Crea­ture com­forts

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

I have a new favourite cock­tail bar and it’s on a boat in the mid­dle of the Chobe River in north­ern Botswana. There are no hip­sters, just hip­pos, and no crafts­man con­coc­tions, just G & Ts, straight up, mixed ex­pertly by sa­fari guide Chika with one hand as he guides our canopied ves­sel with the other.

The broad Chobe River sep­a­rates Namibia from Botswana and here cock­tail bars are scarcer than a guinea fowl’s teeth, but ele­phants are abun­dant. In­deed this re­gion is home to Africa’s largest per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion of jum­bos. And from the front ter­race of Sanc­tu­ary Chobe Chilwero lodge on the Botswana side, a long and al­most pre­his­toric view un­furls across the plains, marsh­lands and shal­low chan­nels, beetling with hun­dreds of ele­phants and great herds of buf­falo.

We’ve tipped up in time for af­ter­noon tea and in high an­tic­i­pa­tion of the af­ter­noon game drive but there’s plenty of ac­tion right here on the lodge lawn. Bush­bucks, warthogs and a troop (al­though the col­lec­tive noun bel­liger­ence is more apro­pos) of ba­boons are pick­ing dain­tily through ele­phant scat. It’s enough (al­most) to put you off your scones.

And if I had any doubt there were a lot of ele­phants here­abouts I’m wo­ken in my snug, thatched cot­tage at 4am by a loud rustling just out­side the win­dow. Barely vis­i­ble in the still-dark morning is the shad­owy out­line of a large bull ele­phant eat­ing the trees shad­ing my lit­tle ve­randa; it’s a neat spot of prun­ing, Chobe style.

I re­main very still. He looks at me. We are less than a me­tre apart, with only a pane of glass to sep­a­rate us. I look back at him. He con­tin­ues eat­ing; I tip­toe across to bed.

Close en­coun­ters of this thrilling kind are com­mon at Chilwero. The lodge is pro­tected by a tall, elec­tric fence but ele­phants are smart and they’ve de­vel­oped all sorts of ruses, in­clud­ing drop­ping branches on to the wires, to get a taste of the leafy trees shel­ter­ing the 14 guest cot­tages.

On night two I’m wo­ken again and this time it’s the very loud and tur­bu­lent ruc­tions of the ele­phant’s tummy that stir me from slum­ber. A ranger ma­te­ri­alises to move Mr Hef­falump on, or there’d be pre­cious lit­tle left of the lodge’s trees and lawns (and to think that at home I com­plain about rab­bits in my gar­den).

Ev­ery morning, af­ter be­ing wo­ken (again) by the rum­ble of hip­pos rolling up from the river (or a horn­bill tap­ping at the win­dow), we set out with Chika in our sa­fari ve­hi­cle, armed with blan­kets and Ther­moses, into the neigh­bour­ing Chobe Na­tional Park.

Chika is a bril­liant guide, hav­ing learnt track­ing skills from his fa­ther who once farmed on the river in what is now na­tional park, and on our first morning we pass the bush grave of his grand­fa­ther as well as sev­eral large rangers’ camps (Botswana’s gov­ern­ment takes poach­ing very se­ri­ously). Dusty, bumpy paths wind through dense stands of aca­cia that shel­ter im­pala, gi­raffe, roan an­te­lope and ele­phants. We track vul­tures to a slain buf­falo where a li­on­ess guards her kill, call­ing her cubs from the bush to cut their teeth on an over­sized bone.

Down by the river the den­sity of wildlife is in­cred­i­ble; great herds of ele­phants and buf­falo wade out into the marshes, croc­o­diles doze on the banks, hip­pos loll in the deeper pools, lions lurk men­ac­ingly.

Af­ter four hours or so of “At­ten­bor­ough­ing” (per­fect new verb, don’t you think) we re­turn to the lodge for lunch fol­lowed by a dip in the gar­den pool, or a doze. Each cot­tage makes an em­i­nently com­fort­able and pri­vate re­treat, gen­er­ously pro­vi­sioned with com­pli­men­tary mini­bar, dress­ing room and large en­suite with in­door and out­door show­ers. There’s some nice de­tail­ing, such as African art and stat­ues, but Sanc­tu­ary Re­treats will un­der­take a re­fresh of the decor next year.

CHECKLIST

Sanc­tu­ary Chobe Chilwero, Kasane, Botswana. More: sanc­tu­aryre­treats.com; aber­crom­biekent.com.au.

TAR­IFF: From $US590 ($792) a per­son twin-share, in­clud­ing all meals, bev­er­ages, laun­dry and game drives. Aber­crom­bie & Kent’s eight-day African Wa­ter­ways in­cludes two nights at Sanc­tu­ary Chobe Chilwero, two nights at Sanc­tu­ary Stan­ley’s or Baines Camp and three nights at the newly re­opened Sanc­tu­ary Chief’s Camp, all in the Oka­vango Delta, with all-in­clu­sive prices from $7995 a per­son twin-share.

GET­TING THERE: The lodge is a short drive from Kasane air­port. South African Air­ways flies from Syd­ney, Mel­bourne, Ade­laide and Bris­bane with code­share part­ner Vir­gin Aus­tralia via Perth to Jo­han­nes­burg, with onward con­nec­tions to Botswana. More: fly­saa.com.

CHECK­ING IN: no­mads.

Cou­ples, fam­i­lies and ad­ven­tur­ous grey

WHEEL­CHAIR AC­CESS: No.

BED­TIME READ­ING: The Dou­ble Com­fort Sa­fari Club Alexan­der McCall Smith. by

STEP­PING OUT: I wouldn’t walk any fur­ther than the lodge’s day spa, the most im­pres­sive on the Botswana sa­fari cir­cuit with chic treat­ment rooms, one in the tree tops, and a range of re­lax­ing apres-sa­fari treat­ments.

BRICK­BATS: Could some­one please turn off that horn­bill? Its per­sis­tent tap­ping at the cot­tage win­dow wakes me from a fit­ful nap on five oc­ca­sions to an­swer the door.

BOU­QUETS: Ku­dos to the won­der­ful lodge team and in par­tic­u­lar to Chika, guide par ex­cel­lence; hearty and un­stint­ing food at all meals and in ham­pers on sa­fari drives and cruises.

Evening drinks at Sanc­tu­ary Chobe Chilwero, above; young ele­phant at play, above right; guest cot­tage, left

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