A Camp of One’s Own

Un­til re­cently, mo­bile sa­faris—widely seen as the best way to get close to Africa's wildlife—were avail­able only for large, pri­vate book­ings. Now any­one can get in on the ac­tion.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - FIRST LOOK - BY JANE BROUGHTON

FIVE MIN­UTES af­ter we set out from Un­charted Mo­bile Ex­pe­di­tions’ mo­bile camp in the Oka­vango Delta, Botswana, some­one in our ve­hi­cle yelled “Lion!” Ev­ery­body spun in their seats to see a li­on­ess in pur­suit of a baby warthog hurtling to­ward us. Zigzag­ging fran­ti­cally, the piglet was soon pinned to the ground by a giant paw. There was a col­lec­tive gasp as we steeled our­selves for the in­evitable. But sec­onds later, 70 kilo­grams of pro­tec­tive mother bush pig hit the li­on­ess at full speed, throw­ing up a cloud of dust. Re­leased by the im­pact, the squeal­ing piglet sped across the dirt road and away to free­dom.

Such thrilling en­coun­ters seem to hap­pen with re­mark­able fre­quency on mo­bile sa­faris—a wildlife trip on which guests stay at a mov­able camp. That’s be­cause when it comes to the African wilder­ness, sleep­ing in a tent (whether it be a ba­sic fly camp or a slightly more com­plex, com­fort­able setup with flush­able toi­lets) is the best way to get close to the ac­tion. Deeply im­mer­sive, a mo­bile oper­a­tion puts you in ex­actly the right place at the right time, which is why it’s cur­rently a big trend in sa­faris. If the an­i­mals travel or the weather changes, sim­ple camps can be packed up af­ter break­fast and set up again in a new lo­ca­tion in time for din­ner.

Mo­bile sa­faris are typ­i­cally of­fered on an ex­clu­sive ba­sis, mean­ing they have usu­ally been the pre­serve of fam­i­lies or large groups. With the in­tro­duc­tion of set-date de­par­tures, Un­charted Mo­bile Ex­pe­di­tions al­lows guests to book a sin­gle tent, rather than the en­tire camp—open­ing up the ex­pe­ri­ence to a wider au­di­ence and mak­ing it con­sid­er­ably more af­ford­able.

I had be­gun by fly­ing in a Cessna from Maun, north­ern Botswana’s hub, to the far­thest-flung airstrip in the Oka­vango Delta. My des­ti­na­tion was NG12, a re­mote gov­ern­men­towned con­ces­sion that, un­til re­cently, was known only to sa­fari in­sid­ers. In the Oka­vango, as in Africa’s other iconic wild places, space is the holy grail—the def­i­ni­tion of lux­ury. There are no per­ma­nent lodges in NG12, de­spite the fact that, at 81,000 hectares, it is more than 20,000 hectares larger than

Vum­bura to the south, where Wilder­ness Sa­faris op­er­ates two lux­ury camps. In four days of ex­plor­ing, we saw only one other ve­hi­cle. The sur­round­ing land­scapes ranged from open plains dot­ted with ele­phants, buf­falo, ze­bras, and gi­raffes to la­goons where hip­pos jos­tled for ter­ri­tory and croc­o­diles cruised silently in be­tween.

This part of the delta can be reached only by a patchy net­work of dirt tracks and rudi­men­tary bridges, and this in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity is pre­cisely what ap­pealed to Un­charted’s Ralph Bous­field. Bous­field is a fifth­gen­er­a­tion Botswanan who, in 1992, opened Jack’s Camp—a pi­o­neer­ing lodge on the re­mote salt pans of Botswana’s Mak­gadik­gadi re­gion— with his late fa­ther, Jack, a leg­endary crocodile hunter. Dur­ing the early 90s, fa­ther and son fre­quently flew

over the delta in the fam­ily’s small plane search­ing for a suit­able place to es­tab­lish a base. They wanted to of­fer their guests a cir­cuit that com­bined the won­ders of the desert with the delta’s big game. Af­ter decades of search­ing, Bous­field leased the NG12 site at the end of last year. “The dis­tance from Maun, the tricky lo­gis­tics, and the lack of roads might have been off-putting to some, but it made this site more at­trac­tive to me,” he told me with a laugh.

Be­cause the con­ces­sion is not within an of­fi­cially des­ig­nated wildlife re­serve, where cer­tain rules have to be fol­lowed, Bous­field is able to blur the bound­aries be­tween what usu­ally hap­pens in camp and what takes place in the wild. “It’s fun to set up a ta­ble in shal­low wa­ter for a sur­prise lunch, or to linger af­ter sun­set drinks to take a boat trip through the reeds—that’s when the delta re­ally comes alive,” he said.

Po­si­tioned un­der a canopy of fig and jack­alberry trees, the lit­tle camp of three guest tents and an open-sided mess tent was ev­ery­thing I’d dreamed of in a mo­bile site. Tak­ing its cue from Jack’s Camp, it channels the glam­orous East African sa­fari style of the 1940s: vin­tage fur­ni­ture and a front porch decked out with a can­vas wash basin, a cop­per wa­ter jug, and a mir­ror added se­ri­ous Out of Africa ap­peal. Each kilim-lined tent has an en suite bath­room with a hot-wa­ter bucket shower and a flush­able toi­let. It was hard to be­lieve that when our group checked out, the en­tire camp would be packed up and driven across the delta—a jour­ney of al­most two days—to the Cen­tral Kala­hari Desert.

Un­charted Mo­bile may have nailed the nos­tal­gic aes­thetic, but, more im­por­tantly, it also em­ploys some of the best guides in the busi­ness—such as the leg­endary Su­per Sande, who used to work at Jack’s Camp and now heads up the team in NG12. I shared the camp with an Amer­i­can fam­ily that ranged in age from a preschooler to re­tirees, and the two-me­ter tall Sande was as skilled at im­part­ing bush lore to a four-year-old as he was at ex­plain­ing the sub­tle dif­fer­ences be­tween a cop­pery-tailed cou­cal and a Burchell’s cou­cal to me.

On re­turn­ing to camp af­ter a game drive, we found a ta­ble laid un­der the stars. Kerosene lanterns pro­vided light, along with fire­flies danc­ing in the grass. For din­ner, spiced but­ter­nut soup was served with rolls still warm from the oven. Next came steak, mashed po­ta­toes, and cumin-roasted car­rots, fol­lowed by a rich choco­late tart. The meal seemed even more im­pres­sive af­ter I vis­ited the chef in his camp kitchen the next day and saw his oven: an old me­tal trunk filled with hot coals.

Sit­ting out­side my tent on my last af­ter­noon, pe­rus­ing a bird book from the camp li­brary, I looked up and re­al­ized that my tent was un­der an enor­mous sausage tree. What were the chances of one of its hefty, long fruits—some weigh­ing as much as 6 kilo­grams—fall­ing on my head? Sip­ping iced cof­fee and lis­ten­ing to the rum­ble of dis­tant thun­der, I de­cided that it would be a fine way to go. nat­u­rals­e­lec­tion.travel; from US$2,780 per per­son for four nights, all-in­clu­sive. Mo­bile sa­faris in the Oka­vango Delta can be pack­aged with a stay at Jack’s Camp, as well as other ex­pe­ri­ences in the re­gion.

The lounge area of Un­charted Mo­bile Ex­pe­di­tions' camp in Botswana.

Un­charted Mo­bile Ex­pe­di­tions guests on a game drive in the Oka­vango Delta.

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