuarylodges.com;
Abercrombie & Kent 800/323-7308; www.abercrombiekent.com; doubles from $880, meeting the elephants an additional $210 per person.
LITTLE MOMBO Wilderness Safaris 800/545-1910 or 215/893-9966; www.wilderness-safaris.com; doubles from $1,780.
SAVUTE ELEPHANT CAMP Gametrackers 27-11/481-6052; www.gametrackers.orient-express.com; doubles from $1,090.
JAO CAMP Wilderness Safaris 800/545-1910 or 215/893-9966; www.wilderness-safaris.com; doubles from $1,350.
CHIEF'S CAMP Sanctuary Lodges 27-11/781-1497; www.sanctuarylodges.com; Abercrombie & Kent 800/323-7308; www.abercrombiekent.com; doubles from $1,250.
SANDIBE CCAfrica 888/882-3742 or 27-11/809-4447; www.ccafrica.com; doubles from $900.
JACK'S CAMP Uncharted Africa 27-11/884-1346; www.unchartedafrica.com; doubles from $930.