A Botswana Safari -- in Style
It took three planes including a six-seat chartered Cessna to deposit me at Eagle Island, the first of three Orient-Express Game Camps in Botswana. A tractor pulls my duffel bag, me and the other guests three minutes to the camp from the tiny airstrip. We had to buzz the pavement to send the lumbering elephants into the trees.
First, I heard and then I saw, the singing and clapping of the employees who welcomed us with cool drinks and scented towels to wipe our brows. We were seated on the open-air patio for orientation; as if on cue, hippos cavort in the distant marsh. I immediately start shooting one of the rolls of film I've brought.
An African safari holds a lure almost unmatched among travelers. And Botswana is special among safaris, as I learn from the enthusiastic Brits and Swiss I chat with who have made multiple trips here. The size of Texas, 17% of Botswana is dedicated to national parks. Unlike Kenya, where Jeeps loaded with tourists can create gridlock, we rarely encounter another vehicle.
One of the world's great ecosystems, the Okavango Delta spreads 6,000 miles over Botswana. The Okavango River originates in Angola and when it floods, its waters spill back inland, forming a rich area of wetlands and waterways.
Nicknamed the "Switzerland of Africa," because of its peaceful history and flourishing economy, in addition to tourism, the country's wealth stems from diamond mining and beef exports.
Our daily schedule goes like this: up at 5:30 a.m., coffee and fresh fruit served in the open-air dining room as the sun rises; by 6:30 a.m. load into Land Rovers for a three-hour game drive to—hopefully—witness the early morning activities of the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhinoceros, leopard, buffalo); back at base by 11:00 a.m., for a gourmet spread of made-to-order omelets, pastries, cheeses and meats.
Nap or sun by the pool until tea at 3 p.m.; the evening game drive departs at 4:30 p.m. Back by 7:30 p.m., we have cocktails and then dinner at 8:30 p.m. After dinner we stargaze at the constellations of the Southern hemisphere, before we retire to find a bedtime story on our pillow, a different, charming bush fable each night.
The next morning, we set off on a mokoro (wooden dug-out canoe) expedition, navigating through waterlily-strewn waterways, hearing the cries of an African fish eagle.
Our afternoon game drive brings us thrillingly close to graceful giraffes and zebras, loping baboons, tessebe and proud kudu. No zoo can replicate the feeling of seeing these animals in their natural habitat.
The Kalahari and Savute Elephant Camp
Monkeys amble across the camp paths and the elephants are just beyond the pool, down at the watering hole, their giant ears flapping like a personal cooling system. Elephants are the most numerous animal on the veld, but seeing them so close never fails to take my breath away. I snap picture after picture, entranced.
On one game drive the landscape changes from gray-green grasses to dramatic acacia trees with eerie black branches and huge nests; we see wildebeests, ostrich, zebra and antelope. Our deep-voiced, patient guide Joe tracks a pride of female lions by their dried paw prints in the dirt; it's almost a cliché, but having grown up here he is in tune with the land.
He communicates with another guide by radio, comparing notes, plotting our next move. Half an hour later, we find them and breathlessly watch these magnificent females yawn and stretch in the late-day sun, prompting several of us to compare them to our own cats at home.
At sunset, our Land Rover pulls over for "sundowners" (a popular cocktail) and snacks in the bush. As we sip our drinks, a grapefruit pink sun sets over the landscape like a Discovery Channel episode.
Khwai River Lodge The final stop is at Khwai River Lodge. On our game drive here, the smell of sagebrush fills my nostrils and I spot baboons, cerval and hippos under an expansive robin's egg blue sky. Although we stalk leopards, they and the rhinos elude us on this trip (in Botswana there's no guarantee that you will spy all of the Big Five, hence the allure). The heat of the day gives way to a cooler evening; my time in the desert is nearly over.
As a group, we toast our good fortune under a star-filled sky, a chorus of frogs croaking in the background, punctuated by the occasional bellow of a distant hippo, which sounds like hollow wooden chimes.
Africa's unforgettable lure still beckons.
A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.