There are safaris and then there are safaris. For those well inducted into the experience of seeing wild animals in Africa, the distinctions are clear. Of the former, the horror stories are legion: tales of 35 vehicles surrounding one poor Serengeti cheetah (with another dozen jeeps waiting to accelerate into position); of camps so buzzy and overcrowded the game have taken a hike; and of parks fenced in to trap the animals in place – not quite a safari but a half-wild zoo. The other kind – the best kind – works by contrast: where authenticity is the guiding principle; camps touch the environment lightly; and game viewing is quiet, considerate and in habitat.
For this type of safari, Botswana sets one of Africa’s most formidable standards. It’s a country that is serious about protecting its wildlife: all commercial hunting will be banned there from January 2014, and some of its former hunting concessions have now been transformed into wildlife areas. Following a high-cost, low-impact model for tourism – and taking note of the mistakes made by its neighbours – Botswana has got it right. For travellers, this translates into an experience of game unstressed by human intrusion, of camps that retain a vivid sense of wildness and, best of all, an uncompromised conscience. (Unlike on my last safari, when I discovered my guide was also a part-time hunter.)
Chief among the camp operators in Botswana is Wilderness Safaris, a company distinguished by excellence across the continent. DumaTau Camp, in the 125,000-hectare Linyanti concession west of Chobe National Park – an area with one of the highest concentrations of game in all of Africa – is among the company’s newest openings. Newest, but only by degrees. In an example of just how seriously Wilderness takes its eco-credentials, this is the second incarnation of DumaTau. “For 19 years it was sited a few kilometres away,” explains Olivia O’Rielly, the Irish camp manager. “Wilderness decided to give that spot back to nature and allow the land to recover, so last year the camp was moved up here. Everything that we could recycle, we did.”
The rebuilt camp sits on a promontory: 10 spacious tents line the bank of the Osprey Lagoon, a broad stretch of denim-blue water that’s part of the vast Linyanti swamp system. It’s not a swamp as you might imagine it, being neither sludgy nor mosquito-infested. Here, the word connotes a series of reed- and forest-fringed waterways fed by the Linyanti and Kwando rivers, some narrow as a stream, some wide and fast-flowing, which wriggle greenly through the parched bush. Not far from DumaTau runs the Savuti Channel, a deep, hippo-crowded canal that until 2008 was nothing more than bare earth. “There used to be families of cheetahs living in the dry riverbed,” says Olivia. “It took an earthquake to shake it back to life again.”
DumaTau is low-rise and low fuss but supremely comfortable. The public areas, including the bracingly cold swimming pool, are reached along a wooden walkway. A smart dining area includes a bar and attractive lounge furnished with leather sofas, wicker chairs, wooden trunks and carved side tables. A pontoon reaches into the lagoon, where director’s chairs surround a fire pit, and from which sunset cruises depart in the camp’s canopied barge. Tents are spacious, smart and, in keeping with the camp’s eco-awareness, solar-powered. There’s a wood-panelled shower and copper-bowl sinks, a fan (but no air-conditioning) and enormous beds. A shaded, wraparound porch is the ideal spot for spying on afternoon visitors to the river (the oven-hot afternoons belong to the birds, warthogs and antelope). Muted African textiles on cushions and bedspreads add to DumaTau’s sense of understated chic.
With the water come the animals. On a single day’s drive I see a family of wild dogs and their eight delightful puppies, spotted hyenas, a pair of male lions (big cats have adapted to swimming here), two leopards resting on a branch of a sausage tree (an eviscerated impala tucked into a nearby hollow), fish eagles, hippos, crocodiles, owls and several mohawked secretary birds. But by far the largest animal presence here is elephant: the swamp is intersected by two elephant corridors and numbers reach into the thousands. They are encountered with such frequency on our drives that I become almost accustomed to seeing these huge, grey roadblocks doused in afternoon sun.
One morning, after a delicious brunch of eggs and fruit, my guide Tobogo Mogala (known as Tank) stands to point into the distance. “They’re crossing,” he says. We rush down the stairs to the pontoon and into a shallow motorboat, zooming over the water to where 25 elephants are swimming across the river. It is an extraordinary sight: the herd is submerged, mothers and babies using their trunks as snorkels, tusked males standing deep in the shallows, overseeing their safe passage. They tramp into the reeds, dusty hides now a glossy, dripping black, and are swallowed into the bush.
It’s another reminder that at DumaTau humans are a minority species. That night I’m awoken by the sound of a tree shaking against my tent. Monkeys, I think, and go to peek through the canopy flap. Not a monkey: a huge elephant. He walks silently past me, inches away, the moonlight glancing off his white tusks – the wild, delivered straight to my door.
Due south, the Okavango Delta is perhaps the most famed and precious piece of geography in all Botswana, not least in terms of tourist dollars. (The area has been nominated for Unesco World Heritage status.) As seen from the window of a tiny Cessna en route to Wilderness’s Little Tubu camp, the delta is glorious, a landscape of inundation: fields of shining water are tufted with reeds and scored with elephant pathways, while glossy green rivers make a complicated calligraphy all the way to the horizon.
Little Tubu opened in June on Hunda Island in the easterly Jao Concession. With only three tents, the camp is a seriously boutique safari, offering a bespoke experience – drives go on for as long or as little as you like, meal times are flexible – with the high service standards set by its established sister camp, Tubu Tree. Though there are “fewer lions here”, says Little Tubu’s brilliant guide, Balototswe “Bee” Makgetho, his explanation forbids disappointment – “there are too many leopards and hyenas, too much competition for food”. “You’d be unlucky to go a day without seeing a leopard,” says the charming camp manager, Marelize Conradie. During my stay I average two sightings a day.
Little Tubu is balanced on stilts and slung high in the treetops. Tents are reached via a walkway that spans a narrow lagoon and connects to public areas such as the splash pool, the treehouse bar, and a compact but glamorous under-canvas lounge, where trailing, white-bead chandeliers evoke ghostly jellyfish. “If you get cabin fever, you can walk to the bar at Tubu Tree,” explains Marelize of the smart, eight-tent camp tucked out of sight half a kilometre away along the shared walkway. (Little Tubu has the nicer aspect, a larger footprint for fewer buildings and a more personal atmosphere.)
The honeymoon suite – mine for two nights – features an eyrie: steps wind around the broad trunk of a jackalberry tree, leading to a platform with a day bed and a view over the grassy floodplain (which is submerged in the rainy season). The tents are capacious, with four-poster beds, copper light shades, leather club chairs, an indoor and outdoor shower and pretty blue cushions and printed textiles to perk up the predominantly khaki tones. During afternoon siesta, a breeze snaps the canvas like sail sheets.
Here, too, conservation is a priority. The government’s environmental agency recently dropped by to check Little Tubu’s energy efficiency and recycling. “The lease on each concession is up every 15 years, so that incentivises each camp to do the best they can,” explains Marelize. She cites Botswana’s appeal as “the fact that there are no fences here; the animals are free to wander across the border to Namibia or Zimbabwe. It’s a true wilderness; there’s no internet, no WiFi. In South Africa you drive one hour and there’s a village or a town. This is untouched; the only human influence here is the camps.”
From my tent I can see huge elephants churning the dust at the edge of the plain, zebras sheltering in the shade of thorn acacias and a summit of noisy baboons. There’s undoubtedly game here – but not in the same volume as at DumaTau. Or, rather, not as easily spotted. In the dry season, larger animals retreat to shaded islands in the delta, formed centuries ago from termite mounds and unreachable by vehicle. But not by water. We spend a morning in a flat-bottomed aluminium boat, zipping through narrow corridors bordered by papyrus and water sage. A crocodile slips beneath the hull, winking his yellow eye. Birds flutter from every corner of my vision: snowy egrets and starlings with feathers the colour of an oil spill; a goliath heron as giant as its name; a flock of whistling ducks in melodic flight. Life is different down here. At eye level, a pair of hippos rise out of the water like monoliths and crash back beneath the surface, the pond traced with their ripples long after they’ve gone.
After the flood, the desert. Adjoining the Kalahari’s uncompromisingly arid Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, San Camp overlooks the immense landscape of the Ntwetwe salt pan. It is an emptiness almost metaphysical in its absoluteness; it flows out – and out and out – from the flaps of six white tents to greet an endless horizon. The camp shares something of the land’s monumental feeling, too, since San Camp’s neighbouring property, Jack’s Camp, was founded in 1993 by Ralph Bousfield and Catherine Raphaely to commemorate a legendary crocodile hunter: Ralph’s father, Jack. Several decades of the family’s African history lives large here. In the elegant, ticking-striped dining tent, there are photographs on the antique dressers depicting a baby leopard playing with Ralph as a toddler.
Receiving guests since 1994, San Camp reopened in 2011 after a complete refurbishment. New tents – each pitched under a cluster of desert palms – were imported from India and furnished with a days-of-the‑Raj-style decadence: canopied four-posters, leather safari chairs, brass-riveted trunks and a throne for a loo. It is a sublimely spoiling place to stay, with silver-service meals of beef fillet and lentils, ice clinking in buckets by the bar and a Moroccan-style tent for afternoon tea. It’s also ridiculously romantic. At night it is lit entirely by lanterns, the flickering pinpoints of light echoing the immense starscape above. At dawn, I am woken by a pot of coffee and the call, “Knock, knock”.
By day, however, the heat returns, rolling off the salt pan. Needless to say there are no fans and no air-conditioning – only the sun, beating and broiling the landscape, and me, into submission. Thank goodness excursions are kept to early mornings and late afternoons. And they’re not to be missed. During the dry season – and excepting a few bachelor herds of elephants – the game presence is mostly small-scale: jackals, bat-eared foxes, ground squirrels, cape hares and meerkats. The latter are a San Camp speciality, habituated to visitors and an absolute delight. One morning I sit on scrub grass as one climbs on my head, using me as a lookout post. (I’m happy to oblige.)
San Camp is an exercise in creating opportunity from limitation. A walk with the camp’s resident bushmen, for example, which culminates in a joyful game involving singing, hand gestures and copious giggling. Or a quad-bike adventure in which we drive for 30 minutes into the salt pan, turn off the engines and watch the sun set, my ears ringing with the silence – the sound of the earth left to its own devices. Subtracted of trees, people, life, towns, cars, noise, distractions, the landscape is like a spa for the brain. “People say Botswana is the last Eden,” says my guide before the ride back. “Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll never want to go anywhere else in Africa.” I can’t imagine he’s wrong.