I thought I was seeing things at first. It was early after all and I had only just risen from my bed in the tent.I say tent. This was more a canopied suite – or “tented villa” according to the brochure – and it certainly didn’t feel like sleeping under canvas.That was until I drew back the voluminous curtains to see an elephant standing there. It was so close it was practically swimming in my plunge pool, rendering the telescope set up on a tripod in the corner utterly obsolete. I stood open-mouthed, silently but frantically waving at my husband to come through from the bedroom and cursing myself for leaving the camera out of reach.
That camera struggled to keep up with me the whole time I was in Botswana Because there is just so much to see, so much you want to record to show incredulous friends back home. It worked hard on game drives, clicking away at Sable antelope, was frantically busy on lagoon cruises as herons and storks flapped overhead, and was even pressed into service at dinner times, as dish after fabulous dish emerged from the kitchen.
Every time this seemed unlikely, given our remote location at Zarafa Camp, but every time we were amazed by the quality of the dishes presented. We breakfasted on stewed fruit and bacon and egg quiche, returned from game drives to find homemade cakes and canapés, and feasted on succulent Botswana beef for dinner.But let’s face it, we didn’t come here to eat. We came here to explore one of the world’s most diverse wildlife habitats. Zarafa Camp is set in the midst of the vast Selinda private reserve in the Kwando-Linyanti area, to the north of the Okavango Delta, an area that is rightly celebrated for the water-based activities it offers.And so we were able not just to head out in 4x4s but also on the Zarafa Camp’s pontoon boat, the HMS Zib, floating around the the Zibadianja Lagoon in unbridled style, sipping sundowners as crickets and frogs made soft calls into the pinkening sky and varied birdlife, from the lilac-breasted roller to larger waterbirds including herons and storks, soared above the water.
It is the water that makes the Okavango Delta special. Special enough in fact, that on June 22 last year it was the 1000th site to be officially inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List. Every year, from roughly March to June, the water falling as rain in the Angola highlands some 1,000 miles away makes it way down here to the Delta, fanning out across an area some 15,000 kilometres square, through palm groves and papyrus swamps, attracting animals from miles around at its peak from June to August before sinking into the Kalahari sands.
Those animals in turn attract us humans, the top of the food chain and the only animal here just to watch. And watch we do. We see zebra and wildebeest mingling for safety from the cheetah they could never outrun and packs of wild African dogs sniffing the grassy bush, excited by a scent picked up, the promise of a feed. But my favourite moment is when we encounter the animal I had come all this way to see, the lion, a pride of them, five lionesses and one majestically maned male, rounding up their next meal of buffalo. They circled for close to an hour, seeking a break in the group of bulls arranged protectively around their young, occasionally charging, sometimes scampering back as the buffalo counter-charged, finally succeeding in breaking one away from the pack. Dinner is served.
Back at Zarafa, we recline on the wooden deck, discussing an unforgettable day beneath the giant ebony trees as the heat of the day falls back and the stars spring from the sky. From our elevated position on an ancient raised mudbank we can see only wilderness, much of it covered with a thin film of water. It is the quiet that makes this camp so special and its impact on the landscape is negligible, its eco-friendly credentials strong.This is not unusual in Botswana. Here profits are ploughed back in to the local economy by law (on average 4.5% of turnover) and camps are constantly out-doing each other in terms of their eco credentials. Zarafa is a leading light in this respect, owned by Great Plains Conservation, an organisation set up specifically to use high-end tourism to facilitate conservation projects. They are currently working on a project called Rhinos Without Borders, which will see the relocation of up to 100 rhinos from South Africa to havens here in Botswana. Not only will this project save these rhinos from South Africa’s high incidence of poaching, it will also increase visitors chances of seeing these beautiful but endangered animals in Botswana, where the aim is to reach 400 rhinos by 2016.
We have not been lucky enough to see a rhino on our stay here, but moving on to Vumbura Plains I remain hopeful. Here in the northern Okavango Delta, just north of Moremi Game Reserve on a series of floodplains speckled with palm islands, we find yet more water, yet more animals. And I am told that both black and white rhino have been recently reintroduced here.
On our very first game drive hopes remain high. We follow a pack of wild dogs on the hunt for impala, gasping as a hyena tries to steal their main course, and see zebra, wildebeest and antelope in large numbers. I even start to spot the difference between an impala and a kudu, the impala reminiscent of a deer, the kudu sturdier, more horselike in its shape. I even start to put down the camera, soaking in the sights with the naked eye instead and starting to feel a part of this amazing landscape.
I really feel this back at Vumburu Plains, our expansive suite raised up on a wooden deck and open on three sides (with nets). Everything is open-plan and our sunken sitting room looks out over wide-open plains, like a widescreen cinema that plays a constant roll of wildlife footage, from lions gathering in their prides to a cackle of spotted hyena ranging around with purpose.Because of the density of wildlife here you could almost stay in the camp and see enough, but I am constantly thirsty for more, and so on our last night we head out on a mokoro trip. We sit in the wooden dugout canoe, our guide pushing us through the shallow papyrus waterways with a pole that reminds me of a punt, and all is quiet. The water around us mirrors the sky above, we brush through reeds hung low by bright-coloured frogs and as I slip off into a dreamlike-state an elephant emerges ahead of us. It is ear-deep in the water over to our left, happily munching on those reeds, either oblivious or indifferent to us. I stare and stare, trying to etch this image into my mind, one of the most mesmerising things I have ever seen.
We have seen so much on our time in Botswana but this will be the highlight – and this time I know I’m not seeing things.