The journey to northern Botswana, home to some of the most spectacular safari camps in Africa, isn’t straightforward for many international travelers. More often it’s a string of planes, decreasing in size like so many Russian dolls, and enough stamps and badges to tire a Girl Scout.
Itineraries often include an overnight stay in Johannesburg, and we spend ours in a deep sleep at Fairlawns, a comfortable hotel within easy reach of the airport. The next morning we fly to Maun, the busy hub in Botswana that launches safarigoers to the popular Okavango Delta and beyond.
From Maun it’s a 50-minute flight north to the Linyanti, a wilderness reserve that shares a border with Namibia. Rain, plentiful this time of year, manifests in the lush landscape and the nerve of our bush pilot. He skirts a thundercloud the color of a plum fool before pitching toward a dirt runway, the cabin alarms blaring as though we’re winning at whack-a-mole. Below us the floodplains are jade-green and pocked with puddles, divertingly beautiful, and I wiggle my jaw experimentally, trying to unclench it. The pilot lands as lightly as a bird, wearing an expression of ho-hum placidity.
The first camp of our trip is Kings Pool CAmP, a handful of thatched huts that snake along the Linyanti River. There is terrific romance to the property; every hut sits directly on the water and looks toward the grassy expanse of Namibia. Inside are four-poster beds and back issues of National Geographic, pale paisley curtains and bottles of Gordon’s gin. Between oversize reading chairs are stacks of books like Common Wild Flowers of Botswana and Mammals of Southern Africa.There are floor-to-ceiling screens instead of walls, which let in wonderful breezes, and no Wi-Fi, so tell your mother beforehand.
The basic safari docket is similar at most camps, and runs as follows: a pre-dawn summons and a morning game drive, flask coffee and flapjacks for breakfast, back to camp for a nap and lunch, a second game drive in the afternoon with a stop for cocktails, then supper and lights out. It’s crucial to defend your bedtime from seducers like nightcaps, or you’ll be run ragged by the third day. The terrain around Kings Pool is dominated by woodland, far more dense than the big-sky Okavango Delta, and this yields excellent sightings of owls and eagles. In the dry season the river is a draw for elephants, but in the wet it is crowded with hippos, whose chortling calls (humph-humph-humph) are the refrain of the camp. The area is also known for leopards, and we spend several mornings poised in the 4×4, watching a young male trying to catch his breakfast.
Camp-hopping is typical on safari, as many guests will try to take in a variety of locations and wildlife. Our many flights are coordinated by the U.S. agency Journeys Unforgettable, and everything goes off without a hitch. A few days following our arrival at Kings Pool we return to the airstrip and shake hands with the pilot who will fly us an hour southwest to the Okavango Delta. We’re drinking sherry in our new billet before lunch.
The approach to Jao Camp, which sits in the heart of the delta, is over a wooden bridge that rattles comfortably beneath the open-air Land Rover. As we rumble above the river, a crocodile sunbathes on the bank and a family of pied kingfishers hover and dart at the water. The property has the feel of a sophisticated treehouse, obscured by foliage and protected from larger wildlife by a discreet electric fence. Nine elevated tents are connected via raised walkways on stilts, and there are far-reaching views of the surrounding floodplains on all sides. In front of the tents is a gentle slope favored by herds of red lechwe and steenbok, a reliable vista that is constantly in motion.
Jao is situated among several waterways, and in addition to the usual 4×4 game drives, it’s possible to tour the area by boat. Guides take guests in local canoes called mokoros, which are punted through lagoons thick with papyrus and water lilies. It’s a peaceful excursion, more worthwhile for the scenery than the wildlife (for safety, a scout goes ahead to make sure that big animals, notably hippos, are not close). But in such an idyllic setting, a few hours of terrain alone is hardly a sacrifice.
At Abu Camp, barely 10 minutes away from Jao by plane, guests are welcomed with a tumblers of freshly crushed grape juice, clove, and lemon. The punch is so delicious that I ask the kitchen for the recipe, which turns out to be a sign of things to come. The chef at Abu delivers bright quinoa salads, wood-fired pizzas topped with pulled pork and avocado, homemade ice creams, and full English breakfasts. The quality of the food would be a happy surprise in Cape Town or London, but in the bush it tastes like witchcraft. We clean our plates and move on to the peanut butter cookies in our bedroom, irresistibly visible in a delicate glass jar (and refilled twice daily, a stress test reveals).
There are only six accommodations in the camp, all airy, modern cabins with canvas components. The decoration is design-led and carefully neutral, with lime-washed floorboards, rolled tent flaps, and biscuit-colored linens. Each cabin has a freestanding bathtub outside, as well as a private plunge pool overlooking the lagoon that stretches the length of the property. Artwork features black and white portraits of elephants, a nod to Abu’s rehabilitation work with those animals. There are several rescued elephants living within the concession, and guests are encouraged to try game-viewing walks alongside the herd. The escort allows us to get much closer to other animals like wildebeest and zebra than we normally could on foot, and there is a spine-tingling moment when three baby giraffe step silently from a nearby thicket. Another scene to remember.
Article courtesy of Jo Rogers, Vogue