The Australian - Wish Magazine
Botswana’s luxury-safari pioneers have put three of Africa’s finest camps – and unparalleled wilderness experiences – back in the spotlight
There are dust devils spinning across the Okavango Delta. It’s early November, and all summer long Botswana has been suffering through the worst drought the country has seen in more than 90 years. The lush wetland that would normally flow across the plain up to the edge of Chief ’s Island, where I’m standing in front of my tent, has been replaced by sand and fine dust, whorled together by eddies of warm air and carried menacingly skyward. There are at least a half dozen slim funnels dancing along the horizon, bedevilling the bush pilots who ferry safarigoers to and fro across what is one of the world’s most desirable and exclusive wilderness destinations.
The drought has transformed the Delta, evincing a harsher but still stunning landscape. The tones of stone and cornmeal and brown somehow tease deeper blue out of the milky sky. Tall yellow grasses, tamped down by a summer’s worth of animal traffic, form abstract patterns across the plains, Nature’s arbitrary artisanship. The familiar plash and burble of water – the Delta’s background music – has in some places been replaced by the quiet hiss of dust skating over hard earth.
And everywhere, animals move, sometimes in great numbers. The charismatic megafauna of Botswana – the dazzles of zebra and towers of giraffe, the herds of elephant and prides of lion, the confusions of buffalo and the solitary, elusive leopards – have been forced to roam far and wide in search of water. Its scarcity makes the animals easier to find; the jostling and competition between species sometimes makesthem far more dynamic, and thrilling, to observe.
This – a rather uncomfortable byproduct of a rather unsettlingclimatephenomenon–wasmuchinconversation over the week I spent in Botswana last spring, at three of the country’s finest lodges: Mombo Camp and Jao Camp, both in the Okavango Delta, and King’s Pool Camp, on the sprawling Linyanti Wildlife Reserve, in the far north of the country. All three are managed by Wilderness Safaris, one of southern Africa’s most successful and farreaching owneroperators of luxury safari product.
Wilderness in fact began here, and still has major form in Botswana. Its founders, Chris McIntyre and Colin Bell, were passionate guideconservationists credited with being the first to see the country’s safari potential in the highluxury, lowimpact terms that now define it. They registered the company in 1983; the camps and lodges that followed set new bars, offering a wow factor to match the one the wildlife experience had always had. When Mombo opened in 1990 it was like nothing anyone had seen – the food and drink world class, the service five star, the suites markedly larger and more luxuriously appointed than most of the competition in South Africa.
Today, Wilderness is active in eight countries on the continent, with more than 50 lodges and camps. But Botswana remains a particularly convincing Wilderness showcase; in the whole of the Linyanti reserve – close to 275,000 acres of protected land, skirting Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, and famous for its big cat and elephant populations – there are only four camps and lodges, and all of them are run by Wilderness.
The company logged its 35thyear in business in 2018, and its top brass chose to mark the occasion by putting their Botswana operations back in the spotlight. Mombo and Kings Pool Camps were reopened after tiptotoe refurbishments, in late 2018 and late 2019 respectively; Jao Camp has been completely rebuilt, and debuted in late 2019 as well, landing a handful of glossy magazine spreads in the process. Helicopter Horizons, the country’s leader in helisafari excursions and experiences, has set up a satellite operation at King’s Pool. In an exclusive partnership with Wilderness, its pilots offer spectacular gameviewing excursions over the lush Linyanti Marsh abutting the BotswanaNamibia border, which is a literal hard stone’s throw from the camp.
Few things can be as exhilarating – or as glamorous – as swooping over open African wilderness in a Robinson R44, doors off and wind whipping through your hair, watching elephants and hippos move through the grasses in groups 15 and 20strong. But the partnership is also leveraged for conservation purposes: in between creating bucketlist moments, the Helicopter Horizons pilots gather field data on animal numbers and movements for Wilderness naturalists, which allows them to track populations and their health.
This dualpurpose remit has been at the core of Wilderness since McIntyre and Bell mapped out plans for their first overland safari in the early ’80s. The company can lay claim to some pioneering initiatives, not just here in Botswana but across subSaharan Africa. In an era of loftybutvague ecorhetoric, they are gratifying in their scope and solidity.
More than six million acres of land have come under the protection of Wilderness since its founding. The Wilderness Trust, the company’s philanthropic arm, has funded dozens of wildernesscreation and conservation projects in the past two decades. Recent years have seen a couple of highprofile black rhino translocations into the relative safety of Botswana garner a lot of press, but it’s something Wilderness has been doing since 2003. It is currently mapping out its fourth such operation, having executed its third (which was Africa’s largest) in 2015. No plastic to be found anywhere; several camps running entirely on solar power and renewable energy sources; organic gardening, groundwater usage, watersterilisation and bottling facilities – it’s all been part of the Wilderness mandate for years.
And then there is the safari experience itself. Fewer than 2.3 million people live across Botswana’s 600,370 square kilometres, some 30 per cent of which are protected. Those figures make for a very convincing sense of backofbeyond. But animal encounters are the point. At King’s Pool, the first camp I visited, one of these was virtually my greeting party; on the 15minute drive from the landing strip, we came across two leopards mating – a tense, dynamic and often outright contentious rite of the wild that’s rare, and extraordinary, to see.
King’s Pool gets its name from the oxbow lagoon around which its eight thatched suites and open public spaces are arranged; it was a former favoured hunting
ground of the Swedish royal family. In November, the lagoon had dried to a shallow declination of tall, lush blonde grass, along whose edges a small pride of lion had taken to lounging in the mornings; I’d watch them while I sipped my coffee on the breakfast deck.
The suites are vast, with pitched thatch ceilings, wide plank floors, and screen walls on three sides for maximum air circulation and nature viewing (cleverlyhidden canvas panels roll down at night for privacy). The bathroom was clad in local stone, with a double shower – there was one outside on my ample twolevel terrace as well – and double basin. Two deep armchairs with ottomans, set at the foot of the bed, faced out over the Marsh, which dealt out cinematic sunsets every evening. The camp’s public spaces – bar and restaurant, library, viewing decks and living room complete with copperclad fireplace – are best described as paredback African contemporary, with lots of wood, a few very pretty crafts used as décor, and even fewer walls, letting the bush be the spectacle.
My guide, Tiso Teko (TK for short), is exBotswana Defence Forces, and it showed in his decisive, ubercompetent tracking style. We covered ground fast, and saw game often; dozens of giraffes and wildebeests, antelopes of various stripes, zebras, a few lions. And, of course, the elephants the Linyanti is famous for, moving in great numbers. More than once we rounded a corner of forest, spotted a few familiar dark rounded shapes, and within minutes were in the midst of 30 or 40 of them – their progress silent and purposeful, their temples occasionally moistened by the secretion that denotes stress.
“They’re having to travel a long, long way for their water,” TK says of their relative indifference to us, as they strode past within two metres of the jeep. Even the young males, usually partial to a bit of alpha display, were subdued. “That’s what’s on their minds; us, not so much.”
From Kings Pool I flew south to Jao Camp, which sits in a 150,000acre private concession in the northwest Okavango Delta, bordered by the Moremi Game Reserve to the east. It’s a combination of very wet wetland and drier grassland dotted with forest, a Valhalla for the megafauna. The lodge itself sits on a small island shaded by huge leadwood trees; a narrow bridge extends from the plain where the landing strip is located.
When Jao opened in 1999 it made waves internationally, with its massive tworoom suites and livingroom decks cantilevered out over the water. During the rebuild one of these was left intact, at the edge of camp. It makes for a pretty striking comparison, because it’s fair to say the new Jao suites – five in total, with a pair of twobedroom villas flanking the camp at either end – dwarf the old ones. Silvio Rech and Leslie Carstens, the design team behind the inimitably gorgeous North Island in the Seychelles (and also the original Jao Camp) have referred to themselves as “adventure architects”, and this still hews true. But where old Jao was all gumwood stilts, rosewood and lead wood timber, rush and thatch, the new Jao plays in the sustainablematerial space: those furry “thatch” roofs are actually a form of PVC, and the floors are too. Each suite has a full living area with a small open kitchen, its bench a single slab of planed wood; a desk facing out over the water is of the same wood. Ceilings soar; bathrooms (each suite has two) sprawl; outside on the deck, a long wooden causeway leads out over the marsh to a circular plunge pool that hovers on stilts for the ultimate in stargazing.
This extravagance of space, combined with design that ticks the edgycool box and boasts genuine eco bona fides, has helped propel Jao onto seemingly every adventurous young couple’s honeymoon bucket list. The beautiful overwater spa, its treatment “pods” shaded by palms, helps too, as do the fullservice gym, the groovy pool (bowered in a canopy of woven PVC, mimicking the nests of weaver birds), and the doubleheight library that showcases a 14foottall, perfectlypreserved giraffe skeleton.
Whether or not Jao will be everyone’s cuppa is a different discussion. Safari purists (a group to which I am probably closer than I am to the wowfactor enthusiasts) might be a bit taken aback, but then purists don’t book safaris based on camp looks alone, and some of the best animal encounters of the week – in a week of outstanding encounters–werehere.Isawhipposbrawlingspectacularly in the confined spaces of reduced waterholes; a couple of huge Nile crocodiles; buffalo in big numbers, running and tacking as one; and a mother leopard dozing in a mopane tree with her three cubs (we watched for almost an hour as they playfought in the crooks of branches). The birding, too, is exceptional at Jao; my guide, Mojakhwe – “Jakes” – Mokaolengwe and I spent hours watching eagles and kingfishers making a lemonadefromlemons situation out of the dry terrain all around.
But if there is a holy grail of the Delta – itself arguably the holy grail of safari – then Mombo Camp would have to be it. The north tip of Chief ’s Island, where Mombo is situated, is called “the place of Plenty” in Setswana; in the peak season – June to October – it is reliably home to some of the densest populations of charismatic megafauna in Africa. While it’s true that Nature is never entirely predictable, you would have to be very, very unlucky to spend two days here and not clock some great sightings.
Oneof Wilderness’scountrydirectors,AttorneyVasco (who spent several years as Mombo’s general manager, and another few before that as its top guide), flew up from HQ in Maun for a day and a night, to help me get me to grips with the Mombo experience. Gregarious and deeply charismatic (as all great guides are), he had me roaring with laughter within minutes of leaving camp, where we had almost immediately come upon a pack of wild dogs – extraordinary to watch when they are in hunting mode, strategic and relentless. Shortly after we left them, we were weaving through elephants and giraffes; and within an hour we were sitting with the engine off, silent, me awestruck, as a watchful female black rhino guarded her baby while it nibbled placidly in a copse of bushes, just metres away from us.
Later, at camp, we noshed on pizzas (there’s a woodfired pizza oven on the dining patio), and sampled flights from Franschhoek and Paarl (the Zimbabweborn sommelier, Alfred Muswaka, wowed us with his microknowledge of African wines). The surrounds are – there’s no other word for it – swank. Leather and brass detailing abound; dhurries line hardwood floors; the bar in the main lounge could easily be in a Sydney CBD boite. In my tent, a separate sitting room showcased a densely stocked minibar cabinet, flanked by a leather chesterfield sofa, and the bathroom had marble basins and a copper tub.
Somehow, though – at least for this semipurist – it wasn’t too much. Perhaps because the staff was an allstar team, serving and advising and chatting with elegance but also clearly having fun, with guests and each other. Or perhaps because the whole thing is still all under canvas, with plain wood decking, and so, viewed from a bit of a distance, honours the shape, and the spirit, of the old Mombo. Still high luxury, still low impact, still making the wilderness the real star of its show.
I saw hippos brawling spectacularly in the confined spaces of reduced waterholes; a couple of huge Nile crocodiles; buffalo in big numbers; and a mother leopard dozing in a mopane tree with her three cubs