“Safari” is a Swahili word meaning “journey” and, in by-gone days, adventurers went on safaris through unchartered lands with armed guard and native porters carrying their home-away-from-home; their main aim being to shoot big game. Thankfully today we shoot with cameras, and lodges such as the ones below offer low-impact, high-end safaris, perfect for those who want to dissolve into the bush and view a wide range of game with their own knowledgeable guide and rarely another vehicle in site. Botswana was one of the world’s poorest countries when it gained independence from the UK in 1966, but is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. With a population of just over two million people, it’s one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world and much of it remains a roadless wilderness, where supplies and guests reach safari camps by light planes. Botswana is the perfect country to enjoy a low-impact, high-end safari and the below three Belmond Safari lodges are among the finest available.
Savute Elephant Camp is in Chobe National Park, a sweeping expanse of savannah and rolling grasslands, home to one of the largest concentrations of animals in Africa. Our first task on arrival was chasing 2 ostriches off the landing strip so the plane could take off. The mysterious Savute Channel, which feeds the Savuti Marsh, recently started flowing again after a dry spell of 30 years (probably due to tectonic shifts).
A stream runs right in front of the camp, a magnet for wildlife including elephants and deer which we can watch from our veranda. Days start early on safari - at 6am our guide arrives with freshly baked muffins and plunger coffee, which I insist on having on the veranda, despite the cold, so we can watch the huge moon set over the stream. We discover why it looks so large - it’s a ’super moon’, the closest it comes to the earth in a year.
The savannah in the early morning light is gorgeous, soft blonde browns and muted greens with a faint pink hue in the sky and the distinctive antiseptic, faintly smoky, aroma of the sage brush, plus the chorus of bird songs. I love the landscape here, the low hills dotted across the savannah and the cream, black, brown, orange and green colour scheme reminds me of The Kimberley and, like that area, these low hills also contain early rock drawings. On our morning drive, we saw a leopard wander down to the river to drink, then followed her for about an hour before losing track of her and heading to the big baobab tree for a coffee stop … only to find her sitting under it!
On our first drive, we saw elephants, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest before our driver noticed groups of animals all looking in the one direction … they were alert and, now, so were we. Then we saw a large lion strolling along the road ahead of us … we drove around in front of him, he walked by, we did this several times and each time he wandered straight past the jeep, one time turning to fix his amber eyes directly on Franz!
Our driver said he was one of five ‘brother lions’ moving in on the area’s local pride. Next day we saw another one greet two of his brothers by leaning down & nuzzling them, like a playful kitten!
Eagle Island Camp is on the amazing Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas. Heavy summer rains in Angola’s highlands fill rivers and channels, which flow across Namibia into the Okavango River and spread out over 15,000 square kms into the vast sands of the Kalahari. The lowest lying land, such as that in front of Eagle Island, remains permanently flooded, while most fluctuates between water dotted with green islands (during wet season May-Sep) and savannah dotted with lagoons and swamps. One constant is the giant termite mounds, on which the islands that dot the plains in both dry and wet seasons have been built over 1000s of years.
There are no drives at Eagle Island - all trips are by zippy little aluminium boats, which scoot through the wide, reed-lined channels, the water so clear you can see the ripples on the sandy bottom. Here it’s more about the beautiful scenery than the animals. Though there are plenty of elephants and hippos, and seeing elephants in the water is a completely different experience to seeing them on land. Hippos are creatures of habit, forging through timeworn channels (like the one right beside the steps to our hut), keeping them open so that the waters continue to flow. They’re also very territorial and will ram the boats if they think they’re getting too close … we gave them a wide berth.
Our hut had an overwater plunge pool and outdoor bathroom - I’ve had outdoor showers before, but never one with a view of an elephant playing in the Okavango Delta! Definitely my favourite lodge!
The New York Times named Eagle Island’s Fish Eagle Bar “The Best Bar in the World to Watch the Sunset” … and I have to agree. The sunset reflected in the water lily-studded lagoon takes the beauty of an African sunset to a whole new level.
Jacob, our guide, took us out to the village where he grew up. Some villagers work at the camp or take guests out in mokoros, others, such as lovely Kenny who kindly showed us inside her mud hut, live a subsistence lifestyle growing a few crops beside their huts.
The contrast of satellite dishes and solar panels propped against the wall of a mud hut where cooking’s still done over an open campfire, was bizarre. The walls of many of the huts are reinforced and insulated with aluminium cans.
Doris bought chupa chups from the village store for the local kids, which made her very popular. After a wander around the village, Jacob set up morning coffee on the front of the boat and we shared our biscuits with the villagers waiting for the local ferry to arrive.
Khwai River Lodge is on the edge of a forest overlooking the vast floodplains of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. The scenery is more enclosed than the savannah of Savute and we did several river crossings in the jeep, which were fun. The river also provides a habitat for many different birds. As it’s not in the reserve, there’s no curfew and we were able to do a night drive. It amazed me how our guide, Moses, could see anything in the pitch dark with just a spotlight – but he managed to find us a serval (like a mini-leopard), an African wildcat (which looked just like a domestic moggy) and a springhare (like a tiny kangaroo).
We saw hippos out of the water, and lots of elephants, including a big herd with young of various ages. We also finally got to see buffalo up close, plus a troop of baboons. On our last afternoon, we drove past the local village, home to about 400 San (bushmen) on our way to Moremi Game Reserve. In the reserve, we saw a lioness with tiny cubs – we took a few good photos before they hid and she sauntered off. We followed her, which was exactly what she wanted … she let us find her and then just stayed put, keeping us away from her precious babies.
Next morning we had our final coffee break beside a waterhole full of hippos with lots of different birds around and a group of impala in the background … a reminder of how so many of Africa’s diverse animals seem to coexist in harmony.
Botswana Safari text by Roberta Muir
Photography by Franz Scheurer