One of the most sought out wilderness experiences in the world, tented camps have been springing up in some of the most unreachable spots in Africa and Botswana is no stranger to these luxury camps. But Botswana's landscape is changing drastically.
Traversing the sleepy town of Maun, known as the gateway to the Okavango Delta, many safari-goers start their trips here.
I've been to Maun on several occasions but this time feels different. There's a dryness in the air, meandering desert palms give off eerie acoustics while the crunch of sand beneath my shoe mutters with every footstep. It's only now when looking at the bone-dry Thamalakane River from Matlapaneng Bridge do I fully comprehend the two major environmental problems Botswana faces: drought and desertification.
Loved for its world-class safaris that offer an up close and personal spectacle of wildlife viewing, tranquility and serenity of an untouched landscapes, and evocative scenes of extraordinary natural beauty, it comes as no surprise that a drought year could do harm to one of the country's biggest assets. Having recorded the lowest rainfall in 38 years, the 2018-2019 rainy season was one of the driest but experts argue that the Okavango River Basin is going through a normal trend and explain that a dry spell is sometimes accompanied by severe drought.
With the Okavango Delta's source located in Angola and the climate change phenomenon affecting the world, it's no surprise that even countries like Botswana would experience variations. Inland, the Kalahari Desert is one of those spectacular landscapes where the salt pans of the Makgadikgadi crack into the distance and wildlife that has long adapted to the brutal environment stalk fossil river beds.
This starkly empty terrain that is bare clay rich in salts opens up to dotted dawned trees, the baobabs of Nxai Pans, and the savanna of Central Kalahari where stretches of sand form different coloured sand dunes, swaying golden grasses create hypnotising shadows against the ground, and echoes of the indigenous San people in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) can be heard in the stillness of this unending space.
There’s something transformational, perspective shifting and sensory developing about witnessing the earth dry up due to lack of natural nutrition but hold onto the promise of new life like a snake about to shed old skin. For safari-lovers, the drought affected camps are making adjustments to their daily operations while wildlife disperses in search of food and water to survive. The unaffected go on with business as usual with conservation top of mind.
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Wilderness Safari's Vumbura Plains, Okavango Delta
The Camp: Exclusivity, remoteness, and off-the-grid, are a few words that describe luxury camps in the Delta. The journey into a camp begins with a flight from Maun on a small charter plane and then a 4x4 land transfer to your camp.
Vumbura Plains lies in an area that is a mix of water and dry land and is teeming with lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, birds and more. Fortunately for this camp, it's gained more appeal due to its water levels not being affected by the drought.
Comprising of two separate but linked camps with a total of 14 spacious rooms, this isn't your usual stretched nylon tent camp. With a modern contemporary feel that finds a balance between minimalistic, rustic and not overly luxurious, the camp sits elevated on a series of winding, wooden platforms, complete with a fireplace that flows partly into a lagoon, offering vantage points of the hippos that inhabit the waters. The camp's structure is majority timber.
Rooms have thatched roofing with an open plan layout and netted "windows" allowing for a gentle breeze to sweep through the room without obstructing your views. Each room has an extra large bed draped with mosquito nets and a lowered lounge area, a private deck with a plunge pool overlooking the grassy plains, both indoor and outdoor showers and en-suite bathroom.
Day in the Life: It’s 5:30am and my guide, Emang, is outside my room with a cheerful wake up call. After a quick shower, piling on warm clothes and a scrumptious breakfast, we set off from camp.
A winter morning game drive can be unforgiving as the wind stings your face. An hour into our game drive, we stop and scan the ground for clues. Smilingly, Emang beckons a shrub a few metres ahead. Either I’m still half asleep or my eyesight is horrible as I don't see anything.
As we inch closer to the shrub, there is a glorious pride of lions. The process of stalking wild animals: relearning to trust our innate guidance system, using all senses, and going ‘round in circles was worth the spotting of seven cubs playing amongst themselves and two lioness mothers. The day isn't complete without a moroko cruise.
We float along the waterlily-fringed channels leading to a body of water where we pause for a few minutes listening to the callings of the wild and return to camp as the early evening starts to paint the sky a deep orangey pink and the purplish-blue deepens with every minute. The grunting hippos nearby sing me a lullaby as I fall asleep.
READ: Quick Guide to Botswana: Visa-free travel for South Africans
Feline Fields’ The Lodge, Central Kalahari
The Camp: Feline Fields' The Lodge is located in the CKGR, which is the largest most remotely situated reserve in Southern Africa and the second largest wildlife reserve in the world. Flying in with a helicopter transfer allows you see the semi-desert landscape of Botswana for what it is: harsh, mysterious and magical.
The pilot ensures us The Lodge is up ahead and we should keep an eye out for it. It isn’t until the 25m glistering blue pool juxtaposed with the dry savanna's browns and oranges pops out of nowhere do we see the almost hidden camp. With three pool suites and three tented suites, The Lodge breaks away from the more familiar safari settings.
Amenities include a raised king-sized bed, spacious bathroom with a standalone bath, shower and two sinks, a polaroid camera and Bluetooth speaker (cues in wanderlust playlist) and an outdoor bed on the upper deck where you can watch a herd of elephants frolic its way through the shrubs. To move between suites and the main area, guests are provided with sand-adaptive fat tyre bicycles that give us an extra workout. If swimming and cycling aren't your way of working up a sweat, play a singles or doubles match on the tennis court constructed from an old termite mound.
Day in the Life: Our first night ends in a meet-and-greet with the nomadic San Bushmen, who originate from the Kalahari, before they convince us to join them for a bush walk in the morning.
For the first time during my trip, I wake up at 7am instead of 5:30am and by 8am we join the bushmen for an educational walk on using plants as medicine or hunting poison, how to find high water content roots, and starting a traditional flint and lint fire. As I'm enjoying my siesta, I'm awoken by the sound of branches breaking. I peel away my blinds to discover a herd of elephants at a neighbouring pool suite.
Treading with exaggerated care, I make my way over to the suite where its occupant holds her finger to her lips and cautions me to be soundless and camouflaged.
There before me, barely ten metres away, is a herd enjoying an afternoon drink. There's a knock at the door, the parade stops mid-drink and gazes up at me for a thoughtful second before making a break for it.
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