The heat smacks me in the face the minute I step off the plane. It’s hard to breathe as I adjust to the dry, hot weather. I’m still trying to get over the fact that after a three-hour flight from Cape Town we have already landed in Maun, Botswana – it’s so close. The team from Wildside Africa meets us at arrivals and swiftly whisks us to a shady spot outdoors, where they’ve set up a refreshment station, complete with cider, beer and, (initially) most importantly, icy-cold water. They’ve clearly done this many times before.
Once hydrated and acclimatised, we hop on to our open-air 4×4 and get comfortable. We have over two hours on the road – much of that on dirt road – before we arrive at our destination.
I won’t lie, it’s a pretty long drive in the sweltering heat, but the beverages and conversation with fellow media travellers make up for it, and after the last stretch of our bumpy journey, we arrive – dusty and jovially – at Tuskers Bush Camp.
The only tented camp on the 365 000-ha private Kwatale Conservancy between Nxai Pan National Park in the east and Moremi Game Reserve in the west, and part of the NG43 concession, Tuskers is small and intimate, catering to a maximum of eight adults at a time. The main dining area, boma and bar overlook a waterhole, which, when full, draws an array of animals to it. During our visit, it’s dried up due to the recent severe droughts experienced in Botswana. However, the surrounding scenery is still awe-inspiring and visited regularly by wildlife regardless, making the elevated relaxation areas the perfect viewing point.
Our group instantly starts snapping photos of the beautiful landscape, which, although dry and scorched, is still alive with acacia trees and green shrubbery. As we all huddle around one area in search of WiFi signal (which is limited), we are quickly reminded that we are not there to share a blow-by-blow account of our trip on social media, but rather to immerse ourselves fully in the beauty of a Botswana safari experience. (By day two, our phones are long forgotten.)
After a short break and refresh in our Meru-style canvas tents, we head off for a late-afternoon game drive. Just a few minutes in we come across a tiny pool of water and a young elephant wading about, undisturbed by the 4×4 and the continuous shutter clicks from our cameras. We are all stunned into silence, observing this beautiful sight, until we hear branches breaking behind us, and we all flip around at once. A herd of elephants are trampling towards the water, moving at an energetic pace. Just when we think it must be the last of them, another two or three trundle along, then more. My emotions are overwhelming – I feel so lucky to be witnessing this incredible sight.
We sit for what seems like hours, but in reality is probably only 20 minutes, before leaving the herd (including two ridiculously clumsy and cute three-week-old calves) to splash and drink in peace. Our knowledgeable ranger, Pilot, tells us that it’s likely they’ve been in search of water for a few days, hence the sheer number of them at once.
We encountered buck and birds, and a couple more elephants, as we drove to a quiet spot to enjoy sundowners and watch the full moon rise. To be surrounded by nature with a G&T in hand, amid the sounds of the wilderness and infectious laughter, with the most spectacular moon and star display above, I can’t help but smile – what a life!
The following day, between good food, lots of hilarity and ‘pink ladies’ (our upgraded G&Ts, enhanced with Angostura bitters), our day’s game drives reveal more elephants, zebras, giraffe and other small game, as well as lots of birds. Being on a trip with two very keen twitchers (birding enthusiasts) means there are a lot more stops than normal – and plenty of exclamations of ‘where?’ by those of us with untrained eyes.
On our afternoon drive, before heading to our secret dinner location, Pilot takes us to the ‘elephant graveyard’, a place where hunters used to dump the tusk-less bodies of their kills, when NG43 was still a hunting concession. A massacre of bones and ashes lay in piles – a disturbing and haunting sight to behold, the only upside of which was knowing that destruction and carnage of this volume would never take place in these parts again. Possibly the most evocative part of all was the large fresh tracks around the area, which, as Pilot explained, are from the elephants that still live and roam there, paying respects to those that have passed.
We drive silently through the arid plains, until they unexpectedly give way to a lush green oasis. As if on cue, elephants appear in the distance, flanked by the most exquisite cloudy-pink sunset and once again it’s all cameras go.
We arrive to a long table adorned with candles and lanterns set up under an enormous solitary baobab – it’s hard to sum up the experience in words. In the middle of this untouched wilderness, there we sit, treated like royalty, being served an incredible dinner under the expansive open skies.
The next morning it’s up and at ’em at 4am, to leave at 5am for Xobega Island Camp, an almost eight-hour drive, to the deep of the Okavango Delta. While it’s another lengthy 4×4 commute, this one is like an extended game drive as we make our way through the Moremi Reserve – we see hippos, monkeys, giraffes, elephants, aardvarks, porcupines, antelope, buffalo and plenty of birds, all along the way, until we arrive at the boat station, where we’re transferred to a small watercraft that will deliver us to Xobega.
Located on an unfenced private atoll, Xobega Island Camp is one of the Delta’s newest accommodation offerings, and one of the most affordable too. Made up of just 10 Meru-style canvas tents, each with twin stretcher beds and en-suite, open-air bathrooms, the camp is laid-back and extremely eco-friendly (from being completely solar-powered to providing bucket showers, with hot water). The island is lush and covered by thick greenery; there are no 4x4s here – the preferred mode of transport for game viewing is a boat, with two four-hour cruises daily – one in the morning after breakfast, and another late afternoon, in time for sunset.
Being surrounded by water brings much-needed relief from the sweltering heat and we settle into our accommodation before regrouping for lunch. Meals are served around a long communal table; the food is simple and honest, but packed with flavour and there’s more than enough for seconds and thirds. We spend the rest of the day at leisure – relaxing, reading and laughing through shared tales of travel escapades and general life anecdotes – between the two communal lounge gazebos and the idyllically placed hammocks (perfect for an afternoon siesta). In the late afternoon, we head out on a beautiful sunset cruise with myriad wildlife sightings, before dinner and a relatively early night.
When we wake up on our last full day on the island, the Xobega team tells us that elephants were traipsing languidly behind our tents during the early hours of the morning – something we were none the wiser to during our slumber. We set off on our early cruise, the boat expertly steered through the maze of channels; the luxury of experiencing this incredible serenity and natural beauty is not lost on me – everywhere you turn is magnificence. Suddenly the boat’s engine is turned off, the whirring stops; two sets of eyes peer beadily at us just above the water a few metres away. And then, another, smaller head pops up. A pair of hippos is protecting their calf, who sinks below the surface, shortly followed by its parents. At this point, I’m more freaked out than excited (dear God, please don’t let them flip the boat).
The boat is steered slowly around the strait and we clear their path – a collective sigh is released. Next, something darts in the reeds – a sneaky crocodile, perfectly camouflaged by the riverside foliage. We are all giddy with delight. A little later, we happen upon elephants along the riverbank, enjoying a drink of water; a colony of marabous guarding their nests in the twiggy trees; the tiniest reed frog clinging to a bulrush and a multitude of birds (yellow-billed kites, lilac-breasted rollers, kingfishers, et al). It’s nature and wildlife in all its unfiltered glory.
In the evening, we are treated to the most phenomenal sunset aboard our boat – hues of yellow, orange and pink merge seamlessly into the blue. We sip our pink ladies (now the ‘official’ drink of the trip) in silence, taking it all in for the last time.
I’ve often pondered the old adage that goes ‘travel is the only thing that you can buy that makes you richer’, and from the banks of the Delta, I finally know this to be true.
Need to know
• South Africans do not need a visa to visit Botswana.
• The heat is intense, with temperatures reaching upwards of 45 degrees in the summer months. Take along plenty of sunscreen, a wide-brimmed sun hat and cover-ups.
• While Botswana is a malaria-risk area, in some parts insect repellents will suffice. Contact a travel clinic before your trip to be certain.
• The local currency is the Pula (R1.29), but credit cards are widely accepted.
Airlink flies directly to Maun from Joburg daily and from Cape Town five days a week.
Book your trip to Tuskers Bush Camp and Xobega Island Camp through Sun Destinations, who offer some of the most affordable packages in Botswana.
Due to the Botswana Tourism Board’s ‘low- volume, high-income’ policy, a trip to the region is unaffordable for most (South) Africans, with camps similar to those of Sun Destinations’ starting from R25 000 per person per night. Sun Destinations’ special offer for SADC residents only, between 1 and 31 December 2017 and 1 March 2018 and 30 June 2018 bring this trip of a lifetime closer within reach: two nights at Tuskers and two nights at Xobega, including game drives, boat safaris, all meals and dedicated field guides for R11 000 per person sharing, or R13 750 per person sharing with road and boat transfers included. Visit Sundestinations.co.za for more information.