It’s improbably that once country about the size of Texas could contain two of the world’s most extreme – and extremely beautiful – ecosystems. But there they are in the Kalahari Desert of northern Botswana, no more than a 90-minute plane ride apart: the Makgadigadi Pans and the Okavango Delta.
Written by: Gary Walther & Scott Goetz
Here’s a look at four of our favorite camps in safari country:
A remote Africa experience
A full moon beams with klieg light intensity onto the Makgadikgadi Pans, the largest salt pan complex in the world. It’s well after sunset and while I should be concerned about the dangers haunting this barren landscape, I am too awestruck by the ethereal light reflecting off the white crusty earth and onto all that surrounds me. Night has magically turned to day and in this vast, flat emptiness the size of Switzerland, beauty is heightened by the immensity of nothingness.
As a travel writer and African expert, I am often asked what are my favorite places. When I say Uncharted Africa’s Jack’s and San Camps in Botswana, I know to expect the dreaded ‘why?’ The desert is not what most people think of when dreaming of the ultimate African experience surely, but that ‘why’ is a very difficult question to answer. For no matter which anecdote I elaborate or how clearly I explain my feelings, I fail to convey the profound power of this place – a power that most everyone who ventures here discovers.
I recently returned to Makgadikgadi, ecstatic to be one of the first to experience the new San Camp, and this time I had brought award-winning filmmaker Michael Southard, to shoot a web series that takes viewers on Africa’s Ultimate Journeys. We land. There it is ahead of me. The seemingly dead and lifeless crusty earth. Oh no, seemingly dead? How do we visually capture something so alive if it looks seemingly dead on film? I couldn’t define what it is in a description. Strapped into the plane seat, I freeze and wonder if the reason was that… well…maybe it wasn’t that great? Was I a fool to love this lunar no-man’s land for all these years? This place…Over all the other fantastic possibilities in Africa? I unbuckle my seat, dangling on the edge of terror.
Over the three day stay, excursions lead us into the various aspects of life in the Makgadikgadi, each reveling another fragment of this area’s ancient puzzle: a trip to a 3,500 year old Baobab tree couples history with botanical wonder; a full-throttle quad ride affords a thrilling understanding of the pans limitlessness; a field trip interacting with meerkats, sparks thoughts on social communication; a walk with the Bushmen presents the oldest living culture on the planet and allows for an ancestral connection that goes back as far as ape turning to man. Discovery upon discovery, the pieces stack up with a collective intensity.
It didn’t take long before Michael succumbs to the wide-eyed wonder I first experienced when I came here. Suddenly, it’s clear. What instills the solid connection to the place is the legendary Bousfield passion for Africa, a family legacy, handed down through six generations, that finds home in the heart of all who come here. Every moment is a desert passion play, Africa’s version of a Hollywood movie premiere and San Camp, luminous in her tented elegance, is Botswana’s new leading lady.
Accommodation: A maximum of 12 guests are accommodated in six large walk-in white canvas tents on slightly elevated wooden platforms with private facilities. The tents have running water and flush toilets, plus a bucket shower. These facilities are private but are approximately nine to thirteen feet from the tent.
Activities: Day and night game drives, both day and night, quad bike safaris, meerkat adventures, San Bushmen experiences, star gazing, birding during wet season, bush walks, and Kubu Island quad bike activities
Zarafa Camp, Selinda Reserve
For the conservationist
The full moon has spread a smoky sheen across the Zibandianja Lagoon, making it look as if it were filled with dry ice. Out there—and not very far out there—the pod of hippos that bivouac right offshore is providing a little night music, belching, bickering, grunting, and snorting their way toward sunrise. They’re the lagoon’s Beta House.
Whereas in here, a 1,000-square-foot tent, all is refined artifice–scroll-arm button-tufted couch, leather planter’s chairs, claw-foot copper tub, and a savannah of Persian carpet. It’s a safari-drawing-room-under-canvas, one of the four that make up Zarafa, built just two years ago and easily among the most luxurious camps in the Delta today.
The camp’s creators, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, are wildlife photographers and filmmakers by trade and environ-mentalists by passion. The camp sits on the first place the Jouberts ever camped together, “so we’re in love with the location,” says Dereck. The duo has won all the big awards in their field (five Emmys, a Peabody, and a Wildscreen Panda), and most recently they garnered a Best Achievement in Science, Nature and Technology Emmy for their film “Eye of the Leopard.” Their latest project, in conjunction with National Geographic, is the Big Cat Initiative, which aims to halt the drastic decline in the numbers of lion, leopard, and cheetah. (You can sign up at www.nationalgeographic.com/bigcats.)
The Jouberts envision Zarafa as a green beacon, proof that sybaritic and sustainable can go hand-in-hand. “Zarafa,” says Dereck, is “a laboratory for conservation tourism, a showcase.” Thus, the camp runs completely on solar power, courtesy of 136 Sanyo panels that provide electricity 24 hours a day. “I had to browbeat the designers into that one,” recalls Dereck. “Now we fire up the generator once a month just to see if it works.” All of the construction materials were chosen through an environmental audit. The floors, decking, and headboards (designed by Dereck) are made of disused teak railroad ties from South Africa. He also designed the furniture, sleek renditions of classic safari pieces, and had them made in the Philippines out of Indonesian mahogany uprooted by the 2004 tsunami. The land rovers are powered by cooking oil, the glassware is manufactured in Swaziland out of recycled Coca-Cola bottles, and the sewage system uses bacteria to do the dirty work. It’s ingeniously green.
The Zibandianja Lagoon teems with life. It’s astonishing how many species can be seen from the tent or main deck of the common area. Just after dawn, heralded by the madcap call of Red-billed Francolins, sacred ibis rise from the reeds and vector off to their feeding grounds. Vervet monkeys splash down onto the low branches above the camp’s dining area. One day at lunch, 14 elephants congregate on the lagoon shore, about 100 yards away. Lining up nose to tail, they wade in and proceed to bathe, horse around, and devour lagoon grass by furling it with their trunks as deftly as an Italian twirls linguine onto a fork. In the evening, red lechwe gather in the shallows, their russet coats burnished by the sun’s slant rays. Of course, twice a day you go farther afield on game drives, armed with a Canon 40D digital camera and a pair of telephoto lenses supplied by the camp. Is that a cool amenity or what?
At Zarafa, you get the luxury of space—a three-room expanse to live in, not just a place to kill time between game drives. The staff and food are first rate, and the location is an orchestra seat on all the goings-on out in the lagoon. But the bottom line is that by staying here you’re underwriting a vision.
Accommodation: The camp is designed with exclusivity and privacy at its core. Each tent is positioned on the forest’s edge, rimming the shores of the floodplains and savannas and far from a neighbor. There are only four tents at the luxurious Zarafa Camp, with unobstructed view across the Zibandianja Lagoon and earthy construction. Each of the tents is decorated with custom-made furniture, leathers, and handcrafted recycled woods.
Activities: Traditional game drives, elevated hides, and bush walks
What’s in a name? In Vumbura’s case, there isn’t nearly enough.
To convey the diversity of its 160,618-acre concession, the lodge would have to be called Vumbura Plains, Savannahs, Swamps, Acacia Belt, and Teak Woodlands.
Granted, every game lodge has a variety of landscape, but Vumbura’s location, in the north astride the Linyanti and Okavango systems, gives it a wider habitat spectrum than most lodges. For proof, you need only look at the antelope on view: from the swamp dwelling sitatunga to the teak woodland-loving sable, to name the extremes. In between there are tessebe and zebra on the floodplains, kudu and impala in the acacias, and steenbok and roan in the mopane forests. The lodge offers a variety of activities—drives, walks, mokoro and motor boat excursions, and helicopter flights—so guests can take it all in. Vumbura breaks the mold when it comes to accommodation, too, eschewing the traditional game lodge vocabulary (hut, thatch, hardwood) in favor of very clean, geometric pavilions bedded between grand wild fig and jackalberry trees. The delicate palette of soft greens, blues, taupe, grays, and elephant-hide browns subtly reflect the palette of the landscape. The bold play of materials (rag rugs, beaded beanbag chairs), shapes (fiberglass coffee tables that resemble giant pebbles), and architectural elements (built-in couches and beds and blond, sandblasted pine planking as the primary building material) might make you think of northern California.
The architecture perfectly suits the camp’s location on the edge of the Kaparota Lagoon. The chalets have been designed to minimize the divide between out and in, with mosquito-net paneling and sliding panels of shade cloth used for walls.
This lends the living and bedrooms a kind of IMAX-theatre-on-the-lagoon feel. You experience the ultimate lazy man’s birdwatching by propping yourself up on a pillow in bed at dawn and waiting for the avian day to get underway. Each of the seven chalets has a plunge pool and spacious adjoining relaxation area, a sala (a thatched, outdoor pavilion furnished with daybeds), and outdoor shower (in addition to the full en-suite bathroom).
Vumbura is the lodge for those who want a more modern approach to staying in the bush while seeing a sterling cross-section of habitat and wildlife.
Accommodation: Vumbura Plains Camp comprises two separate seven-roomed satellite camps, each with its own raised dining, lounge and bar area tucked beneath a canopy of cool, shady, indigenous trees. Magnificent vistas across the Okavango Delta floodplains are a feature. A star-gazing deck with comfortable cushions protrudes into the floodplain, a place to gaze upwards, or a convivial camp fire setting.
Activities: Traditional game drives, night drives, bush walks, and mokoro excursions
The cast savannahs surrounding Shinde are a great stage for wildlife. They reveal the dynamic of the Delta, as you see how various species have carved out a particular niche and you watch them interact with other types of game.
That became clear to me the morning we pulled up at the edge of a plain that still contained a fair amount of water, although the dry season was well along. Nearby, a herd of red lechwe, the most common antelope in the Delta, grazed placidly, quite happy to ignore us.
Farther back, a flight of 30 or so open-billed storks lightly dropped to the ground like a squadron of black-clad parachutists. The air was filled with the tink-tink-tink of touchy blacksmith plovers, and all at once six carmine bee-eaters splashed color all over a leafless mopane tree.
And then, as if a director shouted “action,” a troupe of baboon entered, stage left, and proceeded to cross the standing water. They kept coming and coming- -there were perhaps 50 of them, mothers carrying babies on their backs and big males keeping the young ones in line. Our guide Paul said they were skittish because they don’t like getting wet—indeed, some hopscotched through the pool on their hind legs–and because they were worried that the water harbored crocodiles.
And we didn’t have to do a thing but sit in the land rover and take it all in.
Shinde also has a watery side, sitting right on Shinde Lagoon as labyrinthine as Venice. It has broad boulevards and enormous piazzas of water, and by-ways a little wider than a rowboat, with tiny aqueous alleyways jutting off them into the expanses of papyrus. The lagoon takes on a special atmosphere at sunset with the sky shot with the setting sun and the papyrus growing dusky.
This is the time of day when you might get very lucky and see one of the Delta’s shyest species, the sitatunga. A tiny antelope, the sitatunga has evolved to live in the half-land and half-water world of the Delta. It has a waterproof coat, and is actually better at walking on squishy terrain than dry land. One of the best things to do at Shinde is take a game walk. “Doing a game drive is like watching a movie of nature,” said Paul, “whereas doing a walk is like reading a book of nature.” And he proceeded to do just that, becoming a Sherlock Holmes of the Delta, looking at a patch of ground and reading a story from it. “What’s unusual about these elephant prints?” he asked. When we’re stumped, he points out that there are only two prints because elephants plant their rear feet right on the spot they’ve touched with their front ones. Then he gave us the formula for calculating the height of an elephant from its print: the circumference times two.
We also got a lesson in identifying game by their droppings. Giraffe leave hard little pellets; zebra dung is mostly grass, good for starting a campfire; and the hippo drops a tight, light ball that can be used for a pickup game of soccer.
Shinde is one of the older camps in the Delta. The fact that the common areas are raised above the ground and connected by boardwalks gives the place a treehouse feel. The eight tents are traditional in layout, much more rustic than luxe—a more old-time Africa. And isn’t that one of the things you come all this way to discover?
Accommodation: Shinde is nestled on a lush palm-dotted island in the heart of the northern Okavango Delta. Located at the edge of a lagoon, it is surrounded by clear waterways, which flow over yellow sands and past palm-fringed islands teeming with birdlife and game. Delight in the best game viewing and bird watching in some of the most luxurious surroundings in the Delta.
Activities: Mokoro glides in the delta, fishing, 4×4 game drives, bush walks, and bird watching