How to Plan the Perfect Botswana Safari
Any safari experience will be unforgettable, no matter where in Africa you decide to go. But if memorable wildlife experiences in remote areas are at the top of your list, there’s no place better than Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where two of the area's most reputable operators, Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation, stand at the center of the country’s ecotourism efforts.
Planning the trip of a lifetime can be overwhelming, and with so many options to choose from, you’ll likely need to enlist an expert for a truly epic itinerary. For this trip, I turned to T+L A-List agent Elizabeth Gordon of Extraordinary Journeys. Born in Kenya and based in New York City, Gordon has extensive knowledge from years working in Namibia with Wilderness, with whom she has a strong relationship—a major plus if you want to be booked in at their camps, which are considered some of the best on the continent. According to Gordon, it’s important to examine which regions will have the best game viewing during the season you're visiting, as well as which operators offer unique experiences that are tailored to your interests.
The ideal entry point for a Botswana itinerary is Abu Camp, owned by Microsoft tycoon Paul Allen and operated by Wilderness. Set on a private island in the Delta’s floodplains, the lodge has luxe accents like brass soaking tubs, oversize chaise lounges, and a wood-fired pizza oven, as well as a habituated population of seven elephants with which guests can interact on safari.
Leaving the Abu herd is a challenge, but journeying northeast to Wilderness’s Vumbura Plains makes for a worthy departure. The architecture has a tropical modernist vibe—think open-air suites with angular lines, low-slung seating, panoramic sliding glass doors, private plunge pools, and a raised deck that looks out over the floodplains. The camp provides diverse game viewing, with twice-daily vehicle drives, as well as traditional mokoro (dugout canoe) excursions and riverboat tours that conclude with picture-perfect sundowners.
Great Plains Conservation camps, to the East, are extremely remote: the 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve is home to just three properties. Designed by Great Plains founders and renowned environmentalists Derek and Beverly Joubert, each has its own aesthetic. (Look out for furniture crafted by Derek and wildlife photography from Beverly.) Selinda Camp is a mainstay within the Okavango, owing to the diverse animal populations that surround it including endangered African wild dogs, large lion prides, and herds of elephants that migrate thousands of miles each year to reach the Selinda Spillway waters.
To round out an Okavango itinerary, head to Toka Leya, in Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. The camp is an ideal base not only for excursions to the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls but also for opportunities to spot endangered white rhinos.
Read on for a closer look at Botwana’s luxury camps that are leading the way in conservation tourism.
Botswana's 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve is home to many prides of lions, where you might spot cubs that are less than a year old.
Upon arrival at Abu Camp, you can’t help but feel at home—albeit a very well designed one. The décor has a distinct Restoration-Hardware-meets-Africa vibe.
At Abu, guests are told to treat the lodge like their own living room, making it easy to relax on oversize couches that look out onto a lagoon (often visited by noisy hippos and herds of wild elephants).
The most incredible aspect of Abu Camp is its habituated herd of elephants, or “ellies” as the mahouts (elephant handlers) affectionately call them, with which you can get up close and personal.
At Abu, guests partake in twice-daily elephant drives, where they can walk alongside the herd or ride one of two older females, Cathy and Shireni (pictured). The experience is relaxing, and the elephants are surprisingly quiet as they move through the bush. Elephant-back safaris are a rarity in Africa; being in close proximity to these animals was not only awe-inspiring but also incredibly informative, as the mahouts are eager to share their hard-won elephant intelligence. (Did you know you can tell if an elephant is right-or left-handed by observing which tusk is longer?)
Many of the elephants at Abu Camp were rescued by Wilderness Safaris after being orphaned in other African countries. Paseka (pictured) was found in the generator room at Abu’s sister camp, Seba, after a hyena attack left her abandoned in April 2009. Upon joining the Abu herd, Paseka was adopted by Shireni, who nursed her back to health. It’s fascinating to learn about the elephants’ relationships with one another.
Following elephant-back safaris, guests of Abu will go out on traditional game drives, or, as was the case on this particular evening, stop for a movie night in the middle of the bush.
Screenings at Abu come with a fully stocked bar (manned by the ebullient Jao and Masha) and homemade popcorn.
A picture-perfect sunset in the bush near Abu Camp.
Next stop: Wilderness’s Vumbura Plains, situated in the middle of the Okavango floodplains. Guestrooms have a sophisticated en plein air feel for a true immersion in nature (expect to find animals near your private plunge pool).
Owing to its unique position in the Delta, the water levels at Vumbura are high enough for year-round boating activities even in the dry season—a major plus, as small-boat excursions offer unrivaled hippo spottings.
During game drives in the Okavango, female cats—like these leopards—can be spotted with relative ease, since mothers are still looking after their one- to two-year-old cubs and don’t travel long distances.
Cheetahs, on the other hand, may require multiple days of tracking. We finally spotted this mother and her two young cubs in the plains far from camp.
Another specialty at Vumbura: a peaceful, slow-moving ride aboard a traditional mokoro (dugout canoe) through the Delta’s narrow channels, which provides a unique vantage point for animal sightings.
Training to become a “poler” can take years—to balance standing up is quite a challenge! That said, many of the guides at Vumbura—like Sparks, seen here—are born and raised in the Delta and grew up using makoro to fish.
Heading next to Selinda Camp is a remote and wild experience. The 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve is home to more than 300 species of birds and only three camps. Great Plains Conservation, which manages the camp, has numerous wildlife conservation endeavors through its non-profit foundation, particularly anti-poaching efforts to benefit Africa’s dwindling rhino and lion populations.
Lions are among the most abundant sightings at Selinda. The concession is frequented by numerous prides, one of which reaches nearly 20 individuals. Prides of this size have become a rarity; environmentalists believe the lions’ decision to base themselves at Selinda is due in large part to the reserve’s limited human footprint.
Older cats, like this female pride, are unfazed by intense thunderstorms.
Make a point to check out the other properties in the concession, including the Relais & Chateaux Zarafa Camp. Zarafa adheres to Great Plains’ “leave no trace” conservationist approach, meaning that the entire property could be dismantled within a few months and leave no indication of its existence.
Guestrooms at Zarafa have a distinct Out of Africa vibe, albeit one with unparalleled luxury (the camp is a favorite among Hollywood celebs). Rooms are completely tented but have high-tech amenities like cooling systems inside the canopy beds for hot summer nights and a brass-covered automatic coal heater for winter.
At Zarafa, wildlife sightings as you bathe in your suite’s outdoor shower are considered a norm.
We were incredibly lucky to spot a pack of African wild dogs at Selinda; they are one of the world’s most endangered species. These dogs had just hunted an impala, which they did using carefully orchestrated tactics.
After a week on safari in Botswana, Wilderness’s Toka Leya in Zambia is an ideal final stop. The camp is near the town of Livingstone—the main gateway to Victoria Falls—but its exclusive location inside a national park offers a more remote setting on the banks of the Zambezi River.
Toka Leya is one of the few places where travelers can encounter the endangered white rhino. This small population was rescued from poachers in South Africa and is now monitored around the clock by rifle-yielding guards from the Zambian Wildlife Authority.
A visit to Victoria Falls is obligatory. Even in the dry season, the falls provide a picture-perfect ending to any Botswana itinerary.