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.