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.