ON SAFARI. The Kalahari Desert of Botswana Africa may not seem like a place where you find any form of extravagance. But within the lush, Okavango alluvial plains are comforts only a rugged traveler could appreciate
One of the many safari trails that wind its way through the African plains
The name “Kalahari” comes from the Setswana word Kgaladi, meaning “the great thirst,” and the Bushmen of this desert accept this 141 without question. For 30,000 years they have survived here according to rules dictated by the absence of water. The official currency of Botswana is pula, meaning of course, “water.” In a parched world, nothing has more value. It is a curious counterpoint for a nation in which 85 percent of the country is as dry as burnt wheat toast. The barrenness of the Kalahari spreads across an area roughly the size of France. But in the Okavango Delta, there are nearly three-dozen tented safari camps scattered throughout the alluvial plain. These are not “tents” in the usual sense of that word. Camps like Xigera, Duba Plains and Selinda are gorgeous retreats in canvas.
The tents are as large as hotel rooms and include hot and cold running water, showers, toilets and full electricity and all the amenities. Forget crusty sleeping bags — camps like these have beds so soft, any couch potato would think they had died and gone to a better place. You see, there’s camping, and then there’s camping.
The King of beasts strikes a regal pose on the Duba Plains
The individual concessionaries who operate the safari camps provide room and board for a single price. Some accommodations cost more than US$400 per night. A packaged tour for 10 days can easily cost US$8,000. All of this surrounding comfort, though, cannot alter one simple fact: the camps are located in some of the wildest game reserves on the African Continent. The Okavango supports an array of wildlife that is as different as the habitats created by the river of the same name. In the south, the camps are located on small islands and daily safaris take place in mokoros. The canoes are poled by the guides along papyrus reed channels filled with hippos, crocodiles and exotic birds. As you move north by plane, the larger game of the savannah appear: wildebeests, cape buffalo, hyena, giraffe, antelope, zebra, lion and of course, elephant.
Travel between the camps is done solely by small aircraft. In fact, the Cessna C-210 is so small that it seats four people rather uncomfortably, and baggage is another issue altogether. There are a handful of other concerns as well. Landing a plane on a dirt runway in a country where animals larger than SUV’s are wandering about can be a risk in itself. But minutes after safely landing at Xigera (pronounced Kéy·ger·a) Camp, I found myself sliding into a mokoro (Setswana for “dugout canoe”) with Baeti Samotanzi as my guide. He stood at the rear and guided us silently along with the skill of a Venetian gondolier. I draped one hand into the cool, pristine water as we wound our way through a channel of papyrus reeds. The contrast from Kalahari dust to Okavango lush in such a short time was dizzying.
A bull elephant despite its size is very stealth like in the bush
“We hopped on a Land Rover and headed immediately for the open savannah plains, and in less than an hour we came upon a fresh lion kill”
As we approached a tiny island, Miss Oduetse greeted us with hot tea, cookies and a warm “Jumela!” If Africa has a face, it certainly would be hers, with a broad smile and flawless, radiant skin. As the sun fell over the shoulder of the earth, the hippos began to speak in the grunts and snorts that fill an untamed world. “Not to leave your tent tonight!” Baeti said as if it were both a question and a statement. He continued laughing, as if the 2,000 pound beasts were the neighbor’s stray chickens.
One tented camp located on the Duba Plains is home to two lion prides, elephants and a variety of large hoofed mammals. The camp’s manager, Paul Thiery, who gave up a career in London as a stock trader to live in the Botswana bush, can testify to the unpredictability of living amidst such an intense animal population.
The pilot of a Cessna, the most efficient and scenic method of travel between camps while on safari
“Everyday here is a surprise,” he said as we exchanged conversation near the camp’s dining area. No sooner had those words fallen from his lips than we turned to watch as a trumpeting, charging, and generally angry bull elephant chase one of the cooks from the kitchen. The cook, Letty, threw herself across the threshold of the doorway near to where we were standing, arriving breathless but laughing. Paul, with typical English aplomb, said: “I know you think this was planned to impress you but really that is an angry wild elephant!” As he looked across the yard, he added, “You are… We are in their home.”
Shortly thereafter we immediately left camp for the open savannah, and in less than an hour we came upon a fresh lion kill. “Aren’t we a little too close?” I suggested with anxiety my voice. Tikelo, our driver and guide, seemed oblivious to my concern and turned off the engine of the truck. “When the lions eat, we are safe,” he said softly. It still seemed a little close for my liking, being that we stopped within five meters from the feasting lions. But Tikelo was right and as the sun set, we watched them doze off to sleep one by one, exhausted by the work of gorging themselves.
At the Duba Plains Camp lounge, and bar, where one can relax after a long day on safari
When we arrived back to camp there was the anticipated joy of a hot shower and warm meal. The tent was, by anyone’s standards, lavishly appointed with Egyptian cotton towels, bathrobes, and a variety of scented soaps. Soon after dressing in a clean shirt and pants, it was off to the camp’s central dining area for a quick aperitivo, followed by dinner.
Wide selections of South African wines make their way across the border, as well as a fully stocked bar. Such tasty libations compliment the chef’s preparation of élan stew, garlic vegetables, fresh baked rolls and deserts, but please do not confuse the camps of the Okavango with weight loss retreats, because the food is plentiful.
Miss Odueste at the Xigera Camp smiles as she prepares a hearty dinner for guests
A lioness pride circles their kill, which is a common site on the plains
In August, it’s winter in sub-equatorial Africa and surprisingly chilly once the sun sets on the horizon. It was delightful to find a heat pad tucked between the cotton sheets of the bed. This offered much relief, and kept my toes warm while I snuggled under feather comforters and pillows, as I fell asleep to the distant roar of the “king of the jungle”.
Several days later, my Cessna Seofane (Setswana for “airplane”) rose once again from the hard savannah and took a bearing north to the dusty Linyanti plains. Soon after touchdown, a Land Rover rolled up to the plane with young Chris Mabure at the wheel. He helped load the gear into the vehicle, and as he started the ignition I was tempted to ask him if he had a driver’s license. But when I concluded that there were no roads for nearly 1,500 kilometers, it seemed silly to ask. So off we went jostling back and forth for about half an hour before arriving at beautiful Selinda Camp.
Cautious giraffes are always on alert, and are seen in large numbers on the plains
The comfortable bedroom located at the Duba Plains Camp
Chris Mabure had an infectious grin. “Are there many elephant here?” I asked, hoping that we would see some of the huge herds noted to roam this region.
“Sir,” he began with mock exasperation in his voice, “by the time you leave Selinda Camp, you will never want to see another elephant ever again!” I knew some of the estimated 110,000 elephants had been on the airstrip recently. There was a noticeable trail of basketball-sized dung as proof.
The front of a tent and outdoor table setting at the Duba Plains camp
Michael and Bastienne Schwarzer managed Selinda Camp, and they confirmed that the elephant were here in overwhelming numbers. If you want to see an elephant up close and personal, don’t go the zoo, go to Selinda Camp and you will not be disappointed. The next day we sat at a watering hole until dusk and waited as more than a thousand head of wild elephant wandered down for a drink. Being surrounded by that many elephants was both exhilarating and spooky. As darkness approached, the bulls became skittish and several charged our jeep as we wound our way through the herd. Nothing will get your attention quicker, and your pulse racing faster than a 4,000 kilo charging elephant for an exhilarating thrill. Once in Africa, enjoy each site and sound, and take solace in what lies ahead – more camping; and you know how rough that can be.
Visit the official Botswana government website at botswanatourism.gov.bw for more information on the country and check with local travel agent or on the web for more information on planning a safari in Botswana.
PO Box 22, Kasane, Botswana
(00267/6250 505; selindareserve.com)
African Travel Gateway
(27/0 15 793 1191; email@example.com)
PO Box 5219, Rivonia, 2128, South Africa
5 Autumn Street, Rivonia, South Africa
(27/11 257 5078; firstname.lastname@example.org)
The travel article was written by Guy A. Sibilla and featured in DA MAN November 2007 issue.
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